Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Adaptation?

Why we benefit from retellings

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

If you want to really inflame a group of book lovers, start up a conversation about adaptations. Most will have that adaptation, one that just didn’t do their beloved book justice.

E.g. — Can you believe they cut out that integral plotline from your favorite wizarding series? How dare they cast that guy as the hunky vampire? They clearly didn’t understand your favorite character and why she and her dragons should have ruled the seven kingdoms. Etcetera.

I’m guessing you’ve had an experience like this at some point in your life. And so have I, as a matter of fact. This bad experience with an adaptation doesn’t just feel like time wasted at the cinema, but a betrayal, a misrepresentation of a piece of literature that feels deeply personal.

That may sound hyperbolic, but it isn’t, really. What more personal form of entertainment is there than reading, losing oneself in the written word?

We forge our creative capabilities with the story the author has laid out for us on the page, imagining people, places, and events. We don’t just follow characters on their journeys, but for a brief time, we actually become them, something outside of ourselves.

Reader-response theory — popularized by the likes of Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser, and Louise Rosenblatt — suggests that the book we read and bring to life within our imagination is uniquely our own. No one can read a book the same way we do — not even, as it turns out, ourselves.

The version of the book I create one day, month, year, will not be the same as if I pick it up again at a different time. The act of reading is as much a reflection of who I am in that moment as it is the words written on the page.

No wonder we take such offense at adaptations that ruin what we have so carefully envisioned. How inconsiderate. How moronic. How — dare I say it? — EVIL.

Perhaps because of the bad experience with that adaptation, we convince ourselves that all adaptations are inherently inferior. Maybe even dangerous. Don’t judge a book by its movie, we say knowingly, afraid that our treasured book might somehow be besmirched by this wicked imposter.

But what if books and their adaptations don’t actually have to be in competition with one another?

What if we recognize them as separate entities — related but not the same?

Who decided that one must be better, or that the adaptation’s intention — like a sneaky, wool-covered Jacob — was to try to usurp the book’s rightful birthright?

Just as you likely have that adaptation, the one that hurt you and made it hard for you to trust again, it’s likely that you have also encountered some adaptations that you enjoyed. Maybe even some, dare I suggest, that you liked better than the book.

Many adaptations have been commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and have rejuvenated an audience’s interest in a text. So why do we still fear the big bad adaptation?

I ask for myself as much as for you. As someone who has studied and written about adaptation theory, I can logically understand the role of adaptations and how to separate them from their source texts.

As a reader, however, I find it more difficult to relinquish the stories and characters I hold near and dear to my heart. I, too, have felt the sting of betrayal, when the adaptation misrepresented this or didn’t quite get that right, or maybe missed the mark altogether.

Not everyone else’s vision of a story will be the same as my own. The good news is that even when this happens, it doesn’t ruin my relationship with the book — and that, I think, is what is at the root of this fear.

If an adaptation cuts a favorite plot line or side character, those things still exist in the book. If an adaptation does something unfathomable — like, say, adding a pedophile to a beloved children’s series about the whimsy and magic of growing up (DEEP BREATH) — I can choose to stop watching.

This experience has not erased the original text, nor my relationship with it. If anything, it has strengthened my bond with the book, because I know that I understand it in a way that only I can. My version of the book is mine and mine alone.

When it comes down to it, adaptations don’t detract or diminish a book’s lifespan. If anything, adaptations enable the life of a book to extend far beyond its unadapted contemporaries.

Jane Austen’s works prevail because they continue to make us laugh, think, and feel, but they also owe a debt to the plethora and variety of their adaptations — plays, radio programs, films, television series, video games, graphic novels, vlogs, and virtually any other form that can be imagined.

Consider the less adapted Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth, both more popular writers of Austen’s time who have been virtually forgotten by those outside of academia. True, it may be argued that Burney and Edgeworth were just inferior writers, or maybe that their works didn’t have the same universal appeal, but how many readers have come to Austen through Clueless, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, or Colin Firth?

An adaptation, any adaptation, increases the lifespan of a book. Not just how long a book will continue to be published and read, but on an individual level, the amount of time one gets to spend with their favorite texts.

If an adaptation is bad, I can revisit my own interpretation of the book and console myself with my superior understanding. If it is good, I can extend the amount of time spent among favorite plotlines and beloved characters.

It’s a win-win scenario, and frankly, nothing to be afraid of.

This blog post is part 1 of the Great Adaptations series. Each post is standalone, but if you’re interested in reading more, follow to find other musings about adaptations, reviews of adaptations that do it right, and interviews with artists who adapt.

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