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Movie Adaptions: The State of Literature On Our Screens

From the likes of larger than life fantasy epics, to the massively engrossing and widespread phenomena of the superhero genre; graphic novels, comic books, works of sci-fi and fantasy... they’ve all made the transition to film and television at one point or another. Not all were great and some missed the mark by a significant amount, but some have also managed to go above and beyond. So how and why does this happen? Each depiction varies in success which makes me wonder if there is a guideline or formula to make an adaptation the best (and most faithful) version of itself that it can be.

I think there might be some truth to that so I’m going to use some personal examples of the best and the worst and try to weigh their pros and cons to explain my understanding of why adaptions turn out the way that they do. We'll see how things turn out from there.

First thing to establish, it’s usually all about the money.

Hollywood typically doesn’t like or choose to produce original ideas. If you watch enough movies and content like me, or anyone else for that matter, then that shouldn't really be a surprise. To my understanding, the reason for this is because generally the industry feels it is better to play it safe with an already established franchise/property. From Hollywood's perspective, they have a ‘guaranteed’ audience (i.e the active fanbase that enjoys the source material) who are more likely to come out and watch their adapted version. Why risk paying audiences pass over an original concept film that they think people might like? If you want substantiated proof on this however, (and I don't blame you in this current world of "fake news") then this Guardian news article, though dated still has validity. Is this a problem per se? Well... I’m biased as a Script Editor and aspiring screenwriter, but it does suck for new and original talent looking to break through into the industry. Even especially for those people who are constantly searching for something to watch that isn’t part of a ‘connected universe’ or a franchise with 7 sequels (not including spin offs). Basically, unless you’re a highly regarded individual like Spielberg, have a big actor attached to your project like Sam Rockwell, or have great connections at studios like Fox Searchlight or Netflix, then 'original content' isn't likely to be considered being made. Definite room for improvement.

However... and I'm just spitballing as devil's advocate... have you considered that in a world where people are lazy and deem their time to be very important, would you even fault that sort of person for being the way they are? I mean if you're 'pro original content' the expectation would then be to try not to support franchises/adaptions and pay current ticket prices to actively take chances on watching original no name concepts, not knowing whether you'll like them or not. I for one... am not actually sure how I feel about this almost foreign concept. This was the norm once upon a time ago and I definitely don't want to look down at audiences giving 'artistic/original' media a chance, or necessarily throw shade at people like Scorsese for having their view on Cinema, but I also feel like the opposite type of media shouldn't be discredited either. I mean look at all the amazing and incredible stories that have been given rise to because of franchises and this cautionary business approach:

  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008- )

  • 'HBO Originals' like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Watchmen...

  • A new era of distribution and binge watching courtesy of a plethora of video on demand services.

Sure I like the idea of something different, but will I consciously of my own free will get out of this chair right now and watch a barely marketed indie film based off something I heard that vaguely peaked my interest? Not likely after I hear that a sequel to Black Panther is on the way. The hours I spent reading with my head in the clouds and my wired imagination being taken on an enjoyable journey are finally being visualised on the big screen, TV, and my phone. Even better, the writers and all their work that I adore have gotten massive recognition and praise as a result of these big budget treatments, and there’s even still a lot of material and hidden gems out there waiting to be made as well. Thanks to technology feeding an increasingly on-demand culture, audience’s appetites and expectations are higher than ever with our requests slowly but surely being fulfilled.

The best first world problem to have is that there is too much content to watch and that our watchlists will keep growing forever.

Okay this great and thought provoking and all, but what about the quality of the content that is put out? It's true there are great adaptions such as the Harry Potter series and the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though, there have also been far too many bad adaptions like Percy Jackson that just didn’t feel right and felt more like an attempt to cash in which resulted in a half-hearted portrayal. I find that film adaptions that are well regarded turn out this way because they have taken the audience on well-guided journeys that encapsulate all the good times and emotions we felt when reading our favourite books. The other defining factor in why adaptions might be successful is because certain worlds and stories just translate better. Sure a specific novel can have it has its audience, and people can like and enjoy it, but the concept might not be able to translate well on screen and only work on paperback or in the reader's imagination.

