What are We Owed from Adaptation?
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
I was in college when “The Golden Compass” came out in theaters. It’s an adaptation of the first book of the His Dark Materials series, which I have not read. But I remember seeing the trailers, and deciding that the film didn’t look very good, and that I probably wasn’t going to see it. The critical reception when it came out pretty much confirmed that I wasn’t interested.
But I watched two of my friends buy tickets, and excitedly leave the dorm to go to the screening.
As they left, I asked them, “Why are you going to see that movie?”
They said, “Because the book is great!”
And I looked at them, deadpan, and said, “But we all know that’s not how it works.”
What Are We Owed From Adaptation?
Whenever we hear that a book we love is about to be adapted, reactions usually vary. Some of us imagine perfect casting choices, or start internally ranking our favorite scenes that we can’t wait to see on-screen. A few of us are maybe even brave enough to admit that the filmmakers will have to cut some stuff, but surely, we say, OUR favorite parts won’t be touched. And throughout it all, one thought sums up our feelings:
“I just want it to be as faithful as possible to the book.”
I recently went on a deep dive, pun intended, about the movie “Jaws.” I didn’t grow up watching it, only finally seeing it when I was in my late 20s, and of course I loved it.
And fortunately I was old enough that it didn’t make me afraid of the water. You know, for more than a few months.
And, in one of those moments of curiosity that sometimes hits you when you are surfing the internet, I started researching the differences between the original book and the film.
A lot of the stuff Spielberg and his team cut from the book is pretty standard - trimming out subplots to simplify the narrative and shorten the story. The book is more explicit about the financial danger to the town if the beaches close, and the shark attack cover-up is much more corrupt.
In the film, the mayor is either oblivious to the danger or simply has terrible priorities, but either way he’s still an idiot. In the book, he’s tied up with the mob, and his resistance to closing the beaches is a full-on conspiracy.
Also in the book, Brody’s wife has an affair with Hooper, which leads to a lot of romance-themed tension between the characters on the boat. Oh, and every night during their shark hunt, the boys just head back to shore and go home for the evening, setting out again in the morning.
This is just a small sampling of the obvious changes that come around when adapting a story for film. Aside from the fact that movies just don’t have room for all the subplots a novel can juggle, there’s something to be said for getting another pair of eyes on your story. Or, in the case of film, the eyes of a director, a couple of writers, a handful of producers, and potentially hundreds of crew members.
Spielberg didn’t like the characters in the Jaws book; he considered them so unlikeable that he wound up rooting for the shark. But he knew the movie would sink or swim (pun intended) based on the strength of its characters. I don’t care what a great job he did with the limitations of a broken mechanical shark, or how exhilarating the shark attack scenes are, or how fantastic John Williams’ score is - the Jaws film is a character-driven story, and if the audience didn’t root for them to slay the shark, the movie would not have worked.
Spielberg is a pro at adaptation. He has this practically-supernatural ability to know exactly what an audience needs and wants, even so early in his career. In the book, the shark kills Hooper and Quint, but dies of its wounds before it can get Brody.
But that’s not how you end a movie.
The film completely defies the laws of physics, and Brody uses an air tank to blow the goddamn shark to hell.
Because THAT is how you end a movie.
The Scouring of the Shire
The Lord of the Rings is, in my opinion, one of the greatest book-to-film adaptations of all time, in part because the filmmakers cared about the project and they knew what to include and what to cut.
But for some fans, enough is never enough, and when discussing the films, two major omissions always get brought up:
The character of Tom Bombadil, and the Scouring of the Shire.
I’m not gonna spend much time talking about Tom Bombadil, but essentially he’s a tree-loving pacifist who is basically a spirit of the forest and he grinds the story to a halt right as Frodo and Sam start their journey. I’m not saying he’s bad in the book, but when you’re looking for things to cut, the dude who has no impact on the plot is first in line.
Besides, we know Tolkien loved nature; give Bombadil’s most important lines to Treebeard, show Saruman murdering the forest for two movies, and that message still gets across. Jackson and company didn’t need to stop the film so Frodo and Sam could talk to the Lorax.
But the Scouring of the Shire is a bit different, because omitting it actually does change one of the book’s major themes.
In the Return of the King, after Sauron is destroyed, our hobbit heroes return home to the Shire. And what they find is someplace that looks more like Isengard, with evil hobbits welcoming industry and enslaving their kin. And Saruman and Wormtongue are there, basically rebuilding their army of thugs and monsters. Saruman is living in Frodo’s HOUSE. And our heroes, particularly Pippin, have to take everything they’ve learned and rally their fellow hobbits to defeat Saruman. There’s no Gandalf, no fellowship, no ents, no eagles - just the hobbits and their resolve.
