How faithful should book and comic adaptations be?

Feature Andrew Blair 11 Apr 2014 - 06:30

Do films need to change things from the material they're adapted from - and is always that a bad thing, anyway?

Did you know that Darren Aronofsky's Noah is not totally faithful to the source material?

This has irked some fans of the Bible who believe the movie should reflect the sacred text more accurately (although not to the extent that the cast shouldn't be white or anything). The situation is similar to outcries regarding The Fantastic Four film, where casting and rumoured plots have diverged from the comics they're based on.

The Bible, while it goes through different editions, always tells the same story. The Fantastic Four however, has had different iterations and continuities (there is no officially sanctioned Ultimate Universe version of Jesus where he's redesigned to look like Samuel L. Jackson, yet). Basing a film on The Fantastic Four begs the question: which Fantastic Four?

When it comes to transferring a comic to the screen, it's a simpler task adapting a standalone comic (eg. Watchmen, Ghost World, or 300). For superheroes who have been around for decades there are numerous arcs ripe for adaptation. In some cases comics have been reboots of other comics, where the whole point is to change the existing story. For example, J. Michael Straczynski's 2010 retelling of Superman's origin - Superman: Earth One – which has a lot of overlap with Man Of Steel.

Man Of Steel is one of many superhero films that took multiple sources as its inspirations and combined them into something new. With so many different iterations of these stories, film-makers rarely make a complete adaptation of one storyline without bringing in other ideas and supporting characters from elsewhere. This is why different aspects of the Extremis arc are able to be a significant influence on the plot of both the first and third Iron Man films. So, the answer to the question 'Which Fantastic Four?' is 'Any ones the film-makers want'.

The pros and cons of this are obvious: you can have a richer, fan-pleasing universe with novelty for all and a plethora of ideas and themes, but you can also have a more muddled, cluttered narrative with too many characters jostling for attention. Lord of the Rings is an example of how to get this right. Unlike many novels, it has its own universe and history which gives the film-makers additional details (more like a comic universe than most books) but also it is worth noting the scriptwriters' choices in reassigning pieces of dialogue to other characters. Occasionaly controversial with fandom during filming, the movies are now ingrained into popular culture.

Most prose novels don't have an expanded universe like Tolkien's. They also don't have as dedicated a following, which makes it easier to alter them without controversy. The same rules apply, though, as with comics. The process of adaptation can work – as with Filth, Interview With the Vampire, or High Fidelity – or fail. Look at The Golden Compass, if you must, stunted by compromise and what's been left out. However, it's clearly possible to edit down something drastically and still make it work. There's another film's worth of material in the novel Trainspotting that never made it onscreen.

Looking at superhero films, it's fair to say that the level of fidelity to the source material is not related to the quality of the movie adaptation and, due to the wealth of different takes on a character, films in the same series can have hugely different tones. Rather, the pick-and-mix approach yields good and bad films, and the quality depends on a number of factors. Spider-man 2 versus X-Men 3 anyone? Both take liberties with an existing storyline, one to popular acclaim and the other to negative critical reaction.

Some changes work, some don't. Anyone who reads Earth One and compares it to Man of Steel will see that some of the differences are completely understandable, yet some are totally bewildering. Any adjustment has the potential for both brilliance and stupidity.

For something very different, the scale of these changes may cause some to baulk, but this could still result in a popular film. The Mandarin, for example, is drastically and divisively different in Iron Man 3 to his portrayal in the comics. The more you change, though, the more you risk. Not only are you trying to reconcile and test out new material with an established series, but there's also fan alienation to consider, and so a middle ground is normally sought. It is possible, however, to make drastic changes to the source material and still make a good movie. Alternatively, you could be more faithful and produce something akin to Zack Snyder's Watchmen.

Now, I like Watchmen. Both versions. The comic is superb, and the film is my favourite of Snyder's. Due to its length, Watchmen's narrative is altered for the film, and these understandable cuts results in a different ending to the comic.

Personally, I think it's worth noting that a lot of what made the film interesting was where it diverged from the source material, or where the moving pictures and sound changed the tone of the comic. The credits set to The Times They Are A Changin', the adjusted ending, the way Rorshach implores Doctor Manhattan to kill him; these were the bits that stuck in the memory after watching. It's not that the rest of the film was bad, but it is open to the accusation that it is only good because it has been lifted directly from a great comic.

If you took something that is already good and transferred it with additional dimensions and sound to the screen, then it would merely be a technical and commercial enterprise. Merely replicating isn't anyone's idea of film-making, but it does have the impact of boosting sales of the source material and anything associated with it. You might think Twilight is an awful novel, and I might think Twilight is an awful novel, but the fact remains that it got a lot of people reading, and from there they moved on from The Vampire Diaries to Wuthering Heights to Let the Right One In and beyond.

In Watchmen's case, the film brought the comic to a wider audience, and it still remains the more popular version. Watchmen was written for that specific medium. The most lauded part of the movie adaptation is the Dylan-enhanced title sequence, which was written for that specific medium. Likewise, Atonement has its unbroken shot across the Normandy beaches, on top of the challenge of composing shots from Ian McEwen's detailed prose. Conversely, when compared with Twilight, anything with Atonement's level of detail suffers once you've seen the film, as you find it difficult to imagine your own version.

This all begs the question: is there a degree of fidelity which results in an adaptation becoming pointless? I don't think many people go to the cinema to admire the technical achievement in transfering something from one medium to another, but people do go to see films because they are simply shorter and easier than reading a book. This isn't a Jack Whitehall style 'Don't read because anything good will be made into a movie anyway' adulation of idiocy, not for most people, but merely a practical reality.

The process of adaptation is a balancing act in many ways. For those who have read the book it has to capture something representative, in order that its divergences become accepted. For those cinema-goers who don't know or care about the book, there is no obligation to be representative, but the obvious need is to make a good and comprehensible film.

Change isn't intrinsically bad, in this respect, nor is it heretical. It depends on how it fits into the rest of the film, and is part of the process of adaptation for better or worse.

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