My first reaction after seeing episode 13 Dragonfly in Amber was to think of some of the book lovers’ reactions to the adaptation. I could literally hear the disappointment. Where was the scene where they cut their initials into each other’s flesh? Where was that final night together? But, then almost simultaneously, I thought, “but… it’s such a great story”. There is always an element of review in my reflections, but usually I find something in an episode that stood out or lingers in my mind and I reflect and expound. This week it was the idea of telling a good story and adaptation.
I had a Twitter friend recently send me a private message that disputed the term adaptation in regards to Outlander.
…Your piece this week makes me want to discuss something. The difference between an adaptation of a book and something based on a book and something inspired by a book. All points on a line. There is probably a legal distinction in the entertainment industry, but with regards to Outlander, at what point should they stop calling it an adaptation and start calling it based on. I read the description that Matt Roberts gave of an adaptation as a child and the book as the parent. I don’t know if that is a fair analogy. Wouldn’t that be more of a reimagining of a book rather than an adaptation? I would love to see you write a piece pondering this…
I guess this feels like the right time to ponder this topic and so, I started looking for answers. As an avid fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series, I have struggled with this whole adaptation thing. I will say over time my understanding and feelings toward the changes from book to screen have changed. I have become more accepting and find myself looking forward to seeing those changes. However, I am not without sympathy for those who still struggle and certainly believe as fans we have every right to discuss what we liked and didn’t like and what we thought worked and didn’t work. Critique is good. Discussion is good. After doing a bit of lite research and thinking about the past two seasons of Outlander, my answer to my Twitter friends question is…yes. Outlander is an adaptation and a good one.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
In my lite research, I read articles on writing scripts, story-telling, and adaptation of books to screen. The one thing they all seemed to have in common was the belief that nailing down what makes a story good is very difficult and even harder to put into concrete terms. Every author I read, who attempted to list steps or describe a formula for creating a good story, made sure to include a caveat that said following their formula certainly didn’t guarantee that your script would move from plot to great story. There is a certain intangibility that we all seem to recognize, but find hard to define.
One of those folks that tried to describe what makes a story good was Chuck Wendig, novelist, screenwriter, and game designer;
…A story is interesting. A story lets us see ourselves in it — and it is in that way both a unique snowflake and a universal precept. Or, more to the point, the story is the unique delivery system by which we get to talk about universal concepts and problems. We can talk about a THING WE ALL UNDERSTAND by framing it around a narrative unique to the author — every character and setting and conflict is a potential lens through which we can look upon this universal problem. Story takes this lens and it helps us to see old problems in new ways. Stories make us feel and think. Stories have power. Stories move us, shape us, and do the same to the world. It does this in the way that a song can do it. It has rhythm, like a song — slow to fast, up and down and then up again. Pause, leap, wait, then run. Stories are not a manicured garden. They’re an unruly forest –
A tangle of thorns in which we find ourselves happily ensnared.
… story is a hard thing to understand. Writers put words to paper, but storytellers take those words — or images, in the case of film and TV and comics — and spin that dross into candy floss. Writers make horses. Storytellers fucking make unicorns, man.
In my readings, I found a lot of academic articles for scriptwriters that further the idea that certain elements can be found in good story-telling, but by far the most interesting and applicable article I read was an AV Club article written as a conversation between two film critics. Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias’ article What Makes a Good Film-to-Book Adaptation? is well worth the read for anyone still struggling to get a hold on the adaptation process and what makes for a good story for both book lovers and those who have never read the source material. They used their take on the movie Hunger Games to discuss the issues with movies adapted from books. http://www.avclub.com/article/what-makes-a-good-book-to-film-adaptation-71545 They both reference each others’ reviews of the movie and one written by the NPR critic Linda Holmes. This article was so full of great points that I had a hard time picking out which ones to share! The main idea however is that adaptations have certain responsibilities to fans of the source material, but that following a book too closely has its own pitfalls.
Holmes: Odd to think that some fans — certainly not all or even most, but some — might, for all their constant desire to see a faithful adaptation, leave the film feeling like they’ve seen the book almost exactly, as if they didn’t need to see it at all. To be honest, this is the sense I had, as someone who really enjoyed the books. I felt like the film was very good, but not strictly necessary, precisely because it seemed to be made from a bit of a defensive stance, where the biggest worry was making sure fans didn’t get mad. Other than the appearance of the residents of the Capitol, it’s not particularly visually inventive, and while it’s comforting to see that an adaptation has respected the imagery of the book, in most cases, it’s faithful to the point of not adding anything you haven’t seen in your head when you read the book. The adaptation, in that sense, is skilled but not quite as special as it might have been. http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2012/03/22/149145605/what-fans-will-love-and-what-they-might-not-in-the-hunger-games
Robinson: …One of your main points in that review was that the film hewed too closely to the book. You called it “stenography in light,” and said when a book-to-film adaptation sets out to be faithful to the source material, “the best result is a skillful abridgment.” Most painfully to me, you said this: “A book is a book and a movie is a movie, and whenever the latter merely sets about illustrating the former, it’s a failure of adaptation, to say nothing of imagination.”
