The Great Adaptation

The Great Adaptation

I’m fascinated by adaptation. In books, in music, in theatre, in TV and film – I love it.

I make no secret of the fact that I rip off Celtic mythology in my own work. I take characters and events and concepts from myths and stick them into whatever setting I choose and then I pretend it was my idea. Some of my characters are directly borrowed from myth; some are just named after legendary figures. Of course, the majority of them came from somewhere inside my head and only happen to have wandered into the landscape of mythology, but they still become part of the adaptation.

My music taste also shows my interest in adapting stories. I love Heather Dale’s songs, where she adapts Arthurian legends into ballads and songs. I love that both Moulettes and Ockham’s Razor have done a version of “Mad Tom Of Bedlam” and they sound totally different. I love modern twists on folk songs and tunes, and the unexpected juxtaposition of traditional music with modern instruments.better than an opera

Then let’s look at theatre. My favourite musical is Les Miserables, an adaptation of a book. I also love Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, which is based on a Bible story. Hamlet! The Musical makes me incredibly happy, and that’s a total reworking of Shakespeare. Yesterday, I went to see Le Corsaire, a ballet loosely based on a poem by Lord Byron. As part of my music performance exam, I’m singing Dido’s Lament from the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas, which is of course an adaptation of the Aeneid, albeit one that only seems to have the two titular characters in common with its source material. (Why Belinda? Why not Anna? These are the questions I ask.)

TV and film is often more obvious. Mostly you know when things are adaptations when they’re films; in terms of TV, I like Sherlock. I like Hannibal. Both are interpretations of books. I like Merlin, which is an adaptation of mythology. I liked BBC Robin Hood, even if it was completely ridiculous in terms of historical accuracy, and that was an adaptation of legend.merlin arthur laugh

In other words, I’m really interested in how stories become something new in the hands of another person. I like how we take elements of the past and place them in the present to make something fascinating and unique. I’m actually not that bothered about accuracy, or I’d never have loved Robin Hood or Merlin, which both play free and easy with source material and setting.

But adaptation can be a hive of controversy. Book purists hold filmmakers to ransom because their favourite dialogue was altered or worse, ignored completely. Fans of the original canon berate newbies who come to it from the latest film or TV show, saying they can’t be “true fans” because they don’t have a detailed and in-depth experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s an unhealthy attitude to take that causes ‘normal’ people to look at fans in a negative way, but it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes people react badly to adaptation.

And sometimes they’re totally justified.

I can mention, off the top of my head, several disappointing film adaptations. Eragon took a mediocre book and made a terrible film that was nothing like the original story line. Inkheart took interesting and developed characters and made them into … well, I don’t even know. I’ve obliterated my memory of that film from my mind because I just remember being so disappointed in it.

merlin NO

Hell, the whole Harry Potter series of films had nothing on the books, and while I enjoy their contribution to character development and worldbuilding within the cinematic Tolkien universe, the Hobbit films can hardly be called ‘accurate’ given that they deviate from the plot to the extent where it’s at times entirely obscured.

On Friday I watched the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby, which is a book I’m currently studying for English Literature. While it’s not entirely faithful to the details of the book, I found myself warming to it as it continued, and enjoyed it as an adaptation. Of course, I still had plenty of issues with it, and I thought I’d tell you about a couple of them.

