or, “Not muh Supes!”
Few things irritate me more than reading/watching criticism of an adapted story and then seeing people casually dismiss the criticism by saying, “You’re just mad it’s not your version of X.” It’s as though they do not think that criticism of the faithfulness of the adaptation is valid. I would argue that this is in fact the key metric of the success of an adaptation. To me, if the adaptation isn’t faithful to the original (although how one defines that may be variable), then what was the point of an adaptation in the first place? Why not just create original characters for the story to be told?
So what makes for a faithful adaptation? Shakespeare’s plays are often updated and adapted. Is a version of “Romeo and Juliet” more faithful because it’s set in 17th century Italy than a musical set in 1950s New York City? I would argue that a good story is inherently flexible (to a degree). So while Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is so faithful to the original it’s almost a filmed version of the play, West Side Story is just as faithful to the spirit of the play even though it’s a musical set in New York City. Likewise, while the 1996 film Emma is pretty much a period-piece of the story, the movie Clueless is a 1990s L.A. rich teen adaptation of the same story (with a bonus sassy best friend).
As I said, good stories are flexible, and honestly plots are few and far between. To me, the success of an adaptation is not how faithfully the setting is recreated, or in some aspects even the plot, but how well the characters are adapted. Then the question becomes, how much can a character be altered and still be the same character? Everyone has a different answer for this, and some media make the line between faithful and non-faithful very blurry. Comic books are probably the hardest to adapt faithfully because of the amalgam principle. A contained story, like Pride and Prejudice, is probably the easiest. And in the middle lie novels, television, etc.
I will be presenting my theory through three potentially divisive comic book adaptation examples.
While good characters are complex, a good adaptation has the task of reducing that character to a few key personality traits and fixed reference points. By fixed reference points, I mean events that happen to a character or a particular kind of background that is vital to establishing the character. This will probably make more sense with examples:
“The hero is a rich, white male who comes from money and runs a technology firm. He uses an array of high-tech devices to fight crime.”
Right now there are probably two heroes that come to mind – Batman and Iron Man. And they do have a lot in common. An adaptation that distills either character down to only these points is going to miss the crucial distinction between the two.
a) “The hero is arrogant, selfish, and spoiled, and only became a hero after nearly dying.”
That’s Iron Man.
b) “The hero is brooding, serious, and became a hero after witnessing his parents die in a random act of violence.”
Batman, of course.
Hopefully this illustrates what I mean. A lot of the fixed reference points (rich, technology firm, fights crime with technology) are the same between Iron Man and Batman. But their personalities (Iron Man is a charismatic jerkass with a heart of gold while Batman is Justice) make all the difference in the world.
Next are some examples where I think the adaptation failed. However, many people may disagree with me because of the amalgam principle.
Good vs Bad:
1) Batman – while I’m on record for liking all versions of Batman, I fully understand why many fans eschew the 1960s TV show as nothing but camp with only a passing resemblance to Batman. That show almost feels more like a parody of the current, common amalgam of Batman. Where did campy-Batman go wrong?
a) Character – Well, as I stated in my above example, brooding is a fundamental part of Batman’s character. In the ’60s show, I wouldn’t say that Bruce Wayne/Batman ever really brooded. He wasn’t exactly a cheerful fellow, but hardly brooding.
b) Reference points – I don’t recall the fact that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered ever coming up in that show. To be fair, it’s been a while since I watched it all the way through, and Bruce certainly didn’t have any parents, but the key motivation for his vigilante career is curiously omitted.
Without the central character behavior and relevant back story, is 1960s Batman really Batman as such? In a lot of ways, no. I really do understand when people say they hate the old TV show or the original movie (“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”). The fact that campy-Batman is not their Batman is a valid criticism of the show/movie. But I will say this for campy-Batman; it is at least a version of Batman present in the source material. Still, this is not been the case for many decades.
2) Spider-man – for all that the web-head suffers in his comic book universe, most adaptations have actually been pretty faithful, even back to the 1980s “Amazing Friends” cartoon (unfortunately, I have not seen anything of the 1960s cartoon except the opening credits). Peter Parker learns that having superpowers makes his life actually a hell of a lot harder, and he struggles to balance being a superhero with his other obligations. He’s also not very good at it. And he uses witty banter to distract both the villain and himself from the crazy situations he gets himself into. Hell, even LEGO Marvel Super Heroes gets this. But the recent Sony reboot utterly failed to understand the character, which I’ve detailed elsewhere.
Now some people may argue that Peter Parker was supposed to be more 1610 than 616, and that may be true, but the adaptation still wasn’t true to that character. The only time Peter Parker has ever been remotely cool or good at being a superhero in the comics (as far as I recall) was when he was Doc Ock.
3) Superman – Argh. This is actually the one that started me thinking along these lines. Superman has been adapted more than a few times, and usually pretty well all things considered. Superman: The Animated Series was a decent show, and honestly if it didn’t follow on the heels of the outstanding Batman: The Animated Series, I probably would have thought it was a better show. Alas for poor Superman, the bar was already set very high by Batman (this may be a recurring problem now that I think about it…). Man of Steel was a very divisive movie. A lot of people really liked it, and a lot of people really didn’t. And often those that did like it would fire at the ones who didn’t, “You’re just mad because that’s not your Supes!” Well, yes, and that is the crux of the entire problem, which I’ve detailed elsewhere. I’d also argue that Superman was not portrayed like this in the source material (well, up to the New 52 reboot), so this really isn’t most people’s Superman. If people like it, more power to them, but this is not my Superman, and that’s a valid criticism of the movie.
Adaptations are tricky, and so is judging faithfulness. A lot depends on the reader/viewer’s knowledge of the source material. Some people are very upset with campy-Batman but are less so when they realize that portrayal wasn’t a complete rejection of the Dark Knight; it’s just how it was at the time. So maybe time has to do with that as well. Stories can be stretched further than characters and still be the same stories. The integrity of the characters is much less flexible, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but stretching a character so far that it’s no longer the same character is a bad thing.