What is a good adaptation?

by SDG

in Uncategorized

SDG here with thoughts on a question that, as a film critic, I’ve been thinking about for years: How should a film based on some preexisting work — a novel, a play, a comic book or even a previous film — be judged?

Does it matter at all if a film is an adaptation? Should a film, whether an original work or an adaptation, simply be judged for what it is? Or is there a sense in which it ought to be measured by the original? If there is, what makes an adapted film a good adaptation or a bad one?

Fans of the work being adapted often have a simple answer: A good adaptation is faithful to the original. This answer is too simple, I think. For one thing, what constitutes “fidelity”? Does fidelity mean following the original exactly, or are departures allowed? What sort of departures?

If the author himself revises his own work, is he necessarily being “unfaithful” to the original? (Consider how obsessively Tolkien rewrote and rewrote the history of Middle-earth.) Or is he often rather trying to extend or develop the vision informing his work, perhaps eliminating inconsistencies that arose as the work developed, or realizing more successfully the possiblities of the premise?

I don’t deny the possibility that such revisions, even by the artist himself, may wind up harming the revised work. But they don’t always — and the very fact that we distinguish between revisions that enhance the work and those that harm it suggests that mechanical “fidelity” to the existing work is not the key.

Can fidelity be a matter of the spirit of a work rather than the letter? Is it possible to make distinctions between additions or changes that are in keeping with the essential spirit of a work and those that mar or disfigure that spirit?

If so, is it possible in principle that another artist, adapting another man’s work, can find ways of revising that work that honor the spirit of the original — possibly even ways that the original artist might approve of, even wish he had thought of himself?

But what if the original artist’s vision is limited, problematic or flawed? What if the adapter doesn’t want to be limited to the spirit of the original — if he wants to improve, go beyond or even potentially critique it? (For example, a filmmaker adapting an older work with racist or sexist elements may deliberately subvert those elements in his film.) This seems legitimate in principle.

So here are my current thoughts on the ethics (or aesthetics) of adaptation.

Strictly speaking, fidelity by itself is neither here nor there with regard to the artistic merit of an adaptation. Whether a film is good or bad, and whether or to what extent it takes liberties from source material, are two separate questions permitting all kinds of possible combinations.

However, in addition to judging a film in itself, it is also possible to judge it as an adaptation — but the most relevant standard is not simply “fidelity” — either to the letter or to the spirit. Here is how I like to think of it: A good adaptation is one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you are capable of appreciating the film.

This has an applicability beyond adaptations per se. Roger Ebert wrote in his (excellent) review of Memoirs of a Geisha that the less you know about Japan, the more you will like the film. I don’t like movies like that — that work best to the extent that the viewer is ignorant of (or unconcerned about) relevant context, be it history, culture or source material.

To the extent that the source material is any good, the adaptation should honor the spirit of the source. To the extent that the source is limited or flawed, the adaptation may transcend, subvert or critique it. Either way, the better one knows the source material, with its good and bad points, the better one should appreciate the filmmakers’s achievement in adaptation.

A good adaptation thus presupposes real understanding of the source material on the part of the filmmakers, for good and bad. Departures great and small can be legitimate, but they should be thoughtful departures. They can honor or subvert the original, but they must interact with it, not just ignore it. If not, they are not worth doing as adaptations. You might as well change the names and call it something else.

The one thing I have little patience for is the sort of “adaptation” that shows little or no interest in or comprehension of the material upon which it is supposedly based. Case in point: The 2004 film King Arthur, which interacts in no very significant way either with Arthurian romance or Arthurian history. It’s just a remake of the director’s earlier Tears of the Sun, dressed up in 5th-century British gear. Why did they think that was more interesting than a thousand years and more of Arthurian legend and scholarship?

So that’s where I am. Any other thoughts?

