Adaptations or Abominations?

A column article by: Zack Davisson

Blade Runner is one. The Shining is another.

You love those films, right? They are irrefutably great--Irrefutably, at any rate, by anyone whose opinion matters. Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick made those flicks at the full height of their creative powers, and they have stood the test of time. They are monumental.

Great as they are, however, they are also epic fails as adaptations.

Read the books, then watch the films. How closely do they follow the plots? Do they even have the same characters? The same fundamental storyline? The same intentions? No, they don’t. But does that matter?

I have been thinking about adaptations lately. For good or ill, I realized I bring an entirely different yardstick when judging them. Like for the animated Batman: Year One, I brought out the comic and did a side-by-side comparison to check how faithful it was. Was the plot the same? Did they preserve the dialogue? What did they cut and what did they keep? I didn’t do that with other DC animated shows because they weren’t adaptations. As original stories they had a free pass.

I can be strict with adaptations, but I don’t think unreasonable. I don’t expect them to be shot-for-shot recreations. So long as the core of the characters is respected, I am willing to forgive a fair amount of plot changes. And of course, everything depends on what is being adapted.


Bond, James Bond.

Do you have a favorite James Bond? Most people do. Have you ever read the books? Most people haven’t.

When it comes to judging adaptations, everything hinges on how much you care about the originals. Personally, I love James Bond flicks. I have seen almost all of them, and I can say a kind word about any of the Bonds (Even Roger Moore. For Your Eyes Only is my favorite Bond flick). The other day I was on a chat board were some guy was arguing with me that all the Bond flicks sucked because they were so far away from Ian Fleming’s original character.

My thoughts? “Blah, blah, blah, blah Mr. Cranky Internet Guy. Who cares?” The Bond flicks may not be great, but they are fun. Who cares if they stick to the books (that nobody reads anyways) or not? James Bond left his paper origin long ago. But it mattered to him. And I am a hypocrite.

You are an expert at something too, right? There is something you are passionate about. Your own little corner of the store of knowledge. It could be a hobby, or something you studied formally. Maybe work-related. It could be a character, a book a song, whatever, something you have loved for years. And the more you know about it, the more you love it, the more difficult it is going to be for you to see an adaptation. The less able you are to forgive the little details.

For example; I have a friend--Japanese--who can’t stand The Last Samurai. The inconstancies grate on him like grit in his spinach. His main complaint? That the ferns in the forest scenes could never exist in Japan. It pissed him off that the film was supposedly set in Japan, yet it had those ferns. He was, as you might surmise, a botanist.


The StorytellerGood comic, bad adaptation

This is one of the comics that got me thinking about this topic in the first place.

I love Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. It is everything I love in television, and I can’t count the number of times I have seen it. So when Achaia Entertainment put out a comic book version that continued the series, I was excited. There were more stories from the Storyteller.

Of course I was disappointed. Big surprise, right? Achaia farmed out the series to a wide pool of talent, only one or two of which actually delivered a decent adaptation. The people working on the comic just hadn’t studied the series enough and to my mind missed the key points that made The Storyteller great. Instead of integrating the character, as was done in the TV show, they used the Storyteller as some kind of host/framing device, like one of the horror hosts from Creepy or Eerie. And that is contrary to the series.

The integration of the Storyteller is one of the things that set the show apart from the similar Fairy Tale Theater. Without that key piece, the Archaia comic failed to my mind. It was a good comic. Achaia put out a good comic. And if they had called it a collection of illustrated folktales, then I would have given it full marks. It just wasn’t a good adaptation of The Storyteller.



Sherlock Holmes - Costume or character?

I love Sherlock Holmes. I don’t read Sherlock Holmes, I study Sherlock Holmes. Which means that I am even pickier on Holmes adaptations.

Let’s compare and contrast two recent Holmes adaptations. One I would say is a good adaptation, the other not so much.

