But it was cool when… – times adaptations got it right

Earlier, I wrote a blog called ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if’ … – the modern curse of Sci-fi and fantasy where I argued against taking liberties in adaptations for the sake of a cool (but unjustified) moment and one reader asked me if I ever thought adaptations could be better.

I feel I need to respond to this for a number of reasons. First of all, adaptations per se are not the problem. My problem is with WIBCI moments that wreck the story around them/the characterisation of those involved. As I wrote in that article, they are by no means limited to adaptations they just have worse consequences when they are.

Still, it’s fair to ask if I think there are times when TV/film can do better than my beloved medium of text. There are many writers who are dismissive of visual media and as a result are often far less outraged by bad adaptation than their readers. To them the definitive version (theirs) will always exist no matter what goes on elsewhere.

There are others who think TV/film is always better or at least the only form people care about and while I can’t agree with them on that, there is a  tiny nugget of annoying truth in that. Adaptations can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed, as for many people this will be their first introduction to the story. A poor adaptation may stand in the way of the author getting their true vision across.

There are others still who say there are two versions and you can’t really compare them. As reasonable as this position is, I can’t agree with that either. One begat the other and for the reasons mentioned before, the other often stands as the former’s representative in the world of mainstream awareness. Note George RR Martin being called on to justify Sansa-gate when he didn’t even write that. The two are and always will be linked.

This matters to me because I don’t dismiss TV/film. I always hope for good adaptations because when I read a book I can see the potential. As a novelist, there are tools available to TV/film which I envy; most notably the performance of actors and a soundtrack and I think these are two ways in which the original story can actually be enhanced for the readers.

So after that long pre-amble here follows some examples of when TV/film really added something. Since this site is primarily focussed on fantasy I’ll stick to famous examples from that but it’s only fair that I shout out Fight Club as an example of a film that deviated to good effect. There are a number of times when minor characters are replaced with Tyler and the ending is totally different. In both cases I think this is an improvement on what is a very good original story. Ok, back to fantasy…

Robert & Cersei, Game of Thrones Season 1, episode 5 ‘The Wolf & the Lion’.

All of season 1 of Game of Thrones is pretty much a definitive guide on how to adapt a book faithfully. Most of the changes are editing for content (which is perfectly acceptable especially when there are budget limits) and where they are not they are fleshing out characters who we didn’t see so much of in the books.

This works because all the books in A Song of Ice and Fire use the POV structure meaning there is much that happens that we (as the readers) just don’t ‘see’. The Robert and Cersei scene in episode 5 is an example of something that ‘could have’ happened off-camera from the POV characters in question.

The two of them talk and in doing so answer some questions that we wouldn’t have known the answer to otherwise and flesh out our understanding of them .In the scene both remain ‘in character’ even when they show a side to their character you might not have expected. Some purists might take umbrage that Cersei is depicted as having loved Robert initially but I think it shows them both to be more human (albeit horrifically flawed humans).

Lighting the beacons, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Ok, the set up is a bit laboured and unnecessary. Denethor in the film is a bit less ambiguous than in the book so he actively tries to stop this sensible measure leading Pippin to have to show some initiative. But once that is out of the way we are treated to one of the stand out sequences of the film. The soaring soundtrack of the Gondor theme playing over the glorious New Zealand scenery passing hope from mile to mile with every burst of firelight. In the books it is mentioned but, much as we try as writers, this is the kind of thing where film has us beat.

The battle of summer and winter, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

Now it’s been a fair few years since I’ve read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but as I recall the battle is not described in a huge amount of detail. The film-makers really used the opportunity to give a scene that embraced the otherworldliness of the creatures involved; the griffins (superbly, character-fully animated incidentally) swoop in and throw rocks, the phoenix creates a fiery barrier and best of all is the moment when the big cats can’t restrain themselves any more and outstrip the rest of the cavalry while on the other side polar bears and loping werewolves run to meet them. For once, really running with an action set-piece really pays off here.

Of course there are many other examples than this (mentioning all the times an actor made a character more sympathetic is a blog in of itself) but I think in all of these cases the TV/film-makers have managed to add something without taking anything away. There is no car-crash or unravelling, simply they have taken what was there and added their own artistic flourish in in a way that remains true to the original story.

 

 

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