Adaptation – Repetition or Reinvention?

Repetition is apparently Hollywood’s go-to form – from live-action remakes of Disney classics, to adaptations of fiction from a variety of forms, sometimes you wonder if there is any original content to be found on the big-budget silver screen. But when it comes to adaptations specifically, repetition becomes a central question – which is better, faithfulness to the original text, or interpretation and reinvention?

For Faithful Adaptations

As every lover of a book destined for big-screen success will know, there’s always some apprehension mingled in with the excitement of going to see it on film – will the movie do the story justice? For fans of faithful adaptation, there’s always a concern that major changes in the adaptation process will ruin the story, and therefore ruin the viewing experience. To the casual viewer who never read the book, the film might seem great, but for a fan who knows what was left on the cutting room floor – or never even made it into the script – it can be heart-breaking.

Example: V for Vendetta. A classic for any fans of comics/graphic novels, movie-goer or anonymous hackers, this story started off in panels made of Alan Moore’s words and David Lloyd’s artwork, before being adapted into a film by the Wachowskis. For fans of the film who never read the original, it’s brilliant – examining a dystopian Britain impacted by the after-effects of 9/11, demonstrating the power of the individual and the masses, and showcasing some brilliant acting. But for fans of the original, it’s a different story. Literally.

No, I’m not going to go off on a rant here, but the film makes huge changes – some interesting, others annoying and unnecessary. In particular, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of who, or rather what, the character of V is. He is not a person, he is a concept – a fact made perfectly clear when Evey inquires into his feelings for or possible relationship to her, and he promptly vanishes, leaving behind only the outfit on a stand. In the film, however, perhaps in an effort to Hollywood-ise the story, a romantic subplot is elbowed in at the last moment, V apparently struggling with his feelings for Evey behind the mask. This is far from a faithful adaptation, and I completely see why Moore was unhappy with the script and refused to watch the film. It is not his story anymore.

“I completely understand the merits of having a faithful adaptation of source material, particularly if you are a fan of the original”

Closer adaptations may also have their faults, but often they go down far better with fans of the original material. Take The Chronicles of Narnia, for example – no, not the newer ones. I’m talking about the 1990 adaptation of The Silver Chair, with Tom Baker (haven’t seen it? YouTube…). Watching this, having been a long-time fan of the books, was the ultimate nostalgia experience. It’s so close to the novel, with the dialogue lifted straight from the page and everything happening almost exactly as it was in the original. I have no idea how it would be received by someone who hadn’t read the book (except maybe how they’d see the special effects…), but as a childhood favourite it worked perfectly.

So I completely understand the merits of having a faithful adaptation of source material, particularly if you are a fan of the original. On the other hand…

For Reimagining Stories

The whole idea of reimagining a story when adapting it for the screen is creating something new. As anyone bored of the constant remakes the film industry is apparently obsessed with knows, repetition is boring and unimaginative, and sometimes is done more for profit than care for the story. Throwing a new spin on something can actually improve it.

To go back to V for Vendetta again – for all its faults, as a standalone movie, it is an interesting look at the impact of the War on Terror in the UK, and it’s like a roll call of famous British actors at some points. As a faithful adaptation, it doesn’t stand up, but as a reimagining, it does.

For a more recent example, you have the Divergent series – notably very different from the novels the films are based on, but still enjoyed by teens and dystopian fans everywhere. An adaptation doesn’t have to be a perfect recreation of everything in the original for it to work – and arguably, it can’t be.

“The adaptation is just that – an adaptation, not an exact replica”

Take Harry Potter, for instance. A massively successful series in both book and film form, and yet the movies are not perfectly faithful adaptations. They couldn’t be, or they’d each be at least five hours long. That doesn’t stop people from loving them, both on their own and as adaptations.

Another example is Game of Thrones. The changes here are even greater – there are people dead in one series and alive in the other. Yet, whether you follow the books or the TV show or both, it doesn’t matter, because everyone knows they’re just different. The adaptation is just that – an adaptation, not an exact replica. And for this story, that apparently works very well.

The Result

Essentially it’s a matter of personal preference – do you go in wanting a page-by-page recreation, or a reinvention of the story and characters you love? Do you prefer exact replicas in some stories, but not mind for others? Or do you just not read books that are made into films, and therefore don’t care?

It’s a hard line to draw, but both sides have their merits. Unfortunately, we can’t have it both ways every time.

Isobel Sheene

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