And they do it. They fight off evil, and Wormtongue betrays Saruman, and the invading armies die. And Sam, Frodo’s loyal gardener, replants the trees and the Shire thrives again.
But the message of this chapter is bittersweet. Sure, the hobbits were able to fight off evil thanks to everything they learned on their journey, which is some A++ Joseph Campbell stuff, but it also frames the evil industrialization that Tolkien hated as… inevitable. No matter how hard you fight against evil, it still finds its way to your home, and it tries to destroy everything you hold dear.
First things first, I don’t think anybody would argue that the “Return of the King” movie needed MORE endings. But this change also comes down to a difference in how the Shire is framed in the story.
In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Frodo looks into Galadriel’s mirror and he sees the possible fate of the Shire, and it looks exactly like the Scouring. And even in 2002, Peter Jackson said that this scene was as close to the Scouring as they planned to get. But even if they’d wanted to do it in “Return of the King,” I would argue that they’d lost their chance after “Fellowship.”
Galadriel says that the Scouring of the Shire will happen if Frodo fails. So, once he wins, you can’t then go ahead and do it anyway. It would re-frame his victory as a failure, because he didn’t manage to save the only thing that mattered most, the reason he was fighting, the home that he and Sam remembered to give themselves enough willpower to survive Mount Doom.
In the film ending, the hobbits return to the Shire with their new armor and clothes and their treasures, and they sit down for a pint at the Green Dragon, their old hangout, and they look around at their old friends… and it’s all so normal. Nobody has any idea how close the world came to armageddon, or how four hobbits helped guide, or even save, the rulers of men.
And our heroes don’t tell them. Pippin doesn’t rush off and start sharing stories to get a free pint, because it doesn’t matter if anyone knows. It’s not like anyone would even believe it, anyway.
So the hobbits raise a glass, and then Sam goes to talk to Rosie, the girl he was always afraid to talk to. And then we jump cut to their wedding, because of COURSE he has the courage now to ask her out and ask her to marry him. The dude fought a spider the size of a Volkswagen.
And Frodo feels out of place in the world they created, because everything he’s gone through has left scars, both physical and emotional.
The world of the Shire, their home, didn’t change. But our heroes did.
In the book, that’s not the message at all. It turns out, when you leave to fight evil, the world back home does change.
But the filmmakers didn’t like that message. So they changed it.
The Bitch is Dead
“Casino Royale” is still my favorite James Bond movie. I love “Goldeneye” and “Skyfall” is pretty good (when it’s not trying way too hard to be “The Dark Knight”), but “Casino Royale” made me excited for these movies in a way no other Bond movie has.
In college I finally read the book, the very first James Bond story ever published. And there are some obvious differences - the scale is smaller, even smaller than in the film, the set-pieces aren’t as grand, it’s not officially Bond’s first mission-slash-origin story, and there are obviously no winking nods at the history of the franchise, since none of those tropes existed yet.
But the story itself is remarkably similar. Bond goes to play baccarat (not Texas Hold ‘Em, which was kind of a weird change), trying to drain money away from a criminal who bankrolls other criminals. He meets Vesper, and Mathis, and Felix Leiter, loses his first hand and has to be bailed out by the Americans.
He wins and cleans out Le Chiffre, who then kidnaps Vesper and tortures Bond, until an assassin arrives and kills Le Chiffre as punishment for losing their money.
In the hospital, Bond realizes he loves Vesper, but as they live their lives together, Vesper notices someone following them, and kills herself. Her suicide note reveals that she was a reluctant double-agent, since her boyfriend had been kidnapped and revealed her identity under torture.
Bond tells his superiors about her duplicity, and in the final line of the novel, he adds, “The bitch is dead now.”
In the film, she steals the money from Bond, and tries to pay off her debts in exchange for Bond’s life. Her death comes about through a more spectacular action sequence, but it’s still by her own hand. And as Bond tells M about the treason, and he says, “The bitch is dead,” the film version of M responds:
"James... did you ever ask yourself why you weren't killed that night? Isn't it obvious? She made a deal to spare your life in exchange for the money. I'm sure she hoped they would let her live... but she must have known she was going to her death."
In its last moments, the film vindicates Vesper. Yes, she betrayed her country, and yes, she betrayed James, but she was under duress, and she had no choice. And even though she had another boyfriend, the film tells us that she truly loved James.
In the books, James essentially learns not to trust women - if there was any question why Bond is a misogynist, Vesper is that answer. But “Casino Royale” tries to reframe this. The new version of Bond doesn’t hate or mistrust women… he just won’t ever be as happy with another, as he was with Vesper.