  1. Like the book, it’s narrated by Nick Carraway, except in this case it’s using a frame story of his recovery in a sanatorium for alcoholism, into which he apparently sank after the events of the novel. While it’s a feasible response for him to take after everything he saw, it’s not a necessary frame story. Why shouldn’t he just be writing it?
  2. On the subject of the narration, the first line of the film is the first line of the book … or is it? “Whenever you feel like criticising anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” is replaced by the dumbed-down, “Always try to see the best in people,” for no apparent reason. The substitution achieves nothing and made me inclined to judge the film for its deviations from the beginning. Why they felt it necessary to change this, I have absolutely no idea.
  3. The relationship between Tom Buchanan and Nick Carraway seemed altered. In the novel, their first meeting is exceedingly awkward, and indeed they haven’t seen each other for some time. In the film, Tom even has a nickname that he uses for Nick, referring to him as ‘Shakespeare’, presumably because he writes. It seemed like another unnecessary alteration.
  4. Myrtle came across as far too attractive. I had the impression, while reading, that she was uninteresting in appearance, and there was always a vague sense of wonder that somebody like that should be the object of Tom’s illicit affections. In the film, it very much seemed like a lust-inspired relationship. However, I might have been misreading it in the text.
  5. At the end of the film, the scene with Gatsby’s father and the meeting with Wolfsheim, his business associate, were cut out. However, I happened to watch the director’s commentary for that section, where he explained that they had considered including them and had even filmed some section, but felt they took away from the Nick/Gatsby relationship, as well as the idea that the end of the novel is Nick processing or reinternalising its events.

I understand that, like this last point, they had artistic reasons to do what they did, yet some of the changes struck me as unnecessary. I’m not going to complain about their use of modern music (in fact, I thought their reinterpretation of the song “Young and Beautiful” in a 20s style was awesome): simply about plot points.

gatsby party

On the other hand, the adaptation was incredible for allowing the novel to come to life. It’s an incredibly visual text. Fitzgerald uses colours and descriptions of size and detail whenever he’s talking about setting. On screen, that jumps out. Gatsby’s parties are chaotic, colourful, and loud, something that is far easier to see on screen than in one’s imagination. The motif of the green light is in itself a visual technique, and works at least as well on screen as on the page. green light

It’s also an opportunity to include little details, like the motto above Gatsby’s gate that translates from Latin as “faithful to the end”. The camera panned past it quickly, but nevertheless I noticed it. Or the patterns on Gatsby’s floor that bear his initials, showing his riches and egotism.

The film has its amusing moments, as well as its tragedy. The flowers in Nick’s house after Gatsby invites Daisy to afternoon tea are so excessive that it’s hilarious – “Do you need anything?” “Perhaps more flowers?” – and Daisy’s response to them (“Did you raid a greenhouse?”) is how any sane person would react, yet it’s still entertaining.

perhaps more flowers

Some people think it’s a good film. Others think it’s a good adaptation. Some think it’s one but not the other, citing various inaccuracies or alterations that cause it to deviate from the book or presenting it as overdone and uninteresting.

Personally, I think it’s both a good film and a good adaptation. Neither aspect is perfect, but it’s important to remember that adaptation isn’t about directly translating a book to the screen. It’s about taking the essence and message of a novel and recreating it in a different medium, which sometimes requires changes. Yes, accuracy is desirable, but being a slave to the exact words on each page isn’t always going to make the best film.

Although I’m still mad that they changed the first line to something clearly dumbed-down for no discernable reason other than possibly because it’s shorter or they think their audience can’t understand the original. I mean, please.

Do you like adaptations, or would you rather people just left the source material alone? What are some of your favourite adaptations and why? And if you’ve seen it, what was your opinion of The Great Gatsby?

PS – if you didn’t hover over these gifs you’re missing out on half the post

3 thoughts on “The Great Adaptation

  1. Ooh, excellent point about good films vs. good adaptations. I’ve been frustrated by movies not being minutely accurate adaptations of the original books, only to eventually realize that nothing but the book is going to be exactly like the book and I can still enjoy the adaptation for what it is.
    I mean, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire aren’t 100% accurate, but I feel they could stand on their own. You can watch them without being too confused and needing the book to “translate.”
    And then there’s Deathly Hallows Part I, my favorite of the HP films. LOVELY adaptation, but it can’t stand on its own at all. You’d have to at least see the other films to know what was going on!

    1. I think Catching Fire is one of the most accurate book to film adaptations I’ve seen. Any extra material they added in is only to overcome the limitations of first person narrative and it’s very true to the tone and message of the novel.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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