Adaptations: The Book Is(n’t Always) Better

Hey again, everyone! So other than providing my reviews and nebulous ratings of books, I want to talk about books & book-related issues a bit more generally (e.g., the tropes series). Another series I want to start is a series on book-to-screen adaptations (films, television, YouTube, video games, whatever).

I have often been prone to uttering the age-old adage of the book snob: “The book was better.” And in many cases, this is true! Books tend to be less constrained in their form than adaptations are, either because they have more time/space, more of an ability to show us the inside of a character’s head, an easier transition between past and present, and so on.

Part of this is perhaps that we are more lenient with books than other forms of media. Long books don’t seem to get as much flack as a movie that runs to almost three hours; vast casts of characters or cuts to flashbacks are less criticized or found confusing in books rather than television. Books can be picked up and put down, or one can turn back a page to clarify what’s happening—by virtue of their form, they allow for possibilities that screen adaptations don’t (with much smaller budgets).

But not everyone likes to read, and even those who do enjoy seeing and hearing their favourite fictional things visually, so: adaptations.

Here’s the thing about book-to-screen adaptations. I think of them the same way I think of cover songs. If you’re going to do a cover song, you have two options: you can cleave as closely as possible to the original, or you can take a risk and provide your own take.

Cleaving as closely as possible to the original isn’t necessarily a bad option; it’s actually exactly what most of a built-in audience is craving. They want to hear their favourite song again. But this option is also treacherous. Every small deviation becomes more noticeable when you’re painting this neatly inside the lines. (Do you remember how much of the first two Harry Potter books Chris Columbus preserved in his adaptations? Does it still bug you as a book fan that he had Hermione explain what a mudblood is? Yeah.)

Also, I think that even when you land among the best of the best imitation bands, there’s a twinge of disappointment inherent in the not-being-the-original. Lots of people loved the almost panel-by-panel treatment Watchmen received (other than the changing of a certain beastie), but I also know a lot of folks who went home and…wanted to re-read the graphic novel.

So how about our second option? What happens when someone takes the broad strokes and provides us with something new? This obviously works reasonably well in terms of recent comic book films—any comic book nerd can tell you that movies in the MCU take, splice, and rework bits of canon as they see fit, and while there will always be some people who are disappointed, this has largely been a winning strategy for them. Comic book chronologies, though, are a particular thing: they are, in a way, basically character types + origin stories and then a whole heck of a lot of fanfiction/fanart by various writers and artists. Canon can be a matter of debate. Characters can die and come back and have their pasts overwritten. Comics are much more of a sandbox to play in, and they lend themselves to this form of adaptation.

So what about all the other novels? I think generally, people are less accepting of this manner of deviation from them—most of the excitement surrounding adaptation is seeing words on a page realized, and because those words are a set narrative in a finite sequence (unlike the various deviations and recyclings in a comic world), readers tend to have become more attached to those people, places, and things—and their particulars.

But the thing about a screen adaptation is that it has significantly more time than a cover song, more time to make choices—and more time to use both of these methods. Consider what happens when an adaptation adopts a reasonable amount of faithfulness, but chooses strategic points of deviation. Here’s my example: in The Hunger Games, Katniss is stung by a nest of trackerjackers and hallucinates. In the book, it’s easy to gloss over the description of her hallucinations—they produce fear, so she’s crawling with bugs, she sees colours, she feels like she’s dying, etc. It is, all in all, a fairly generic set of fears and hallucinations, described generically. However, the movie takes this opportunity to tap into parts of Katniss’ inner monologue that we normally miss through the fact that film can’t really provide Katniss’ inner thoughts (without awkward voiceovers). It reveals much more about her deep-seated fears and trauma by showing us how her father died and what she lost, how she came to be the sole provider of her family. This represents much more to us about her character and what drives her and takes a scene in the book that was weak—especially considering it could’ve contained literally anything the author could’ve dreamed up—and elevates it.

And that kind of thing is what gives me hope in terms of adaptation. I’m not going to say that The Hunger Games films as a whole are an adaptation better than the books—they’re simply not. A lot is lost through the loss of Katniss’ internal monologue and I feel she/a lot of the implied race/class politics are whitewashed. (Sorry, JLaw.) However, there are, in most adaptations, moments where the person adapting the work clearly sees a gap or knot in the original, or sees a problem in translating from book to screen, and comes up with a clever and poignant way to deal with that and transforms the work for the better.

And that’s why I always tend to maintain some sense of (slightly squashed) hope about adaptations. Because sometimes, cleaving close to the original will be great to see, but not something special. Sometimes, painting in broad strokes with new ideas will undermine a thing for a lot of people and leave them feeling bitter about it.

But every so often, even if it’s not in the whole adaptation, even if it’s just in a moment, an adaptation can realize a feeling, a theme, a character from a book even better than the pages did—and that’s an amazing thing to see and hear.

And that’s what I’m here for and where I’m coming from when I talk (and will talk) about adaptations.

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