Yesterday I caught a few glimpses of The Killing Joke’s animated film adaptation, and while I won’t give you a review until I’ve seen it, the clip I saw got me thinking on the subject of adaptations and the ways people go about them.
TV Tropes has a vast list of different adaptation tropes, from Compressed Adaptation, where in the process of adapting the story to a new medium they cut out entire chunks of the story or universe hoping the overall experience remains the same, no matter how many holes there are. There’s Distillation, which is about simplifying complex elements of the source material to make the transitions easier. Pragmatic Adaptation is the most reasonable of all, where you cut out or remix the elements that just won’t work in the new medium.
Even this monologue got a few changes in this adaptation.
It’s “screaming is unbearable” in the original
And then of course are the faithful adaptations, where you essentially move the source material into the new medium without cutting anything out, even if certain elements won’t work in the new medium. Fans often hope for this kind of adaptation, the one that doesn’t really adapt anything and is merely a recreation. I loathe admitting it, but I used to be in this group, until I became wise enough to realise that you often lose more by trying to keep everything in.
Direct or true adaptations are the reason I can’t stand films based on Shakespeare’s works. Even if the film or series changes the setting, it will keep the dialogue intact. I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare in my life and because of his style—and massive vocabulary—dialogues can often be confusing. I hate every adaptation of Rome & Juliet, particularly the Leonardo DiCaprio one. Yes, I know people love that one, but to me there was always a stylistic clash between keeping Shakespeare’s prose unaltered and having a modern setting. It just didn’t go well together.
Seriously, screw this film…
But no one wants to even attempt to alter the words of the great bard, and I find that ridiculous. You can tell the same story with ‘common’ language without losing anything. Granted, some lines in Shakespearean plays are now s iconic that you should keep them intact, with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” being one of the most notable ones.
Changing things while adapting isn’t necessarily disastrous. Take Game of Thrones, a series that has found great success in creating amalgam characters, combining three or four minor ones. If they adapted things as they are, the cast would be double its size and following the individual stories would be a complete nightmare for the audience—also, a lot of the characters you see butchered and raped are minors, adding a censorship nightmare to the mix.
Guess what, she’s not in the books!
But then again, changing things can also lead to disastrous results. Take The Count of Montecristo with Jim Caviezel, a film that changed so much in from the source material that any resemblance to the original story is lost. You have characters with familiar names but their personalities, motives and even stories are completely different. The central themes of Alexandre Dumas’ novel are then forgotten, and then you have a horrendous adaptation.
Sometimes people try their best but constraints force them to make significant changes that lead to equal measures of glory and disaster. Just take the He-Man film, Masters of the Universe, critically panned but not really that bad when you look at it. Its messy production and sudden loss of budget contributed to the many wild changes to established “lore” and the disastrous results, though I have very fond memories of that film. I was a He-Man fan—though even as a child, I always despised the day’s moral lesson bit at the end of all episodes—and when that movie came out, I was stoked. The result was weird, but I still got a kick out of it.
I think one of the best examples of changes in source material with a positive effect is the first Iron Man video game, based on the first film. That game nailed it. It took the base elements of the film and expanded on it to add more elements of the Marvel universe, including MODOK of all villains. It was a phenomenal game. Spider-Man 2, another adaptation based on a film, did the same, it took the source and took it to another level, doing what the film could never do.
But on the contrast, Spider-Man 3, the film, is completely atrocious in its treatment of the source material and the changes lacked any semblance of coherence.
My last example of a successful adaptation with changes on the source material is one I’m conflicted about to this day: Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The changes add a layer of humanity to the main villain, making the monster relatable…and I hate that. One of the things I loved about the novel is that Dracula is a complete monster. There is nothing redeemable in the Count, something I’ve always found refreshing, particularly in this age where everyone needs to have circumstances that define their behaviour.
Truly faithful adaptations are risky. In the case of source materials such as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, the level of bloat you’ll force the audience to deal with is extraordinary. It also means lifting every single cringe-worthy sequence or dialogue from the source material. Sometimes, and I speak from experience, writers do conversations badly. They edit and have things proofread and strive to make all conversations feel natural, but some slip by and you end with dialogues in films that no one would ever say in real life. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the film, suffers from that a bit. Some of its dialogue comes across a bit forced.
And that’s without mentioning the true constraint of any endeavour: money. Faithful adaptations need fatter checks.
I am of the firm belief that if you’re adapting something, change it up to suit your new medium and to make it feel fresh. Faithful adaptations rarely have anything new for the knowledgeable audience, while changes keep them interested. They might hate it at the end, but they’ll be hooked until then.
What do you think? Should adaptations be faithful to their source material or should they take risks and make changes where needed? Within reason of course, no one wants another Mario Bros. film, where the directors attempted to turn Mario into a new version of Max Headroom, to disastrous results.