We can all name a bad adaptation of a book or comic we liked, but did you know that adaptations can also be… good? In fact, this is much more common than people realize. Bad adaptations tend to grab the headlines, but it’s important to talk about good ones too, and what makes them good in the first place. This week, we’ll discuss when it’s important to make changes, how to preserve the original’s best qualities, and why The Lord of the Rings movies were perhaps a bit too successful.
Generously transcribed by Raillery. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.[intro theme]
Oren: Welcome everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren and with me today is…
Oren: It’s just us for today. Wes is out doing his own thing, wandering the fields. This week we’re adapting the podcast again. But get this: it’s going to have a high budget, and we’re going to be played by very attractive actors. It could be really great. I think we could have a good adaptation this time.
Chris: I dunno, Oren. I think you need good source material. I guess we could have the same type of adaptation as Alice in Wonderland has, which also has no plot.
Oren: Sometimes there are good adaptations made out of less-good source material. Usually they have to be made out of something. Wheel of Time is better than its source material.
Chris: That’s true. Wheel of Time did have more to start with, and plotting. But maybe we can choose something that’s thematically like the podcast. It’s a bunch of critics who go around yelling at stories and people get mad at them.
Oren: I do that in real life, so I could just film it and it’d be great.
Chris: Alright, the Wheel of Time. We talked about that one recently
Oren: Yeah, we had a whole episode on that one. So I want to talk about other good adaptations. Wheel of Time has had its day! No more Wheel of Time discussion! It’s being banned forever.
An adaptation that I actually really liked despite it clearly being made for approximately fifty cents and a piece of gum was The Dresden Files show.
Chris: Yeah, that was good. It was really campy, which is actually a pretty good match for the books.
Oren: The original books can get a little insufferable in *creepy whisper* how dark and noir they are, *normal voice* especially the early ones. By the later books, the series has improved and it’s embraced the campiness a little bit more, but there were several things I liked about the TV adaptation. I liked that Dresden actually looked poor. The TV show did a much better job of selling that than the books do.
Chris: He didn’t have a big Manhattan apartment?
Oren: He did have an unreasonably large apartment. That’s just standard. Everyone has one of those. But he had to make a wizard staff out of a hockey stick because he couldn’t afford a real wizard staff.
In the book, he just has a cool wizard staff, because even though he’s poor, he’s still a cool bad-ass wizard. Whereas in the TV show, it actually felt like he was maybe taking some hits for not being rich. There isn’t really a realistic way to make a wizard poor. Wizards have so many ways they could use magic to make money. But if you’re going with that premise, then having Dresden actually look like he has to cobble together his magical stuff from whatever he has around him…his blasting rod is a drumstick.
Chris: There’s no getting away from the fact that Dresden is a noir story and a big part of that is always having the P.I. be poor. You’re right because it’s unusual to mix magic with those kinds of things and that’s gotta add novelty.
Oren: In the book, Dresden is “poor” in quotation marks. He mentions it a few times and he doesn’t love his apartment. Otherwise, he seems like a normal bad-ass wizard. Whereas this TV show Dresden clearly has more problems.
I also really liked that Bob was a ghost teacher with a tragic backstory, rather than in the books where Bob is a pervy air spirit. The television Bob is just way more compelling as a character. The book Bob just yells about sex stuff every time Dresden goes down to the basement.
Chris: Yeah, pervy characters aren’t funny. Let’s not do those anymore.
Oren: It wasn’t funny. It was boring. Whereas this other Bob has some interesting potential and, of course, the show was canceled before we could get into that. But I liked it. I thought it was pretty good.
Chris: One of my favorite adaptations is actually the middle Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire.
Oren: The middle one, huh?
Chris: Yeah, the middle one. It’s really hard to do a middle story because you’re not starting and you’re not ending. It felt like a story that had its own plot, despite being in the middle of much more so than the actual book did.
The book is just kind of a series of things happening. Not that there was no plot to it, but it doesn’t feel very cohesive. Whereas I felt like the movie was really good at teasing out where the actual plot was, starting immediately with the tension being they’re actually still in danger and they have to put on a brave face in order to keep their heads.
