Books Movies Television

How Faithful Should Adaptations Be?

You might be keeping up with my reviews of the Wheel of Time. If you are, you know that I read the books previously. So for myself, I am going to compare what I am seeing in the show to what I read in the books. And if you go back and read my very first review, you will know that I wasn’t pleased with some of the changes that they made. But it does beg the question, how faithful do adaptations need to be? And what are the arguments for the different ways?

The Most Faithful Adaptations

It should be just like the book. I know what I liked about the books, and I need to see them. I want the same monsters, characters, plot points, everything to be like I think it is.

The upside to that style of adaptation is that the fans of the book are going to love it. All the nods and details that are from the book are going to stand out and feel like you get what you want. It also means that it won’t diverge too far from the story and give the show runners and writers a chance to mess it up. We can all think about adaptations, like late Game of Thrones or Bourne Identity that don’t feel like the book.

On the flip side, it can make it harder to get into. Let’s look at Lord of the Rings, or Wheel of Time. Do we need a massive section of the movies of Lord of the Rings with Tom Bombadil? As a fan of the books I might have liked it, but probably even I wouldn’t have enjoyed it that much. That isn’t what makes the book(s) interesting. The first Wheel of Time book would need to be 15-20 episodes to really cover everything at least.

The Least Faithful Adaptations

So instead you could just let the show runners do what they want. Once it’s out of the authors hand, it can be someone else’s vision of what it should be. They own the story n ow so don’t make a big deal out of the fact it has changed.

This can be good in some ways as well. It updates a story, potentially, for a wider audience. More appeal means better chance to long term success of the show or movies. So if there are a lot of books in the series to be adapted, better shot that we get them all. Sure, they might be different in a lot of ways, but it is still an adaptation of the series.

The downside is pretty big, though. You might get a show or movie that cuts out massive parts of the story. You end up with characters being completely skipped over. The main character changes completely. The bad guy has completely different plans. The murderer in a who-done-it is a different person. And now the heart of what made the book(s) special has been removed.

Somewhere In Between

Now, both of those are extreme examples of everything the same or everything different. I think that basically all adaptations end up here. Somewhere instbetween. And they lean towards either side. Even The Bourne Identity which just basically has Jason Bourne (the name) and amnesia as the main things it takes from the books, is technically here. Game of Thrones, which was very faithful in the first season, ends up here as well as they dropped out plot lines.

I think that this is the right spot for things to be. Let’s look at a few examples

Wheel of Time
Image Source: Tor

Wheel of Time

Wheel of Time meanders through the first section of the book. Everyone goes to Baerlon together. Shadar Logoth takes longer than it does in the show. It really breathes and gives you a chance to get to know the characters. It spends time explaining in more detail who the White Cloaks are and their intentions. We meet characters in different spots and get to see Moiraine use her power in different ways.

But that wouldn’t work as well in a show. Characters who are spending time learning things, Perrin for example, need the time to breath and think in the book. But thinking doesn’t translate well for television. A way was needed to show his struggles. While I think the show was heavy handed with how they did it, I know why they needed to do it. Plus a lot of traveling is only so interesting.

The Bourne Identity

This is an example of maybe how not to do it. Why, because it stripped a lot of the soul of it out. Now, the movie did well enough to get several sequels. So I know that I’m a bit in the minority on this one. But in terms of being a Bourne movie and someone who really liked the books, this isn’t a great adaptation. So a good action film.

But what made it not work for well what took it too far away. I think the idea of Treadstone being the bad guy for the whole of the movie. The books definitely don’t make you like Treadstone, but there is something else bigger pulling the strings, or maybe less bigger but scarier. The movie felt dumbed down from what the books were. The books are spy thrillers, the movie is an action film.

Game of Thrones

Now, admittedly, I didn’t watch all of Game of Thrones. I thought that the books themselves were average at best, and gave up after book four which was bad. But this one falls between, for me, what I’ve seen of Wheel of Time and The Bourne Identity. I think that they made some very needed changes to the show. Lady Stoneheart and that element of magic were pretty dumb in the books.

At the same time, they meandered through a number of pretty boring storylines. Bran’s story was never interesting in the book and the show didn’t do anything to make it more interesting. Even when things started to happen with that story, I still wasn’t interested in it. I think the number of characters and scope was just too big for the show and they never cut it down.

What Do We Do As Viewers?

First, know that it will be changed. Even things that are highly faithful, Game of Thrones probably the most faithful of my examples, will change. It’s not a knock or a negative that things change. It is needed sometime. Five episode of the Wheel of Time just with them traveling to places and listening to Perrin’s inner monologue to switch to Nyneaves and then to Rands, that’s not interesting.

Shows and movies have the ability to, well, show things. So a major point to a character that takes up pages in a book, that might be five minutes of showing something different on the screen. Different mediums need different things. So I always look for what the show feels like, and how well the aesthetic matches.

That’s the second thing, really, pay more attention to the feel of the show than the precise story points. Are they getting the feel of the characters right? Is the plot progressing to those key moments that it needs to. Even if those moments are tweaked slightly does it hit the major plot points. Wheel of Time is a good example of this, a lot has changed, but the major beats are getting used in the story. Sometimes in different ways but leading us in the right direction.

Finally, sometimes you need to just let it go. Don’t hold onto the book at all. For me, I had to let go of the fact that the Bourne Identity isn’t The Bourne Identity, it is it’s completely own thing. Now, I don’t like it still as an action movie, but that doesn’t have to do with the story or name but with the filming of the fight scenes. Change is going to happen, and it might be big changes, so sometimes I, and everyone, need to enjoy it for what it is.

What is your favorite adaptation of a book? And what book would you really love to see get adapted?

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