The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

The Many Layers Of Adaptive Fidelity

Posted by BigWords on February 6, 2010

As my brain still isn’t operating at full efficiency, I thought I’d revisit something which has been playing away at the back of my mind for a few years now, and has yet to be examined seriously. I haven’t cleaned up my thoughts much, but I’ll expand on this if there is sufficient interest.


Something which bothered me whilst watching the 1989 Batman film has resurfaced in another – similar – way. The divergence between an original property and an adaptation has never been so great, with video games, films, books, comics and television shows depicting different versions of a few characters so differently that – to a casual observer – there seems little which binds the media together. That problem I mentioned with Batman – okay, it isn’t a big deal, but the fact that so many of his enemies died whilst he was going about his business seems at odds with the comic-book character who once stated “nobody dies tonight.” It is, in the bigger picture, a minor deal, but for me it was too great a leap to make to believe he would allow anyone to die.

The C.S.I. novel Double Dealer was sitting on the shelf in my local Waterstones and looked nice enough (the cover isn’t very ‘C.S.I.’, but the book was written by Max Allan Collins, and I liked his take on Dick Tracy so I thought I would take a chance. And the question of authorial responsibility to a character already in the public consciousness (which has been bugging me for years) was highlighted by the first few pages of the book – Sara doesn’t seem to be in-character, and the depiction of Warrick is off slightly. Is there a way to gauge how much someone will appreciate any given work in relation to the other media in which characters appear? I know some people like the slightly goofy Star Trek of the original series, but how do you reconcile that with Gene Roddenberry’s novelization of the film? Where Kirk has an implant in his head placed there by Starfleet? And when there are differences in a character’s behavior (look at the depictions of Batman for a good introduction to this), which is the ‘real’ version?

Tight Adaptation

Where the story is merely transposed to another media, such as the novelizations of X-Files episodes, I would consider it to be a Tight Adaptation. The Jackanory readings of Roald Dahl’s novels (replete with illustrations) are another good example, losing nothing and adding nothing (nothing important anyway – audio is expected), but this can be unfulfilling for those who want a deeper experience of the world the characters inhabit. I know that there are good examples out there, but most of the time these types of adaptations irritate me in that they are not doing anything to advance the characters.

Close Adaptation

Adaptations which shift moments around in the timeline whilst being generally accurate, or merging two characters into one for the sake of clarity, would come in here. The primary problem when something in an expansive medium (i.e. novels or comics) is shrunk to fit a defined length (a film perhaps) is that the complexity necessarily needs to be streamlined in order to make events comprehensible. It does, however, mean that events can be appreciated wrongly – did anyone who watched 30 Days Of Night completely buy into the fact that the film takes place over a month rather than a couple of days? Or a week? There are a couple of moments where I had to check how much time had passed because the events didn’t seem to follow on well.

The Lord Of The Rings films are perfect examples, omitting only the superfluous material, while staying true to the intentions of the original texts. One thing I don’t really mind is when historical accuracy overrides the preferred (original) text. This doesn’t apply to the film From Hell, but there are other places it can actually improve a story. I’ll try to think of some examples… Later.

Near Adaptation

Batman Begins would probably be placed into this category, because it doesn’t entirely follow the events of the comics, yet has enough ties to certain stories. Ra’s al Ghul, notably, is very different from established continuity, and there is no mention of the Lazarus Pit.  Overall it is a much, much stronger film than any of the four previous films, and that is entirely down to its’ grounding of the characters in the real world. Hellraiser (but not the sequels) would also fall into this category, and also Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining – ironically, a film which is much better than the close adaptation made by Stephen King in the nineties.

Loose Adaptation

This is where most adaptations fall, and where quite a few fail as well. Close enough to the source material to be accepted by the general public (who may or may not know the character well enough to tell the differences made), yet too far from the originals to appease the hardcore fanbase. This is also the category in which that troublesome Batman television series deserves a mention – back when I was too young to know better, the show was being run on (I think) Sunday mornings, and it was one of my first introductions to the characters. It didn’t seem too at odds with the Silver Age on reflection, but you have to remember that the comics were tweaked to reflect the series, not the other way around. It stands as testament to the damage a loose adaptation can do to the original.

Of course, many great stories have been told which twist the characters out of their regular appearances. The abysmal Judge Dredd and Tank Girl films are other perfect examples of why the scale of quality dips sharply once you get down to loose adaptations, though the redeeming factors include a bunch of Philip K. Dick stories being handled well – Blade Runner is a very loose adaptation, so it shouldn’t be assumed that simply because the best known examples from any category are awful that all media within the same category should be likewise. The Conan films are looser than I had hoped, yet they are equally as interesting as the stories they were adapted from. The Barry Windsor Smith comics are also quite different, though these have just as much legitimacy as the originating material.

Free Adaptation

In which little remains of the original. Hook Jaw, a staple of British comics in eighties reprints, is Jaws with a metal spear jutting from its’ jaw, and is as close to a defining example of how little you need to keep for a free adaptation. Mostly this category is made up of pastiches, rip-offs (the Asylum DVDs mostly all belong here), homages (Cerebus The Aardvark being one), and pastiches. I brought up Hook Jaw, though could easily have included Dredger (Dirty Harry By Any Other Name), Spinball (inspired by Rollerball) or a bunch of early 2000AD strips. Dredd is, himself, another Dirty Harry tribute, though quickly outlived that particular piece of informed inspiration.

The Golden Age of comics is rife with Superman pretenders, so there may be legitimacy conferred if enough distance is placed between the inspiration and the end result, though I’ll leave the finer points for others to untangle.

And I really need to think of better catch-all names for the categories.


3 Responses to “The Many Layers Of Adaptive Fidelity”

  1. Just a comment about my CSI novels — DOUBLE DEALER was the first one, and was written during the first season of the show. Characterization on the series was very sparse early on, and I had to develop the characters from a small sampling of episodes and behavior. (My BONES novel was written only with access to a rough cut of the pilot.) I did eight CSI’s, and to some extent, my version grew out of itself and has some differences with the show, although obviously with a basis in it. I came, oddly, to feel like we were two on two paths, taken from the same starting point — that the show was in a way based on my novels. (And they are all original stories.) Since a number of things I did were eventually used on the show, that became kind of the case!

  2. bigwords88 said

    Thanks for adding those details. I’ll look out for the Bones novels. 🙂

  3. […] The Many Layers Of Adaptive Fidelity […]

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