Adaptations: Don’t Hate Me ‘Cause I’m Different

I like adaptations.

Purists who worship at the feet of their pop culture idols are already damning me to hell for blaspheming. Yes, I’ve just suggested that a reinterpretation of fandom’s holy, untouchable, absolutely godlike favourite franchise translated from one medium to another may not be a terrible thing after all.

I’m not making a sweeping statement of any sort here to say that I am completely on the side of Hollywood’s favourite past-time, the ripoff – er, I mean, the humble adaptation. I just want to be rational about why I think they are not exactly a travesty.

 

I have to be honest and start off first by declaring that I don’t have the best choices of favourites that would appeal to anyone. Where nowadays, people always seem to have an eclectic, varied and broad range of TV, movie, and book favourites, I’m always falling into the same campy, cheeseball, non-intellectual rut of my own list. There are the hipster arthouse film collections, the serious and intellectual libraries of Blu-Ray diehards who dedicate their shelves to The Wire and Southland. I just veer off into the space of “You Should Not Be Allowed to Make Lists”. I don’t find myself putting down Murakami’s or Palahniuk’s names down for favourites. It felt like peer pressure to say that I found Kill Bill particularly wonderful when it didn’t make as much of an impact on me as an entry in Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Triology.

Luckily for me, since my rep for being uncool is at an all-time high, I can proceed to proudly continue embarrassing myself.

I’ll first delve into some denominations, and throughout this post, freely refer to adaptations done across all forms of media, whether from book to TV, movie to game or TV to movie:

 

Example 1: The flimsy, loosely based on adaptation

Key characteristics:

-Somewhat familiar characters and settings
-Different stories, circumstances
-Same themes as the original

My friend Jasmine and I watched the Resident Evil movie way too many times (twelve). Yes, that Resident Evil movie that I just unearthed from the part of your memory that once willed it to die forever. It’s a miracle how neither Jasmine nor I are clinically insane (or are we?) for actually liking the movie or exposing ourselves over and over to our worst irrational fear of zombies, which we still do to this day.

It reminded me of all the times that I played Capcom’s first Resident Evil in my cousin’s room and I just couldn’t get Jill Valentine to adequately protect herself from these slow-but-constantly-advancing undead, unnatural creatures that were going to eat me. I hated that mansion. Yet the movie had as much in common with the game as a bar of chocolate does with a dirty sock. I still enjoyed it.

I never thought that I’d want to see the entire Resident Evil story be transferred from disc to big screen when I could just play the game. It’s not a story made for movies, or at least, in a single 2 hour movie. TV series, maybe. So I didn’t understand the hostility of hardcore Capcom RE fans throwing fits over it. It didn’t set out to be a tribute to the game. It was just Hollywood being Hollywood, exercising their right to borrow story/character elements of what made the game successful and pump in some adrenaline with guns, girls, and gore. Plus, I have some kind of DNA that makes me fall in love with Milla Jovovich. An even sadder fact: I was more entertained by this than Biohazard: Degeneration, which is supposedly canon to the games.

Does this make Resident Evil a good movie? God, no. Not if you’re comparing it with say, The Shining, or perhaps one of the Dark Knight movies, as far as adaptations are concerned. But I liked it, because it didn’t promise to be That Faithful Depiction You Were Looking For. It was fun, it played on my deepest fear, there were beautiful people, and I didn’t expect it to be one long cinematic. Maybe that’s the key. Most of the time, unhappiness seems to stem from viewers who are just butthurt over the fact that their video game doesn’t work on all mediums.

At least Resident Evil escaped the clutches of the very dismal director Uwe Boll. That guy turns every kind of movie to shit, whether it’s BloodRayne, Far Cry or Dead or Alive. Those aren’t only ridiculous, but boring, cringe-worthy, and shameful, probably because of poor casting and directing decisions. Unintentionally funny with the awful writing. I have never met anyone who could honestly say that they liked an Uwe Boll movie for any reason.

 

Example 2: The Frame For Frame Adaptation

Key characteristics:

-Scene-for-scene similarity
-Maintains all elements of source as much as possible; characters, dialogue, setting, story

Most applicable to visual media, here we sit at the other end of the spectrum that’s supposed to be the ideal for fans. Enough of that “based on” stuff. They should do a panel by panel edit!

