When it comes to bringing books to life, adaptations can be hit-or-miss with how well they do. For as many successful adaptations there are — like the recent movie The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins — there are just as many, if not more, flops (like the poorly received film Mortal Instruments: City of Bones based on Cassandra Clare’s best-selling series).
Book lovers are known for the high standard they hold adaptations of their favorite reads to, but what about the authors? How do authors feel about bringing their writing to movies and television?
It’s a great honor when someone’s writing gets chosen for an adaptation, but there have been times when authors wish they’d never agreed to hand their work to someone else. Surprisingly, several of the movies from my childhood would have never been released if the authors had the final say on the finished product. Let’s take a look at some of these adaptations and why their authors regret ever letting them go.
P.L. Travers – Mary Poppins series
When Disney released the movie Mary Poppins in 1964, it received critical acclaim for its musical sequences and mix of animation and live-action characters. But the same things that made the movie so successful were the exact things author P.L. Travers didn’t like about the movie.
Travers, who wrote the eight books that comprise the original Mary Poppins book series, agreed to give Disney the film rights to her books because she needed financial help. She also served as an advisor to the film’s production. Travers had several complaints about the movie, the biggest being she felt Disney softened too much of Mary Poppin’s harsh character and that animation had no place in the film.
After the premiere of the film, Travers confronted Walt Disney himself and reportedly said, “Well. The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” To which Disney replied, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.”
Travers was so frustrated at the final product and how she was treated during production that she banned any American adaptations of her works in her will, which is why Disney is the only American company ever to adapt Mary Poppins in the United States.
Rick Riordan – Percy Jackson and The Olympians series
The disdain for the two Percy Jackson and the Olympians films within the book’s fandom is well-known. Perhaps even more well-known is Rick Riordan’s own disdain for the movies based on his bestselling series.
The first film, Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief came out in 2010, and the second, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, followed three years later in 2013. The film series was supposed to have five movies in total, to match the length of the original series, but the films received such negative responses that the series never continued.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Riordan admits he never watched the two films for fear of them changing how he viewed his characters. Riordan has even actively asked people to stop showing his films; in 2016, he penned an open letter to teachers asking them not to show the films in classrooms.
Despite how badly the films were received, Riordan wasn’t scarred from all adaptations. A new Percy Jackson and the Olympians series came out on Disney+ in December 2023, with full support from Riordan. The series is a notable departure from the films, in that Riordan and his wife were heavily involved in the development of the series.
E.B. White – Charlotte’s Web
The 1973 animated Charlotte’s Web is another example of a film that did very well commercially despite being at odds with the author’s vision. After switching hands and studios a couple of times, the animation company Hanna-Barbera was the one to put the film out in the world. Before releasing Charlotte’s Web, Hanna-Barbera had cemented itself as one of the most successful animation studios in the United States because of its success with cartoon franchises like Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, and The Flintstones.
Although critics applauded the film for its faithfulness to its source material, some thought no medium could do the original book justice, and E.B. White agreed. White assisted with some parts of the film, but in the end, he found the adaptation distasteful. Of the production process, White reportedly said:
The whole episode, the attempt to make a film of Charlotte’s Web, is one of my nightmares. The only good thing to come out of it for me was that I learned never to try anything like that again…
White also stated that he didn’t like the musical numbers, claiming they disrupted the flow of the story.
Despite critiques about the film’s animation and music upon its initial release, the film gained a devoted following over 20 years after it premiered, thanks to television and VHS tapes. What didn’t hit the mark for White and 1970s movie critics was the perfect fit for children in the 1990s.
Roald Dahl – Charlie and The Chocolate Factory
Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory has seen several adaptations over the years, with the latest being the 2023 film Wonka starring Timothéèe Chalamet as young Willy Wonka. But the first movie, made in 1971 with Gene Wilder starring as the eccentric candy entrepreneur, was not well-liked by Dahl.
The 1971 film was called Willy Wonk & The Chocolate Factory, a seemingly small change from the book’s original title. But the altered title speaks to how the movie puts Wonka center stage, rather than Charlie, the actual main character of the book. Dahl hated that Charlie was no longer the main character of the movie and didn’t like how the film focused more on Wonka.
Speaking of Wonka, Dahl was not a fan of Wilder’s rendition. Dahl’s ideal choices to play Wonka were performers Spike Mulligan or Peter Sellers, both of whom the film company rejected. Donald Sturrock, a friend of Dahl and author of Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, said Dahl thought Wilder was just the wrong choice. “Gene Wilder was rather too soft and didn’t have a sufficient edge,” Sturrock recalled from a conversation with Dahl. “His voice is very light, and he’s got that rather cherubic, sweet face.”
Dahl had many disagreements with the film company during production, not just about casting. He also detested all the deviations the film made from the book and did not like the music included. There seems to be a running theme when it comes to authors and the music in their adaptations.
Michael Ende – The Neverending Story
When Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story came out in 1979, the book sold incredibly well in Germany, the author’s home country. The book’s success in Germany translated to international success; by 1984, it was reprinted in over 27 languages, and the paperback rights to Ende’s book landed a six-figure deal with Penguin Random House. With those kinds of achievements under its belt, it made sense for a film to follow soon after.
Ende was initially thrilled about the film until he realized how much of the script he advised on had been changed. Ende claimed that Wolfgang Peterson, director of the 1984 film The NeverEnding Story, secretly changed the script with Ende’s approval, despite Ende working as a script advisor with Peterson.
“I was horrified,” Ende said, according to People magazine. “They had changed the whole sense of the story. Fantastica reappears with no creative force from Bastian. For me, this was the essence of the book.”
He was so horrified by the script revisions that he tried to stop the movie from getting made altogether. He told the company to either halt production or change the film’s name, neither of which happened. When the producers didn’t abide by his demands, Ende sued them for deviating too much from his book, a case that he eventually lost.
Adaptations are serious business. A bad adaptation can set the ire of a book’s entire fanbase on the director, cast, and production company for years to come. But the readers’ satisfaction is only one part of the book-to-screen equation; author satisfaction is just as, if not more, important. These five authors learned what happens when film companies don’t run the equation correctly. Yes, the movies were good and became cemented in pop culture, but it was at the cost of the author’s joy and trust in seeing their work put in someone else’s hands.
Want to check out some more fun trivia? Try this one!
Need a new read and don’t know where to start? Browse our Trivia shelf on our Bookshop store to get an idea of what to pick up next!