Today, The Classics Club issued forth its monthly question (or barrage of questions) for members to ponder and engage. This one was especially poignant for me, so I thought I would bring together my thoughts on the idea of creative adaptations of another person’s work.
“What are your thoughts on adaptions of classics? Say mini-series or movies? Or maybe modern approaches? Are there any good ones? Is it better to read the book first? Or maybe just compare the book and an adaptation?”
I’m sure I won’t address all of these questions, but with so many prominent adaptations being made these days, it’s easy to find yourself making judgments without actually thinking through why you love or hate certain renditions.
Freedom To Create
“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
– C. S. Lewis
First, you should definitely watch the series Everything Is A Remix. This exciting mini-documentary series covers just about the entire universe creatively speaking, proving pretty explicitly that there really are no original creative ideas. Be it music, film, literature, or visual arts, the greatest and most revered work tends to be the most heavily and directly inspired by previous work. You begin to realize that not only is everything you ever loved an adaptation of something else, but that often the best work is borderline plagiarism. Ethically, many of these realizations make it easy to question the ideas surrounding intellectual copyrights and creative license.
I personally tend to err toward the belief that our creative endeavors should be left more open to re-interpretation, that we should give others free reign to play with the ideas we put out there. Creativity breeds creativity, and stifling a new take on previous creativity for the sake of monetary reimbursement is closer to stamping out creativity than encouraging it. This is obviously a big generalization and creatives should ultimately maintain the rights to their creations, but I think we should encourage a community that expands upon previous material, since we are always doing so, though often indirectly. Creative communities that thrive spring up around art forms that foster artists building together, such as in graphic novels, comics, and animation.
A perspective that exalts the creative process also disqualifies bitterness toward adaptations or artists who change or “sell out.” While critique is necessary and useful in both enjoying art and being creative ourselves, it makes no sense to be bitter about a creative work that adds new perspectives from additional artists, be it a remake or new creative direction in further work. Being able to view a film adaptation or listen to a new album without bitter nostalgia for the first material makes it easier to identify what inspires and qualifies both the original and the new. It’s also great to go back and find what inspired those who we find inspiring. Often the best work of a generation directly influences the next and then grows obscure as the next rises to fame. Find out what books inspired your favorite author and you might find your new favorite author!
Once you’ve adjusted to assume that all creativity (including what goes into an adaptation) is a combined effort of both previous influences and a unique creator, it’s easier to understand what you value creatively and the good and bad in an adaptation. I personally find The Lord Of The Rings trilogy to be a far superior adaptation to the new Hobbit trilogy. Why? I could probably give a dissertation on the topic, but the short version is that Jackson made LOTR shorter, choosing essential core materials, and kept it an epic story like the books. On the contrary, for the Hobbit has been changed from a fairy tale to an epic, losing many elements of the original story in the changes of plot, characters, and pacing. Are the Hobbit movies still enjoyable? I find them to be so, but only if I look at them as a unique creative effort rather than an effort to recreate the original. That’s a big step to ask fans to take.
Original or Adaptation First?
These days, I’ve done a complete 180 on the question of whether to read a book before the film adaptation comes out. As a reader, I’m always eager to read the book first. It makes sense to enjoy the adaptation as someone who has become a fan of the original, because I want my loyalties to lie with the original version. After a few films that finally motivated me to read the books (the Harry Potter series, to my shame), I realized that reading a book because you enjoyed a film makes the book so much better because you know a shadow of what to expect based on the adaptation, but you always end up getting more. If you always find that the book is better, getting a taste of it in a lesser adaptation before enjoying it to the fullest is a great way to become a fan of both. While it’s pretty counterintuitive, I find everything more enjoyable this way. I’m sure this opinion is wide open to debate, and I suspect myself to be in the minority.
What Is An Adaptation?
Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what an adaptation is. An adaptation is something a fan looks at as a creative opportunity to build upon original material. A fan is looking for the essence of the original, the unspoken aspects that made the print version great. Of course she wants to see stunning visuals that go beyond her imagination, but all of that is secondary. In contrast, the reason studios are making adaptations is that they are marketed to and by a preexisting fan base and are therefore a more secure financial investment in the film industry. So some highly creative screenwriters and directors who may or may not be inspired by the original source material become involved in creating what is often more of a spin-off or alternate version from the original. An adaptation always runs the risk of being less than creatively motivated.
The truth is that an adaptation can be a great thing. Even something that takes as many creative liberties as the BBC’s new Sherlock adaptation is met with great applause by most fans, because the core idea is to transplant all of the original elements into a totally different era. It was started by fans who were great writers, and done from a place of aporeciatation and exploration. Adaptations are always an exciting idea, because we love to see a good idea expanded on. Even when we’ve been continually disappointed in the past, we often hold out hope for a good adaptation coming soon. We want new ideas, expanded stories and worlds, and elements that shed a different light on our old favorite characters. For a successful adaptation, a thousand liberties can be excused if the original essence is well preserved.
I’m eager to hear your thoughts on good and bad adaptations and what you think the difference is!
Harry Potter Comic drawn from the Dorkly.com