DISCLAIMER: This is a discussion piece. I’m prone to ramble and, if I deem it relevant, I will include plot points from whatever I fancy that could be considered “spoilers”. You’ve been warned: don’t eat the Snickers if you’re allergic to nuts
I would be very surprised if you haven’t heard this one before. Whenever a book, especially a well-loved one, is announced as having a translation to film, which here is a catch-all for cinema and television, it’s only matter of time until the hardcore fans ooze out of the dark, sticky recesses of the internet in which they dwell to decry it. The obvious place to start would be HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, or when I want to refer to massive tomes George R.R. Martin calls books, I’ll use the proper title: A Song of Ice and Fire.
Yes, I am indeed one of those dull, irritable people who worships at the altar of Book. Not in everything, but in this certainly. I picked up A Song of Ice and Fire about the time I started university and was fully caught when Game of Thrones aired. I blasted through the first series and then moved on to the most recent novel, A Dance With Dragons. On the whole, I was thoroughly impressed with the adaptation – it was about as close to changing the book to a script line by line as I think could be done. But, even then, if you look you can see the scars and tears from the transition. If you read the book, you’ll never see a scene with just Varys and Baelish, you’ll never see a scene with just Robert and Selmy, you’ll never see a scene with just Jamie and Tywin. I’ll explain why in a moment for those of you who don’t already know.
Now I’m hardly the first person to notice this fact, but stories don’t translate easily between media. The adaptation trauma causes wrinkles and tears unique to the transition. There are two particular transfers that happen most often these days: book to film and film to video game. The latter is almost universally panned by anyone who critiques or plays games. They are, almost inevitably, cheaply made cash-ins made to a schedule much tighter than a game can stand. That’s thanks to the cynical, money-obsessed studio system that short-sightedly employs slash and burn tactics to turn an easy profit. That, however, is a topic for another time and not what’s on my dissection slab today. What I do want to get into is whether, even given all the time and money in the world, a film could be adapted into a good video game. I’m pretty sure the answer is no.
Video games are unlike any media we have before explored due to their interactivity. In a video game, it isn’t so much the protagonist’s struggle that’s important but the player’s – the person consuming the story is a part of it and, as such, a film narrative becomes immensely unsatisfying. Of course, with gaming still in its relative infancy, the medium takes a lot of cues from other media, particularly film, resulting in the adjective “cinematic” becoming something of a goal for many games. My issues with that are yet another article for yet another time, so let’s take a quick peek at adaptations going the other way, from game to film. Better idea, let’s never speak of them, any of them, ever. In case you’ve had the blessing never to witness this particular brand of incompetence, suffice to say that video game plots and characters make terrible films. Imagine watching someone play a game on easy mode whilst trying to make it “fun”. Back to safer, saner territory then? Good, book time.
Above you can see the blurry back of Kevin Spacey’s head. I’m showing you this particular still from Netflix’s House of Cards as a neat segue from video games back to book/film adaptations. Indeed, House of Cards was a novel by Michael Dobbs published in 1989, the first of a trilogy. You might have already known this if you’ve seen the original BBC TV adaptation from 1990. I’ve seen both series, but have never read the book, so I can’t really work it as an example intelligently. However, it’s a neat showing of how the same story warps and changes when adapted to a different setting, a different sort of adaptation altogether, in this case in time and space from post-Thatcher Britain to modern-day USA.
Perhaps weirdly, I find that the significant changes made in this form of adaptation are far less offensive and controversial to the sort of changes that occur in Game of Thrones where we’re shifting medium. Maybe it’s because you know you’re in for some big changes, that it’s only the same themes underneath with nearly the same characters, but with everything else altered. I find the differences between Frank Underwood and Francis Urquhart more interesting than irritating, despite them being far greater than those between the separate incarnations of Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire.
It all comes down to expectation. If you refurbish your living room with all-new furniture, wallpaper, floors, the works, and then put everything back a bit differently there’s no problem – after all, you just refurbished the entire room. On the other hand, if you just shuffle it around a bit to accommodate a slightly larger coffee table everything just feels a bit off, a bit awkward. Suddenly you really hate the damn coffee table and don’t want to sit in there anymore. It’s a bit like the Uncanny Valley I spoke about in my discussion on horror. In the same vein, horror adapted from an originally Japanese film to a Hollywood blockbuster is often panned for the shoddy filmmaking and/or a lack of understanding of what made the original good but not often because it’s not a pure adaptation with a better budget or that it’s now set in America. It’s when something purports to be the same, but is just a little bit wrong that we reject it most strongly. This is exactly what happens when we transition between media as we do when adapting from page to screen.
So with films and video games the problem of adaptation is obvious: the addition of interactivity. That’s not a problem with books and films, though. The only difference is that film adds a visual element. That’s easily solved, right? If only. There are innumerable production differences between film and books, most notably the expense and the fact that, for the most part, we consume film in half-hour to two-hour chunks (don’t talk to me about “marathoning” series, TV episodes still are self-contained and designed so that they can be consumed individually and still be satisfying and you know it). In a book, you don’t have to cast actors and each chapter can happily exist purely as part of a larger narrative without an arc of its own. This difference in pacing means that, for example, in a book you can sit back and have endless streams of exposition for chapters at a time. Try that in film and it will just be two characters doing nothing but talking about what they already know. It’ll be dull, really dull and will make film snobs turn their noses up because that’s bad screenwriting. Even in Game of Thrones, popular as it is, large chunks of screen time are just characters talking exposition rather than progressing the plot much (hence the abundance of distracting boobs).