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{ 14 comments }

Matheus March 6, 2009 at 8:34 pm

SDG, did the new Typepad changes put a character or HTML limit on the comments? I spend some time writing a comment here and when I clicked on Post, I got a “Sorry, we cannot accept this data” pop-up window.
Anyway, I will save the comment in the case it may be usable later…

Leo March 6, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Thanks SDG, interesting ideas – many new to me. I heartily agree with your comments in bold and the King Arthur example.
My own, jumbled, thoughts:
Marketing and commercial considerations often dictate misleading titles and descriptions.
At a psychological level. For me, MY first experience of a story tends to be the standard by which the others are judged even if my first experience was an adaptation. A bit like a hymn sung to the tune one first heard is often felt to be the ‘correct’ way of singing it.
That said, the greater the original work, the more faithful adaptations that are possible, eg Gospel stories and Shakespeare.
I am primarily visual and tend to visualize a novel as if it were a film. But a word-for-word adaptation of a book is usually too long for a film.
Different media engage our minds in different ways via different senses, so a perfect transposition is not possible. Maybe this is like trying to hear the taste of chocolate. I remember being disappointed by the game versions of various books and films I enjoyed.

Randolph Carter March 7, 2009 at 2:27 am

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.
The real problem with taking a work in one medium and adapting it into another is that, if the works are both given the same name then people will naturally begin to draw equivocation between the source and the derivative. So if you take a book, say “Dune”, and announce that you’re making a movie based off it, people are going to expect the movie to reflect the events and themes of the book. So in Dune’s case, people would a tale of political intrigue and plotting and mumbo-jumbo mysticism and violent revolution all directed toward a deconstruction of the Campbellian monomythic hero archetype. Any film called “Dune” not containing these elements is likely to be rejected by viewers, regardless of how good a film it is, simply because having the name “Dune” slapped on the picture set certain expectations in their head which were not fufilled. Like a man who takes a drink of what he thinks is orange soda but which is really lemon-lime, and spits it out, not because he particularly hates lemon-lime, but because he was anticipating the taste of orange, and what makes good lemon-lime isn’t the same as what makes good orange.
I do agree, SDG, that if a work is going to break the trust formed with an audience, and be so different from the source it is based off so as to lead the viewers into thinking that they’re getting something they’re not, it’s a good idea to not give the two works the same name. Like when Coppola took Heart of Darkness and made Apocalypse Now. But I would say that all adaptations are works distinct from what they’re based off, and thus should be renamed accordingly, which would solve a lot of problems, I think.

Matheus March 7, 2009 at 5:32 am

Does it matter at all if a film is an adaptation?

In my book, definitely. I may be wrong, but I tend to prefer “original” movies and “original” books over adaptations; since, in my humble opinion, the natural differences between cinema and literature (and, I daresay, the intrinsic superiority of literature in artistic and cultural terms) will always guarantee that losses will occur in the adaptation process. By the way, I wrote original between scare quotes because I realize that it’s impossible for movies and most books to be completely original. (I hope this looks intelligible…)

Should a film, whether an original work or an adaptation, simply be judged for what it is?

I don’t think it should, but it’s impossible for it not to be on a practical level. For example, I’m aware thanks to your reviews that the Narnia movies are disappointing as adaptations; but for me (I’ve never read the books) the movies are, especially the first one, as engaging and good as a movie can be – and I don’t regard my movie standards as low.

A good adaptation is faithful to the original. This answer is too simple, I think.

…the most relevant standard is not simply “fidelity” — either to the letter or to the spirit.

A good adaptation is one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you are capable of appreciating the film.

This method seems to be relative and not objective. If fidelity to the spirit is not a crucial criterion for the quality of the adaptation, then invidual viewers may consider the adaptation to be good or bad depending on whether they prefer fidelity or infidelity to the original: it offers no common value judgment.

What if the adapter doesn’t want to be limited to the spirit of the original — if he wants to improve, go beyond or even potentially critique it? (For example, a filmmaker adapting an older work with racist or sexist elements may deliberately subvert those elements in his film.) This seems legitimate in principle.

