Tuesday, December 8, 2020

On the value and faults of adaptations

While it may be an odd statement to make on a dedicated book blog and as a person whose personality is often associated with books, I have to admit: I like stories. I like movies, I like television, I like theater (particularly musical theater, let's be real), I like graphic novels, I like campfire tales. I love the human capacity for storytelling and imaginative interpretations of different stories. After all, how many times have we reworked and played with the Hero's Journey? How many times have we played out romances and tragedies and sports victories and so on? It's a wondrous thing.

All of which is to say that I've long been a fan of the concept of adaptations. I find great value in the way that stories can be reworked in new contexts or using new mediums. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that film inherently elevates a text, but I think that any adaptation has the potential to add to the original, by casting it in a new light. And so a novelization of a movie might elevate that by having the space to fill in details or background that would have felt clunky in film. A film version of a comic book might manage to change the stakes and scope of the text by physically expanding them. And of course adaptations can also happen within the same medium - modernizations of classics are a particular favorite of mine, where the adaptation plays around with the actual story details to set them in a wholly different setting. Similarly, it can be argued that Shakespearean theater (and any theater that takes some liberties in direction and styling) is another form of endless reinterpretation and adaptation. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, whether in 16th century garb or in modern clothing and style (which is, perhaps, why Shakespeare remains so continually enjoyable to modern viewers!).

Yet for all my love of adaptations as a concept, I often struggle with the execution. I don't think these are unrelated, though, and in fact it was through my disappointment in various adaptations in recent months* that I've realized so much of what it is that makes a good adaptation good. 

It began with Wolf Hall, which I read (and loved) several years back. When a BBC adaptation of that work was announced, I was excited. How could I not be, with an adaptation in the works of some of my favorite books? So when the time came, I watched the first episode with excitement... and stopped. While meticulously crafted and staged, the show felt... dim. Lifeless. I forgot about it for several years, only coming back to it when I read The Mirror and the Light earlier this year. And so I watched the next two episodes (all that time later), and was again struck by a sort of blankness to the adaptation. Coming off of Mantel's writing, it felt even more apparent. Where were the film equivalents of Mantel's writerly quirks ("he, Cromwell")? Where was the depth and weight of Mantel's raw focus? "Wolf Hall" the miniseries was praised for being a faithful adaptation, but it seems to primarily adapt the story, not the work itself. Henry VIII's story is not unfamiliar, nor is Cromwell's by association. The value that Wolf Hall brought in "adapting" Cromwell's life was in how Mantel carried out her work, how she delved into Cromwell's character, and how she built the historical record into and around it. It's the life she introduced into an established historical story. In failing to capture some of Mantel's literary quirks and snarky eye, the "Wolf Hall" miniseries ends up feeling like a neat set-piece historical drama, not a particularly good adaptation.

A similar feeling has continued with the recent BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials, another of my all-time favorite series. While generally more enjoyable and admirable in its attempts to flesh out the politics of Lyra's world (which are largely left vague in The Golden Compass, somewhat expanded upon in later books) and some bold (and welcome!) storytelling decisions in the overall series pacing, there is still something somewhat missing from the adaptation. Fantasy and sci-fi works are often difficult to translate to the screen, lest something of the actual imagination gets lost. "His Dark Materials" tries to play to its strengths (excellent acting), but it can't quite capture the magic of Pullman's world, mostly failing to really convey the otherness-yet-normalcy of daemons. Season 2 is improving on this a bit, but there's still the feeling that "His Dark Materials" just doesn't quite manage to build on the original. Its an adaptation that is enjoyable (and, again, improving in its expanded world-building, which is great), but not yet all there.

It's partly disappointing because I do think there are plenty of book-to-TV examples that manage to do a good job as adaptations and as stories in their own right, which I'm realizing is part of what I find so important (and engaging) with adaptations. The Babysitter's Club was never really high-quality literature, but its transition to the small screen is not only delightful as a tween-friendly series, it also manages to capture exactly what made the original Babysitter's Club books so successful - its leads and the sense of familiarity in the stories. Modernizing these 90s classics gives space to updating the tropes that each character represents, whether in portraying a character with a chronic illness in a wholly human way, integrating history into characters' backstories with a heavy dose of modern morality, or simply giving voice to underrepresented characters or character types. And it's obviously not alone. From Lord of the Rings to The Princess Bride to Clueless, I think that there are many cases of films exceeding the source material across many different metrics, ultimately carving out their own space as stories (not merely as adaptations) and also remaining true to the spirit of the original in at least some form.

Stories have value, and I am increasingly convinced that adaptations have value of their own and in their own right. An adaptation that merely follows the letter of the text can often come off as stilted and bland, as can those that fail to understand textual innovations (like with Wolf Hall). Sometimes this is only felt by those who have engaged with the original, but sometimes it bleeds into a general sense of a story that has nothing new to say. But it can also be about how you relate to a work, wrapped in how you value that medium. I, for instance, like sparseness in film much more than I do in books. This is how I ended up loving the film adaptation of Brooklyn (a book I otherwise did not particularly enjoy), finding myself enamored with its pacing and visual storytelling. (This is also part of why I loved the 2019 adaptation of Little Women, despite any other flaws it might have. I seriously loved the use of coloring as a frame device.) Meanwhile, I'm probably not going to be very interested in a horror-themed adaptation of a beloved story (sorry Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!). Like with all art, that doesn't mean that there isn't value in the work of art itself, nor does it mean that different people won't find value in different aspects. After all, "Wolf Hall" earned high praise as a miniseries, despite my own disappointment so far; I suppose I will always be contrary.

In short, I remain a fan of adaptations as a concept, and frequently also in execution. Adaptations don't need to supplant an original story, rather to add to it. And as a fan of stories and over-analyzing stories, it's hard not to love the extra depth the mere act of adaptation introduces.


  1. Hmmm. I agree with your overall concept, although I think the His Dark Materials adaptation does a good job of adapting the story to the screen, and adding nuances to the story that we can't know from Lyra's or Will's viewpoint in the books. I also don't agree with everyone that the LOTR movies do such a good job of adapting the books--it's not so much what they leave out as the cockamamie, unnecessary stuff they put in. I loved the 2019 adaptation of Little Women tough; I think it was genius to put it out of order and also have the last laugh on that inserted Prof. Bhaer storyline.

    1. Putting Little Women out of order was brilliant. It took the familiar trappings of a story that's been retold so many times and actually did something with it. I can see why it didn't work for some people, but I thought it was great.

      With HDM, part of what bothers me is what feels like a misreading of Lyra as a character. There's something about her that's... repackaged, I suppose, to make her palatable as a heroine. It might just be a slight overprotectiveness of the character on my part (she shaped... so much of who I am, oops), but even with all the other things the show is doing right (and it's definitely doing better with season 2), it feels like it keeps trying to make Lyra more... smoothed out.

      And I just deleted another 1000 or so words of additional thoughts, because oh boy do I apparently have thoughts! Which I will spare you. :P


Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam. Sorry!