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Lochlainn Heley | April 11, 2022

No matter how much a book-to-movie adaptation might make us cringe, maybe the best thing we can do is enjoy the changes as what they are: new interpretations.

Why do we want adaptions?

The second I finish a novel or comic I start asking myself how it could be adapted. The questions that pop up are always about the plot changes I would make for the benefit for the story, or what dialogue I would reframe to fit the screen. Days later, stray ideas will roll through my mind like a non-stop carousel. As it turns out, I’m not alone.

We readers of fantasy, young adult (YA) and contemporary novels are always keen to imagine a beloved story in a new medium, especially when it comes with an immersive soundscape and great visuals. A popular creative output is to engage in fandoms. The Dune community, for example, dedicated themselves to excellent recreations of scenes on TikTok while they waited for the release of the film. Other fans might prefer nestling down and dreaming of what the movie could be, by voting for which actors they want to play their beloved characters on fancasting sites.  

It’s a part of the experience of reading with fan communities, and it has been not so subtly encouraged by the publishing industry.

Since 2012, film academics like Simone Murray have described the phenomenon of books being pipelined to Hollywood as a new adaption economy for the entertainment industry. Now, the effects of these institutions dictate what books are most likely to reach bestseller lists. It’s no accident that if the reader sees the potential in adaptation, the author and publishers already have.

So if publishers are thinking this far ahead, why are we so often disappointed with the adaptations that we do get?

Why do some adaptions fall flat?

In my mind, a flat adaption can be explained by the way it breaks believability and logic for the viewer. Often it happens in the form of changing the motive of a character or a certain piece of lore in the world that clashes with a fan’s own knowledge of the story.

When a reader sees an ill-considered change like that, they can’t help but cringe and hyperfixate on it. Some of the most egregious in my memory have been Americanising the British Humour in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and the plot alterations in A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004).

Patrick Wöhrle’s short essay on cringe gives a helpful frame to this kind of embarrassment. In every case, it is built from the viewer’s perspective of seeing “no one to blame for the discomfort” and having “no means of intervening in the situation”.

In situations like this, the common advice is to accept that an adaption isn’t going to be perfect. Screenwriter and producer Stephen Schiff summarised this in a 2002 New York Times article saying that sometimes parts of books are “not screaming to be movies”.

While this sentiment is helpful for containing disappointment, it ignores the possibility that change could be the exciting part. More than that, what if we could transmute the anger and ennui around adaptations into excitement?

What do good adaptations have in common?

In an It’s Lit video essay, Lindsay Ellis points out some of the most famous adaptions—like Steven Spielberg’s body of work—purposefully tearing away any recognition of the original book. The way Ellis phrases it, a “film, on principle, must do violence to its source”.

Although it’s now considered a diamond among book adaptations, Peter Jackson’s filming of The Lord of The Rings saw him make drastic changes that fans in early ‘00s were not happy about. The most common complaints from the AOL days included casting Viggo Mortensen as a rougher Aragon instead of a kingly warrior, cutting away Tolkien’s original series ending, and the fusion of different characters into one. There is virtually no part of the story that comes out unaltered.

While I might bemoan the changes made in adaptations, the choices I adore most are the filmmaking ones made to translate the story into new territory. A good adaptation simply reflects the book; a great adaptation refracts and transforms the original material.

So, to round this off, here is a comprehensive exhaustive brief list of five books with awesome adaption potential:

1. Lore Olympus

The beautifully stylised design incorporates several unexpected choices that would translate wonderfully to film, including bold colour palettes and stunning panels drawn like longshots.

While a live-action Hades with VFX blue skin could be a jarring risk on film, a solution could be bringing production focus to make-up, lenses, and lighting as an effective way to establish the mental health centred character arcs.

2. Mistborn

Between the gravity defying close-combat action and the alien fantasy world, Mistborn has adaption potential written all over it. It would be a joy to see the ways different camera techniques or special effects could be used to convey the logic of Brandon Sanderson’s strange world to audiences.

3. Illuminae 

It’s high science-fiction written with the discordant narration of second-hand reports, interviews and character examinations. This would be a monumental challenge to adapt, purely from the lack of conventional prose.

The story could effectively be told via flashbacks. Alternatively, it could break away from the novel by anchoring it within the limited perspectives of the two teen protagonists.

4. The Night Circus

A director who could realise The Night Circus’ full potential of this high stakes game of magical survival would be Greta Gerwig. With her work on 2019’s Little Women, she has already proven herself a radical master of writing, directing and filming adaptations that have cohesive non-linear storylines, with the added ability of lending empathy to conventionally hated characters.

5. The Poppy War

An adaption of Rebecca F. Kuang’s YA fantasy war novel would perhaps focus its attention on how to re-structure the story’s sudden dive into the claustrophobic battles towards the end, to give the narrative more breadth to the terrible and grotesque decisions the main character has to make. One option could be to transform it into the next streaming TV binge and weave the claustrophobia into the beginning of the story, so the viewer is acclimatised to it.

In being allowed to adapt, these novels gain a whole new potential for their storytelling. And really, if you’re going to dream of the day your favourite book is adapted into afilm, then why can’t that dream include the story’s transformation?

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Lochlainn Heley

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