By: Jessica Pryde
Romance novels are the perfect medium to adapt for the screen. They’re plot-focused stories with lots of character development, have an easy rhythm to follow, and always have a happy ending. Some folks in film and television have finally gotten a little more hip to that fact in the past few years, and there are more romance movies than ever popping up. (Obviously, we will always take more, so hey film producers? Adapt romance.)
My earliest memory of a romance adaptation for film is the treatment of Terry McMillan’s WAITING TO EXHALE in 1995, which was complete with an amazing cast, elegant drama, and topped off with Babyface’s perfect soundtrack. (I asked for the cassette for Christmas that year and wore the heck out of it.) A story following four friends at significant points in their lives, the screenplay offered perfect introductions to the group and their individual situations, allowing us to invest in all of the characters, even if they were given less screen time each than they might get in a single story.
Newer adaptations have taken the same approach to developing great companions to their source material, with a big advantage: television. New Netflix series like VIRGIN RIVER (based on the series by Robyn Carr) and SWEET MAGNOLIAS (based on the series by Sherryl Woods) have taken all of the information provided by several books and given us well-rounded communities with one central romance per season—while also taking the time to set up the story for the following one. (Neither of these shows has aired their second season yet, but we as viewers already have an idea what they’ll be about…or do we?) Just like the sequel bait we seek out in romance series, we hope for the resolution of a relationship that might have already been put into motion in the first season.
The creators of these series are also not afraid to make changes. In the case of both VIRGIN RIVER and SWEET MAGNOLIAS, the series have been around long enough that certain social norms (and even laws) have changed significantly, and the stories have been changed to match. They’re also more racially and culturally diverse than the earlier books might have been. This combination definitely helps bring and keep more unfamiliar viewers. The number of beautiful, older bearded men alone in Sweet Magnolias went practically viral on social media, leading to numerous people claiming interest in checking it out. For the plot. Totally the plot. But they stuck around for not just the completely gorgeous cast, but the characters, the story, the drama. Goodness gracious the drama.
And then, there are companies like Passionflix. Passionflix was created solely with the purpose of creating new romance movies and longer-format series based on well-loved books. It’s because of them that we have THE TROUBLE WITH MISTLETOE to watch at holidays and A BROTHER’S HONOR, the first adaptation from Brenda Jackson’s Grangers series. The latter, in particular, is heavy with warmth between the central lovers, Jace and Shana, and the three brothers, who have relied on each other for so much of their lives. When romance novels, especially, are translated to feature-length, we often lose the friends and family to the progress of the love story. But since that element is so important in Brenda Jackson’s books, it’s nice to see them on the screen—a nice balance against the simmering heat between the romantic leads. In general, the movies made for Passionflix inspire that same feeling: the core elements of a story that might be familiar, with the beats played out and no sparing of steamy encounters that we couldn’t get on Lifetime, Hallmark, or Sunday night on ABC.
In all of these situations, not only is having the authors involved in the process and development of the project important, but romance readers are also involved as creators and producers. We can tell when someone who isn’t familiar with romance novels and who definitely hasn’t read the original book (or any books like it) is involved in creating a romantic film or show. And we can really tell when someone who knows the workings of romance puts their heart into creating content for romance lovers.
Overall, what makes the best adaptation—even if it doesn’t follow the story to the letter—is the emotion it evokes in us as viewers. The relationships we get to experience, whether they are between love interests, family members, longtime friends, or new acquaintances, are the core of any romance novel, and they’re the most noticeable element in a good romance adaptation. If a film, in particular, leaves out important pieces of a character’s backstory or personality, it takes away from the fully satisfying ending we might have had otherwise. But if they’re properly synthesized into something wonderful, we can feel it.