Even then that’s not the biggest cause of adaptation trauma when forcing a book to be a film. That would be, in my opinion, the perspective. Books are first person and film is third person. Now hear me out before you start shouting about pronouns, I know the majority of books are written with “he” and “she” rather than “I”, but that’s not the point I’m making. In a book, the reader is privy to the inside of a character’s head; you are directly told what they are thinking. In audio-visual media this would be a soliloquy, where the character turns directly to camera (or audience in the theatre where this is more common) and tells them what they’re thinking.
The aforementioned House of Cards is well known for this, but even then it’s an aside, a titbit thrown to us rather than the accepted norm, the way it is in a book. You remember when I said I’d explain why you’d never see certain scenes in A Song of Ice and Fire that are present in Game of Thrones? That’s because those scenes don’t contain a point of view character. In A Song of Ice and Fire, each chapter is titled after the character the reader inhabits for that scene. This makes anything starring Sansa infuriating as you have to read the politicking of the court through her naiveté. It’s less like trying to read through a sheet of smoky glass and more like trying to read a book that’s behind a block of wood and written in morse code backwards, badly. It means that from chapter to chapter characters are described differently, Tyrion describes Joffrey very differently from Cersei, whereas in Game of Thrones that’s impossible because Joffrey is always how Jack Gleeson plays him.
Game of Thrones isn’t my go-to example for this quirk of media though. That would be Harry Potter. Whatever you think of the films, I’m sure you at least know two or three people who tell you that the books are better. Can they tell you why exactly? I’m sure they have a few examples of things that were changed and just bad bits in the film that they’ll happily point out and they’re not wrong. But they’re not right either. This difference in perspective is what makes all the difference: in the books, you’re inside Harry’s head, everything is from his point of view and in the film he’s just another character with a lot of screen time. In the films when Harry’s thoughts are shoehorned into dialogue it’s awkward and when they’re omitted a part of the world is lost. There’s no way to win. Sure, there’s film that works with an unreliable narrator, showing us their interpretation of the world rather than reality, but in film that’s a narrative device meant to screw with the audience’s head, like in American Psycho (another book adaptation where I haven’t read the source material), rather than an easy way to contextualise the world the viewer is exploring.
This is not to say that film doesn’t have its advantages, of course it does. The addition of the visual element allows for exposition to be done in the background and environment in ways that just can’t be done in books. As a medium, it allows creators to be so much more subtle; hiding clues and hidden information is much easier in film simply because not everything is specifically pointed out and focused on. In a book, you have to read every word and every word needs to be put there. It takes a deft hand to hide things that way without smothering everything in red herrings. What film and what books each do better is a topic for essays and scholarly debate, not for a munchkin on a soapbox like me to ramble on about for about two and a half thousand words. No, I’m just pointing out that if you’ve ever read a book that’s been derived from a film, you probably found it dry and lacking: adaptation trauma happens no matter which way you adapt.
So what is to be done about it? Should we just stop adapting stories out of their native medium? No, I love stories far too much to want to restrict their audience. Can we reduce the trauma? Again it’s a no, we’re talking about traits inherent to different media. It’s like Playdough, if you remember that. The story is the dough and the different media are differently shaped holes, if you push the dough through one and then another it will change shape no matter how carefully you do it. So should we just stop watching the film if we’ve read the book? Maybe. I mean, it’s what I’m doing as of series five of Game of Thrones because it’s now hit the point where the changes are too great for me to be comfortable with them, the show now provides annoyance rather than enjoyment. But that’s not really a satisfying answer is it?
The issue of adaptation trauma can’t be solved by ignoring the source material, either. As some of you may know by now I’m rather partial to anime, and this is relevant because anime series are nigh on universally adaptations. Anime is adapted from three main sources: manga (comics/graphic novels), visual novels (choose-your-own-adventure games) and light novels (not-literature books). Once you’ve seen a few, you quickly reach a point where you can identify which of those three sources the anime is adapted from. Are the action scenes a bit too frequent and a bit too long? Probably used to be a shōnen (teen male action oriented) manga. Does the series descend into slow exposition for episodes at a time? Probably used to be a light novel. Are there only two male characters, one of whom is the protagonist, for no discernible reason? Probably used to be a dating-sim visual novel. This is so rampant that, even when an original series comes along, it frames and paces itself after an existing style and so exhibits symptoms of adaptation trauma.
So what have we learned other than we have a problem we can’t fix? Many words ago, I went on a tangent about how we accept much greater changes when we adapt setting rather than medium, as in the BBC and Netflix versions of House of Cards, and I think it’s in this fact that we’ll find our salvation. There’ll never be an answer for those forum-lurking purists. They’ll always leap to their keyboards to deride the most minor of changes (Syrio Forel’s follicles, or lack of lack thereof, as an example from Game of Thrones), but for the rest of us I see hope in greater rather than lesser changes. We have to embrace the medium we’re adapting to and all its respective strengths and weaknesses and change to suit. We need to remember that what we’re doing is adapting, not recreating. After all there’s always that “based on” addendum isn’t there? “Based on the books by George R. R. Martin”, for Game of Thrones, “based on the books by J. R. R. Tolkien” for Lord of the Rings. I could go on. If an adaptation isn’t the same story in a different medium, but rather a fresh interpretation of the same story, a full refurbishment if you will, perhaps we can get over that “just not right” feeling endemic to today’s adaptations. No matter what, everyone will prefer one version or another, but it would be nice to be able to fully enjoy both.
WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD