Adaptations Don’t Have to be Faithful to be Good


Lately, it seems as if every popular television or movie franchise is an adaptation or a remake. Professional word-sayers have been whining about adaptations for over a decade now, and the complaint has become trite. It’s fairly true, but quotidian by now. However, there’s a companion gripe that gets much less coverage: the Source Material True Fan (™). Source Material True Fans (SMTF) are those who take to Reddit, Facebook, lonely balconies, and Twitter to whine that an adaptation is “wrong.” They lament that it is untrue to the source material. I find the whinging tedious for several reasons. 

Adaptations Are Not Word-For-Word Translations

Translation is an art in and of itself; talented translators can even earn fine arts degrees in translation. To move a piece of written word from one language to another requires more than just a word-for-word alteration. If that were the case, Google Translate would render multilingualism obsolete. Instead, a good translator must understand the idioms and phrasing of both languages in order to capture the spirit of the original work. For example, a translator wouldn’t directly translate an American English phrase such as “he was really pissed off and got carried away.” If you tried to directly translate that, you’d end up with something like “he urinated on himself and was taken away.” That’s clearly a more fun sentence, but probably not what was meant. 

Similarly, an adaptation from the written word to the screen requires a similar translation. At the moment, I’m thinking of the Wheel of Time Amazon series. I read the first 428 books of the series when I was in high school. I watched the show recently and found myself thinking “I don’t remember that happening at all.” I’m rereading the series now – I’m on book seven – and I don’t remember these show moments because they simply don’t happen in the book series.

Several of the differences seem to be an attempt to make the show much darker and more like Game of Thrones. The book series is replete with darkness surrounding the main characters, but it’s distinctly high fantasy. Problems are solved with clever magic, narrow scrapes are avoided through providence, and destiny guides our heroes to exactly where they need to be. That’s nothing like Game of Thrones, a low fantasy series. 

So, why make these grimdark changes? If I had to guess, I’d say Amazon wanted to ride a low fantasy wave. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s definitely not wrong. Wrong and right don’t have much meaning in art. I suspect that if the show had been adapted right after Lord of the Rings stomped all over the box office, the show would have stayed truer to its high fantasy roots. Television shows cost money, though – lots of money. The only way to pay for a show is to do what’s popular. That’s where art meets nekkid capitalism. 

Books Are Long, Even the Short Ones

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is 317 books long, each book is about 4,000 pages, and entire plots happen in the course of a single sentence. A Song of Ice and Fire, the source material for Game of Thrones, is five books long and will never be finished. Lord of the Rings is three books long but each book is just a description of the landscape of Middle-Earth. Brilliant things happen in these books, but oftentimes, that brilliance is impossible to translate on screen. 

A book can say “Rand Al’Thor destroyed the entire army with the One Power.” A TV show, however, needs to show you that. What takes the space of a single line in a book can take an entire episode of a TV series. If you wanted to “faithfully” adapt Wheel of Time, you would need probably twenty-eight seasons – two for each book. Game of Thrones would have required probably 15 seasons to cover the five books written so far. (Side Note: that’s why comic book adaptations are so popular. A comic is basically just a storyboard.) So, choices have to be made. 

What stays? What gets cut? Which sentence turns into an entire episode? Which entire plotlines get axed? These are manifestations of the adapter. The adapter must be as much of an artist as the original creator, just as the translator must be as much of a writer as the original author. 

Then, there are capitalist considerations. Would I love a word-for-word adaptation of The Silmarillion in the style of a Ken Burns documentary? Yes, I would, and so would dozens of us. Dozens! But until Jeff Bezos answers my emails about the money making potential of such a venture, it ain’t happening. 

Would Victarion Greyjoy have been much cooler than Euron (pronounced “urine”) Crow’s Eye? Absolutely. But the cascading effects of adding Victarion would have added at least another season to Game of Thrones and nobody destined for heaven wants another season of GoT. 

The Adaptations are not the Thing

Nothing better than a SMTF that is also an amateur executive producer.

If you are a SMTF and you dislike an adaptation, that’s fine. The Source Material still exists and will exist as long as paper and computer servers exist. You can flip open A Game of Thrones to any page at any time and Robb Stark is alive. At that moment on that page, Robb Stark is always alive. That’s why we discuss literature in the present tense. It’s always right now wherever you turn. 

If they make 42 more seasons of Wheel of Time for Amazon, Perrin will never axe-murder his wife in the books (there’s no spoiler alert because you want to see that farce coming.) No matter what anyone does in an adaptation, the Source Material is untouched. Unclench, SMTF. Close the app, and go enjoy the original work. 

That is, unless, you’re only hollering so you can feel superior to people who never read the books.