Adaptations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

15 Oct

The Originals and the Remakes

I’m going to use Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Last Airbender, the Harry Potter books and movies, V for Vendetta the graphic novel and the movie, Twilight the book and the movie, and The Great Gatsby the movies and the book as my examples during this post. Please be aware that I will talk about, maybe even show or quote selections to make my points, so please be aware of the possible spoilers.

A Common Idea

The thought is that we don’t like adaptations of narratives we’ve experienced in their original form as presented by the original creator(s) because the experience isn’t the same, yet we still go to see the adaptations because we’re fans of the narrative and want more of it. We can never have a first experience of a story again. Unless we have suffered a head trauma, but this is an unlikely occurrence for most people who discuss adaptations, so forgetting that possibility, let’s just remember that we cannot have the exact same first experience of a narrative ever again. First experiences of anything are unmatched by the following experiences, so expecting a move adaptation to present one with the exact same experience one had before is crazy, an inverse of the definition of insanity (doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results). But there is still a reason to watch an adaptation: it may present one with an echo of their first experience. A shadow first experience wherein we experience the narrative in a different way with possible new surprises and insights.

What Pisses Us Off in Adaptations

Money Making: Harry Potter

When major changes are made, we often feel as though the story we love was misunderstood or that possibly the creators of the adaptation were simply trying to make money off something we loved. This does happen. For example, there are a myriad of changes from the much beloved book series by J.K. Rowling to the film adaptations, such as the loss of S.P.E.W., making Hermione cry in the second movie, and the cutting of the Quidditch World Cup and much the matches that Harry actually takes part in. These can seem like small changes, such as Hermione finding the info about Nicolas Flamel in the first movie as opposed to how it actually happened wherein Harry found another Dumbledore Chocolate Frog card which mentions the creator of the stone. But to fans of the novels these changes often seem pointless. Why didn’t the way it worked in the novels work on the screen? Frankly, I can’t posit an answer to that last example, but the loss of Quidditch, especially in the later movies, and S.P.E.W. seems to be about time. The movies couldn’t be five hours long, mostly because they were staring children and marketed to children, and also because Pete Jackson didn’t direct any of them. But the change that seems to be the most pointless is when Hermione cries in the second movie:

For those of you who don’t remember the novel, Hermione didn’t know what mudblood meant and was more worried about Ron puking up slugs and almost getting in trouble for fighting than she was about whatever nonsense Malfoy was spouting. Why does this change upset me? Because it rewrites Hermione’s strong character to pull on heartstrings. It is the dumbest sentimentalism. Adaptations give us a chance to compare the writing of the exact same moments and what effects they can have on larger themes. In the novel, Hermione’s non-reaction suggests that to her Malfoy invalidates his opinion of her by being prejudice, making Hermione incredibly strong. Or it suggests that language is only meaningful when both parties taking part in communication have the same understanding of the words used, as Ron understood but Hermione did not, rendering the word useless. In the film, we get the old song and dance that prejudice is hurtful. Gee, you’d think the books didn’t cover that in much better and grander ways. The movie version also presents Hermione as the same overly emotional female caricature most cinema presents of secondary female roles. Please Hollywood, don’t step outside the bounds you have set up for gender roles. We wouldn’t want that.

There were other changes in these films that didn’t make any sense, such as how every wizard’s duel ended up in locked wands or the very gross change in the last movie wherein Harry Potter and Voldemort fell off the Reichenbach Falls right after Harry says “Let’s finish this how we started it: together.” I call this gross because at this point it is cliche and only seems appropriate when those individuals falling off the Reichenbach Falls are in fact Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. There is nothing original in that change, so there is no point in making it, when there was plenty about the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort that was original. The majority of changes in the Harry Potter franchise that weren’t based on condensation seemed based on trying to “bank” on old Hollywood themes that were not present in the novels. I won’t say that the movies didn’t suffer under other problems. The novels have one creator from start to finish with little details that hook up beautifully, but the movies had several different directors all with different ideas of the novels (the worst being the third, fourth, and eighth movies and the first two while being the closest to the actual novels were boring beyond belief).

Some have accused studios of splitting books into two movies to make more money, but in the case of Harry Potter and Twilight, I can see how the final novels were two different narratives capable of holding up their own movie. Not so much with the final Hunger Games novel–that seems to be a decision to make money.

Misunderstanding/Missing Themes and the Major Difference between Fiction and Film: The Great Gatsby

Sometimes the change is because ambiguity is so heavy in the original that the adapters have to make a decision that may rub fans the wrong way. The Great Gatsby is the best example. The end of the novel is very unclear as to what happened to Gatsby, mostly because the novel is from the perspective of someone who was not there for his death. There is some debate as to what happened to Gatsby, who killed him, and why. Readers get facts after the event through the eyes of a narrator, who, I argue, is unreliable because of his attempt to excise himself from the story, as if he has had no effect on what happens in his own life and those around him. But a film traditionally shows important events, whereas a book may underplay them or not show them to increase ambiguity as this novel does. Film is a fixed medium, unlike fiction which is unfixed, meaning that a tree in print could mean multiple things to all of the readers of the print, whereas a tree on screen is the same to every viewer (a concept I learned in school of all places). So film which is a medium of showing (trust me, telling in a film is usually the surest way, but not always, to kill the narrative) must choose a fixed interpretation of all events. What a reader imagined a scene to look like, especially by way of sound, pacing, and lighting, will be different than what the fixed interpretation will show. This means that in both adaptations to film (both Redford and di Caprio), the creators had to decide to show exactly how Gatsby died. In the first film, only the camera is witness to the death scene, presenting the idea that possibly this wasn’t true but only one way it could have happened, as there were no human witnesses, but it lacked the extreme ambiguity of not showing the death at all.