Then they fail to do that and end up in the Hunger Games again. There’s also a lot more tension around what happens to them specifically and what happens to Peta. So at the end, when Peta is taken away, it actually feels like it is completing that arc. We had tension over whether they would be okay, and in the end Peta’s not okay even though Katniss managed to get away.
The tension was brought out and it just felt less rambling and a tighter story. There are still some inherent problems because, in both the book and the movie, Katniss just doesn’t have enough agency. There are all of these characters who are part of the revolution and who are just plotting without telling her for some reason.
And so they arrange this escape from the Hunger Games, but she’s not part of that. It does feel like there’s something separate from that whole revolution that’s part of an arc that she’s more intimately involved with. This is that personal welfare angle, which she can then affect and bring to a conclusion. Because if she had managed to bring Peta with her, she would have succeeded at that arc even if the revolution was out of her control.
Oren: In the first movie, I appreciated the addition of little messages with the support packages she gets, because those aren’t in the book, as I recall. The book has a first-person narrator that tells us certain things and provides a window into how Katniss is thinking. Interestingly, the movie uses those little messages in the same way. It’s subtle and there’s like less they can do with it, but it helps give Katniss some context for what she’s doing.
Chris: Last week, we were talking about how bad adaptations just call more attention to themselves. I think that the first Hunger Games is a fine adaptation because it’s like, ‘Hey, we saw the book as a film.’
Oren: Pretty good book, pretty good movie. It has basically the same problems as the book. It’s trying desperately to convince me that Katniss is an underdog when she has the perfect set of skills to win the Hunger Games.
Of course, the adaptations that come to everyone’s mind when you think of good adaptations, and rightly so, are The Lord of the Rings films.
Chris: Those were so iconic and started so many trends. In fact, it inspired too many things like Lord of the Rings. They were too successful because then we had things like the Alice in Wonderland adaptation, which was trying to copy them.
Oren: And the Narnia adaptations.
Chris: I gotta say that I watched Fellowship again recently and that movie still holds up really well. It’s still stunning filmmaking.
Oren: Fellowship is definitely the best of the three. The other two are fine, but Fellowship is just a really tight, well-put-together movie. The other two are a little bit sloppier with a little more stuff that definitely feels like it didn’t need to be there or isn’t pulling up strong as the rest of the movie.
Chris: It’s partly the constraints of the books. This was also an issue with the Wheel of Time show that I’m not sure I covered: when you have a book that has the characters go off in different directions and start doing their entirely different storylines, the plot is just no longer tight.
When you have an adaptation where the adaptation is expected to cover all the important points in the book, it can’t really cut any of those out. So now the adaptation has all these siloed storylines and is just not tightly-woven anymore. That’s definitely an issue with the later Lord of the Rings.
Those books are still classic though. Therefore, making huge rewrites to them would probably have been considered unacceptable. It’s really hard to get the rights from the Tolkien family, so you have to stick closely to the originals if you want to get those rights. And that’s not even bringing up the fact that the fans often don’t like it when you change things. So the movies were stuck with some of those plot weaknesses. The screenwriters did the best they could with them. In Fellowship, all of the major characters are together.
Oren: They did make some significant changes that you don’t even notice a lot of the time because they’re just so good. The biggest one is cutting Tom Bombadil. Correct choice, hot take. But there are a bunch of others. Smaller ones that help altogether.
Arwen being the one who raises the river both gives Arwen something to do and makes it so we don’t have to introduce Random Elf Number 63, who is super important and has a bunch of names that we’ll never see again.
Chris: There’s still not a lot of female characters in the Lord of the Rings movies, but they did try to bring out those there were in the book, which is a very small number.
Oren: I mean, Arwen has lines in the movies. In the books, Arwen has so few lines that I was surprised in the end when she talked. I was like, ‘Oh, she can talk? Fascinating.’
Chris: And Eowyn’s role is bigger too. The movie made a much bigger deal of that ‘I am no man’ scene than the books do. It exists in the books, but it feels a lot more shared between Eowyn and Merry.
Oren: We also don’t have the implication that Eowyn is done being a soldier because she found a dude to date in the movie. So it’s nice that they didn’t include that part. People will fight me about this, but I read that part of the book and it’s pretty clear. I can quote the text if you want.
Helm’s Deep is actually a tense and difficult battle in the movie, whereas in the books it’s an orc-killing picnic. It feels very weird reading the book after seeing the movie because you expect the arrival of the Rohirrim to be super tense, but feels more like they’re mopping up.