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movie looks good. It is set in Victorian England. Holmes and Watson zoom around in hansom cabs. The details of the 221B Baker street are right. I even thought Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law looked good as Holmes and Watson. The flick got props right off the bat for not casting some fat bumbler as Watson. Sure, Downey Jr. could have been taller and thinner, but otherwise, he looked good.

The problem is that Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t act like Sherlock Holmes. He acts like the arrogant genius action hero he has perfected in recent roles. In other words, he acts like Tony Stark. I don’t know if that is entirely Downey Jr’s. fault; Guy Ritchie can only make one kind of film, and that’s all he did here. Ritchie preserved the setting of Sherlock Holmes, but not the character.

By contrast, the current BBC series Sherlock which updates Holmes and Watson is a smashing adaptation. There was no attempt to re-create the look of Sherlock Holmes here; the series is set in modern-day London. Holmes and Watson carry cell phones and dress in regular clothes. Looking at the box cover, if it didn’t have Sherlock printed across the top, I would never know who the series was about.

But the most important thing--what they got exactly right--is that they act like Holmes and Watson. I was skeptical at first of the modern-day update, but it only took a short while into the first episode to know that they had nailed it. The series does a perfect job of updating the character while still preserving everything that made him great in the first place.

Sherlock also does something I love: it leaves little Easter eggs for the Sherlock Holmes fans. They pepper the series with clues and tidbits, small bits of dialog and details, that serve as a nod from the from the creators to the fans saying “See? We know what we are talking about.”


A Tale of Two Conans

Dark Horse has an experiment in adaptation right now. They seem to be testing the market to see if Conan comics are only for Howard traditionalists, or if they can attract a different crowd.

Two new Conan titles debuted this month. Both are adaptations of two of the most important stories of the original Conan canon. Both are entirely different takes on the character. King Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword is a respectful Robert E. Howard-focused tale that presents Conan as his creator intended it. This Conan is every bit the raw, barbaric warrior king in the series, as hard as iron and fierce as a wolf. Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast is a much freer approach, taking a classic Howard story as a base, yet giving the artistic team freedom over tone and direction. This is a more reader-friendly Conan, based less on Howard’s philosophical ideas and more on telling an entertaining story.

As with Sherlock Holmes, I am a devoted Conan fan. I have been reading Robert E. Howard and the Conan comics for most of my life since about the 3rd grade. So I am picky when it comes to my Conan.

To my surprise I ended up enjoying both of the series.

The Phoenix on the Sword is easy to like. Writer Tim Truman is preaching to the choir with every page, feeding Conan fans what they like, namely Robert E. Howard. The art is gorgeous. Some new touches have been added to the story, all of which flow perfectly.

Queen of the Black Coast was a tougher sell for me. Like The Storyteller, I thought it was a good comic but not a great adaptation. I was prepared to dislike it …

But then I thought about the James Bond guy on the internet. I thought about Blade Runner and The Shining. I thought about what really makes a good adaptation.


The Core

There is, of course, no “real” Conan. No “real” Sherlock Holmes. No “real” Storyteller. They are fictional characters. But as history has shown, fictional characters can be as important and as impactful as any living human. That is why we have myths and legends. And religion.

There is room for interpretation when it comes to adaptations. But I think there is some esoteric core that needs to be found and preserved.  There has to be some love for what is being adapted, some understanding of what makes that work great. It isn’t the details, the plots or actions. It’s the feeling.

I have seen websites tearing The Lord of the Rings films apart frame-by-frame because of how they differ from the book. But I think those people are missing the point. The Lord of the Rings is a great adaptation because it feels like the books. By the same token I think Watchmen was a bad adaptation because it doesn’t feel like the comic. I don’t care about the plot changes; I even think the new ending worked better. But in trying too hard to be cool the film lost that esoteric core.

Ultimately I became a fan of Queen of the Black Coast because it still feels like Conan, even while it is doing something new.  It’s a different Conan than Robert E. Howard’s. But it is still Conan. And maybe that is the only important element of an adaptation.

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