We need less faithful adaptations

Thursday, April 9, 2020 - 4:38pm

NOSELL

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“OK, Boomer,” I mutter, as I follow Laurence Cook, a senile Iowan farmer who foolishly attempts to divide his agricultural empire among his three daughters, with disastrous consequences. If this story sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve likely heard it before: It’s the plot of Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel “A Thousand Acres,” which in turn is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” As far as adaptations go, “A Thousand Acres” is surprisingly faithful to the source material, yet Smiley manages to infuse the novel with her own personality and flair, exploring topics such as second-wave feminism and ecocriticism. Of course, with Shakespeare adaptations, this is not uncommon: There have been numerous critically acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations set in radically different settings, such as the 1957 film “Throne of Blood,” which places Macbeth in feudal Japan, or a 2013 production of “Julius Caesar” set in contemporary Africa. And who could ever forget the Disney classic “The Lion King”? This list goes on, and is only a testament to the transcendent relevance of the Bard.

To be fair, theater lends itself well to creative liberty: The cast and crew are what imbue a play with life, and no one production will look the same as the next. Western culture seems comfortable with the malleability that theatre permits, but this comfort seems to dissipate when the same malleability is introduced in book or film adaptations. A common complaint of adaptations is that they “are nothing like the book,” or didn’t “capture the magic of the source material.” I’ve made these complaints myself about a multitude of adaptations and reboots. A few that come to mind are the infamous Percy Jackson films, the Broadway musical “Fun Home” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” However, whatever one’s thoughts are on these, these works still possess artistic value (OK, maybe that isn’t true for the Percy Jackson movies) and perhaps shouldn’t be expected to adhere perfectly to the source material. In fact, I’d argue that we should push for more liberal adaptations, ones that aren’t afraid to be different, even if the deviations cause discomfort among fans of the original source.

Such deviations exemplify the beauty and value art has: Art is living and transcendent yet deeply intimate. Jane Smiley shows that relative fidelity can be highly effective, and there is nothing wrong with adaptations that adhere perfectly to the subject of adaptation. But more drastic divergence from the original creator’s vision allows the adapter to explore different themes and create a distinct standalone artwork. Take Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” as an example. The 1980 masterpiece is based on Stephen King’s eponymous novel, and has remained a staple in cinema since its release. However, King has stated his dislike for the movie, and has repeatedly expressed frustration at Kubrick’s numerous alterations from the book. And King is right about one thing: The movie bears little resemblance to the book. But that’s a good thing. Whereas King’s novel paints the main character as fundamentally good, Kubrick’s film portrays him as fundamentally evil, and these two drastically different messages stretch the basic narrative far beyond what either artist originally intended. The supernatural and psychological evils portrayed present entirely different layers of fear and tension, and both works have their own strengths and goals. The novel allowed King to draw upon his struggles with alcoholism and writing, and the film allowed Kubrick to explore whether madness is inherent or created. The horror genre would not be the same without either of these masterpieces, and I think that illustrates the value in changing a work of art to create something new.

“The Shining” isn’t the only film to draw the ire of the source material’s creator and the praise of everyone else. Peter Jackson’s legendary “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy has undoubtedly shaped the West’s relationship with high fantasy since its debut in 2001, but Christopher Tolkien, the son of author J.R.R. Tolkien, was not as impressed. And, controversial opinion, I’m not a fan of the films either: I feel that they eviscerate Tolkien’s original work, trading depth in exchange for excitement and thrill. 

That being said, I still believe that these films are irreplaceable, and that, in spite of my distaste for how the source material was treated, I can appreciate the directions Jackson took the film in. Tolkien’s three-volume saga simply is not translatable directly into film. In fact, his identity as a European white man who was born at the turn of the twentieth century further complicates this. “The Lord of the Rings” books are predominantly descriptive affairs, with indulgent commentaries on religion and Germanic history. Further, Tolkien’s seminal work is built upon an extensive internal history that cannot be explained by a bit of mere exposition, and is self-referential to an absurd degree. It can be a bit intimidating to jump into his universe and be hit with the feeling that you skipped a book in the series, and to the general moviegoing audience, this would be a huge turn off. 

