A Note on Adaptation

Adaptation. The process of change, of being rewritten and reformed.

It seems like people are often wary of change, especially change in something that they already enjoy: people, books, houses, all sorts of things. This is especially clear in adaptations of media where a story is reworked from one medium to another.

This can partially be explained through the nature of the internalized image. I recently went to a lecture by a professor of mine about the nature of image in Ulysses and how images of characters are always wrong. Narratives rarely offer full descriptions of the characters, and our own internal images of characters are rarely fully detailed. This is not to say that characters are blurry or incomplete, but that their mental image is more defined by their actions and relationships than anything else – their image is reflected and adapted within the reader’s mind by the reader’s relationship. Even in mediums where the characters are shown visually: movies, television, and comics, we still resist changes in image. We have a mental image that is associated with the nature of the character, and a change in image implies – to us – a change in character.

Sometimes adaptations may simply suffer from poor writing, or a difficulty inherent in the medium its being adapted to. But often times we judge adaptations unfairly based upon our own preconceived notions of what’s “faithful” to the work. Who defines the qualities of the work that must be maintained for an adaptation to be faithful? The author? The reader/viewer? Must the adaptation use every element of the original work at its disposal?

I think we must give adaptations a greater degree of leniency in regards to experimentation and tone. The 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby follows the plot of the novel very closely, and often directly quotes the book, but I wouldn’t call it a great adaptation. Perhaps the script itself may be considered as such, but the film lacks any defining tone or power. Films like Stardust, Blade Runner, and The Shining, have significant departures from their respective source materials. In some cases even adding or deleting central characters. Yet, I greatly enjoy these films, they have tone, they have personality, they work as stories and as films. I actually enjoy Stardust the movie more than the book, mainly because of the addition of several original characters.

The acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick supposedly said that he preferred to adapt works into films rather than write original screenplays, opening up the possibility for change and improvement through the medium of film.

I’ve focused primarily on the adaptation of literature into film, but I want to start thinking more progressively about adaptation as a process in general. Look at Shakespeare and Chekhov – their legacy owes its survival to the nature of adaptation. Folk songs have lasted hundreds of years, and likely would have died out if it weren’t for adaptation. Great books and films and video games and albums have been inspired and adapted from works that are often considered mediocre at best.

Perhaps its time to embrace the process of adaptation, perhaps we should adapt ourselves to the works developing around us.

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