The Art of Adaptation – A Thoroughly Modern Essay

We’ve all seen good adaptations of things we love and we’ve all seen bad ones. But what, exactly, makes an adaptation good? For the past… pretty much forever… Hollywood, in particular, has been adapting anything it could get its hands on. From books, to tv, to theatre, to video games, Hollywood loves adaptations. The problem is that the adaptations are often not very good at all. You see this with books, like Eragon and the Percy Jackson series and TV shows like Dark Shadows and Video Games like Assassin’s Creed and musicals like RENT and even anime like Death Note and Ghost in the Shell.

The question becomes, why are there so many lousy adaptations? Especially when most of them are based on properties that are really well made in their original mediums? Where is the disconnect?

Contrary to popular belief, there really is an art to adaptation. There are four key things that a good adaptation must adhere to. Respect for the source material and characters, not being a slave to the source material, knowing what to change and what to keep, and telling a story in the most cohesive and interesting way that utilizes the best of what the specific medium has to offer.

Bad adaptations, usually get at least one of those key things wrong, if not more than one of them. So, let’s explore them more in depth and see if we can’t figure out how to go about making a good adaptation.

Respect for the Source Material and Characters
It’s funny that it seems that movies that adapt TV Shows seem to have the hardest time with this. Especially adaptations of anime. Here’s the thing, and it’s something I’ll go much further in-depth on a little later, respecting the source material doesn’t mean following it line by line. It means that those doing the adapting have a thorough understanding of the characters, the story, and the themes of the source material.

The problem with films like Death Note and Ghost in the Shell and Assassin’s Creed and other films of their ilk is that they don’t understand their characters or their stories or their themes. What movies like these have in common is that they all have a really interesting premise, but the adaptors never really try to understand or respect the material they’re adapting. They just take their premise and run with it, and because they lack that understanding of why the premise works, they’re unable to replicate the success of the source material and they deliver a cold, confused, mess of a film.

There are plenty of adaptations that get this right – The Princess Bride, the American Gods TV Series, the Hannibal TV series, amongst others. But there’s plenty that get it very, very wrong. I don’t even need to name them because you’re all already thinking of some.

What’s interesting is that there’s also a number of movies that mostly understand their source material, but still end up getting it wrong. An example of this is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, directed by David Yates. Obviously, to portray the climactic battle between Harry and Voldemort the way the book portrays it would be a massive disappointment visually. It would feel like a letdown for 10 years of build up. Yates realizes this and makes the battle more visually interesting. Where he screws up is not understanding the significance of the way Voldemort dies in the story. In the book, Voldemort drops dead, utterly mundane and human, when the spell backfires on him. This is to signify that he really is just a human. The entire series has built Voldemort into this almost mythical being, so dangerous and deadly and powerful and inhuman, but he dies just like any other human. Yates doesn’t understand this and elects to have Voldemort explode into confetti in the film. It robs the moment of its dramatic punch. Harry has grown up fearing Voldemort as this monster, but in that moment when Harry finally defeats him, Voldemort is human. As fragile and mundane as any other human. And that’s the point of the scene. Yates misses the point and misses his chance at nailing his adaptation. It’s a problem he has throughout the Potter films.

Not being a slave to your source material
Conversely, it’s easy to find yourself a slave to the source material. Many adaptations seem too scared to make the changes necessary to successfully adapt something into a new medium. What works in a novel doesn’t always work in a film. What works on stage doesn’t always work on a film, etc. This problem can be a bit more nuanced as one person’s definition of being a slave to the source material might be another’s definition of being a faithful adaptation. It’s definitely a very fine line to balance, but once you’ve fouled up, you’ve fouled up.

Knowing what to change and what to keep
This one is tied so closely to the previous two, it’s hard to separate it as this rant ends up being the way an adaptation breaks one of the previous two rules. Good adaptations always know what needs to stay, what needs to go, and what needs to be changed, and they always have a good reason for every cut and change they make. If you boil it to down, there are two main ways to foul this up: you can keep too much or you can cut or change too much. Each of those is directly related to one of the previous rules.

Typically when an adaptation cuts or changes too much, it boils down to the adaptors not having a good enough understanding, and respect, of the source material. You see this a lot in book-to-screen adaptations as thematically important or plot-important scenes (that oftentimes were filmed) are cut (usually for time) while other, less important scenes are kept. It’s a case of the adaptors not understanding what’s important and relevant to the story they’re adapting. (The Harry Potter series, especially the later films, are great examples of this problem)

Conversely, often when too much is kept, the adaptors don’t have the courage to make changes and find themselves slaves to the source material. Sometimes this is due to the adaptors being afraid of the reactions from fans if something is cut, but more often it seems that the adaptors don’t trust themselves to make the cuts necessary to tell the story in the best way for their medium. I saw this most recently in BBC’s adaptation of The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. It felt as though the writer that wrote the adaptation was too scared to make changes that would have better served the story as the TV adaptation it was. There was no reason it needed to be three hours long (especially since the sequel, The Silkworm, a longer book, was only two hours long) and if the writer had been confident in his abilities and made the changes that needed to be made, the adaptation would’ve been a much stronger one.

It’s not impossible to get this balance right. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd is an example of a film that respects its source material (a Broadway musical) while also not being a slave to it. As much as I miss some of the songs that were cut, Tim Burton knew what needed to be cut in order to best tell the story as a movie. For the vision he had, having a Chorus wouldn’t have made sense, so there went the chorus and all their songs. It’s jarring for those who are fans of the stage show, but in terms of making an adaptation that best utilizes the tools of its medium, it was a smart decision.

Which leads us right into…

Telling the story in the most cohesive and interesting way that utilizes the best of what the specific medium has to offer
This one is easily the vaguest and it’s probably the one I’ll spend the least time on in this video. What I mean by this is that each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. What works in a novel won’t necessarily work in a film and vice versa. Good adaptations know the strengths of their medium and work within that medium to tell the best story they can. For films, this includes using as much visual storytelling as possible. For books, it includes good, in-depth looks at characters, etc. A lot of adaptations fail because they’re unable to tell a good story within the confines of their medium. The source material works in the medium it was created for, but for whatever reasons, the adaptors are unable to successfully tell a good story. That may be because the director lacks any kind of visual vision, or the acting is lousy, or the editing is off. There’s any number of factors that go into making a good story in a certain medium, and being able to do that is a key part of adapting anything.

For example, Stephen King’s It is an 1100 page mammoth of a book. It’s full of weird narration, shifting points of view, shifting time periods, and all sorts of odd stuff. Much of that just won’t work in a conventional film. Along comes the 2017 adaptation of It, and they decide to split the two time periods into two different films. Then they decide to focus on the kids as much as possible, keeping the point of view strictly on them. Anything that doesn’t immediately service this point of attack is jettisoned from the adaptation. We’re left with a tightly paced story about these kids who are facing this demonic entity. It’s a really strong adaptation. That’s not to say the movie is perfect or anything, but in terms of an adaptation, it knows the strengths of its medium and it utilizes them to the best of its ability in order to tell the best story it can tell. The problems come from it relying too much on modern horror tropes, but that’s a topic for a different conversation.

There’s a lot more that goes into making sure something is a good adaptation, but these are the four biggest things, I believe.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be examining specific kinds of adaptations (books to movies, movies to theatre, theatre to movies, podcasts to books, etc) and as we examine those specific kinds of adaptations, we’ll continue to explore these four key factors of good adaptations.

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