Zack Snyder famously did that with 300 and Watchmen, both of which are amazing eyeball-molesting spectacles. I’m a fan of stylistic art direction, and both movies boast visuals that scream a “Zack Snyder art team” flavour. Skies in watercolour palettes, generous scenes of slow-mo, lots of inky dirtiness in the environment/set.

As the cherry on top, Frank Miller, creator of the source material, was the executive producer and consultant to 300, so fans couldn’t say much about it when critics let their sharp tongues loose on the film. Cos critics don’t really represent the masses anyway.

Exact lines of monologues are copied word-for-word from their source directly, and even camera angles never stray from their novel aesthetics.

Which proves that this is really the only kind of adaptation that the fanbase will accept (for graphic novels, at least) and love – their panels in motion. Does that make it great as a film on its own? Maybe not. Sometimes the subjects and themes raised in graphic novels or comics don’t make for the most intellectual or exciting material on the silver screen. They tend to not have the same impact as well. What’s readable on page could translate badly as dialogue, and why this happens, I’ll never know.

What I do know though, that while I love both 300 and Watchmen, I don’t think I could stomach a filmcopy of another series of graphic novels again. I once hoped it for Garth Ennis’ Preacher to take flight, but it was snuffed early on as an HBO production, maybe for the better. This is personal preference more than anything else, but the novelty of these types of productions is wearing thin, because it’s the same look at the same thing. It elevates the original work to a certain extent, but adds nothing much to it. I could liken it to a book tie-in of a movie, where I suppose in the majority, the film’s content doesn’t get to spend a lot of time fleshing itself out in literary form. I’d rather see fresh interpretations of creative work. Which brings me to…

 

Example 3: The Reimagining, or Director’s Interpretation

Key characteristics:
-Commonly attempted to reinvent the wheel of an already acclaimed work
-Seeks to capture the essence of and enhance the source material, but only within the limits of the medium it is executed in
-Retains most of story, characters, outcomes, setting – skeletal structure is similar but varies in the manner in which it is executed

There are some characters that have been redone to death (hi there, Bruce Banner). But there are some that just need a little tweak in setting or style to thrust it into popularity again.

I can cite the Batman series a second time, but there are plenty of other reimaginings that collect all the things that define the universe and dress it up in different rags. I had no faith in The Departed until I sat through it. Or Dawn of the Dead. Or Buffy, for that matter.

Let’s take Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for instance. The differences between the Swedish and American adaptations are jarring, but not necessarily bad. While people, as always, are still arguing about which one is better, I’m simply slack-jawed that filmmakers can do two distinctly great versions of one source. (They are both great.)

I really like alternative interpretations. To look upon the source material another way makes you appreciate it that much more. Most importantly, if it sucks, you can always revisit the version you love best.

What about remakes? Well, you could call a re-imagining a remake. I have no complaints about that, because “re-imaginings” are sometimes thinly veiled guilty pleasures of producers and studios out to make a quick buck with great stories that are carelessly rehashed with CGI and bountiful, bouncing breasts (sparingly, great, but all the time, you’re better off watching Sl8tl88d). When you toss around the word “Remake” in fandom, lots of panties get tied in knots long enough for you to escape through your 14th floor apartment window because everyone is worried that you’ll wreck their untainted perspective of their favourite show/film/game.

Take Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles movie. The very fact that they’re aliens and not originally four-legged innocent baby turtles throws fans still soaking in their own primordial ooze of nostalgia  into a rabid frenzy. I’m not guaranteeing that the movie will be good, but neither will I discount that it isn’t going to be exciting, because I just haven’t seen it yet. I’m not going to pre-judge its quality based on what lore has been switched out. If I’m pre-judging a movie on anything at all, it’s probably the director/executive producer and his colorful and somewhat embarrassing filmography. This guy did bring us the first Transformers movie, which in retrospect, was a pretty enjoyable summer blockbuster, but he also introduced Horsemen,  which’s existence no one probably wants to acknowledge.

