Studying Adaptations

Writing is a craft and an art, as I’ve said many times and in many places.

To learn the craft, you need to study writing. To learn the art, you need to study life. Study it, experience it, live it . . .

But what I want to write about is an aspect of craft. I’m not sure when I started studying adaptations, but I distinctly remember reading The Hunger Games, one week when I had the flu, and then watching the movie almost directly after, specifically to find out how it had been adapted. Someone said (or maybe no one, because it’s one of those internet memes), being a writer means having homework for the rest of your life. That’s essentially true, and writers also set themselves homework. I read books specifically to study what makes them popular, what makes them work . . . or not. Often I learn as much from what I don’t like as from what I do. That week, being too sick to do anything else, I decided to read The Hunger Games. It wasn’t the sort of book I generally love, although I might have when I was younger, but I was impressed by its sheer compulsive power. Despite the fact that I could see how it was being done, how the narrative was put together, I could not put it down. I kept wanting to know what happened next. That in itself is a kind of writerly feat.

Then, still with the flu, I watched the movie version.  I was fascinated by the changes that had been made to adapt the novel to a movie. For the most part, they were very effective changes: The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series both belong to that rare tribe of books that are good in themselves, and are adapted well. Nowadays, I watch adaptations deliberately, trying to learn from them. I find that I can learn a great deal from the choices made by different writers. For example, lately I’ve been watching Grantchester, the BBC mystery series based on the novels by James Runcie. That’s an instance in which I prefer the television adaptation, which is quite different from at least the first novel. And it’s going in a different direction . . . It’s darker and grittier, with more psychological depth. The mysteries are more like puzzles: they fit together in intriguing ways. My brain has always liked puzzle mysteries.

On the other hand, I’ve been dissatisfied with every adaptation I’ve seen of an Agatha Christie mystery. I think the adaptations have gotten her novels completely wrong: they have been convinced that she writes cozies, and that Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot are fundamentally comical figures. But they’re not. In my mind, Poirot resembles Alfred Hitchcock much more than David Suchet, who played him on the BBC series. What we forget about Poirot is that he was a policeman. If you’ve ever met a policeman in real life, you’ll know they have a certain something that people get when they’ve been in positions of power over others, positions from which they wield judgement.  Particularly over life and death.  When Poirot reveals who he really is, the audience (as well as the criminal) should feel a sense of danger. Christie didn’t write cozies — she wrote perfect, poisonous little poems on death, deconstructions of the British social class system. There is something in her the adaptations, so far, have fundamentally missed.

Recently, I watched another sort of adaptation: the pilot and first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here the pilot could be considered the original, and the first episode of that first season an adaptation of sorts. It was fascinating to see the different choices the director made in the first episode. The biggest change was the actress who played Willow. Looking at the pilot, I could see why the original actress did not work in that part — I’m sure she was very talented, but she seemed to be in a different show from the other characters. I suppose shooting a pilot is like drafting a chapter — once you look back at it, you can see what sticks out, what isn’t going to fit into the novel. You can see what sort of novel it’s going to be.

Murder on the Orient Express

Give yourself this exercise: Watch a movie or television adaptation of a novel. Notice the following:

1. How has the plot changed, and why? Are those changes effective? Which version do you prefer or find more satisfying?
2. How are the actors bringing the characters to life? What has changed in the characters or how they’re being interpreted?
3. How has the screen version brought the setting to life? What sorts of details have the set designers chosen? How do they inform the story?
4. This isn’t part of the set or part of the characterization — perhaps it’s part of both? But notice how the characters are styled, what they are wearing. What sorts of decisions have been made about costume, and why?
5. Notice the camera. In a screen version, the camera substitutes for what you, as a writer, think of as point of view. What is the camera showing? What is is not showing?
6. What has been cut out? What did the screenwriters and director consider unnecessary?
7. Particularly in a modern version of an older book, how has it been updated? For example, something there only as subtext in the 1940s (a character’s homosexuality, perhaps) will likely be shown in the modern adaptation.

You can learn quite a lot from studying adaptations. It’s yet another tool in your toolkit as a writer, yet another thing you can study as you learn your craft.

And it’s an excellent way to distract yourself when you have the flu . . .

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

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5 Responses to Studying Adaptations

  1. Nivair says:

    Interesting thoughts! Also, I was big into Buffy for a while but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the original pilot! Wow.

  2. sandy lunsford says:

    Interesting post. My daughter has read and seen The Hunger Games. I will have to ask her what her 17 year old perspective is. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also a movie, I believe, before it was a pilot and TV show. It was one of those movies that became unexpected cult classic. Here is the link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103893/

    Sandy L

  3. Phyllis Holliday says:

    I am so glad you consider Agatha Christie not at all cozy. I felt chills of evil when I read almost all of her novels. She also wrote as Mary Westmacott. I have read only one of them, but was surprised. The Rose and the Yew Tree dealt with high and low class, with much tragedy.

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