And the Rohirrim are led by Some Guy, because Eomer is already inside the castle with the king in the book. In the movie they had Eomer and the king have a rift between them, so they can get back together at the end and make up. And that’s nice. That’s a little something that’s a little emotional drama for you, as a treat.
Chris: Another way they modernize the values of Lord of the Rings is in response to how Tolkien was really into hierarchy and just liked the idea that some people are inherently superior to others because they’re higher class. We see this dynamic between Frodo and Sam a lot in the books.
Oren: It’s weird to the extent that, in the books, the Frodo-Sam relationship is a master-servant relationship. That’s a little uncomfortable. In the movies, they’re just very good friends…or gay, whichever you want them to be.
Chris: There’s this section where, just like in the movies, Sam thinks that Frodo is dead. So he starts thinking, ‘Okay, well, I guess I gotta complete Frodo’s quest for him’ and he takes the ring and starts carrying it. In the book, when he finds out that photo’s alive and they’re rejoined, there’s a little finger-wagging from Frodo. ‘Sam, didn’t you know that that’s not your place?’
Good changes, good changes all around.
Oren: The movies weren’t able to change the really bad stuff. We still have the orcs and the “swarthy men.” They don’t call them that in the movie, but they are still the evil nonwhite humans who are on Modor’s side, for some reason. That’s still there. I would have liked them to find a way to fix that, but I’ll take what I can get.
Chris: Another good one to mention would be the Strange & Norrell mini-series.
Oren: That surprised me so much.
Chris: I haven’t actually read through the novel. It’s 300,000 words, roughly.
Oren: It’s 308,931 words. And I felt every single one of them.
Chris: They didn’t try to condense that down into just one movie.
Oren: Thank God.
Chris: It had more material than the movie because it’s a mini-series. At the same time, I suspect the reason why this adaptation is so successful is that, from what I hear, it’s both very true to the books but also just way better. There was so much extra fluff that didn’t actually need to be in the books. So the movie just took the best parts for itself.
Oren: I read the book. I really did not like it. The miniseries works much better for a few reasons. One is that the actual story is much clearer. The actors help a lot, but we also just focus on them more. The book is constantly going off on weird tangents, which some people like, but to me it’s just really annoying. As a result, the relationship between Strange & Norrell is really weak in the books. But in the show, it’s the emotional crux of the story.
I had an interesting experience where people were arguing with me that their relationship was the best and how could I criticize it? I was talking about the books, but several of those people had only seen the show. That’s what they were basing their understanding of the relationship on. Almost everything from the books is in the mini-series, but so much of the extra narration was taking up room that it still feels like they cut a lot, even though they actually didn’t. They preserved almost everything.
Chris: That’s quite a feat.
Oren: There’s less time to dwell on the plot problems. One of the things that’s really obnoxious in the books is that the first thing we see Norrell do is perform these incredibly powerful feats of magic. He brings an entire courtyard of statues to life. And then later, he’s in London and he’s desperately trying to convince people that he can do magic.
That goes on for a while. And you’re just like, ‘How can you not convince them that you can do magic? You can bring a whole courtyard of statues to life.’ The same thing happens with Strange when he goes to the peninsula to fight in the war against Napoleon. He’s desperately trying to think of a way he can be useful when he has all of these powers.
Those things are still in the show, but they just don’t take that long. Therefore, you have less time to be like, ‘Why don’t you do any of these things you’ve done before?’
Chris: Whereas when you have long-winded narration, it gives you plenty of time to think of all of the different options.
Oren: The show just does a much better job focusing on the differences in their styles of how Norrell is super about books while Strange wants to experiment and try new things. This creates a strong character dynamic between them. That’s what people are talking about.
And of course, it also helps that the magical effects are very pretty. In the book it’s described in very dry terms. ‘It’s a ship made out of rain!’ That’s a neat idea, but it’s not very well-described. In the TV show, you actually get to see what that looks like.
Chris: It’s hard for me to vote-down a TV show where they ducked somebody to the fey realm for a fey dance. Yeah, the show is very nice.
Oren: I love that show. I was not expecting to love it because I could barely stand the books. That show is the gold standard of how to adapt a story and make it better at the same time.
