The Book Isn’t Always Mightier Than The Adaptation

The book isn’t always mightier than the adaptation… Give it  a chance, find the fun and entertainment – you can always go back and enjoy the books and other media, neither is cheapened or diminished, it’s just a natural part of the story of storytelling.

Okay before I get lynched by fans Harry Potter/Twilight/LOTR/Hunger Games/Da Vinci Code/and just about any story with fans, moving from medium to medium requires change and its not a new phenomenon, nor is it new that people are upset by changes. I’m not here to argue that as films are better than their source material, or even good, my argument is that its only bad one for version to be incomplete without the other.

Ancient History

So, I’ve spent a long term over the years studying texts that were originally part of oral traditions, but over Millennia were converted from a spoken medium to a written medium. The transformation of the oldest stories is fascinating, and if our current culture existed then, a whole lot of people would have been stoned for some form of blasphemy in the conversion of stories as the historical game of Chinese whispers that is oral tradition.

Actually, as it happens, people have died for presenting unfaithful accounts of history and legends. So I guess modern sensibilities aren’t so modern, just less extreme and more easily reported and repeated.

The earliest known stories came from the Lascaux caves in Southern France, it is a series of images progressing through a time period, covering the rituals and the hunt of the people at the time, it’s a story. It’s worth noting that spoken language of some variety probably came about somewhere between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago,  so I’d like to think the story telling was around long before someone thought to record it on a wall. 

Funny thing about oral story telling, evidence of it is very hard to find until someone wrote it down. When someone wrote it down though, that game of Chinese whispers was fixed at whatever distortion it had got up to when it was written down.

This history of conversion doesn’t stop there though, in between all of that cultures would come along adopt both the written and spoken stories, and impress up on them their biases.

The Mediums of Story Telling

The forms of medium aren’t a linear progression, even as the written word was recording things, the oral story was still around, and is still around today, I’ve just been speaking at work recounting the tale of a man who stole a shark from the San Antonio with a pram… the shark appears to be okay, so it made for an entertaining story.

So, in very broad terms, there has been three major changes to the transmission of stories since the oral tradition

  • Oral/spoken word
  • Painting from the Lascaux caves to the great battle paintings
  • Stone carving
  • Papyrus/paper – from the humble Egyptians to record obsessed Romans, and the great libraries of history
  • Plays, skits, operas and other pre-electronic performance art forms
  • Radio, Film and Television – where story telling devolved from the small local to the national and international audience

It’s been a very unsteady progression with some forms being the dominant story telling for a very long time, in some cases an older form returns to dominance. However, generally along the way technology has enabled story telling.

I don’t feature the internet on here, nor e-books, the internet isn’t necessarily as disruptive and distinct as we like to tell ourselves it is – it’s mostly a combination of oral, paper, and film. It has however made the dissemination of stories and ideas easier and quicker, and possibly that earns it a place on the list, but I’ve chosen not to… even as I write my thoughts on the interwebs.

King Arthur and the many fold stories

A great example of this are the monks that would translate and record local stories. And where people wanted more, new stories would get added to old – look at the legend of King Arthur, or Robin Hood, that had modest beginnings, and grew into grand epics. In the case of King Arthur, evolution didn’t stay local, the impact of French story telling on the Arthurian legend introduced romance to the epic, and changed the character of Arthur.

Then all the changes are collated, and brought together as a whole story, recorded and translated. It didn’t stop there, over the centuries there were more books, like Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Mallory that both collected English and French stories, and added new original parts, skits, plays and operas, with the invention of radio came radio plays, and with the invention of the camera came the films, like Parsifal, many MGM films of the 40’s and 50’s, right into the modern era with the likes of 1981’s Excalibur (a personal favourite), First Knight, (also a favourite), right into last year with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and even a Transformer movie, The Last Knight with transformer dragons, and the planet itself being a an ancient Transformer.

I focus on King Arthur because it’s one of the most adapted stories in the West, it’s changed and adapted, and there isn’t a story telling medium it hasn’t featured in over the millenia. There’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject , if you’re ever bored and want to delve into some Arthurian Britain, I’m sure you can find something there.

Stories though have been around as long, or longer than recorded history, their forms changed, ideas were adapted to mediums where culture at the time considered it important to do so.