Alan Moore for example is a well renowned writer of many comics such as 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', 'V for Vendetta' and 'Watchmen'. He also happens to feel that every adaption made on his works are failures and does not want to be associated them. In my opinion, the latter example worked well both as Zack Snyder's version and HBO's interpreted continuation of the graphic novel. They have proven to be awesome spectacles that many people enjoy because of Moore's critique of the superhero character and the genre itself, as well as the fact that his interesting take on our world historically and politically speaking still caries through to the screen. Unfortunately, he’s shown himself to be an artistic grump who thinks his work is above the Hollywood treatment, but it does present the argument and issue that studios and producers don’t always give intellectual properties the care and attention (the audience/writers think) they deserve. Back before the industry fully understood the potential their adapted properties had, titles such as: 'The Chronicles of Narnia', 'Fantastic Four', 'The Hobbit' trilogy, Percy Jackson (again), had all suffered from this. It was more than apparent that they would just slap down an allocated budget on the lower end of the scale, release a cheap video game alongside them, and treat them as cash grabs.

Sometimes literally

It’s taken some time and refinement but the approach to adapt source material has evolved. Authors and writers have a more increasing presence providing guidance as consultants and even acting as producers which is a great sign of the times. The creative vision that made these works initially appealing is now much less likely to get lost when the person who came up with the ideas and stories in the first place is directly involved in the project. This is also an important factor to consider in this day and age where studios, TV networks, and streaming services are all competing for your attention meaning the bar has been raised. Like many of them, Amazon Prime Video took a chance on writers like Neil Gaiman responsible for 'American Gods' and 'Good Omens', as well as British writer Garth Ennis who wrote the 'Preacher' and 'The Boys' comics. These works are all available as TV series on the platform so I’ve watched them all and read (most of) the material. Comparatively there are differences between the literature and the shows, most notably missing events and scenes in the adaptions, but I feel that this is done in good faith. I think this is due to my earlier point that not all work translates well on screen and lack of inclusion of certain aspects is because the creators are aware of this rather than there being creative differences. Overall, the shows are decent and I appreciate them for the cool and unique stories that they are.

Whether successes or failures come down to allocated budgets or creative differences, we can all agree on the fact that no matter the material, adaptions are not easy to get right and not all all are equal.
Honestly it’s a subjectively mixed bag.

Other than other adaptions like video game films I think I’ve covered the main points. I've got a lot to say on that subject that's probably enough for another article entirely so I'll probably maybe post about that in the future.

Regarding literature adaptions, I’m sure there are other factors I might not have thought of or considered, so what are your thoughts? Have any favourite or hated adaptions? You can let me know in the comments if you want, or just tweet me @aransomenote. For now I think I'll leave it here with some advice that helped my outlook on movie book adaptions. When it comes to the subject, if you haven’t already read the source material, watch the film that it's based on first, then read it. From my experience, you’ll never be disappointed if you treat the film as a first course or taster and then expose yourself to the book afterwards. The source material always goes in more detail and is overall a more enriching experience. Literature is meant to entertain you for days and weeks at a time whilst a film is meant to encapsulate and compress all of that in a few hours. It’s a high bar to reach and hardly a fair comparison to make when you think about it.

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Alex Ransome
Alex Ransome
Dec 01, 2019

I'm only just realising that every gif except the last ended up being from Gravity Falls. If you couldn't tell I've clearly been rewatching the series, and if you haven't seen the animated mystery show then what are you doing?

It's surprisingly incredible for what I originally just saw as a 'kids show' and like a lot of animation I underestimated it. I urge you to watch and enjoy it for yourselves. That is all.

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