The Art of Adaptation

Taking a story from the page to the screen (or stage) isn’t as simple as it might seem.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Among the absurdly many Facebook groups I belong to, there is one for fans of my favorite book. I’m not sure if it originally began as a fan project or if the author created it, but the author invited me, and I was happy to join — and I’m still happy to be there. These fans are some of the loveliest people in the world.

But, if there’s one thing I’ve garnered over the last few years — as the prospect of a film adaptation of this novel has gone from long-awaited and hoped for to a certain reality — it’s that many of my fellow fans are pinning a lot of their expectations on having every last detail of the novel carried over into the adaptation, and how upset they’ll be if any minor detail — like the color of the main character’s eyes — isn’t perfectly rendered in the adaptation.

This isn’t a phenomena unique to the fans of the book I’m talking about, by the way — even though I’m picking on them because they’re the impetus for this story. It happens just about any time a popular IP is adapted for the screen.

My first major experience with adaptation was — of course — The Lord of the Rings, and there are still some Reddit-dwelling fanboys who get salty when you mention Peter Jackson’s name.

For God’s sake, man, it’s been two decades. Tom Bombadil is ridiculous, The Scouring of the Shire would’ve completely destroyed the film’s narrative arc, and Elijah Wood physically couldn’t wear the damn contact lenses.

Moving on.

There are so many bad novel adaptations (Percy Jackson) that deviate so wildly (My Sister’s Keeper) and egregiously (Vampire Academy) from the letter (Eragon) and the spirit (Ella Enchanted) of the original (The Golden Compass) that many fans recursively think that the only way to be faithful is to have a word-by-word, blow-by-blow rendering of the novel onto film.

That’s how you make it perfect, right? The author knew what they were doing, the author wrote a hell of a novel, and they just need to put that on the screen.

If only it was that easy. That way lies madness. That way lies a nineteen hour monstrosity of celluloid and weeping.

Adaptation is not a mechanical or mathematical process, an equation or a machine where you put a novel in and pull a script out. I know that there are some people and some instances where it’s been treated like that, usually in the pursuit of a nauseating amount of money, but that, invariably, doesn’t end well.

Rather, it’s an artistic process. It’s an artist — or, even, a team of artists, as when we start talking about film, there are actors, writers, directors, DPs, cinematographers, composers, &c.) reimagining a work of art as a separate, unique work of art in a different medium and, therefore, with different rules. Like trying to capture the Eiffel Tower in a sonnet or interpreting a song through dance.

The creative team is trying to capture the spirit, the heart of the story, and retell it using the rules and conventions of their chosen medium. It’s not a simple cut and paste from the source text — I want this, I want this, I don’t want this — into actors’ mouths and onto the screen.

Adaptation is a creative act in its own right. It is a derivative of the original, but it’s a different being; it’s a unique life-form, in a matter of speaking. The trick isn’t, therefore, to capture each detail of the original in perfect clarity, but to make an adaptation that recalls the original but has a life of its own.

That means, sometimes, certain details change. A character’s eyes are a different color. A character isn’t the same ethnicity that you imagined them to be. The story takes place in Atlanta instead of Charleston. You try to capture the soul of the story, rather than aiming to pin down every last little insignificant detail.

You capture what’s important. You compromise on — or play with — the rest.

If you walk in to an adaptation with an expectation of a perfect, literal transference from the original, you’re going to be disappointed, no matter what.

I don’t know what to tell you. That just — doesn’t happen. That ideal state doesn’t exist. If you’re walking into the movie with a copy of the book in your hand, checking for details along the way, you’re walking in with an unfair rubric. You’re wearing your sommelier shoes at a craft beer festival. You are setting yourself up for a disappointment.

Go in with an open mind, and an open heart. Be ready for changes. Be flexible.

And if they Eragon the bitch? Well, Reddit will always be there for you to voice your displeasure.

A quiet thanks to Dr. Corey Olsen of Signum University who, over the years, has informed my thoughts about the art of adaptation.