Yes, but only inasmuch as the flawed elements which he chooses to subvert don’t pertain to the essence (I seem to prefer this word) of the original. If the adapter feels the need to both use the original and subvert flawed elements, I think it implies that those elements aren’t the essence of the original. Otherwise the adaptation effort would be meaningless: those attracted by the flawed and subverted essence of the original would not overlook its subversion; and those appalled by it wouldn’t overlook the adaptation’s ties to the original, even if only formal.
If, on the other hand the inverse happens – if the adapter wants to replace the morally sound essence of the original for a flawed essence in the adaptation (Children of Men, according to your review, comes to mind) – those who liked the pro-life essence of the book will dislike the movie for its infidelity, and those who disliked the book’s essence will like the movie for its infidelity. I think that, in a case like this, Children of Men is an essentially flawed adaptation and those who consider it to be a good one – according to your criteria – are just considering it separately from its merits as an adaptation (in this exact case, I think very few people even know it’s an adaptation).

The 2004 film King Arthur, which interacts in no very significant way either with Arthurian romance or Arthurian history.

But on the other hand we Christians gotta love its historically and theologically accurate depiction of the heresiarch Pelagius. :)

Matheus March 7, 2009 at 5:33 am

Hey, now it passed!? What happened here?

Jonathan Prejean March 8, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Since this came up in the context of Watchmen, I wonder if Pixar’s “The Incredibles” counts as an “adaptation” of that work. I looked at it that way from the first time I saw it; it’s just generation shifted. Instead of people growing up in the Vietnam-era facing Cold War concerns (nuclear annihilation and crime), you have children growing up today with their parents facing contemporary concerns (corporate bureaucracy and technological profusion). With young Ozymandias and Syndrome particularly, it’s downright eerie how pitch-perfect the key change was made. Given that Moore himself had taken the “Earth-4″ Charlton comics as his source material, I thought Pixar’s work was perhaps a better homage than a straight take on Watchmen could have been (haven’t see the new film, but given your review, I don’t expect that opinion to change). Just wanted to throw out those sorts of adaptations in the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven style as food for thought.

SDG March 8, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Since this came up in the context of Watchmen, I wonder if Pixar’s “The Incredibles” counts as an “adaptation” of that work.

Not in the sense I’m speaking here. Watchmen would be at most an influence (along with the Marvel Universe, especially Fantastic Four and X-Men, among other inspirations), not direct source material.
I would be more open to adaptive criticism (redaction criticism? no, that means something else) in the case of The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, though even there with a limited scope, since TMS really only borrows the premise while replacing the whole cast of characters, changing important plot points, etc. In the same way, Kurosawa’s Ran is only King Lear to a limited degree, etc.

Matheus March 9, 2009 at 8:11 am

…TMS really only borrows the premise while replacing the whole cast of characters, changing important plot points, etc.

And The Seven Samurai itself was manifestly inspired by John Ford’s early westerns (mainly Stagecoach, if I’m not mistaken; I haven’t seen both).
Did you read my comments above, SDG?

SDG March 9, 2009 at 9:17 am

And The Seven Samurai itself was manifestly inspired by John Ford’s early westerns

Yes indeed, though again, “inspired by” is quite different from “adapted from.”

Did you read my comments above, SDG?

No, missed them. Thoughts:

I may be wrong, but I tend to prefer “original” movies and “original” books over adaptations; since, in my humble opinion, the natural differences between cinema and literature (and, I daresay, the intrinsic superiority of literature in artistic and cultural terms) will always guarantee that losses will occur in the adaptation process.

Certainly losses always occur, in any work of adaptation, regardless of the media in question (the same is true of books based on films, so I’m not sure intrinsic superiority has anything to do with it). Regardlss, the adapter’s job is to make up for that by offering gains as well.

This method seems to be relative and not objective. If fidelity to the spirit is not a crucial criterion for the quality of the adaptation, then invidual viewers may consider the adaptation to be good or bad depending on whether they prefer fidelity or infidelity to the original: it offers no common value judgment.

