I love a good adaptation. Whether it’s HBO’s Game of Thrones or the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, seeing something I love on the screen, seeing how script writers, actors and directors turn those familiar elements into something new, it’s pretty exciting.

Tonight I’m off to see Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games film. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve written before about how powerful and skilfully written I think the books are, and I think that the first film did a good job of a potentially difficult transition from page to screen. But I’m going to see it with my friend John, whose criteria for judging adaptations are slightly different from mine. For John, as for many fans going to see stories they love, what matters is how faithfully it sticks to the original. For me that has a place but, more than with presenting the past on screen, what I’m really after is a film or TV show that can stand on its own two legs, inspired by the source rather than bound by it.

These two different attitudes to adaptation are where film and TV producers can get in trouble with their potential viewers. I think that the way Elizabeth is portrayed in the 1990s BBC Pride and Prejudice is fantastic, drawing out sympathy and contrasting with other characters. But I know that others feel she’s not as faithful to the book as she could be. And in the second season of Game of Thrones, I thought that putting Arya and Tywin Lannister together strengthened the narrative, but some people look at that and mutter about how it didn’t happen in the books.

You can never entirely please both sides.

The show that probably comes closest is The Walking Dead. They’ve taken a clever approach, one that probably only works because the original writer is involved and this gains the trust of fans. They’ve kept the characters and the scenario, as well as some of the story arcs, but thrown the detail of the narrative out of the window. In this way they’ve set their stall out from the beginning. They’re actually being more faithful to the unpredictably terrifying world of the comics by being less faithful to their storylines, and that works for fans both new and old.

Of course it’s an approach that wouldn’t work for a story like Game of Thrones, where that epic story is crucial, or a small, more contained work like Pride and Prejudice. But it’s an interesting experiment, and one that seems to be paying off.

So what are your favourite adaptations? What works for you and what doesn’t? How do you judge their success? Leave a comment, let me know.

  1. Jon Taylor says:

    Andy, I have to thank you twice here. In the first case, We recently got The Hunger Games on DVD through Lovefilm. I sent it back without watching it and downloaded the audiobook instead. I’m totally hooked. The damn thing near enough reduced me to tears while driving to work within the first hour. I did that partly because of your advice, so thank you.

    Secondly, this article has made me examine my own attitudes a little more closely. I used to think of myself as an easygoing relativist when it came to fiction; the book is one thing, the film is another, live and let live, man! Academically, I still think that. It would be ridiculous to attempt to copy one medium into another verbatim.

    Yet, even though I respect the HBO adaptation, I don’t want to watch it. (Even though I actually watched the first season first, then started the books). I loved the Lord of the Rings movies and still do, but when I went back a re-read the book afterwards, the films lost their shine. I’ve been trying to work out why this is. For an answer, I am going to have to turn to Professor Tolkien. He hated the term ‘suspension of disbelief’. He wanted to achieve ‘secondary belief’. He wanted as a reader to commit fully to the idea that the fictional ‘secondary world’ existed, that it was internally consistent and had some kind of being of its own.

    I think that is what I want. I want Middle Earth or Westeros or Panem to live and breathe in my imagination. I think that this is why I get excited at the prospect of a film/TV adaptation and the opportunity to see the world made flesh in front of my eyes. It why I still search on youtube for certain selected scenes of Game of Thrones. Yet its also why the moments you realize that you are watching an *adaptation* are jarring and unwelcome. I end up wanting to ignore the adaptation to preserve my secondary belief.

    Of course, this only applies to works that I came to through the book first (or primarily). I never read that many Marvel comics when I was younger, so as far as I am concerned Robert Downey Jnr is, indeed, Iron Man. Still, I now have a new rule: Read the book first.

    • John Moley says:

      Yes, there’s something about this “secondary belief” concept that speaks to me. For me, I’ve never worried too much about deviations in plot as long as the characters remain true to their established natures and the history of the fictional universe in question is not dramatically altered. H2G2 radio series and novels passed the compatibility test, but the Hollywood adaptation (while occasionally sumptuous) repeatedly missed the mark on the essence of its protagonists. The GoT TV series bothers me because it depicts a precarious and volatile world and then changes significant details and pretends that there would be no knock-on effects. I get that there are practical concerns, but I prefer to enjoy media that I don’t need to make excuses for as I’m consuming it. Sure, tell me a story about Deadpool that I’ve never heard before. Just make sure that he’s a wise-cracking, fourth-wall breaking psychopath, not a mute, plot-convenience with six-foot swords hidden (with physics-warping nonsense) in his forearms. 🙂

    • I find Tolkien’s attitude towards secondary worlds increasingly fascinating. Think I may need to go read up on that for a later post.

      It sounds from your preferences like you generally prefer books to films, as you’re doing more of the world building and picture creating for yourself. Is that a general thing for you, do you think?

      • Jon Taylor says:

        I really should tick the box to get notifications when people reply to my comments. I didn’t mean to ignore this conversation for a month!

        If you are interested in Tolkien, his ‘secondary world’ idea can be found in his collected essays ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, especially ‘On Fairy Stories’. However, a convenient podcast to have his ideas expounded is here especially in the first three or four lectures. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there.

        I’m not sure that it is a blanket preference for prose over audio-visual media, rather than the fact that I don’t like the potential dissonance between two (or more) versions of the same secondary world existing. I can’t avoid the feeling that the existence of HBO-Westeros leaches some reality from ASoIaF-Westeros. (Perhaps that’s the influence of Roger Zelazny on me!) It makes me want to delete anything which doesn’t match the original. I can’t decide how that makes me feel about the Star Trek reboot…

        Which one I prefer probably has more to do with which media I first encounter the story in. I imagine it would be easier to go from TV/film to books rather than vice-versa, simply because the books leave the sound and visuals to your imagination. For example, I am told that Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss Everdeen. I am now free to see the films, but I will have to make an effort to visualise her as Katniss. In my mind she looks much more like this. Yes, I know that’s Katara from Avatar, I didn’t say that my imagination is original :-p

        Audiobooks are a strange half-way house where an actor adds their own interpretation to character voices and are critical to the enjoyment of the story. (I have increasing respect for the complex art of audiobook narration). I suppose I would like to experience the author’s original and give that the opportunity to become the uppermost version. It seems only fair.

  2. Katy Goodyer says:

    I got into the Goodkind Sword of Truth books by seeing an advert for the TV show and trying it out. It was fabulous so I thought I’d try the books. I ATE them all very quickly as they were just my fictional cup of tea. However, whilst I love both, I have to say that its definitely a ‘based on’ scenario and not an adaptation. There were some major deviations between the two but it didn’t stop me enjoying either. I think as long as they’re written well, then you have to take both on individual merits. I think there comes a point with things like this when you have to treat thwm as two entities, or else you may go mad with fan fury.

    Totally agree with your point about Pride and Prejudice. Excellent adaptation.

    • I think that point you make about seeing them as two entities is key. Those two entities will usually shine a light on each other and provoke thoughts on each other, but they’re not the same thing, and if you expect them to be then you’ll be disappointed.

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