Changes are to be expected

So, we come down to the crux of my little opinion piece. Every single translation between mediums, and even retelling within that medium, has involved changes, from those of necessity as a medium demands some level of conformity, a comic book replaces most of the words with graphics, the epic war painting freezes a single moment in time but replaces the linear story with pictorial clues to what has and will happen and films replace dialogue especially inner dialogues with actions, images and exposition.

It’s all natural, and it’s okay.

If you cling to the medium you are most used to, refuse to accept change you’re inviting disappointment when experiencing another medium. The best way to experience it is as an evolution, something new from something old.

It’s okay not to like something because it’s simply not good – the Garfield movie for instance has an awful lot wrong with it, The Golden Compass was a flat generic kids movie with talking animals, with or without it’s source material it wasn’t fun, or Eragon that tried to cash in on the excitement of the Lord of the Rings film, with a bland paint by numbers fantasy tale from what I think is actually an exciting and interesting book.

But for all that a lot of films get a bad rap for not being “as good as the book”, which I think is unfortunate. I’m a massive fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the first book Dune I’ve read many times, though the rest of the series less often, and I love 1984 David Lynch movie. Yes, it makes significant changes – it had to to fit the story into a movie, especially when you consider the scope of Frank Herbert’s story telling. Even now, a new movie is being attempted with Denis Villeneuve at the helm, but they’re only going to be doing part of the original book, hopefully with a subsequent sequel to fill the gap.

I’m also one of those unique people that considers Star Trek The Motion Picture as the best of the Star Trek movies, it ambitiously attempted to translate Star Trek the TV series to the television, and it’s the movie most true to the Star Trek ideal, where combat is the last possible outcome a Star Fleet captain wants, after this one they decided every movie was to be built around combat and battles, with one exception Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,  which while not a favourite film I admire for doing something different than combat. Don’t get me wrong, I love most of the other films, because the action Sci Fi film is compelling and fun, and is still Star Trek. Actually in the case of Star Trek, maybe it’s the exception that proves the rule, because most people prefer the other films and consider the Motion Picture and Star Trek IV to be the least like the Star Trek they know.

Equally I think a lot of Harry Potter fans get upset about certain movies, but when you consider the requirements of a changing art form, the compression of a thirty or forty hour book into an hour and a half to two hour film, I genuinely think they do pretty well. I will admit both the first book and the first film were my favourite they captured the wonder, scariness and isolation of the first day of school, or anywhere for that matter. Especially for us introverts. There isn’t a film in the series that I don’t enjoy, the books generally less so.

I think in nearly every case where the books is better than the film, we should be open to the artistic merits of the film, independently of the book. They’re not the same, and they shouldn’t be, a direct translation of book to film would be long, boring, finicky in detail, and ultimately a disjointed mess. The best book to film conversions don’t try to be faithful, they retell the story in their own way, and it’s something to be celebrated.

On a more personal note, I was in a performance of Macbeth, back in school, it was a small cast, (back then Drama seemed to be something people did to avoid hard lessons… I took it seriously obviously), so characters were merged  and modified to cope with the smaller cast, so the story was modernised, partly because modern military fatigues were more accessible. Several of us doubled up in technical roles of the production, (AmDram style all the way). I’m biased, I thought it was fantastic, and it still conveyed the heart of the Scottish play. One of my fondest memories of school, and a lesson in changes might not be better than the original, but they are their own art.

Give it  a chance, find the fun and entertainment – you can always go back and enjoy the books and other media, neither is cheapened or diminished, it’s just a natural part of the story of storytelling.


One post statement… I’m not immune to the books is better than the film, it took me a long time to warm to The Watchmen, I hated the ending I still prefer the comic, but I can at least understand the need to change so crazy a concept. Star Trek Discovery was a hard sell to me, I found myself rejecting the changes to the Star Trek universe, but once I accepted that changes were needed to bring it up to date, I was hooked in the latter half of the first season. I had the same reaction with Kelvin universe Star Trek movies.

Author: jllegend

Aye, there's the rub. Difficult to sum up succinctly. Crazy, most definitely. Funny, hopefully. Lovely, certainly. Interesting, essentially.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: