The Four Types of Adaptation
I was having a discussion with a friend about film and that led into discussing various film adaptions and how they aren’t all created equal. So the question has to be asked, what makes a “good” adaptation? There is such a broad range and scope of material to deal with that, at first, the task feels insurmountable — however, most of them have a certain amount of similar characteristics that makes it possible to break them down into four broad categories; each with their own sets of rules and characteristics. Hopefully, by presenting this now, some people will have a better understanding of how I approach these kinds of films and some others will find it helpful for becoming a smarter moviegoer. Before beginning with the list, I would like to remind you that this is largely subjective and based on observation — it isn’t iron-clad or set in stone. If you have additions or suggestions, please put them in the comments below. And now, the four categories of adaptation with their strengths and weaknesses.
The kinds of movies in this category are the strictest in terms of faithfulness to the original source material. With this category, there are few surprises to the audience as everything in it is either directly taken from, or strongly implied in the originally story “as previously told”. This can make for a very comfortable or nostalgic viewing experience as the audience simply relaxes and sees all the things that they already knew about the story. While the accuracy to the original is commendable, it can lend itself a stilted and clumsy feel as the audience takes in content that was (probably) intended to be consumed in a different media or mode. Certainly there are some adaptations that survive or cover this flaw better than others, but it is the biggest challenge of adapting almost anything with an extremely strict reliance on material accuracy. Notable examples: The Phantom of the Opera (2004), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999), Henry V (1989), Matthew: The Visual Bible (1993).
While it is true that these categories are ranked in descending order of accuracy, reinterpretation may be my favorite category of adaptations. In reinterpretation events are largely preserved in their original form (only minor tweaks for the sake of story), while context, dialogue and characters/development arcs are somewhat more flexible. In a strong reinterpretation, all of the changes that are made to settings, contexts and characters are very careful to remain faithful to the spirit or feel of the original, while still being different enough to surprise the audience with something that they may not be prepared for. Most audience members would be most familiar with this concept through any of the multitudes of versions of various Shakespearean plays that get run out every summer in a number of major cities across America. Reinterpretation allows the creative team to ask questions of the original material that other people might not have — “How would event ‘A’ effect a person with ‘X’ mindset, really?” “How would this story play out if it was in a different era?” These questions will create slight variations in emphases, pacing and the “freshness” of the material. It is hard to do well, but beautiful when it comes off. Notable examples: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Macbeth (2006), Into the Woods (2014), Lonesome Dove (1989), Dracula (1931), Ben-Hur (1959), Speed Racer (2008).
A re-imagining of a story in adaptation is probably the most common form of adaptation because it is by far the easiest to manage. In a re-imagining, the ultra broad-strokes are kept in tact, but all the details are negotiable. Characters can be plugged in, eliminated, and truncated at will, events and timelines can be compressed or expanded to meet the needs of the storyteller, but as long as the broadest version of conflict is maintained in form, it still counts as an adaptation — merely as the director’s version of the same story. Ultimately, this is the kind of adaptation we all love to hate…your favorite part of the book, the best song of the show, the iconic verbal spat that gives life to Character B’s development arc could all be missing, and yet it still somehow counts as an adaptation. In reality, however, these forms of adaptation lend themselves to feeling more like fan fic to the original. Notable examples: The Hobbit Trilogy (2012-2014), Noah (2014), The Hunger Games (2012-2015), The Princess Bride (1987), The Bourne Identity (2002), I Spy (2002), Meet The Robinsons (2007), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Great Escape (1963).
Of the four brands of adaptation, this is by far the most noxious. These films generally stick out like sore thumbs because their only purpose is to do some amount of violence to the original material. If you ever need to know when one of these films shows up, listen for things in the ad copy like “You think you know…”, “…the untold truth…”, “never before seen” and the like. These films are trying to make a cheap buck by suckering in someone with the concept of the original material, only to invert events and characters, radically changed the story, or attempt to offend the core audience. Notable examples: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Dracula Untold (2014), The Punisher (1989), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Blood: The Last Vampire (2009), The Last Airbender (2010), Tekken (2010), Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997).
Obviously, this list is hardly conclusive, but it is helpful. The question to be answered when seeing an adaptation is which category it belongs to and whether or not it was a technically well-made film. For adaptations that try to be too exacting in their transfer to the silver screen, they can lend themselves to being boring and feeling “old hat” to the audience, but if they aren’t close enough it can leave the fans feeling as though they didn’t “actually” see what they were hoping for. So next time you see an adaptation ask yourself what kind of adaptation it is trying to be and start from there — it makes no sense to criticize The Sound of Music for not having enough high-adrenaline action set-pieces… it makes just as little sense to ask why the story for Dracula Untold has so little to do with the actual life of Vlad the Impaler. I hope this helps someone who never thought about it before, but if not, it felt good to put it down. Shout out to Sarah for getting me thinking in this direction.