1 February 2017 - 6:01 pm

Adapting thoughts

YA adaptations ahoy!
(Picture: not mine)
(Disclaimer: I won’t be reviewing any of these)

We’re seeing a lot of adaptations, remakes, and updates to existing pieces of fiction coming through lately, particularly in the movies but also in TV shows like the Netflix Marvel ones. I’m finding that I want to review more and more adaptations, so I thought I’d spend a bit of time analysing and sharing my approach to reviewing/critiquing adaptations.

It can be difficult to judge a piece on its own merits when the original source looms particularly large. It’s especially complicated when different people have different ideas about what’s important in the source material, and what an adaptation ‘should’ do in order to be a ‘good adaptation’.

For me, it’s important to recognise that an adaptation will never be a carbon copy of the original. Text does not translate directly to screen, or to stage, in either direction or combination. Even text to audio can be tricky, depending on the text. Different media have different patterns, expectations, conventions, consumption requirements, and audiences. The experience is necessarily different, and so the presentation must be different.

So, when considering an adaptation, it’s not a question of ‘is it different from the original’, but ‘how is it different’ and ‘how much is it different’. From there, I consider whether I think it has strayed too far from the source, or if they’ve done a good job at translating it into a different medium.

A part of that, but also a crucial question in its own right as far as reviewing something goes, is asking whether the result is a good film/TV show/book, etc. An adaptation can be terrible in terms of staying true to its source but also a good movie, and the reverse is also true.

So how does an adaptation stay ‘true’ to its source, and at what point has it strayed too far? This is entirely subjective and difficult to define, but I’ll try to outline my personal approach. I do this to give my comments some context, and as I mentioned above, different people have different criteria when it comes to this sort of thing.

Some people will decry changes in character appearances, for example, because it doesn’t match their mental image of what a particular person should look like. This is less important to me. Aesthetics tend to be pretty far down on my list of things I care about, unless they’re an important part of the story or theme of the original piece, or form something important about a character.

To me, it’s the core of the original that’s important.

For characters, who they are on the inside and how they interact with the world around them – and influence the story they’re in – is more important than the details on the outside.

But what defines ‘inside’ and ‘outside isn’t simple, either. There are some characters to whom race is an important part of who that character is, while there are some who are not fundamentally defined by it. Sexuality is key to some characters but superfluous to others. Even single physical details can be important depending on the context they’re placed in, like being the only redhead in a sea of blondes, or unusually tall. The aspects that define the core of a character are entirely subjective and blanket statements simply don’t work here.

For example, in the 2003 Daredevil movie, I liked the casting Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin because he had the physical presence and gravitas of the comicbook character, and altering his racial background didn’t change where he had come from as a character (a poor kid from a rough neighbourhood, who fought his way up to affluence and power). The details and nuances might be different, but the larger strokes were the same. Others made objections about the race-flipping, from what I can tell only on the basis that ‘Wilson Fisk wasn’t black’, without any notion given of why it was important that he was white.

For other aspects of the story, such as setting and plot, how important it is that they’re done according to the original depends on how important they are to the story. Many stories have been adapted to different settings, times, and even genres, and yet still work as faithful adaptations.

Bride and Prejudice is one of my favourite Pride and Prejudice adaptations, because the story, the social aspects, and the interpersonal relationships work well when transposed into a contemporary Indian setting. The Bollywood flavour to it is a heap of fun, too. Similarly, Shakespeare can work well when transposed into contemporary settings, like in 10 Things I Hate About You, even though it might be missing the expected Shakespearean language and flavour.

It’s hard to say what I would consider to be the ‘core’ of the story, because it so much depends on the story. In most cases, it’s the character journeys: how they relate to each other, what they learn, and who they end up being when it’s all done (as in the adaptations mentioned above). In many, it’s the theme or message driving the story. This often interacts with the character journeys, so they can go hand-in-hand, but that isn’t always the case; the same message given in different ways can still be a good adaptation.

For example, Disney’s 1989 The Little Mermaid is one of the worst adaptations I have ever seen. As a movie, it’s delightful and the songs are catchy, and it’s totally adorable. However, as an adaptation, it misses the mark by a country mile. Sure, the characters are basically the same, the setting is familiar, and the basic plot follows the original (until the ending), but the movie gets all the important stuff wrong.

It not only didn’t deliver the message of the original, it actually gave the complete opposite message. It also invented an antagonist that was never in the original, but this is most likely driven by the writers missing the original’s intention. (The sea witch is in the original, but not as an antagonist.)

In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the only antagonist in the story is Ariel herself. She changes herself to try to win a man, and it’s her own foolishness in thinking that this will work that is her downfall. All of Ariel’s machinations fail because the prince is actually a good person and stays true to the person he’s in love with and engaged to (specifically: someone not Ariel). The story is a tragedy, even though Ariel redeems herself at the end by choosing responsibility rather than rage or selfishness. She has to accept personal responsibility for her situation and the damage she has caused to the people around her, and that sacrificing herself for the good of others is the only right, moral choice left to her, because of her own choices.

