Hi there book bees! This is actually one of my favorite topics to discuss when it comes to books! By adaptations, I mean to encompass book to film and book to television adaptations, as well as potentially circular ones such as how books are turned into musicals then turned into films (think Phantom of the Opera). This can also be reversed with books being inspired by film, television, and musicals and then influencing those things again in turn when an extended canon universe is manifesting.
What is a good adaptation?
A good adaptation is one that draws on the existing fanbase of whatever they are adapting. This means that the adaptation is not necessarily catered to the fanbase, but absolutely needs to respect them. If you check out the YouTuber Dominic Noble, he addresses this in several of his video essays on book to film adaptations as well as other reviews. One such video specifically addresses the new Death Note live action movie and how certain changes were made almost as if the creators wanted to draw in the fanbase of the manga and anime but then make fun of them once they were watching.
Good adaptations come from a place of respect, if not also admiration and love. Well made adaptations are often of pieces of media adapted by their own fans or at least by people who understand the fans. There are also adaptations that respect premises but recognize problematic elements of the original text and thus attempt to create a more inclusive adaptation that manages to point out the problems in the original while respecting its core premise.
Good adaptations don’t necessarily need to be strictly perfect. Practical Magic for example has strong followings who prefer the book, and equally strong followings who prefer the movie. Many people have a preference for one or the other, but consume both. I personally adore both versions and think that the movie made some smart choices in adapting to the screen, as well as created a different message that I enjoyed in its format.
What is a bad adaptation?
Just as a good adaptation can change things and still stand on its own, a bad adaptation doesn’t necessarily have to be wildly inaccurate to what it’s adapting to be bad. Bad adaptations stem from the opposite of good ones, ie a lack of respect for the fanbase the adaptation is naturally drawing upon.
The big draw of an adaptation is that there’s an existing fanbase that will likely convince others to go and see the adaptation. The success of a book leading to its being turned into a film is what creates massive franchises such as Twilight and The Hunger Games. Effective marketing means automatically drawing in the existing fanbase while also creating a new set of fans that are just loyal to the movie or television adaptations. By acknowledging that the fanbase already exists and needs to be at least somewhat pleased with the results in order to stick around, the adaptation creators are already entering into a mutual understanding of respect. The new creators respect the fans’ love of the original text and honor that by being true to it through their new creation. In return, the old fans encourage the development of new fans and expand the fanbase out of respect of the new creators.
A bad adaptation breaks this social contract, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by accident. When it is done accidentally it’s often out of misunderstanding. For example, the new Artemis Fowl movie just completely misunderstands that the whole draw of Artemis was that he began the series as a villain. Instead, the new movie adapts him into a protagonist turned antagonist role because they didn’t believe anyone would want to watch a story that did the opposite…. despite an entire existing fanbase saying they did in fact like that story and would like to see that story in film. There are also creators that come to despise their fanbase, which is an entirely other situation that occurs outside of adaptations (think Sherlock or Joss Whedon). When the creators no longer like the fans they have and want to actively draw them in to be hurt, they create bad faith adaptations that are meant to poke fun at the things most loved by the fans.
What do adaptations even do?
Take the money out of the equation for a moment, forget that we just lived through about two decades of “franchise films” in which a book’s concept could be blown up and dragged on for several movies, all of which came with huge promotional budgets including merch, celebrity endorsements, and fanbase growth. It’s pretty easy to see that formula is there, and appealing, after the success of various franchises such as Marvel and The Hunger Games. And there are definitely still some adaptations being made with the idea that they’ll be the next big thing to take over Hot Topic’s shelves and make baffling headline news.
But how did these adaptations even start? For a lot of them, adaptations start when someone in the movie or television industry gets a hold of a really good book and says ‘hey this has something.’ The Princess Diaries for example features an adaptation that transforms the concept of the original Cabot series and became a fan favorite on its own merit. There’s similarities between Mia in both versions, and the basic premise is the same, but enough changes were made to the Anne Hathaway movie that it appealed to not only the fanbase of young girls who’d read the books, but also became a staple in a lot of other childhoods. The movie brought to life a version of Mia who was a little more appealing, and condensed her story into a quicker consumption time (an entire series of books will take significantly longer to consume than the single movie, or both of them if you’re a fan of the sequel). In doing this, fans of both the books and the movie have some kind of common ground to discuss the two, but there’s also an appreciated separation depending on which you were exposed to first or which you enjoyed more.
Bad adaptations are usually disliked on the merit of poor storytelling just as much as they are for ruining the premise they were meant to present. Eragon and Avatar: The Last Airbender as movies had poor directing choices, poor CGI, and poor acting that exacerbated the diversions from canon that were included. If these two movies could have stood on their own the way The Princess Diaries did, they might not be so hated some people pretend they don’t exist at all. But instead, they were so poorly done as films that not even people with no knowledge of the original story enjoyed them. In these cases, the adaptations contribute absolutely nothing to the fanbase by disrespecting them, and contribute nothing to new viewers because they are so bad they won’t receive a dedicated following of new viewers.
Like many people my age, I grew up learning the exciting news that books I’d enjoyed immensely were being turned into movies. It eventually got to the point, though, where I had come to expect a few things would happen once this was announced:
1. The movie is made, it’s not wildly successful outside of the book’s fanbase, and even if the movie is well done the hopes of getting the rest of the series adapted as well are slowly killed by lack of interest in the project
2. The movie is made and is pretty successful, as well as relatively true to the book. The fanbase turns out in great numbers and convinces the movie industry there’s something here. The project changes hands at some point, leading to something crucial being missed in the adaptation that creates a divide between fans of the books and fans of the movies. Depending on where I fall in this divide, I would either lose interest in the movies out of loyalty to the books or come to have a new, negative view of the books.
3. The adaptation of the books is so wildly inaccurate that it creates a lack of interest in both forms of the media, though resurgences and acknowledgements of what the books originally did that the movie squandered or ruined may occur. This happened with Eragon for me, where I only picked the rest of the series up again after the disastrous movie when I saw some positive discussion of it in fan spaces and remembered how much I did enjoy the book.
Ultimately, a well done adaptation can expand the fanbase of the books and create a more immersive world building experience for those fans. A poorly done adaptation can in turn hurt the books by driving away fans who weren’t as attached to the original texts and are so unimpressed with the adaptations as to attribute this negative experience to the fictional world as a whole. Good adaptations require a respect of the original text and its fans, as well as an understanding of how to carry certain themes and expectations over to screen and still make for an interesting television or movie experience. It’s not an easy job, and it’s messed up a lot of the times especially when money becomes such an influential factor. Think about the hype over the love triangle in The Hunger Games and how in the quest for a major motion picture franchise, merchandise sales became more important than the core revolutionary premise of the text and the exact phenomenon that so disgusted Katniss and readers alike of the Capitol focusing on her love story above all else became a real phenomenon with little critical thinking involved.
What do you think of adaptations? Are there any examples of good or bad adaptations you’d like to point out in the comments? How about ways you think adaptations can be improved that will sustain both fanbases of the original and the new versions?