Peter Jackson managed to condense much of this lore into a digestible plot, alluding to bits of in-universe history as was necessary, and substituted lengthy descriptions with stunning set design and scenery. Jackson even manages to make the films just a *little* less of a sausage fest than what Tolkien’s books were, which helps offset the clear male identity Tolkien was writing from. Thus, as I gain more perspective, I grow to appreciate the beauty in what Jackson made, and have come to terms with the fact that, in a few ways, his trilogy even improves upon what Tolkien wrote. 

Sometimes, though, adaptations can go a step further, and deviate almost completely from the source material, even in terms of themes and tone. The musical “Fun Home,” based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name, is a perfect example of this. Both the musical and the graphic novel depict the same set of events, and the same individual’s life. However, whereas Bechdel’s memoir portrays specific episodes in her life that she clearly remembers, the musical plays around with the structure, drawing from multiple scenes to create one scene that is representative of many. The text-to-stage translation isn’t “literal,” but it uses this to its advantage and explores the narrative with a different sort of vibrancy and life from what the memoir had. Likewise, the memoir captured elements that the musical could not, such as the depth and genuineness Bechdel poured into her work. 

I listened to the musical before I read Bechdel’s memoir, and the difference was clear to me. At first, it was difficult for me to reconcile these two works with one another, as they were so different in tone, and I became unsure of which one I enjoyed more, or if they were even comparable in quality. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the differences between the two enhanced one another, and I stopped measuring them against each other. I began to enjoy them as separate entities, and my appreciation for both has increased as a result.

Interestingly enough, Bechdel had no involvement in the production of the musical, yet she says she was surprised by the musical, stating that she found that it brought more heart to her story than her memoir ever did. Bechdel’s reaction to the musical highlights art’s autonomy. People are often reluctant to let go of something into which they poured a part of themselves, whether that be a child or a novel, but it’s important to understand the role of creators: they are there to bring a work of art into existence, but once that work enters the world, it takes on a life of its own. Art thrives off of change, and is meant to evolve. Suppressing the metamorphosis only extinguishes the infinite potential of the work. 

In fact, in certain situations, complete adherence to the source material can result in mistranslations, wasted opportunities and overall disaster. HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and its polarizing final season is likely the most recent and prominent display of this. Thematically, a few of the plot developments that unfurled in the critically acclaimed show’s last season made sense in the context of what the show kept from George R. R. Martin’s books. Martin told “GoT” showrunners Dan Weiss and Dave Benioff years ago his plans for the saga’s conclusion, and Martin has cryptically stated that the ending of the show is, though different from his own planned ending, somewhat similar. 

In light of that, the issue might not be that the endings themselves were poorly written or ingenuine: Clearly, they fall at least somewhat within Martin’s original vision. Rather, it is that the endings weren’t appropriate for the narrative the show established. On multiple occasions, Martin has acknowledged that the HBO series had become a completely different creature from what he created. And that’s fine. But I think the showrunners failed to realize this, and subsequently tried to force endings into existence that they did not properly set up. If they had acknowledged that their HBO series was different from Martin’s (as of now) unfinished series, perhaps they would have been more comfortable coming to character resolutions that were more natural for the characters they’ve established. Instead, what resulted was a set of plot resolutions that was meant to be built up over a much longer period of time. Events happened because characters conveniently “forgot” about key plot elements, or did things “just because,” and what should have been a satisfying conclusion felt rushed, because it was. That’s not to say season eight didn’t have other problems, but I think, in this case, one of the issues was superficial adherence.

But I get it, change is scary. If I go to see an adaptation of a sacred story or text, I have an expectation of seeing something familiar. But perhaps we, as media consumers, should eschew this value of preservation. Art can have timeless resonance and themes, but why waste an opportunity to build upon that and expand on what has already been done? Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is a masterpiece that can speak to audiences even today; that is a given. But I don’t think Shakespeare intended it to be a commentary on late 20th century feminism, and no way in which you interpret his original work can you make many meaningful connections between the text and that theme. But authors like Jane Smiley show the power in the transformative nature of art, and I think we can all learn something from her example.