Few things get me as tetchy as a film adaptation of an excellent book that doesn’t trust the material, and alters it to be more conventional and banal (like the ending of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, for instance), or alternately, more lurid and prurient (like the violence in Watchmen). All too often, it seems like even the biggest bestsellers are deemed not commercial enough in content
Tobias: …if book-to-film adaptations can fail by being too faithful or by being not faithful enough, what’s left?…doing right by a great book and being faithful to it are, to my mind, two separate issues. Skillful as it is, The Hunger Games suffers from all the pitfalls of faithfulness that I noted in my review and Linda Holmes addressed above: It hits all the expected plot points from a novel that offers a straightforward cinematic blueprint, but it feels thinned-out as a result…What I want is not faithfulness, but an active engagement with the material, which doesn’t have to preclude faithfulness…The question filmmakers should ask is not, “How can I bring this story to the screen without losing anything?,” but “What in this book do I want to emphasize?” If you’re reading a book, I think it’s natural to home in on themes, characters, and scenes that are most meaningful to you, but a good adaptation has to make choices about what’s truly important. And it also has to exist independently from the novel…
Robinson: …Going from a derivative work to its source, people tend to expect fidelity less than when they start with the original, then move to the adaptation…When I read the book first, I go to the movie expecting to see a strict translation of what I saw onto the screen, even if that’s not truly what I want, or what best serves the story. Whereas when I see the movie first, I go to the book looking not for the same story, but for a greater insight into the characters…
…Both book and film should be addressed as independent entities. …This means not going into an adaptation with a mental checklist of things that must be in the movie to make it good, and evaluating a film based on what’s on the screen, not what got left off. In that sense, a “good adaptation” may have to involve a good-faith effort from the viewers, who participate in the process by giving that story a chance on its own terms… But it takes two to tango. If viewers have a responsibility not to see a book as an unalterable outline for the film, then filmmakers have a responsibility to respect the book, to acknowledge that there’s a reason they’re telling this story, rather than another story altogether… Filmmakers should ask “What in this book do I want to emphasize?” The key words are “in this book.” Meaning, part of a good adaptation is knowing what to cut or revise, even if it makes the fans cry, but part of it is maintaining a meaningful relationship to the source material.
As you can see this is a great conversation that examines this issue from several perspectives. I measured Outlander against the “standards” based on what I had learned about good adaptation.
WHY I THINK THIS WAS A GOOD ADAPTATION
- There is an overall theme not just a checklist of plot points from the books: a man and woman from vastly different backgrounds keeping their own integrity while caring about what is really important in life, providing for and protecting what is important; God, Family, Country and above all else love.
- They knew why they were adapting THIS story : Ron, Maril, Matt, and Starz all knew why they wanted to tell this story. They picked Outlander, they could have picked a show to produce with male-centric themes and familiar plots. Instead, they chose to tell a different kind of story. A story that was genre-bending and complex with a female protagonist.
“Diana has created an incredibly compelling heroine, thrust into a very complex world, not to mention, time. The books weave a fascinating tapestry of history, spirituality, love and honor, not to mention plenty of time travel, sex and warfare. With Diana’s stories guiding us and Ron’s mastery, we hope to bring Claire and Jamie to life for the millions of fans the world over.” Chris Albrecht, CEO Starz
- It was a great mix of nods to the book readers and yet it was novel enough to give us all surprises. In this episode particularly, I was struck with how like Diana’s books the season was; everything and everyone they wrote had a role to play and everything got connected. I loved the little bits of Jamie we saw in Brianna, “I don’t understand, but I believe you…Only the truth between us”, Gellis’ question “Why are you here?” and Roger’s “fucking barbecue”, and everything that happened when Claire visited Lallybroch including a lovely nod to the book lovers with the “thousand kisses’ poem, just to name a few.
- They told an honest story about life’s truths. My God, when I think about what they weren’t afraid to show us! I didn’t always agree (the rape of Fergus), but I will defend their choices because no one can make me believe that the same group of people who took their time showing the aftermath of Jamie’s trauma and Claire’s loss of her child did not think carefully about every part of this story and how to show it to us. We witnessed amazing award worthy performances and ground-breaking TV.
- The characters were interesting people who evolved. They took their time and let us watch these characters struggle and grow. The TV version of Jamie is more relatable, less funny IMHO, but less perfect. He was still being portrayed as a young man with “nice feelings” , emotional intelligence, a man who thinks on his feet. However, he was also allowed to fumble a bit (Lallybroch comes to mind) just like any young man in his situation would. He ISN’T perfect, but true to Jamie form he always gets it right in the end. He is a wonderful example of what it means to be a man and that includes owning up when you’ve made a mistake and not being afraid to try a new way of thinking. Those things I truly loved about book Jamie are still there loyalty, integrity, bravery, sensitivity, vulnerability, and the ability to love unselfishly. How often have you seen a man portrayed like that on TV? And Claire? Has a woman portrayed on TV ever been allowed to be as one critic said “a true superhero” ? Claire has always made me proud to be a woman and TV Claire has just reinforced that I was right to feel this way. The show has managed to show the world that a woman can be all things; strong , smart, compassionate, sexually confident, gentle, loving, and fiercely protective of those she loves. “Remind me not to get on your bad side Sassenach”. She hasn’t been portrayed as perfect either. Tell the truth, how many of you wanted to reach through the screen and shake her for not keeping her mouth shut! They even let Black Jack seem human at times which challenged our thinking.
- It was a roller-coaster ride of conflicts and feelings. At times, I worried that there wasn’t enough time between the shit-storms this couple constantly faced. But, they kept us wondering how Jamie and Claire would find a way back to each other after all the myriad of crises and tragedies a marriage can face.
- They suspended our disbelief and helped us believe this world and this story were real despite its fantastical nature. This show was a wonder; a visual feast set to music, Paris and Scotland. The love, creativity, and talent that this show was created with continues to stagger.
IMHO they did the things good adaptations do. They kept it their own vision while honoring the source material for book lovers. They told a whole story not just the love story, but they did tell the love story too. As Chuck Wendig said, “Story is all the stuff. All the fibrous material and intangible air surrounding the fiddly bits. The story is the whole beast. It’s the whole animal. And you have to use the whole animal”. They showed us the whole human story contained in Outlander. They didn’t show us a horse, they showed us a “fucking unicorn”.