I’m not offering a method. Nor do I mean to offer a basis for common value judgment. Whether evaluative criticism can ever offer a basis for common value judgment is completely beyond the scope of my present point. People are as free to disagree about whether fidelity or departures make a particular adaptation better or worse as they are to disagree about whether an original film is good or bad.
I’m simply saying that the former question is just as critically valid as the latter question, and it is wrong to say that the only meaningful way to judge a film is sui generis, or that how the adaptation relates to the original is of no evaluative significance.
When Ebert posits that the more you know about Japan, the less you will like Memoirs of a Geisha, that’s his brief; others will find it persuasive or not. No one can force a Japanese native to say he dislikes the film if he claims he likes it. Likewise, if I suggest that knowing Benchley’s novel doesn’t diminish Spielberg’s movie, whereas knowing Lewis’s novel does diminish Adamson’s movie, that’s my brief; agree or disagree as you will.

If the adapter feels the need to both use the original and subvert flawed elements, I think it implies that those elements aren’t the essence of the original. Otherwise the adaptation effort would be meaningless: those attracted by the flawed and subverted essence of the original would not overlook its subversion; and those appalled by it wouldn’t overlook the adaptation’s ties to the original, even if only formal.

I agree that these are likely outcomes; they are not necessarily inevitable outcomes. In principle I might quite appreciate a film that completely subverts an essentially flawed novel, and indeed might appreciate it specifically because of how it subverts a novel I detest.

Matheus March 9, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Yes indeed, though again, “inspired by” is quite different from “adapted from.”

There has been no contradiction here. I wrote that in accordance with your point.
Since I made the comment, I think patricius on the other post seemed to express the same concern for you statement that I had:

If you’re specifically trying to evaluate how good an adaptation a film is (as opposed to just how good a film it is), then it seems to me that you can’t judge the quality of these decisions based on their overall merit; otherwise you’re collapsing the quality of the adaptation back into the quality of the film as a whole, aren’t you?

To which you gave a similar reply to that you gave me:

Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair deserves to be judged on its own, and on its own it is a fine drama. At the same time, most fans of the novel will be dismayed at the way that the film (after closely following the book for some time) changes an absolutely key plot point. Does this change make it a bad film? No. Does it make it a bad adaptation? Yes.

I agree with that, but if it’s so, then I don’t understand your statement (“A good adaptation is one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you are capable of appreciating the film.“), per which The End of the Affair should be regarded as a good adaptation, since your knowing the source material didn’t prevent you from considering it a good movie.

In principle I might quite appreciate a film that completely subverts an essentially flawed novel, and indeed might appreciate it specifically because of how it subverts a novel I detest.

That was my whole point, which you didn’t seem to understand: You, as I, could perfectly appreciate it as a movie, but not as an adaptation, since, for it to be good, the essence of the source must be left intact, which is denotative of the very word adaptation.

SDG March 9, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Matheus: The explanation in both cases lies in understanding that for me the question “Do I like movie X as an adaptation?” is essentially interchangeable with the question “Do I like what movie X does with the source material? Compared to the source material, do I like the filmmakers’ choices with regard to what they used, revised, conflated, expanded, supplemented or subverted?”
That is why I regard The End of the Affair as a bad adaptation: I dislike what it does with the source material. The fact that I can nevertheless regard it as a fine drama in itself simply means that I have successfully distinguished between the merits of the film in itself and the merits of the film as an adaptation. If my dislike of the film as an adaptation prevented me from appreciating it in itself, that would simply mean I was collapsing my opinion of the film-in-itself and my opinion of the film-as-adaptation into a single category, which is the opposite of my whole point.
In the case of the second, hypothetical movie, whether you choose to call a film that fundamentally subverts its source an “adaptation” is a semantic question. My point is, in such a case, I am supposing that I would appreciate the movie, not only in itself, but precisely for what it does with the source material (i.e., subverting it). It is precisely this pleasure in seeing the film subvert the source that I would be unable to experience unless I knew the source.

