Adaptations, what makes them good?

Okay, let’s discuss adaptations. A lot of anime, and other media, is based around something else. In the case of anime, you get a lot of them that are adapted from manga or video games, but it’s also not unusual to find them based on western comics or literature. I’ve reviewed adaptations that were good ones that were mundane and ones that were horrendous. The question I’m interested in talking about today is a simple one. How do you make a good adaptation?

The easiest way is just to do a direct adaptation with everything being kept the same as it was in the original. With that way you can appease fans of the original and gather a new audience for it. Some people argue that direct adaptations don’t have any appeal since what you’re doing with them has already been done. This mentality explains pretty much every Hollywood movie ever. I would, however, point out that the anime industry illustrates the massive flaw with that way of thinking. A lot of anime based on manga do follow the original work really closely, if not exactly and they manage to draw audiences who were fans of the original and new audiences who may or may not pick up the manga as well.

That being said, direct adaptations aren’t the only type that can work and lead to something good. The second method is the reinterpretation. In this method the original gets reworked and ends up with some changes, possibly significant in nature. Of course, this method is risky. If it’s done badly you end up with Madhouse’s X-men, the Brave Story movie or anything ever written by Steven Moffat. However, it can also lead to something good. The anime Street Fighter II movie, the Baker Street graphic novel and the original Sailor Moon anime are all proof that you can take liberties with a subject and come up with something good.

So, what exactly is the distinction between reinterpretations that fail and those that succeed. Well, if I had to explain it briefly I would say that the ones that work are well grounded in the original. They may not be direct adaptations, but the people who worked on them understand the way the characters work and, perhaps just as importantly, they understand the aesthetic and tone of the original and are able to recapture it.

Let’s compare Baker Street with the many, many horrendous Holmes adaptations in order to illustate that point. The reason Baker Street works in spite of the changes to setting and even gender is that Davis and Reed understood Holmes’ methods and they understood his highly moral nature and the fact that he cared more about morals and ethics than the letter of the law. They’re able to capture that essence of the character and apply it to Sharon Ford. They also capture the structure of Holmes’ mysteries, the partnership dynamic that Holmes and Watson have and the general tone.

In contrast, bad reinterpretations tend to ignore all of that and make Watson an idiot, Holmes a high functioning sociopath or something slightly less stupid but still completely contrary to the original stories. To the point where you question if the person who wrote it even read the original stories, or is even literate.

To put it as simply as I can, a good reinterpretation is recognisable as being based on a work even if the character names are changed. A bad reinterpretation can only be recognised as a reinterpretation because of the names. You could change the character and location names and no one would ever know that it was based off of something.

This brings me to the last type of adaptation that can potentially work, the prequel/sequel. When one of these works, it can expand on the original story, characters and world. When it doesn’t work it just makes fans of the original angry at those responsible and opens up plot holes. The key here is continuity. The prequel/sequel should match the original work. Otherwise, it opens up all kinds of perfectly legitimate questions. Like “who is that guy, didn’t Obi-wan say that he was trained by Yoda?” or “wasn’t the force supposed to be an energy field and not microscopic bacteria?” Basically, it creates plot holes and continuity problems.

In the end, the big thing that separates good from bad adaptations, regardless of the type of adaptation is a writer, or team of writers, who cares enough about the original to represent it well and put a good effort into it. People who just want a famous name to attach to their schlock or who are working on adapting something they don’t like so that it will appeal more to them, are going to do a terrible job.

Those are my thoughts on it. Next week I’ll try the manga review or the constructive list of ways for something to improve and we’ll see which thing works the best in general. Feel free to leave a comment on your thoughts about adaptations or on how you feel about the things I’ve been trying.

2 thoughts on “Adaptations, what makes them good?

  1. undertheglassbell

    For me, whether it is an adaption or reinterpretation, the most important thing is consistency in the created work itself. Apart from the ‘usual fans’ i think it really doesn’t matter what they took out from manga/comic/novel, it’s what they do with it. The events can change, original characters can change, just ‘being different from the original work’ does not necessarily make the adaption bad.

    Of course if you stick with original work completely, then it’s not really risky. But most of the time (novel-to-movie adaptions for example) this option is not possible because sometimes the original work contain too much information or detail or you cannot express the feeling/emotion/setting as the original so you need to change what you have, since every art form have different ways to express and perception differs with each person.

    So i try to watch/read the adaption as a new piece and try to judge it this way. Because it may not be fair to expect another person to read the same piece as me and feel exactly the same way and convey it through a new medium in a way i like.

    Sorry for talking too much (。-_-。). Also wanted to say, keep up the good work!^^

    1. ktulu007 Post author

      Don’t apologise. It was interesting to hear your thoughts. Although in my opinion an adaptation should follow the original at least in terms of characterisation and basic story aesthetic.

      My thinking on it being that there’s no point in an adaptation that only takes the character names and some other very superficial details. You might as well just have an original work in that case.

      Of course, that isn’t to say that something that fails as an adaptation can’t be good in its own way when divorced from the thing it’s adapting, but I will fully understand someone who hates it because it was supposed to be an adaptation.

      On a final note, thank you. I will endeavour to “keep up the good work.”


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