It’s high risk. But I’d rather them try than shrivel up and leave the movie industry an arid, barren wasteland of fear of criticism. If alternative interpretations were never attempted, I would’ve never experienced my whirlwind of deep hurt and pleasure that was Battlestar Galactica. I think I would’ve been a very different person if I never got to have that experience.

Forever my one true love

 

Blasting it to fame can be a good thing.

Obviously, a well-marketed adaptation has the power to expose your beloved little storybook to the masses, violently launching it from Dank Hipster Obscurity into Mainstream Blockbuster. You’ll be swallowed by the tsunami of hype that follows, one way or another. But now everyone will know how awesome the original source material you love is. They will push the Google engine into overdrive with meta keywords, pepper Twitter with hashtags, catapult discussions you long thought no one will ever entertain you with back on IMDB boards. You have a reason to talk about the stuff you love and share it with others now.

I have the worst impression of people who hate their pet series’ popularity. Why won’t you share a good thing? Don’t you want the value of your favourite 1970’s memorabilia to skyrocket and create jealous criminals of impulsive newly-converted buyer-collectors? The thimble-buster of a Lannister red cape you fashioned in 1999 from your grandmother’s upholstery is now socially relevant!

If you are unhappy that it “sold out”, then maybe you never liked it at all.

 

It’s a double-edged sword.

Let’s use a book-to-movie for example. When creative content crosses media, it’s likely that you lose a bulk of the content that lends more complexity or depth to the constraints of time. This is the main complaint of book readers who go to movies, pointing fingers at how things were not exactly as they imagined, that key scenes or details are being changed or left out because of budget/plot deviations/timing/etc.

But on the other hand, it could add another dimension to experiencing the existing work. Not only does it “bring the book to life”, it allows room for directors to improve on the weaknesses of the text. At times I feel like a book’s pacing could be better, and the movie could be an opportunity to correct it. Where fairly imaginative minds miss out on the full picture because of vague details, the screen version brings to life without extracting much effort from you. The flexibility for a mystery’s ending to be ambiguous is not compromised or lost.

Sometimes you’re unlucky and you get The Last Airbender for your effort. Other times you strike it big and you get Atonement. Or someone like Ron Moore revolutionizes drama in science fiction. Every episode is so jam packed with action, excitement and political drama that 40 minutes feel like two hours. The amount of information you have to digest, the amount of required brainpower is astounding. But all of it is good. If Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock can inspire the new generation to give the Arthur Conan Doyle’s classics a chance and spawn a guerrilla movement peppering the streets with “Moriarty Was Real”, you know you’ve done something right.

Let’s try one last example. In a series like Game of Thrones, chronology is extremely difficult to keep up with, because as everything is happening all at once, you are forced to read it in succession. A set of chapters in Westeros may span two months, but then a chapter that’s in the Red Waste forces the clock to wind back, breaking up the momentum that’s so perfectly maintained. The TV show handles this aspect much better, and the material benefits from it because people have a better feel for how the timeline progresses in tandem with the stories being told in many locations at once.

I spent nearly 4 months (not counting the days I did not get to read anything at all)  getting through the first four books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Though I got the full berth of GRR Martin’s fantasy with the detailed descriptions and landscapes, I felt a little jealous that unsullied viewers could digest it with their eyes in a matter of seconds and attain the same satisfaction drinking in the universe.

The entertainment industry is completely flooded with adaptations (two Snow White movies in a week?), and of course, I can’t dictate what movies you should watch because your decision to take a risk on what could be a waste of time rests completely on your laurels.

You win some, you lose some. A lot of my wins are worth enduring the losses. I’ll round this up by revealing my small list of fave fandoms, in no particular order:

List!

  • Game of Thrones
  • Atonement
  • Dexter
  • Fight Club
  • Harry Potter
  • The Shining
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Walking Dead
  • Blade
  • Iron Man
  • Robin Hood: Men In Tights
  • Shawshank Redemption
  • Lord of the Rings

Especially Embarrassing Adaptations I Like

  • The Vampire Diaries
  • Resident Evil
  • True Blood
  • Constantine
  • Smallville, for like, 4 seasons

Talky talk

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