Once again, the message at the end of the film is changed, but honestly, I’ll take it. I don’t want a Bond movie to end with him saying “The bitch is dead,” cut to credits, this was the moral of the story.
He needs M to tell him, “No, you don’t get it. She really loved you, and to call her a bitch completely undermines what she went through to keep you alive.”
I much prefer that ending.
Two Chapters is Plenty
Starship Troopers is the name of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein from 1959. It’s also the name of a Paul Verhoeven film from 1997. I say it that way because the book has practically nothing to do with the film, besides some character names and occasional story beats. The film actually started as an unrelated script called “Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine,” but at some point during pre-production, somebody realized, “Hey, there’s a science fiction book that’s kind of like this.”
So, director Paul Verhoeven read the book, and after two chapters he put it down, calling it “right-wing,” “boring,” and “quite bad.” So the filmmakers borrowed a few plot elements, and completely changed the tone of the story, leaning hard into the fascist trappings and ideals, to the point of absurdity. The characters are willfully obtuse of any irony or consequences, despite them being completely obvious.
So, by all accounts, “Starship Troopers” should be a bad adaptation, right? After all, it completely spits in the face of the original book, gender-swaps characters, gives one of them psychic powers, and paints everyone in a portrait of absurdism.
That movie is a cult classic. It spawned a bunch of sequels, plus a pretty good, really intense cartoon that my dad and I watched in the 90s. And there honestly aren’t a lot of people stepping up to defend the book, so there seems to be no harm done.
This is where things get complicated with my original question - if we want a faithful adaptation, why are some changes well-received but others aren’t?
The Part Where We Talk About Game of Thrones
Look, if you own a TV, a computer, or a smartphone, you know "Game of Thrones" was the biggest deal in the world for almost a decade, and that they’re an adaptation of a book series, A Song of Ice and Fire from George R. R. Martin. An as-yet unfinished book series, with two entries still set to come out, but no release dates yet.
And ever since the show went on the air, there was a big question: will Martin finish the books before the show ends?
Turns out, no, he didn’t. After publishing one book right after the show premiered, he didn’t put out another new Song of Ice and Fire book during the entire 9-year run of the series.
Well, that’s not true - he did publish the first volume of a two-part history book set in his world, technically giving us a new Game of Thrones book while also making it very clear that he doesn’t care how badly you want the next book, he’s gonna do his own thing. I legit think it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen an author do, and I love it so much.
You do you, George.
Martin gave the show-runners some idea where he wants to end, but he’s made major changes before when plotting out these books. He’s a discovery writer, and sometimes he doesn’t know what’s going to happen until he writes it down.
The show made a lot of changes, from aging up the children, cutting or combining characters, reducing or editing major subplots, occasionally adding content, and sometimes making consensual sexual acts into… less consensual acts.
And each change drew different reactions. Aging the kids up moves the timeline around a bit, but it’s ultimately a pretty minor change. Even the oldest kids are still pretty young by our standards. When Tywin calls Robb a boy-king, he’s in his twenties and not a teenager, but that’s still pretty early in life to lead a military campaign. And besides, it gave us a great crop of young actors, so we can agree that it was a net win.
In contrast, the nation of Dorne has a rich subplot in the later books, but the writers practically stripped it for parts, and jettisoned the rest. And I can only speculate why they did Dorne dirty, but I have two theories.
First, they didn’t know how it would impact the final acts of the story, since those books haven’t come out. As they got to season 5 of 8, they may have got nervous about starting an entirely new subplot that they weren’t sure how to resolve. So the characters are instead repositioned not as heroes or protagonists, but as foils for Cersei Lannister. They become secondary to her story, because that’s maybe all the writers felt comfortable doing with them.
(I think that’s also why they don’t include the character of Lady Stoneheart, and gave her vengeance-based storyline to Arya - they likely didn’t know where the Stoneheart storyline was going, or how it was going to resolve.)
Second, and this is going to sound insane… but they might have just not liked the Dorne storyline. And when it came to adapting it, they got a little bit into it, made some major changes that they thought might improve it, and then gave up and wrapped it up after only two seasons.
When you adapt a book, you technically can keep anything you want, and cut anything else. There’s nothing stopping you.
The problem the audience has with these changes is that they are kind of tone-deaf. Dorne in the books meant a lot to people because of the strong women it portrayed. Lady Stoneheart seems to represent how pointless and destructive revenge can be, a theme expressed repeatedly throughout the series. But for some writers, revenge is cool, and so Arya basically became the Punisher.
