Great Adaptations

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Adaptation in cinema has rich and complex history with many stories traditionally drawn from novels and historical records. A few interesting ideas have emerged from this process of transmutation over the decades:

We have discovered that many books/tales simply do not translate well to the big screen, or at least not without considerable hacking and slashing or outright neglecting of the source material (or a due to a genius adaptor behind the camera). The Count of Monte Christo is a good example, or even the much-cursed saga of Don Quixote. HBO and other similar companies, on the other hand, have shown us the power of the series format and possibly bridged this long-standing gap between film and the written word.

The most enduring stories tend to be ones that either re-affirm our collective value systems, revisit popular sentiments or evoke the most powerful emotional impulses we share. The best stories are like good observational humour; we all get it on some level because most of us have lived it or can get behind the situation. Life and death, love and hate, revenge and atonement, betrayal and loyalty, innocence and corruption, fear and fearlessness; these are constants that seem to inhabit the human soul and immediately compel us to nod our heads in recognition.

The only true way to innovate upon these classic storytelling artefacts is to play with expectations like it is done, for instance, with espionage and counter-espionage. A cheap approach is to indulge in gimmicks and stunts which will carry you for a while but eventually reduce you to a alleyway three-card peddler, or to simply draw in the audience through brand recognition and nostalgia only to bend it to your corporate agenda. A more rewarding technique is to strip down these classic story elements and ask yourself how they would play out in the present context of values and beliefs. A good adaptor identifies the precious building blocks of a great story and elaborates upon them.

A great example of a solid adaptation can be found in Marvel’s Ultimate Avengers comic book series. The idea was to reboot the Marvel universe and give it a more modern socio-political edge while also doing the most amazing thing; exploring at classic characters like Captain America and really asking some valid questions about the psychological state of, in this case, a WWII-era super-soldier who wakes up from a 70-year sleep to a post-911 America.

It was genius because the average fan still got to see him be a hero and cartwheel out of danger while slinging his shield, and yet there is now a more complex side to him that makes him tangible and credible in the 21st century. In one scene Cap finds out that his teammate Hank Pym has been physically abusing his wife (Wasp) and tracks him down 1940’s-style to “teach him a lesson”. This kind of situation pays tribute to the character while also revealing something potentially new and believable about his personality. The series gives the other Avengers a similar treatment going so far as to make them look like recognizable Hollywood actors and would eventually go on to heavily influence Joss Whedon’s Avengers film.

The lesson here is that adaptation works best when the heart/soul of a story is what is carried over, not just the aesthetics, symbols, and names. The Transformers films ultimately failed to capture the power of the cartoons because it was all spectacle; nowhere to be found were the inner-turmoils of Optimus Prime or the boiling game of betrayal between Megatron and Starscream. Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey managed to capture all of Arthur C. Clarke’s incredible imaginary complexity while pulling the story masterfully into the context of the birth of the Space Race.

Next time I’ll discuss some stories I would love to adapt myself and why/how.

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