Reader Question: Adaptations and Respecting the Original


Dave B. recently asked this question:

How separate should we consider an adaptation from its source material?

Before broaching this topic, I think fronting this discussion with a brief sidestep into issues of purity is in order. What matters most in regards to adaptations? The quality of the film as a film, rather than as an adaptation? Or the accuracy of the adaptation itself?

If what you care about most is whether the film itself is good, then separation of the source material is absolute, because it does not matter to you. But if you want accuracy in the adaptation, with reasonable exceptions, then the film and the original source are intimately connected, and any discussion otherwise is pointless.

Personally, I sit in the middle. I think that one cannot be wholly accurate to the source, even with reasonable exceptions to plot devices, etc., and that one must maintain only what is necessary to keep the movie accurate to the source material without sacrificing the quality of the film itself. The Harry Potter films, for example, are a mixed bag. One and two are relatively accurate in their adaptations and, in my opinion, superior to anything that followed. Three was rushed, four was decent, five also was pretty good, and six missed important pieces of the story, leaving the movie itself a collection of great and horrible, particularly because the ending ceased to make any sense.

But how do we treat the movies? Do we hold them in the same category as the original source material? Are the books and movies collective entities, or separate? Let’s toss aside medium, here, because obviously we cannot possibly say that a book and a movie are remotely the same without getting into ridiculous arguments over reader/viewer reception (the theory, perhaps), and all that jazz. We can also throw away instances in which the viewer or reader has only experience one medium, instead of both, because such an argument would seem rather unfair under these circumstances.

While I do think that viewers who are familiar with the source material need to be open to change in film adaptations, I also recognize that there must necessarily be some separation. One cannot possibly see the movie and know what the book is about, in its entirety, without actually having read the book; the same is true, to a certain extent, when delving into the concerns of film adaptations, since we cannot possibly know what has been changed for continuity purposes without having actually seen the film.

With that in mind, I would argue that both mediums (whatever the two may be) should have some degree of separation in order to maintain an illusory line that dictates how they are received: as source and as adaptation. That separation is important because it also establishes a protective shield around the adaptation from unfair criticism (the purist literary crowd who finds any deviation from the source to be on par with blasphemy). Films are, for obvious and less obvious reasons, entirely different mediums from comics, books, etc. Not only are the ways we receive films different from everything else, but the methods for creating films are also drastically different from other artistic mediums–again, for obvious and less obvious reasons. We cannot possibly expect a movie to maintain the same “feel” as the book, because what is conveyed on screen can only cover a small portion of what may be present within the written medium–and, of course, there are limits to what film is capable of doing, even today. Hence why a separation is needed.

As with any adaptation, however, there are certain lines that you can’t cross. Bad adaptations are justly criticized for failing to maintain necessary features such as plot and character. You can’t have an adventure story and turn it into a romance if such a genre was never part of the original piece.

I think what I’m saying is that you should always treat the film as a separate entity so long as it does not drastically deviate from the source material. If the novel is about a talking hamster named Charles who rescues a princess and the film folks change it to be a film about a young boy name Herb who collects stamps, then the separation ceases to exist, and one must make necessary comparisons.

Hopefully all that made sense! What do you think about this topic? And if you’re Dave B., perhaps you had something else in mind when you asked the question? Feel free to leave a comment everyone!


If you have a question about science fiction, fantasy, writing, or anything related you’d like answered here, whether silly or serious, feel free to send it via email to arconna[at]yahoo[dot]com, tweet it via Twitter to @shaunduke, or leave it in the comments here. Questions are always welcome! If you liked this post, consider stumbling, digging, or linking to it!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

7 thoughts on “Reader Question: Adaptations and Respecting the Original

  1. PART 1 OF 2

    Hmmm…well, since this was "my" question, I suppose I should comment 🙂

    I think the central point that virtually is never ever raised whenever this topic comes up, is that – yes, okay, every medium has its own demands, the adaptation must take liberties to work as a creative project within its own medium, however… – when speaking of an adaptation we're speaking of a CONSCIOUS CHOICE to take an ALREADY EXISTING work and CHANGE it. This isn't the same as adapting your own work into a new medium, this is SOMEONE ELSE deciding to, as John points out, not be original but take someone else's creativity and use it as their own.

