SDG here with a follow-up to my post below on what makes a good adaptation. In the combox a reader writes:
Personally, I think the idea of valuing faithfulness in “adapting” a work from one medium to another to be wholly without merit. The source a work is based off of is irrelevant to the quality of the work itself. A film based off a book should be judged by how good of a film it is, in and of itself, and not how well it “adapts” the book. A work stands on its own merit, regardless of how it reflects and works that may have inspired it.
I agree with pretty much everything here except for the first sentence (and even there I would caveat rather than completely disagree).
I agree with judging a film on the merits, irrespective of the source material. That’s why I can give positive reviews to adaptations from Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair to Andrew Adamson’s Prince Caspian even though they all but obliterate the intended meaning of the original works.
At the same time, separately, there is a legitimate critical act that evaluates a work as an adaptation. Art is all about making choices, and the choices the artist makes in regard to following or not following source material are as relevant to the aesthetic endeavor as any other choices he makes.
Look at it this way. If you write an original screenplay about a young man contemplating revenge, and you give him a speech pondering his situation, it would be unfair and ridiculous for a critic to write, “This speech pales by comparison to Hamlet’s soliloquy, so what was the filmmaker thinking?”
On the other hand, if you are actually staging Hamlet, and you choose to dispense with Hamlet’s soliloquy — or, worse, to replace it with an inferior quasi-Elizabethan composition of your own — at that point the critic is well and truly justified in asking “What was he thinking?” Because that was a creative choice.
I’m not going to ding you as a filmmaker for failing to be as brilliant as Shakespeare in an original production. But in an adaptation, your choice to use or not use what Shakespeare did, or to replace something original with something new, is fair game for criticism.
That’s not to say that “fidelity” is “good” and “liberty” is “bad.” Not every original work is Shakespeare, for one thing, and even in Shakespeare not everything that makes a good play necessarily makes a good film.
Either fidelity or liberty can be helpful or unhelpful to the new work of art that is the film. My point is simply this: If you change something, you should have a reason; and if you don’t change something, you should have a reason. Whichever choice you make should at least arguably make the adaptation a better work of art than the contrary choice would.
That’s why I say that a good adaptation is not necessarily a faithful one or an innovative one, only one that doesn’t diminish the better you know the source material. If the more I know the source material, the less I think of your adaptation, then you made poor choices as an adapter, even if the work still holds up on its own.
And, again, it’s not just source material per se, but any relevant context. Citing Ebert again, if you set out to tell a Japanese story that I enjoy less and less the more I actually know about Japan, then you have made poor choices.
That’s not to say a story set in a given culture must always be realistic, i.e., “faithful” to reality. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon isn’t a realistic portrait of the China of any period, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish the more you know about China. Ang Lee made choices in departing from the reality of historical China — but they were choices that may be felt to serve the story rather than to diminish it.