What Makes an Adaptation Good?

Now that I’ve started writing posts for this blog, I think this is a question worth discussing.  Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts in the comments.

The saying goes: “Don’t judge a book by its movie.”  Everybody pretty much agrees that the original source material is always better than the adaptation, especially if it’s a book transitioning to a movie.  So, if a movie would only follow the book word-for-word, it would be perfect, wouldn’t it?

You would think so, but I found that wasn’t the case when I watched Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby.  The cast and the cinematography were great, and it was very faithful to the book.  It even showed scenes of Nick writing down his thoughts, with the words shown floating over the scene, words which came straight out of the book.  But something about the whole thing felt off.  I enjoyed the book, but not the movie.  At first, I couldn’t figure out why.

Lindsay Ellis, aka “the Nostalgia Chick,” addresses the issue in her review of The Lorax, saying that “…changes in adaptations aren’t just inevitable, they are necessary.  Film is a different medium.  It incorporates other elements such as sound, time, a billion people working on it, and most importantly, a different person with a different vision at the helm.”

In his book, How to Adapt Anything Into a Screenplay, Richard Krevolin gives readers very similar advice from the start.  He also goes further and advises future screenwriters: “You really don’t owe anything to the original source material” (p. 9).  As long as you’ve captured the spirit of the work, that’s all that really matters. The job of the screenwriter, he explains, is to figure out the heart of what they want to say, what drew them to the original work in the first place, and convey it to their audience in their own unique way.

For the most part, I agree with them.  Although I didn’t like reading that an adaptation doesn’t owe anything to the original work, I’m inclined to think that Krevolin was simply trying to impress on nervous screenwriters that they can’t worry about making changes to the story.  What works for a book won’t necessarily work for a movie, TV show or video game, because they have different ways of telling compelling stories.

For example, given that movies, television shows, and video games are visual mediums, they don’t generally require narration the way that books do.  Sometimes it’s done for comedic effect, but it shouldn’t be used to describe exactly what the audience can already see on the screen.  I think that’s part of the reason why I didn’t like Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby.  We shouldn’t be looking at words from the book on screen or hear Nick narrating so much.  We should see the story playing out as Nick saw it and draw our own conclusions.

At the same time, I can’t fully agree that an adaptation owes nothing to the original work, because if it’s nothing like the original work, why adapt it at all?  NBC’s Dracula television series could have changed the names of the characters and easily passed it off as an original work.  They kept a grand total of two lines from the book, created an entirely different plot with a different message, and none of the characters behaved like they did in the book.  They just had the same names as the characters in the book and lived in London.  That’s it.  NBC…why?  Just…why???

There’s also the question of how much involvement the author of the original work should have.  Some get very involved, like Suzanne Collins, who got to co-write the first Hunger Games script.  Others don’t.  Rick Riordan, the author of the excellent Percy Jackson series, claimed that he wanted to stay away from the movies.  He compared it to selling a house: “Once you sell it, it isn’t yours anymore. You have to move out and let the new owners move in. If you insisted on a bunch of conditions before you sold it […] well, most people wouldn’t agree to buy a house with all those restrictions, would they?”  (He has since written a letter to American teachers everywhere begging them not to force their classes to watch the movies.)  Harper Lee allegedly visited the set for To Kill a Mockingbird, but left because she could see that it was already on its way to becoming a cinematic classic and she didn’t need to do anything.

Finally, it’s important to take personal biases into account.  Peter Jackson and his team rewrote Faramir’s character for The Two Towers so that he struggled heavily with the Ring of Power.  In the book, he rejected it and sent the hobbits on their way.  Since I saw the movies first, I accepted Jackson’s explanation for the change and left it at that.  It didn’t bother me the way it might have if I’d read the book first.

On the other hand, every time a screenwriter changes the personalities of Jonathan, Mina, and Dracula, I get…upset, to put it nicely.  Nobody messes with my Jonathan Harker and gets away with it!

So…if the qualities of a good adaptation are all very subjective, where does that leave us?

At the end of the day, every adaptation needs to be treated as a unique case, depending on the story being told, who’s telling it, the medium, its popularity, etc.

Each story brings its own set of challenges.  Fairy tales need expansion on the characters and story to fill the normal running time of a movie, whereas a series like Harry Potter needs to cut scenes to keep that running time.  The novelization of a movie or video game has the opportunity to elaborate on the thoughts in each character’s head.  In the case of video games, there also comes the challenge of how to interpret battles and other situations that occur based on the individual player’s actions.  I can’t wait to see how the TV series for “Life Is Strange” turns out.  In that game, almost everything that Max does or says depends on what the player wants her to say or do.  This is going to be the one adaptation where fans won’t know how it’s going to end because you get to pick how it ends in the game!

When the reverse happens and a story gets turned into a video game, it can’t just tell a good story and capture what made the original work so great.  It has to be fun to play.  That turned out to be a problem with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow.  The premise was fantastic: an adventure game based on the first movie- except Captain Jack’s the one telling the story.  That meant that the developers could add additional levels that wouldn’t make sense in the movie, i.e. getting stuck on an iceberg and fighting undead Viking pirates, because Jack likes to make things up.  It’s hilarious, but the game itself wasn’t as fun.  Jack, Will, and Elizabeth have two different attacks they can use, and that’s it.  You can also find treasure to purchase upgrades, but there aren’t many upgrades to get.  It gets pretty boring after a while and the script is the only thing that makes it worth playing.

Comic books are a whole other beast.  Popular superheroes like Superman and Spiderman have been around for a long time, with different story arcs, villains, girlfriends, reboots that give them a whole new backstory, alternate universes, etc.  A writer wouldn’t just have to figure how to tell the character’s story, he/she would have to pick what story to tell in the first place.

But there is one thing that all good adaptations need: either a single writer or a team who knows and appreciates the original source material.  Can a person really “capture the truth of the original work and convey that onscreen,” as Krevolin puts it, if he or she doesn’t like it or never bothered to read/watch/play it?  Can he or she find what makes that story unique and sets it apart from others?  Adaptations can definitely make changes to the original work that make it better than before.  But if there’s no love there, fans will notice.  It’s like writing a parody: the best parodies come from writers who enjoy what they’re laughing at- they’re just poking fun at the ridiculous parts, so fans and haters can laugh together.  Otherwise, they come off as mean-spirited.

There are also various things that I believe most adaptations shouldn’t do, but I want to cover them in a different set of posts.

Good adaptations will always need changes in order to work.  The number and the nature of those changes depends on the story and the medium.  Although love for the original source material won’t guarantee a successful translation to book, movie, show, or video game, it is the foundation that is necessary in order to get started.



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