Scroll Top

Tone paramount in literary adaptation

Whether you love “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events” or “The Expanse” as a fan or simply a literate member of the public, you are aware of the issues of book adaptation. As you well know, once enough copies have been sold and the money really starts getting made, a certain day tends to come: the day when some executive at some big-name studio gets their greedy, filthy little hands all over your favorite title, and the whole community based around it gets all worked into a lather.

The conversations on the forums, comment threads or in the cafes often go like this: “Will it be good?” the bright-eyed innocent asks. “No!” the red-faced rage-fiend says, “That studio messed up the Such and Such movie last year! They’re gonna ruin this too and everything will be awful forever! We must try to stop it!” The innocent grows worried at this, and fear begins to spread like wildfire through the land. It is a fair concern, of course.

Let’s take a beloved series that hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Maybe, I dunno, “Eragon.” You know, with the cool dragon and all that? The one from your childhood, probably? Imagine if, say, 20th Century Fox purchased the film rights to “Eragon.” I know, I know, it’s silly. But bear with me. Imagine if, years ago, Fox made an adaptation of “Eragon” that just plain sucked. One that was just utterly faithless to the books. One where, I dunno, Saphira had feathers, or something else ridiculous. Where major plot points were not only totally re-worked to fit time constraints, they were skipped over completely despite enormous direct relevance to the overall story. I think we can all be a little glad that no such film was made, because people probably would be mad about that for years. A decade at least. So you can imagine how it could be really painful to see a poorly done adaptation.

But where exactly do we draw the line for a good adaptation? The “Harry Potter” films, for instance, are widely-regarded as being generally faithful to the original stories. But even they miss some important details. Harry’s eyes come to mind.

“The Lord of The Rings” films created a following all their own, with the community of book readers left to quietly mumble amongst themselves about how the battle of Helms Deep didn’t happen that way, or about Saruman invading the Shire. Generally speaking, those movies really aren’t faithful to their source material. While generally well-done, they fail to fully represent the content of the books.

On the other hand, it’s nigh impossible to produce a 100 percent faithful film version of a Tolkien novel. There’s simply too much there to put on-screen. Too many events, often spread out over long timescales, with excruciating levels of minute detail. Considerations need to be made for time, for pacing, for music and lighting and all the (literally) moving parts to be waved in front of the camera. When your run-time is less than three hours, and your source material fills hundreds of pages, something is going to get cut, plain and simple. So the metric for adaptation quality should not be simply whether the film or show succeeds in cramming as much book onto the screen as possible.

The recently-released “Series of Unfortunate Events” TV show on Netflix does an amazing job of staying true to the source. But it’s not accurate to it. It cuts a number of things out, re-arranges, and crams in entirely new characters, plots and subplots. The show uses thematic content to form itself out of the sources, rather than solely relying upon the original plot. It pays careful attention to scenery and music to make us experience the world once again using the toolset of a different medium. The series finds novel ways to tell the same story rather than totally emulating the original chronology. It captures the spirit of the source rather than the letter of it.

In my view, a good adaptation is one that effectively captures the spirit of its source, while making those necessary considerations for its new medium. It’s not about pedantically inserting every little detail, or droning on and on for page-length stories. It’s about respecting tone, and identifying what makes the original story so beloved that the adaptation is being made in the first place. It’s about listening to fans, and all those impassioned conversations … but it is also about not putting feathers where they don’t belong.