So, is Game of Thrones a bad adaptation? Certainly many fans seem to say so, especially now that the show is done. But if we’re only looking at the seasons where they did adapt the existing source material, the four seasons where the show was strongest, the complaints were still present. But it didn’t do anything that the other examples didn’t do - it cut out characters, dropped subplots, and changed some of the themes.
So, why is that a problem when Game of Thrones does it, but not when it happens in Jaws or the Lord of the Rings?
Old Man Logan, Sort Of
My friend Jay Jones is a huge fan of the comic book “Old Man Logan,” about a retired Wolverine (the mutant, not the animal) who lives on a farm with his family, in a Mad Max-style apocalyptic future conquered by supervillains. In his past, Logan was manipulated into killing the other X-Men, and hasn’t popped his claws out since, but he’s dragged out of retirement by a blind Hawkeye and taken on a road-trip.
The comic is absolutely gonzo - Logan’s farm is harassed by the Hulk’s inbred kids, Hawkeye and Logan ride around in the spider-mobile, they run away from a dinosaur that bonded with the Venom symbiote, and the Red Skull is the President; it’s very over-the-top.
Logan also doesn’t pop his claws for most of the story, until he returns home to find his family dead, and John Wick-style, goes to get revenge. The comic ends with him getting vengeance, and vowing to rid the world of the supervillains. He may not put on a costume, but he becomes the Wolverine again.
Jay loves how bananas the comic is, from top to bottom, but by far his favorite scene is the reveal that the villain who tricked Logan into killing the X-Men… was Mysterio. The perennial joke, the seldom-taken-seriously, fishbowl-wearing stage magician, Mysterio.
As the film geared up for production, Jay was so excited at the film we were going to get.
But sometimes you have to give your friends bad news. I reminded him: Fox makes the X-Men movies, but they didn’t have an arrangement with Marvel. They couldn’t use Hawkeye, or the spider-mobile, or the venom symbiote. They couldn’t use Hulk or Red Skull.
They couldn’t use Mysterio.
It’s rare to watch someone go from excited to anguished, but that’s what happened to Jay. If “Old Man Logan” wasn’t going to have all these post-apocalyptic versions of Marvel goofiness, then what would be the point?
In the movie “Logan,” our hero pops his claws all the time, and he has no family left to avenge. There’s still plenty of infrastructure and civilization. The X-Men are dead at the hands of a trusted ally, but it wasn’t Logan. There are no dinosaurs or spider-mobiles.
It is also one of the greatest superhero films ever made.
Logan throws out the entire structure and plot of Old Man Logan, and instead makes a film that is explicitly about the current state of superhero films, and superhero fatigue. It’s about adaptation.
In the comics, superheroes go on forever. Old Man Logan can become Wolverine again and set out to rebuild the Avengers, despite being 200 years old. But Hugh Jackman is a mortal man (despite all appearances to the contrary). And he couldn’t play that role forever.
The comic is a new beginning for Wolverine. The film certainly leaves room for more stories about Laura and her team, but we are unlikely to get them now that Marvel has the rights; and honestly, that’s fine with me. I don’t need a Logan sequel. I don’t especially want a Logan sequel. Because Logan, to me, already has a perfect ending.
It may seem like I’m acting like I don’t get excited about adaptations, like I’m above giving in to hype, but that’s not remotely true. I started working on this blog right after the new adaptation for Stephen King’s “The Stand” started announcing its cast. “The Stand” is one of my favorite books, and I actually know one of the women who is working on the series, and I’m so excited for her, because she’s an amazing actress. Plus, James Marsden is playing the male lead, and I think he’s criminally underrated.
When I read the casting announcement, I actually got really emotional. And of course I started thinking about which scenes they’ll include, and how they’ll handle the villainous Randall Flagg, and if they’ll make changes to the ending.
I also know that my favorite chapter is practically un-filmable - it’s essentially a montage of dumb ways people die after the apocalypse. It’s mostly great because of the narration, and it doesn’t move the main story forward at all. If it does show up in the adaptation, I’ll be pleasantly surprised, but I can’t realistically expect it.
I started thinking about this because I realized that filmmakers can adapt a book however they want. There are no rules.
“Minority Report” adds richness and backstory to its main character that isn’t present in the book. For “Annihilation,” writer/director Alex Garland read the book once, and then adapted it from memory in order to capture the dreamlike nature of the story. I feel like that shouldn’t be allowed, like how can that even be an adaptation? But it works for that story.
(And if we want to split hairs, Garland got the blessing from the author, so who is hurt by this approach?)
What I’ve come to realize is that this question, “What are we owed from adaptation,” ultimately doesn’t matter. Because whether something is an adaptation or an original story, the creative team has to take their own approach.
So, here’s the real question:
What Are We Owed From Art?
More on that next time.