Appreciating Film/TV Adaptations

I love teaching Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express because many students enjoy the departure from texts they’re used to studying and they really get into the mystery genre. Many will have already seen the 2017 Kenneth Branagh film adaptation and ask whether we’ll be watching that in class. I tell them I’ve got a better adaptation: the 1974 version. Even though it is older, most students enjoy it quite a bit and while I don’t spend class time comparing the versions, those I have conversations with can see how it is a more faithful adaptation than the 2017 edition.

But faithful does not have to mean literal. Any time a story is taken from one form of media and translated into another, there will be changes. A director always has to make decisions, just as the original writer did. Some details, sequences, and visuals work in text but would be ill-suited to a screen. There are also conventions in writing, film, and television that change over the course of decades: the long opening sequence, the wordy prologue, the extended dialogue scenes don’t really hold viewer attention in the 21st century. And that doesn’t even take costuming, hairstyle, or scene transitions into account. Often, my students have a hard time with older films not due to the content, because the style is not what they’re used to.

One of the biggest difference between text and film consists of what happens in our heads. No matter how detailed an author’s description, each reader of a book will fill in their own gaps and envision scenes, characters, and interactions in their own way. But in film or TV, the viewing angle is set, the image is transmitted to every viewer in the same way. Unfortunately, many viewers go into watching an adaptation hoping that it will match exactly to the images they have in their heads from reading the text, and that’s an unrealistic expectation.

Sometimes, a literal translation of what’s on the page is unsuccessful. The 1984 David Lynch adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, while having a cult following, is widely considered a failure. And yet, it was fairly faithful to the story line, the characters, the major scenes, and even some of the dialogue. Admittedly, Dune is difficult to adapt, but a literal approach was never likely to be successful. Earlier, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky had gotten quite far with an adaptation of his own before studios pulled the plug. A 2013 documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune shows through still images, storyboards, and interviews that the vision would have been anything but literal. The film would not have satisfied story-purists, but would likely have been a work of art in its own right. So when Denis Villeneuve’s version (of the first half of the book) came out a few years ago, I was very curious to see which approach he would take. And I was satisfied to find that he stayed true to the source material, but not rigidly so. More than taking individual scenes, characters, and images, Villeneuve took the Frank Herbert’s ideas as the source and felt free to play with a few of the specifics in order to keep the ideas and character arcs central.

I believe it is the centrality of idea that can makes or breaks an adaptation. Of course it needs to focus on the visual aspects: that’s a requirement of the medium. But in keeping the idea central, readers and viewers can adjust to discrepancies between their expectations and viewing experiences. It is for this reason that I have yet to find a satisfactory adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. The first half of the 2002 version is quite good, despite some significant changes, but the remainder is an unconscionable distortion of Alexandre Dumas’ story. Admittedly, condensing a 1200 page novel into a 2+ hour film is close to impossible, but in attempting it, they removed Edmond Dante’s incredible story arc and simplified the ending into a sword fight with a happy ending. I have high hopes that in this age of streaming television, one of the big giants will take on Dumas’ masterpiece in a limited series and do it justice. They can feel free to make changes to the original, but that can only be successful if they maintain the essence of the text.

But, of course, not everyone will agree on whether an adaptation is successful or not. And it’s not necessary to come to a consensus. What works for one viewer may not for another. I’m saddened by the seeming current need to either universally acclaim or bash an adaptation. Often, it just ends with an acrimonious standoff between heated sets of fans. I always appreciate discussions about adaptations in which ardent fans can admit what didn’t work for them and critics can nevertheless see some merit and both sides can let each other enjoy or dislike an adaptation. I’m a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations but felt his Hobbit films didn’t quite work (I’ll recommend here the Tolkien Edit—see link below). Yet as much as I love the original trilogy, some scenes don’t work for me, such as Gandalf getting knocked off his horse by the witch king or some of the portrayals of Faramir. I have not yet seen the Amazon Prime series Rings of Power, but that’s a recent example of the type of feuding that doesn’t seem like a genuine discussion about the successes of an adaptation. When I finally get around to watching it, I’m fairly certain I’ll find some things I really appreciate, some things that bother me, and I will likely enjoy it quite a bit anyway.

I often tell my students that when an adaptation has changes from the text (and they all do), there’s always a reason. It may be technical, it may be stylistic, or it may have to do with an artistic choice. Often, when we look at the changes, we can determine where a creator is placing their emphasis. Differences in adaptations can be a good thing, or they can be poorly handled. But rather than condemning an adaptation for not meeting our expectations of a text, perhaps we should engage with the adaptation in its own right and appreciate and evaluate it for what it is alongside the original text, rather than feeling the need to automatically merge them.

A 4-hour spliced together version of all three Hobbit movies into one mostly coherent film that stays closer to the original feel of Tolkien’s text.


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