Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Adaptation Argument

Hope Larson
A while ago over at Robot 6, Chris Arrant reported how cartoonist Hope Larson would be adapting Madeline L'Engle's novel A Wrinkle In Time into comic format. The resulting comments thread for the article turned into a minor shitstorm, with people telling Hope she should produce her own original material (she does) and not plunder and ruin another author's work.

There is often this kind of grumbling and mild outrage when books are adapted for another medium. As far as I can see, the main agrument against the development of books into films or comics is two-fold. The first is that they are puling people away from reading. In my limited experience, I don't think this is true. Almost invariably when I have watched a movie I liked and know it is based upon a book, I seek out the book to read it. Many peole also try to read the original source material before a movie's release. Earlier in the year, before the film Never Let Me Go opened, reserves of the Kazuo Ishiguro's novel upon which it was based rocketed at Leeds Libraries. And this is a recurring trend.

For me, the problem is one of perception and expectation. When you read a book, you imagine characters to look and behave a certain way, envision situations to enfold in a particular manner. Ultimately you are putting your own slant and interpretation on the text, with your imagination working with the words being read and producing a unique representation. Therefore this is different for every person. When, for example, a film version of a book is made, different people will expect different things from it. They each expect the film to be a manifestation of what they conjured in their head whilst reading. When viewing things on screen, usually everybody sees the same thing- the extent to which films are open to interpretation is much more limited than in a book. In the end, the film is a combination of the director, screen-writer and actors' interpretation.

When books are adapted into films, words like 're-imagination', 're-working', 'different take/spin' are bandied around. The depth and nuance of words and ideas in literature makes it difficult to make a straight adaptaion of a book onto celluloid and in many cases the people 'adapting' the work don't attempt to do so. Taking Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend as an example (which I read after I had seen the film) and the 2007 Will Smith film of the same name, you get two vastly different texts.

Put basically, Matheson's novel is about accepting the change that has occured in the world, in the end his protaganist realises that the 'other' he has been fighting against is not the evil he had thought, but  the next step forward in evolution and is at peace with the idea of becoming one of them. His is acceptance and enlightenment, not resignation and defeat. In the 2007 movie, Will Smith's doctor fights against the 'other' until the very end, eventually finding a cure which he passes onto other survivors, the implication here being that all will be saved from turning into these vampiric monsters, thus eliminating the 'other' totally and returning to normality. The two texts carry almost opposing messages, but the film gained it's idea from Matheson's novel. Quite simply, it is not an adaptaion of the book Richard Matheson wrote.

Now there are people who would get angry about that- 'it's a desecration' 'they've changed the book' , but I think it's important to view each text separately and in its own right. The issue seems to revolve around this precious attitude around literature/books, whereby turning them into movies or comics somehow lessens them. It isn't necessarily a matter of 'dumbing down' texts to make them more accessible, it can be somebody loving a book or idea so much and taking it as a reference point to create something similar yet new. When you reverse the process, taking films such as Star Wars which has hundreds of books in which the adventures of Han and co are continued, nobody seems to view this as violation of sacrement. Instead these books are looked down upon as fan-fcition, although ostensibly it's the same process.

I think adaptations of books, films, comics etc can be hugely enjoyable provided you approach them in a certain way. There is nothing to be gained by promoting the idea that books are sacred and untouchable in this day and age; anything that provides an entry point into literature and reading is a good thing.

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