Chris: Although I have to say, I bet it was much easier because of how much fluff there was in there. This is probably also true with Catching Fire. Sometimes what you find is that a novel works much better as a movie because there wasn’t enough content in the novel or a lot of it was unnecessary tangents or things were too long-winded.
If you just use the strikeout tool, that novel would have been better as a novella. I think movies are about novella length or so.
Oren: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would have been better as a shorter novel. I’m not saying it needs to be shrunk down to novella length.
Chris: Well, it was a mini-series, right? Luckily, they didn’t try to make it all the way down to a movie. That’s another thing: some novels work much better as TV shows and you really shouldn’t try to fit them into a two-hour movie.
Oren: In the show, the whole comedy of manners works much better than it does in the books. It’s just very dry.
And it’s not that a comedy of manners can’t work in books. Sorcerer to the Crown is a very good English comedy of manners book series also about sorcerers in Georgian England, incidentally. In that one, the comedy of manners works very well because that’s what we’re focusing on.
In Strange & Norrell, we’re not really focused on anything, so it comes across better in the show. Or at least that’s my recollection.
Chris: There are a lot of comic-book-to-movie or animation adaptations. For a lot of these, I haven’t seen the comic books. But I did look up the comic for Hilda, partly because I wanted to see the differences in the medium.
Some people got a little peeved at me for calling comics a poor man’s animation, but it is. As a person who writes a comic and likes comics, a comic is something that one or two people can do. A whole animated show takes way more people. There is one advantage that comics have: because you are moving through the scenes at your own pace, you can put in little details. Somebody pointed out that you can put a whole map for somebody to take as much or as little time as they want examining it. You can put in little Easter eggs that would be easier for somebody to pick up on in the background, or something of that kind.
Choosing your own pace for how fast you go through the images is an advantage that comics have over something that is animated. But other than that, since it doesn’t have sound and is on a much lower budget, I think that calling it poor man’s animation is not entirely inaccurate.
When I looked at the Hilda comic, it was different in small ways but it looked like somebody had gone and given it another layer of polish. The animation looks very similar to the comic, but it’s just a little more polished. Same with the plot. It’s basically the first sequence of Hilda. She puts a bell around the troll’s nose that starts bothering it. And she’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the bell. I gotta take the bell off.’ That little cute sequence is pretty much taken straight from the comic, but just with the little bit of plot smoothing here.
It really showed me how smoothly comics can translate directly to animated films. The mediums are very similar.
Oren: Yeah. Especially since a lot of what’s happening in comics is using still images to suggest movement. Here’s a still image, here’s another still image, and they are drawn in such a way to trick your brain into imagining the movement between each image.
Chris: You know, films also do that. If you’ve ever tried making a meme and think ‘I remember this moment from a movie. Now I want to watch through it and get a screen capture of that moment.’ It’s actually surprisingly hard because most of the time what I see is a picture in my head of the scene where I have two characters standing there looking at each other.
Then if I play the film, it’s actually a closing shot of one character’s face followed by a closing shot of the other character’s face. There is rarely a shot that actually shows them standing together in the same frame. If there is, it’s a quick establishing shot and it doesn’t really show them both in a nice light, like a photograph would.
So I think that to some extent, even live-action films will piece together your idea of what’s happening through small shots that create that.
Oren: That’s definitely true.
Chris: It’s almost like a comic. You add additional panels and then you automatically cycle through them at a certain pace and then you’ve got an animated show.
Oren: Here’s a question for you: does Arcane count as an adaptation?
Chris: I guess there are characters, right? I think we could say that it’s more of an adaptation than Pirates of the Caribbean because the Disney World ride doesn’t have specific characters, whereas Arcane at least does have specific characters from League of Legends. If it is an adaptation, we can certainly call it a good adaptation.
Oren: Yeah, it was quite good. Although it was interesting that a lot of its problems were due to being an adaptation. Not all of them though. Part of the issue is that there are too many characters and that was at least partially because it’s an adaptation and you need to get in as many of the characters from the game as you can.
Then there were smaller things such as Jinx, because of the game, already having an established character, an established attitude, an established voice. Therefore, she has to be like that in the show, but they don’t want her to be like that as a little kid in the backstory, because that would be weird. So instead, somehow this normal kid grew up into Harley Quinn? How? Why is she like Harley Quinn? None of the characters around her are like that.
