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Friday Fun: What is Up with Movie Adaptations?

Good morning and happy Friday readers! As we barrel full speed into another weekend, many of you may kick back and decide to peruse the various streaming services out there and sink into a film or show for a few hours. Chances are high these days that you might be catching an adaptation or a story lifted from a book, short story, comic, etc, and adapted for the screen. Thousands of stories have been made into films, for better or worse, and while many try to remain mostly faithful to the source material, many go completely off the rails, often to their determent. Some adaptations in the current Hollywood landscape earn a do over, if the fan base is strong enough, and some classics are remade every which way from Sunday with increasing twists and flair. What is our fascination with book to screen adaptations? Why do some work better than others? And what are some guaranteed ways to alienate an audience?

What is Up with Movie Adaptations?

The Wiggle Room Wording

The word 'adaptation' itself is designed to give movie makers creative license. Just like films that are 'based on' a true story, the art of adapting a 80K + manuscript into a two hour film or an 8 episode television series requires a modicum of creative license for many reasons. Not all contents of a book make for good television, and beyond that, there is a condense factor. A scene that took pages to describe and set up for a character might only translate into a couple minutes of screen time. Likewise, action and romance scenes that turn a page of text to static can be expanded on with choreography and body language. Ideally, the art of adaptation can benefit both the source material and the new creation, but there are many times this relationship can go south.

Modern Twists & Pitfalls

With advances in special effects, CGI, and movie making technology, a lot of fantasy work from the past fifty years is getting a renaissance of adaptations, from modern juggernauts like Game of Thrones (infamous for running out of source material before it ran its course) to stories that have been in development hell for decades because they technology wasn't there just yet. (I'm looking at you Sandman.) We can all think of one or two fantasy movies that have seen adaptations before the technology caught up and how well those have aged. Lord of the Rings holds up as a great adaptation even when some of the special effects are outdated, likely due to the huge amount of practical camera magic involved. Even with some wobbly special effect and scenes it doesn't include from the novels (we will never hear the end of Tom Bombadil) it remains pretty faithful to the spirit of the source material and that makes it watchable twenty years later. On the opposite swing of the pendulum, The Hobbit trilogy fails though not due to its special effects so much as veering too far off course and overstuffing the original storyline with extraneous filler.

The art of adaptation also extends to classics, where adapting really stretches the limits. Unlike a lot of modern adaptations which have the option to seek input (and rightfully so) from their living creators, adapting classics opens the doorway to creating something wholly new and unique in itself. Possibly why we so many different versions of classic books made into film. For every Austen adaptation that almost rigidly follows the plot with a few tweaks, you get a masterpiece like Clueless. Don't come at me. Clueless is a marvelous spin on Emma that connects the source material to the modern audience while remaining faithful to the spirit of Austen's classic. Austen is an author who has perhaps seen the most adaptations, though some are more successful than others. The latest Persuasion adaptation edges the formulaic adaptation with a few nods to the modern audience, such as the fourth wall break, but perhaps doesn't edge enough to satisfy either side of the coin.

When Adaptations Betray Their Audience

We mentioned the Hobbit trilogy earlier, over tweaking one slim book into three films. While creative license is a given and tweaks are necessary to create a cohesive story for the screen, adaptations often fail their audience and their source material when they wander too far off the rails. Even some twists on classics fail because in trying to create a modern twist, they fail to properly connect to the source material. Some adaptations fail so spectacularly, they burn the chance of a whole franchise.

Take the first adaptation of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which remained somewhat faithful to character aesthetics but ultimately shoot itself in the foot. The films famously failed to not only honor the spirit of the source material but failed to include the overarching plot that would have lent itself to a successful franchise.

However, the modern Hollywood model is giving some adaptations a second chance at life, including Percy Jackson, and this time, they are listening to the audience and the author of the source material. With several high profile adaptations coming soon with significant author input, we may find ourselves in a golden era of adaptations. Here is hoping the trend continues.

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