The second film has a human witness (the butler) to the death scene, and as such completely loses all ambiguity.

Some may ask where the novel is open to different interpretations at all. Well, it’s strange, but Gatsby has a gunshot wound but is found in his pool floating on an inflated raft. Uh, I’m no detective, but it sounds like Gatsby was moved after he was shot. See Nick’s description from what he pieced together from witnesses and what he saw after the fact:

At two o’clock Gatsby put on his bathing-suit and left word with the butler that if any one phoned word was to be brought to him at the pool. He stopped at the garage for a pneumatic mattress that had amused his guests during the summer, and the chauffeur helped him pump it up. Then he gave instructions that the open car wasn’t to be taken out under any circumstances — and this was strange, because the front right fender needed repair.

Gatsby shouldered the mattress and started for the pool. Once he stopped and shifted it a little, and the chauffeur asked him if he needed help, but he shook his head and in a moment disappeared among the yellowing trees.

No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock — until long after there was any one to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.

The chauffeur — he was one of Wolfsheim’s proteges — heard the shots — afterward he could only say that he hadn’t thought anything much about them. I drove from the station directly to Gatsby’s house and my rushing anxiously up the front steps was the first thing that alarmed any one. But they knew then, I firmly believe. With scarcely a word said, four of us, the chauffeur, butler, gardener, and I, hurried down to the pool.

There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other with little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of compass, a thin red circle in the water.

It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete.


Most of my disbelief of Wilson as murderer, though, comes from the chauffeur. As can be seen above, he really worked for Wolfsheim, one the novel’s shadiest characters and someone Gatsby may owe a great deal of money, and says that he didn’t think much of gunshots. Gunshots are not mistakable for anything but what they are, unlike what a lot of fiction would have you believe, so I find it questionable that anyone would hear those sounds and not freak, going “Were those gunshots?!” then run to investigate.

In the first movie, Gatsby’s is shot on the raft and it pops. In the second movie, he is getting out of the pool by the ladder when he is shot in the back (the scene seems overly dramatic–like: LOOK! Tragedy!). What is the theme missing from the movies? How did Gatsby make all that money? It wasn’t in the military (no one makes that kind of money quietly in the military), it wasn’t in business (again where are the products and why wasn’t he in the news?), so that basically leaves war-profiteering or the mob. With all the booze in his house and Wolfsheim in the picture, I vote the mob. Gatsby’s also wasting a lot of money and booze and attracting a lot of attention with those parties, both things that would piss the mob off if he was involved in their business. The mob doesn’t cut people off who screw with their business, they kill them. Why else would Fitzgerald have Nick mention that the chauffeur was connected to Wolfsheim except to cast doubt on how the characters believe the death played out?

Tone: The Last Airbender

The TV show is probably one of the best stories ever told. It’s interesting, well thought out, character driven, original, epic, funny, and filled with tragedy. This is not to say it didn’t have its problems. The second book wasn’t very good and it’s conclusion seemed half-assed and there was some major sentimentalism going on and sometimes Katara was more annoying than anything, but the overall work was amazing and the conclusion to book three/the series finale was amazing. The movie adaption of the first book, however, was so bad I could barely sit through it. It had some pointless changes (the name pronunciations, the firebenders no longer able to create fire, Aang’s reason for running away–if the avatar can’t have a family then how did Roku grandfather Zuko and why would a 12 year old care about such a thing in the first place?) and some people considered it racist (btw, this is meant to be a fake world with different concepts of race though it was obvious that Air Nomads=Tibetan monks, Water Tribe people=Inuits, Earth Kingdom Citizens=Chinese, and Fire Nation people=Japanese–watch it again and notice the similarities mostly in dress and customs). The real problem with the movie, I believe, for fans was the change in tone from TV show to movie. The TV show is hilarious. There is not a single episode that lacks a joke of some kind. The movie is dryer than blackened toast. Ugh. I cannot sit through the whinging. This is supposed to be a movie for kids! Where’s the funny? Changing the tone, more than the themes or how things came about, is possibly the worst change an adaptation can make. Because the tone of a story is the first expectation of the narrative. When I watch new episodes of the series (The Legend of Korra), I expect the same tone as I got when watching Avatar, and guess what, the creators of both series present the exact same tone. So while Korra may never be as epic as Aang, the show still meets my most basic expectations of an Avatar narrative, which is why I think the creators made the new show. They couldn’t let the last thing anyone remembered was that awful movie. Watch the Honest Trailer for The Last Airbender. It really drives home how badly done that move was.

