What Makes A Successful Adaptation? I Oxford Open Learning


    What Makes A Successful Adaptation?

    An adaptation, and the extent of its success, is always a fun subject for debate. And often quite a controversial one when it comes to die-hard fans of the literature the films or television shows are based on. Regardless of whether the adaptions are good are bad, they can feel the wrath of the cult faithful depending on just how the source material is changed.

    Don’t Stray Too Far From The Path

    But change is the whole point. It’s called an adaptation for its very definition, ‘to change to fit a new environment’. The new environment being the silver screen or the one in your living room (or more likely these days, the one on your tablet). When books are made into another medium, changes have to be made for a number of reasons; a book’s 800 pages will need to be condensed down into a mere two hours or so screen time, be toned down in parts to appeal to a wider audience, or better represent certain aspects of the book in a visual format. Every year books are adapted into different mediums, with varying degrees of success. Some are good, some are award-winning, and some are so bad that they are disavowed by their authors—such as Roald Dahl did with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, starring Gene Wilder, and certainly not to be confused with the recent Wonka!). So, what does make for a successful adaptation?

    The easy answer is to stay close to the source material. Make it as faithful as possible and as authentic as a remake to the book as you possibly can. There’s certainly an element of truth in that when you look at the Harry Potter films and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They were huge box office hits and widely celebrated as great adaptions and quality films. Then, you look at their subsequent additions to their series and things fall apart. The Hobbit trilogy took one book and padded it out into three much less inspiring films, while the Fantastic Beasts prequel trilogy tried to expand the story and delivered three loosely connected films with little of the books’ magic.

    Even those successful, original films themselves have  had their criticisms, with Potter fans questioning the late Michael Gambon’s aggressive portrayal of Dumbledore, while fans of LOTR have disagreed with the films’ handling of Saruman’s fate and Faramir’s divergence from the book into a weaker character more susceptible to the ring. It seems that no matter what directors may do, there’s just no pleasing everyone.

    However, this year there were two terrific examples of an adaption done almost to perfection. And both of them were television shows. Straight away, television has an advantage over film because it allows much more room for the story to breathe over a longer run time, but these two wildly different adaptions succeeded for largely the same reason: they stayed faithful to the source material’s world.


    First up is Amazon’s Fallout. Based upon the massively popular series of videogames set in an apocalyptic, post-nuclear war wasteland, it follows the exploits of people who have lived in vaults underground to outlive the radioactive fallout, when they re-emerge 200 years later. Instead of building on the ashes of the old world, they find humanity still going, slightly irradiated and savage, and with some mutated abominations now roaming the land too.

    This is an intellectual property that dates back to 1997, with a huge fanbase that knows the lore inside out. And yet, it’s had rave reviews and is Amazon Prime’s most-watched show to date, with billions of minutes watched. It managed to cater to the faithful while appealing to the masses by simply telling its own original story with original characters, and setting it in the world that had already been built in the games—it is even canon to that universe, too. Its bleak yet quirky style and fantastic characters (especially Walton Goggins’ The Ghoul) manage to hook a new audience. Fans of the source material could marvel at the background too—all the little details and references, as well as trying to piece together how the show brings new lore to the franchise.


    The other screen adaptation is Disney Plus’ Shogun. Based on James Clavell’s highly regarded novel of a power struggle between lords in feudal Japan, its big draw was not only the political drama and its slow burn but its authenticity.

    People expecting constant samurai sword fights and monologues about honour were met with Game of Thrones-esque political manoeuvring and the culture shock of just how different feudal Japan was. The fact it’s such a different way of life makes it immediately intriguing. And as its authenticity dictates large parts of it are in Japanese, there’s no time to scroll through your phone whilst watching – your eyes will be glued to the subtitles for fear of missing out on the drama.

    The audience shares the discomfort of the show’s protagonist, John Blackthorne, an English privateer who ends up stranded in Japan. He is a stranger in a strange place, drawn into Lord Torunaga’s efforts to take power, who seeks to use Blackthorne’s naval knowledge to his advantage. It all makes for binge-worthy, compelling television. Compare that to Netflix’s The Witcher, a beloved series of books and videogames following the exploits of a mutant monster hunter. Even with Henry Cavill, a lover of the books and games, in the lead role, constantly striving to improve things on set, the adaption failed miserably. All because of a neglect of its world, attention to detail, and an apparent open disdain for the source material on the part of the show-runners themselves.

    Total Acceptance Of Adaptation Is Impossible, But Success Can Be Achieved

    Where Fallout was absurd and Shogun was unfamiliar, both succeeded by being faithful to the world that the original authors had put so much work into. The same can be said of Potter and Frodo, too. No matter what those who adapt try and do, there will always be some measure of those who disapprove. It’s best to remember (especially when it comes to the adaption of a book you hold dear) that these are separate entities and should be treated as such. The book and its adaptation can be mutually exclusive and don’t need to co-exist. But it is fair to say that, more often than not, the book is always better.


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