Matheus March 9, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I realize that we’re already repeating previously said points, which is a sign that our discussion has worn out.

…for me the question “Do I like movie X as an adaptation?” is essentially interchangeable with the question “Do I like what movie X does with the source material?

I am supposing that I would appreciate the movie, not only in itself, but precisely for what it does with the source material (i.e., subverting it). It is precisely this pleasure in seeing the film subvert the source that I would be unable to experience unless I knew the source.

Let me try to explain what I tried to say again: I agree with pretty much everything you wrote regarding the possibility of appreciating a movie by its own merits independently of its merits as an adaptation. My objection was to your statement (“A good adaptation is one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you are capable of appreciating the film.“), which implies that an adaptation can be considered good regardless of two mutually contradictory attitudes towards the essence of its source; but given that the noun adaptation has a denotative meaning that necessarily implies “a partial change in the form, position, state, or qualities of a thing” and that, as such, can’t possibly be subject to opinion; then your point that you “would appreciate the movie, not only in itself, but precisely for what it does with the source material (i.e., subverting it)“, can only mean that you, or me, or anyone else for that matter, can appreciate that movie precisely for being a bad adaptation, which, according to both of us, has no influence whatsoever over the merits that the movie may have by itself.

Agellius March 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

SDG writes, “To the extent that the source material is any good, the adaptation should honor the spirit of the source. . . . A good adaptation thus presupposes real understanding of the source material on the part of the filmmakers, for good and bad.”
I think this hits the nail on the head. One adaptation I really loved was the movie “Master and Commander”, based on the Patrick O’Brien naval novels. It was not based on any one of the 20 books but had plot elements of several. But it captured the realism of the novels as well as the characters of Aubrey and Maturin and their relationship to each other, in a very satisfactory way. Not perfect, but good enough to be satisfying.
Another good one is “Scrooge”. It deviates from the plot of “Christmas Carol” in several places, but really captures the spirit of the thing. And the plot deviations are intelligent. I barely noticed them until I thought twice about them. And considering them after the fact, I realized they were necessary in order to make the story flow in the shorter movie format.

SDG March 9, 2009 at 6:27 pm

My objection was to your statement (“A good adaptation is one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you are capable of appreciating the film.”), which implies that an adaptation can be considered good regardless of two mutually contradictory attitudes towards the essence of its source

I’m afraid I don’t track this.

given that the noun adaptation has a denotative meaning that necessarily implies “a partial change in the form, position, state, or qualities of a thing” and that, as such, can’t possibly be subject to opinion; then your point that you “would appreciate the movie, not only in itself, but precisely for what it does with the source material (i.e., subverting it)”, can only mean that you, or me, or anyone else for that matter, can appreciate that movie precisely for being a bad adaptation

No, for being a non-faithful, subversive adaptation. A fan of the source material who disagreed with me about its inherent problems would call it a “bad” adaptation. I wouldn’t.
Of course the adaptation would have to be “partial.” If nothing were the same, it would be a completely different story. That doesn’t mean an adaptation can’t make changes pertaining to the essence of the original story.
A hypothetical example: Let’s imagine a gifted novelist whose personal anti-Catholicism tends to color his work for the worse whenever he touches on things Catholic, who writes a novel with some redeeeming characteristics, but essentially flawed by its anti-Catholic depiction of a weak, sinful, doubting priest.
Then let’s imagine that the novel is adapted by a brilliant Catholic director who captures the merits of the novel, and who also retains all the priest’s weaknesses, but makes directorial choices that undo the essential anti-Catholicism of the story, so that the priest’s very weakness attests the grace at work in him, like Graham Greene’s The Power of the Glory.
Hardly a faithful adaptation, but an inspired one, resulting in a film I appreciate all the more knowing how it interacts with its source material. An anti-Catholic might call it a “bad” adaptation. I wouldn’t.

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