    It makes no difference that every story is, technically, based on another story due to every creative offering condensing down to the same fundamentals. That doesn't, however, make the word "original" moot or meaningless. It simply means that, like everything, nothing is black and white. "Original" doesn't mean not one element ever before seen, it simply means NOT BASED DIRECTLY OR CONSCIOUSLY (or both) ON SOMETHING ELSE.

    So yes, nobody can argue that film is different than comics and books, or that, say, the Asian cinema scene adheres to different aesthetics than American cinema and therefore the adaptation from one to the other will be different. That's fine.

    What is 100% absolutely never-ever til the end of time NOT fine is saying the adaptation should "stand on its own"…and here's why:

    The ONLY reason to adapt an existing property, and I mean the ONLY reason, is to DIRECTLY TAP INTO THE EXISTING FAN BASE. If you want to indirectly tap into said fan base, you make something similar, maybe in the same genre, or that utilizes the same elements. However, when you consciously use the title of the original, the characters of the original, the names, locations, all the specific familiarities of the original – then the adapter is DIRECTLY trying to tap into the existing fan base and popularity of the brand.

    So the "adapter" (in cinema's case, usually the producers/studio, director, and/or screenwriter) work(s) hard on the adaptation for this sole purpose, to gain all the benefits of the original from the readers/watchers side of things. Then, lo and behold, they say "Hey, you have to judge this work on it's own merits". They want to take something not their own, rearrange it to suit the largest number of people in the given medium, and then have this thing be judged – the only way anyone but themselves can respond – as something standalone.


    To be Continued…..

  2. PART 2 OF 2

    As John points out, most "new" things are easily pointed out to be repackaged older things. Which proves the point – there's zippo reason to "adapt" something unless you're banking on the fan base. If you're doing that, you DAMN well will be compared to it and should be because you're gaining all the benefits OF EXACTLY THIS COMPARISON. You want to be the "HARRY POTTER MOVIE" not "a Harry Potter-esque movie". Oddly, no one thinks it unfair to compare UNDER SIEGE to DIE HARD and pick a favorite and say one is better than the other. Yet if someone remade DIE HARD and called it DIE HARD, and people complained that the new one was over-the-top, loud, obnoxious, with a brain-dead lead with no charisma, there'd be a vociferous portion of the population that would condemn those who compared the remake with the original. And yet, as far as any logic I can reason out demands – ONLY the remakes/adaptations should be compared to their originals, if we're talking about fair potential judgments in art and entertainment.

    An adaptation GAINS everything from being compared, then those who benefit from it (be it financially or be they simply satisfied consumers) try to say the road shouldn't travel the other way. That it would be UNFAIR to. That's crap, all you who think this. Utter crappola.

    Sure, the movie will have changes as it's an ADAPTATION and not a xerox. However, the core elements that have nothing to do with time constraints or visual-vs-verbal – elements such as character, plot, THEMES (why does everyone forget that – most movies adaptations literally change the whole message of the original), landscape, and aesthetic should never be changed. Or else the adapter should have made their own work and not tried to cash in.

    Look at Tarantino – ALL of his films are based on other films, and often blow for blow in plot and certain surface elements (character names, types). However, the entire feel of his movies – tone, style, violence, art direction – are radically different than the originals, and so his movies are NOT considered adaptations of the source inspiration. They don't use the old names. They aren't trying to cash in on the original's fame. George Lucas didn't call Star Wars THE HIDDEN FORTRESS and have that be the name of the Death Star or whatever. Sure, some folks question the rightness of swiping such ideas consciously and not giving written but only verbal credit, however, the point is that Lucas didn't try to cash in on Kurosawa's clout. Tarantino doesn't try to use anyone else's title (only their actors!). Because what these director's were creating were THEIR OWN VISION of other original works.

    THOSE can be judged on their own merits. Adaptations? Never. Never ever ever. It may be in a different medium and therefore adapted, but it is literally, still, the same original source work. And that means it must be judged directly next to the same.

    P.S> – on the subject of those who watch the movie but have never read the book: this is again precisely the point. These are the people that have no expectations. There's no reason to cater to them – they don't KNOW what the work is or should be or will be about. They're now exposed to it because it's been adapted to a medium they like better (or are more prolific within). Why then, should we not expose them to THE ORIGINAL WORK itself, to the best of the adapter's ability? When this does not happen, it's criminal on an artistic level (if not a legal one because they paid for the right to do said artistically criminal act).