Disney, on the other hand, would have us believe that if you change everything about yourself, and lie to and manipulate a man, then girls, you’ll get him. Isn’t that great?

Truthfully, I wish that Disney had stayed away from The Little Mermaid. It was never going to do the original justice, because they don’t make tragic stories and had to have a happy ending in which the girl and boy hook up.

Another way that adaptations can fail to live up to the original is by over-simplifying them. Too often, I see remakes or reworks of a story that fail to grasp the complexities of the original, distracted by pretty aspects like aesthetics, shiny aspects like technology, or racy elements like sex and explosions. This usually results in a shallower story, and often lacks the heart that drew people to the original.

The Little Mermaid is an example of this, turning a story of self-discovery and moral evolution into a simple love story (with pretty songs).

Another example is the remake of Total Recall. In the 1990 original, they packed in a whole heap of uncertainty and layers of mind-fuck, so that you were never quite sure what was real and what had been implanted in the main character’s memory. The 2012 remake lost sight of this, erased most of the ambiguity (they make a couple of half-hearted attempts to confuse the main character, but it fails to reach the audience), and simplified the story by making it blindingly obvious what was real and what wasn’t. A thought-provoking movie was turned into an entertaining action movie, far shallower than the original. More impressive than that: they made an Arnold Swarzenegger movie look wildly intelligent.

I’ve seen comments in response to this issue along the lines of ‘but this is a new vision and the artist might have been trying to say something different’. To me, that smacks of laziness; if an artist wants to say something different to the original, why not just make something new? Why twist someone else’s work for their own purposes? It feels dishonest to me, unless the point is subversion or parody (but this is seldom the case).

Again, it’s not as simple as that. There are always exceptions and grey areas. Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird for example: an iconic film with themes of prejudice and racism at its core. If someone remade it to focus on disability instead of racism, would that work? I think it could, and there’s a level at which it can call back to the original to reinforce the theme of prejudice and its consequences. What if it was remade to remove the prejudice angle, and it became a more straightforward courtroom drama? At that point, I would be asking why they called it To Kill a Mockingbird, and didn’t simply make an original movie.

Wearing a ballgown doesn’t make you a princess unless you’re trying to be a princess regardless of the dress.

Because changes are inevitable in an adaptation, I think it’s important to consider why changes have been made (not just looking at what has been changed). Creators are always making choices, and it’s worth trying to understand those choices before deciding whether they were done well or not. Sometimes it’s the needs of the medium; some conventions or mechanisms simply don’t work well when translated to another medium. Sometimes it’s an update caused by a change in the times, such as the minefield that is turning comics that were created in a more racist and sexist age into a modern movie (Doctor Strange, I’m looking at you).

There are so many reasons why a change might be made – some of which we can only guess at from this side of the screen/page – that it’s hard to be more specific than that. I try to consider it, untangle it, and go from there.

As always, it’s easy to criticise and point fingers and say negative things. It’s easy to pick holes. I prefer to take a step further and examine why I feel negatively about something, how the makers got to that place, and what they might have done to do it better. Sure, an adaptation of a novel into a movie isn’t going to cover deep backstory on your favourite side character, and it’s going to gloss over a whole heap of stuff, because movies don’t have the time or narrative breadth to do everything a novel can. So, for me, the question is: did they keep the important stuff and do the story justice? If it was me, what would I have done differently to make it better?

I think it’s easy to assume that the original is best, too, and that’s simply not always the case. It’s possible to improve on the source: for example, I haven’t heard a single person say that the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies weren’t improved by skipping the Tom Bombadil section of the book. Different doesn’t always mean bad.

The last thing I want to add about adaptations is that it’s easy to be blinded by the original and forget to judge the piece as a piece in its own right. Sometimes, choices are made because that’s what makes a better movie. Sometimes, choices need to be viewed as a whole, because while the makers might have strayed from the original, they made a good movie or TV show out of it, and that’s worth recognising. Game of Thrones is probably a good example: both books and show are good, though they differ in many ways and are diverging (I haven’t read the books yet, so am running on feedback from others on those!).

In many ways, a piece can be diminished by its connection to an original source; it might do better if judged on its own. Like the 2004 King Arthur movie, which works fine as a generic, gritty ancient war movie, but suffers (badly) by claiming to be anything to do with King Arthur and real history.

Reviewing adaptations is a minefield. I shall endeavour to consider them from all of the above angles, for those pieces where I am familiar with the original. You can probably tell that I can be opinionated, but I try to also be fair and even-handed.

Strap in, friends. There’s more to come.

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