Image: James Fisher © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and MGM Pictures Inc.
You don't have to be a time traveler to sort out the hash Hollywood makes out of our great serial works of literature ... but it wouldn't hurt. From the '60s onward, filmmakers have run amok through one beloved franchise after another, filming the books in whatever order suits them, and counting on the populace to keep up (ultimately just contributing to a state of generalized anxiety that's forced us to coin words such as "prequel" and "threequel" as coping mechanisms). Below -- in good old-fashioned chronological order -- are some of the top offenders.
Dr. No (1962)
1953's Casino Royale was the first of Ian Fleming's Bond novels, but Dr. No -- the sixth in the series -- was where the story began for film audiences. It could have been worse: The film's producers came close to starting with the ninth novel, the scuba adventure Thunderball. This surely would have set an awkward precedent for upcoming installments, sandbagging the audience with questions about why their hero suddenly spent so much time mucking about on dry land.
Return to Oz (1985)
Nearly fifty years later, young Fairuza Balk attempted to pick up where Judy Garland left off. One problem: Dorothy Gale doesn't return to the merry old land of Oz until the third book in L. Frank Baum's series, Ozma of Oz. While the later film does crib a few characters (Jack Pumpkinhead, the evil witch Mombi, the Gump) from the second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, it's hardly the sort of attempt that qualifies as a true sequel.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
Disney did a real number on Lloyd Alexander's beloved Prydain novels, jumping straight into a lackluster animated version of The Black Cauldron. The attempt to round things out with a few desultory bits of the introductory novel (The Book of Three) was a dismal failure. Fortunately the author himself has been a great sport about it, acknowledging to Scholastic that there's "no resemblance" between the movie and the book, but that he found the film to be very enjoyable. "I had fun watching it," he claims. Now there's a man who deserves a do-over! Disney, however, having lost $4M on "The Black Cauldron" at the box office, is not likely to try and make it up to him anytime soon.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
"Master and Commander" is indeed the title of the first book in Patrick O'Brien's popular "Aubrey–Maturin" series of seafaring historical novels, but "The Far Side of the World" is the title of the tenth. In fact, hardly any of this film's content is derived from the first book -- the studio just didn't think audiences would be smart enough to recognize any of those other titles. Unfortunately this complicates things for anyone later on who'd like to make a real adaptation of Master and Commander: What on earth would they call it?
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
C.S. Lewis fans howled about the order of the Narnia books getting all flim-flammed with this latest release, but in all fairness it's actually a terribly confusing issue. Technically Dawn Treader really was the third book published, but these days it's considered the fifth book because of the series' internal chronological order. So the studio really may have shot themselves in the foot by not adapting "The Horse and His Boy" instead -- what are they going to do later on? Film a "prequel" that's made to be watched between films number three and four? Good luck explaining that one to your children.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
If you want to sound well-read, then you absolutely must stop referring to the upcoming "Hobbit" movies as prequels. You may be surprised to learn that J.R.R. Tolkein only wrote The Lord of the Rings to expand upon the world he'd already created in The Hobbit. We pitiful modern wretches fumbled the order in our eagerness to get to the monstrous three-part epic, and now we're left trying to wring closure from a film event which was never meant to support that kind of burden, or which (in the best case scenario) will outshine the films meant to succeed it.