If you never want to watch the show, just understand that the show asks questions that the movie didn’t even come close to scratching, such as can Aang (who in our world would be a Buddhist) kill? Below is the most epic fight (and most epic ass-kicking) and the conclusion to the TV show’s biggest question. Do not watch it if you have not finished the show and are interested in the path to this conclusion.


In Their Defense

Adding Plot: Twilight

I’m not going to say that Twilight is a good movie, not by a long shot, but the movie is much better than the book. That’s saying a lot. The novel lacks a plot–at all. There is no inciting incident (moving to Forks has nothing to do with the climax, so it doesn’t count) and no rising action (falling in “love” and discovering Edward is a vampire also does not feed into the climax) and there is no pacing to the narrative. These aren’t the only problems with the novel, but the lack of plot is the most important. The movie fixed this problem by showing the other coven moving towards Forks and killing along the way introducing tension and rising action to the narrative. In the novel’s defense, it was first person and couldn’t show readers the other coven, but this means that it needed another draft (at least) to create a plot of some kind. The reason a movie adaption was able to fix this lack of plot is that movies are almost never first person (only examples that come to mind are Fight Club and Black Swan and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), but third person omniscient. Movies tend to be more open than novels and even plays. They like to follow other characters, show scenes that were only talked about, and go to locations not shown in the originals. This is because of its lack of limits in showing the exterior of a story, but it extremely limited ability to show the interior of a story because of the lack of narration (narration tends to kill movies–think the theater release of Bladerunner) but that is not always the case (Fight Club and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind again come to mind). The traditional conventions of film making made fixing the lack of plot in Twilight easier than it would be to fix it in the novel, which for the most part seems like a long diary entry (we don’t care if Bella marinated a steak). The film industry is also very focused on plot; they know about the major dramatic question (something not taught in most other creative writing genres) and have their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Act guidelines, which can lead to stale writing but typically produces passable plots, which is why most movies are mediocre but watchable.

Taking Out the Corny and Developing the Characters: V for Vendetta

This movie is perfectly done, and there is a reason for that. First off, the movie was pretty perfectly cast (the only fly is when Natalie Portman questions why she helped V–I’m not sure if she’s not committing to the moment or struggling with the accent, but it just seems stilted and fake). Secondly, what they kept and cut and changed from the graphic novel was all for the better. The Ears, Eyes, and Nose parts of the original were just weird, and Evey was a very flat and undeveloped character in the original, so the changes made were needed. In the movie Evey is suddenly someone an audience member can relate to, which for the most part was missing from the graphic novel wherein a reader experienced the narrative instead of connecting to the narrative through a character they could relate to. And there is this awesome scene, which has no equivalent moment in the graphic novel:


Sound: All Fiction Examples

This is just something missing from fiction that is utilized, usually quite well, in movies. For example, the soundtracks to V for Vendetta and the more recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby create a feeling of epic-ness or tragedy that can’t be reached with the same level with words. Don’t get me wrong, I think words are one of the most powerful and versatile forms of communication, but music can be even more powerful and have a bigger effect on audiences than words, partially because music can be experienced en masse. One example that comes to mind is the riot at the premier of The Rite of Spring in 1913. Books have caused rallies, but never spontaneous uprisings of audiences. Coupling music with narrative is brilliant as it can increase the feelings desired in the audience ten-fold. Just watch a move/tv show without music and see how absolutely weird it is. But music isn’t the only way sound can create emotion in an audience. Other ways include a quiet scene to create tension (most often used in horror films) or the cacophony of war, which can’t be captured as well in words as it can in actually hearing it. It’s just an advantage that films have over novels.

The Other Theory

There is this thought that whatever form of the narrative we experience first is the one we enjoy the most, as in if you read the book first, you would always like the book more, or if you saw the movie first, you would always like the movie more. I don’t think this is true. I’ve always like more whichever one is better. For example, I read V for Vendetta first, then saw the movie. I love the movie more. For another example, I saw Dreamcatcher first, then read the book. I love the book more, even though I believe the movie is very good. I will admit there may be some audience members who fall to fanboyism and enjoy what they experienced first more, but I believe the discerning viewer/reader will find they like the better version best.


Not all adaptations are bad, and not all the choices made in the process of making an adaptation are bad, but a good number of them don’t have justifications for the changes they made. What is more infuriating is when someone writes a script and this conversation happens:

Screenwriter: I wrote this script. I call it Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine.

Producer: You know what this sounds like: Starship Troopers. Maybe we can get the rights to that. Could you change the names in the script to sort of match up with the novel?

Screenwriter: Sure. No problem!

Then we end up with Bug Hunt/Starship Troopers, which by the way, I’m not even kidding. Bug Hunt existed. Some may say (based solely on the movie) that it’s just another stupid sci-fi novel. Tell that to the United States Marine Corps and Navy who have it on their reading lists (yes, the military branches have reading lists). This is not an adaptation. In the words of Admiral Ackbar:

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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Craft of Writing


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