The Challenge of Adaptation: The Spirit or the Letter?

(Hello there, dear readers. I would like to apologize for having not written anything for the past few days. When I wrote my last few entries, I had thought I was past the worst of my cold. To tell the truth, my last few entries felt like weaker ones, like I was held back by something. Most likely the cold threw off my writing. So, I decided to spend this time focusing more fully on conquering my cold, to ensure that I was in the best form to offer you all better work. My apologies for the delays. I will be back to a standard Monday through Friday schedule.)

This past weekend had the bombing of another film based on an established work, this time in the form of Pan. Though its failure is understandable given the quality of the writing and ideas slapped into it, it is sure to spin the wheels once more of the argument against adaptations. There are plenty who bemoan the nature of adaptations in film, who believe that Hollywood these days saturates the theaters with unoriginal works that water down their source material. Now, to me, that is simply not true. For one, there has always been adaptations done on film. Even the earliest days of movies have adapted stories like A Christmas Carol or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. However, the issue here isn’t how many adaptations there are, it’s how they are done. If no care is taken to the craftmanship of adapting one work to another medium, then the result is an audience that is soured due to a poor representation of a story they like. Flood the market with such terrible representations, and people will naturally grow weary of it. So, the challenge becomes this: how do you ensure that people do not automatically see an adaptation or reimagining as something terrible? To me, the answer lies in determining which is more important to preserve. Namely, the spirit or the letter.

First, let me lay out what I mean. For me, the spirit and the letter are two separate but key parts of any story. The spirit is its heart, the themes and feelings that it conveys through its narrative. The letter is the specific way that it is told, the passages and events that unfold over its course. Both are elements that influence and affect a story and how its audience responds to it. Perhaps it is the feeling that a story evokes, or the ideas that it explores, that causes an audience to latch onto a story. Sometimes, it might be how the story is told, whether the events presented or the method of how the story is offered, that ensures that the story is one remembered. Both elements are key to a story and should be considered when it comes to adapting it, whether as a pure adaptation or as a reimagining of some kind. If I were to pick an element to focus on for an adaptation, however, I believe that it would be worth focusing on the spirit of a work and trying to capture that spirit when translating it to another form. After all, not everything can work as a “one to one” adaptation. Sequences that might be engaging to read in a book or play in a game could be a slog in a film format, or perhaps the way of how a character reacts or feels about a moment is best conveyed from a more interior space than what a movie might offer. True, there are some that can achieve such an approach. Sin City, for example, pretty much just lifts Frank Miller’s graphic novels straight from the page to screen, bringing its pulp thrills in a pure form. Not many adaptations have such a luxury, however, which is why the spirit of a work is more important to pursue.

The spirit of a story is something that can transcend its original medium. Its something that can be captured, whether in its themes or its feelings, and given new life with a different approach. Plenty of movies help to show the power of the spirit, even if they might not always preserve the letter. Frozen, for instance, is based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen yet is so different that it feels like a very loose adaptation of the story. It chooses to have pretty much an entirely new story, with a different set of characters that the narrative follows. The most present thing that does carry over is a female character who has command over snow and ice. However, Frozen still preserves the original fairy tale’s message of the power of love overcoming hate and fear. Another example of a movie preserving the spirit of its source material is Cloud Atlas. Now, the format of the book was like that of a Russian nesting doll. Each story, from its chronologically earliest, would deal out its first half. It was not until the reader reaches the chronologically latest story that they received the whole story at once. From there, the stories go back in time and offer their second halves. Instead of relying on the book’s structure, which would seem to be nearly impossible to capture in a satisfying way on film, the movie instead runs through all of the stories together. In this case, it jumps between them, cutting between moments that are united by action, emotion, or character. That way, it showcases the multiple stories while maintaining the overall work’s theme of extending ourselves beyond a tribe mentality and treating other human beings with dignity and respect. Even Marvel Studios, among the wave of superhero films that has arisen, has demonstrated their skill at capturing the spirit of their characters to film. They have offered movies that feel properly tailored to their characters, capturing the spirit in a close-knit fashion rather than trying to force a certain style upon all of them.

So, why did I specifically mention Pan at the start of this post? Among its flaws, Pan displays a disregard for the spirit of J. M. Barrie’s original play, Peter Pan. It takes the themes of growing up, of the conflict between youth and age, and chucks it all out. It tries to substitute it with a generic Chosen One storyline, the narrative of someone destined to take down some evil. Even if it tries to throw in all sorts of attempts at magic, none of it can hide the fact that it is missing that core spirit. Now, compare that to Hook. For those who have not seen it, Hook is a movie about Peter Banning, a man whose children are kidnapped by Captain Hook and who turns out to be a grown up Peter Pan. Though it is a sequel story made to continue Peter Pan, it still preserves the spirit of the original story. It maintains the conflict of time passing, the youthful magic of Neverland, and the theme of how growing up is not such a bad thing. As such, its heart shines through and offers a fun take on what might happen after the events of the original story. It’s an example of what happens when a storyteller understands the spirit of a story, and offers the right craftsmanship to capture that spirit in a new form or medium.

After all, what is a story, a work, without its spirit? Just a name. Just a face. Just something to be coated on a generic narrative to make a quick buck. Hopefully, Hollywood keeps this in mind and offers more adaptations that have the spirit of a work and not just its name.


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