  3. John: Thanks for the link. I think that's an interesting way to look at things. I do think that Hollywood recycles too much, particularly when it comes to "remakes." I don't have a problem with remakes in principle (some of the ones I've seen have actually been pretty good, if not better than the original, and if you're my age (25) and unfamiliar with a lot of things from the 50s, a remake is kind of new anyway), but I get the impression that Hollywood doesn't care enough to make good movies out of old concepts. You can make a movie that is complex and entertaining with explosions and all that jazz. It's been done. I miss that in movies. I miss seeing something exciting and new; now it feels too much like the same old same old, or like Hollywood has literally run out of ideas and is rehashing old things to keep the money flowing…

  4. Dave: I disagree only with part of your argument. I do think that one has to pay attention to the success of the adaptation, and that it is necessary to make comparisons, but at the same time, you can't be anal about it. That's what I was failing to get at. Of course it's an adaptation, and that it's taking material from someone else, etc. But at the same time, it's taking something in a medium that is read and transferring it to a medium that is viewed. And movie audiences have particular tastes, particularly for certain kinds of movies (obviously some adaptations are more "serious" than others due to the kind of story being told).

    So while I agree that it doesn't entirely stand alone, it does need separation enough to make sure the film is not treated unfairly. Adaptations cannot possibly include everything from the book. There's no way to do it without creating a terrible movie, and movies always have to be viewed as movies first, adaptations or whatever second. A crappy movie is a crappy movie regardless of where it originated from.

    And as I said, when an adaptation seriously deviates from the story, that line disappears, and it should be blasted justly for its failures.

    As for your question as to why we don't expose people who haven't read the book to a "proper" adaptation is because films are not books. There absolutely must be exceptions to what can be inserted into the visual medium. A blow-by-blow Harry Potter movie would be boring as hell, too long, and an utter failure in the box office. Movies are made to sell movie tickets, not books, and since there are time constraints, etc., things have to be cut. Sometimes the writers get it wrong, and when that happens they should be criticized for that failure, but other times they get it right, despite leaving out things that the readers always thought were super important.

    A great example of a failure would be Harry Potter 6, in which the ending left out important aspects to the story (i.e. the battle scene at the end). Without that scene, the presence of all the characters that would have been there fighting makes almost no sense, and Malfoy's entire storyline is meaningless. If all of his work was to kill Dumbledore, then he could have just done it on his own, but no, he needed to let all the others in…for no reason. In the book, they want in to attack the school, and they do, but in the movie, that's left out. That's what happens when you have a poor adaptation, but if you look at the first Harry Potter, you get an entirely different experience. It's not perfect, no, but the things it leaves out and adjust make sense, creating not only a good movie, but a relatively honorable adaptation.

    You simply can't expect perfect adaptations. Movies don't work like books, and never have. Things always have to be left out and bits must always be adjusted. Lord of the Rings is an example of serious deviations from the story in order to make a working film. And LOTR works, and is probably the only one that deviates so obviously that succeeds in doing so.

    Otherwise, I agree with you :P.

    P.S.: On a side note, while adaptations are made to tap into an existing fanbase, they are also made to drive new viewers/readers to a certain product. Adaptations sell books. Lots of books.

  5. Yup, ultimately I think we agree. My only qualm is that there's danger in using phrases like "there must be separation" and "the adaptation must stand on its own" because people will always use those principles to justify unfaithful adaptations. Then again, I agree that it works vice versa – the anal crowd are ridiculous caricatures of a true fan.

    Regarding Harry Potter – that's just bad storytelling on #6's part. The fact that a missing plot point is completely missed by the whole creative crew. It drives me nuts that, in the movie 300, the central fact that the Spartans only have to hold off the Persians for 3 days so that the rest of Greece can rally is never even brought up…until the denouement. It's simply taken for granted that dying in a suicidal stand-off against an unbeatable army has any sort of point. How the hell do you just never bring that up? And how the hell does no one in the audience notice this? 😛

  6. Dave: The missing plot point in the movie for 6 has nothing to do with bad storytelling; it's bad adaptation. That plot point is fulfilled in the novel, because we know exactly why they are trying to get into the school. In the movie, however, there is no point to the ending. The folks who get in…don't do anything except kill Dumbledore, which, wouldn't be a problem, except that that was not the reason indicated to the viewer for their arrival. We never find out why they want in…

    And yes, I agree that phrases like that should be culled from critical language, but you could say "the adaptation must stand on its own so far as it does not deviate significantly from the source." That might be a good way to work around things.

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