Those are small things. For the most part, it’s a surprisingly good show.
Chris: It’s definitely one of the most successful video game adaptations. The fact that there was no existing stories was probably the reason why. Otherwise, new games don’t typically have very strong stories because of all that gameplay stuff in there.
Oren: Right. And they didn’t try to take a premise that we only accept because we need it for the game to work and make a story out of that. Arcane is not about a team of five heroes fighting another team of five heroes across three lanes in a jungle, thank God.
Oren: As opposed to something like the Mortal Kombat film. Even the most recent one is really struggling to justify a bunch of weirdos fighting each other in one-on-one matches.
Chris: That’s a good point. What if they took Mortal Kombat and they’re like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna use the same characters, but we don’t need to have a big tournament. We’re just going to free up the plot a little bit to do what we want.’
Oren: Maybe people would not think that was actually a Mortal Kombat movie. I don’t know. Maybe that’s what’s holding them back: they think that they have to keep the tournament. It’s funny because the new Mortal Kombat movie isn’t even about the tournament.
The tournament is going to happen later and a guy is trying to sabotage it by taking out all of Earthrealm fighters before the tournament, but he’s doing it in the same way that they would do it at the tournament: through one-on-one fights. It’s just kind of weird. ‘I guess I’m having the tournament early.’
Chris: That’s a good point. Maybe if League of Legends doesn’t need to have a plot about five Team Good members versus five Team Evil members fighting on three lanes, then why does Mortal Kombat need to keep the whole tournament-style plot?
Oren: Alright, to the people who have the Mortal Kombat IP, that one’s free.
An interesting example of adaptations are the Discworld films. There are three of them. I haven’t seen the show because it’s not easily available to stream anywhere, but the three movies from a while back are The Color of Magic, Hogfather, and Going Postal.
Of the three of them, I’d say Going Postal is the best. It’s almost a direct adaptation of the book. Color of Magic is definitely the worst. It made the most changes, but I don’t think the changes that were made are really the reason that it’s not very good. It’s because the book’s not very good either.
Chris: The book’s not very good and maybe the movie’s changes should have been more aggressive.
Oren: I don’t really know how I feel about the making Two Flower a white guy, because on the one hand, it’s serious whitewashing and there aren’t that many non-white characters in Discworld, unfortunately. But on the other hand, the original Two Flower character was kind of a stereotype.
Chris: I feel like you could just change the stereotype. For instance, in the Sleepy Hollow adaptations, the original story is short and nothing much happens. The guy tries to ask a woman to marry him and gets rejected, then goes home and gets scared by a trickster before running off.
If you read the original story, oh my gosh does the writer love the trickster guy! He spent so much time waxing poetic about how awesome this dude is. Therefore, I don’t think Ichabod is actually murdered in their original story. Think he just gets scared and runs off from the village.
Trying to make Ichabod into a decent character would be a hard thing. In Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow movie, Alice doesn’t need to be a Kung Fu master if she’s not going to use Kung Fu. There are plenty of adaptations that just remake the main character into a decent person. Whatever it is they need for decency, the adaptations made that change.
In Sleepy Hollow, the film makes a show of Ichabod being a coward by having him visibly show that he’s frightened. He’s not actually a coward, of course, because he does brave things all the time.
Oren: Ichabod does all of the things, but he does them while going, ‘Ah, I’m scared!’
Chris: That is a thing that not a lot of guys in action movies portray. They’re not allowed to show fear that much. It is novel in itself.
Oren: That’s why you have the final girl trope instead of the final guy, according to what you were telling me.
Chris: Yeah, apparently that’s one of the reasons. I thought it was always because people consider a woman to be less formidable and therefore there’s a bigger power difference between the final girl and the threat. The threat feels more threatening to her than it would to a dude.
And I’m sure part of it is that people think women are just less formidable. But I had not thought about the toxic masculinity aspect in which they want somebody who will quake and shiver in a corner and scream. Dudes are not allowed to do that.
Oren: Absolutely not allowed.
Chris: It’s gotta be a woman.
Oren: Well, on the bright side, that means the dudes have all died by the end.
And with that, we’re going to go ahead and end this podcast because we have already been adapted into being over our time. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[outro theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?