Adaptation of Your Expectations: The Challenges of Adapting From One Medium to Another

Orgasms!! One of the first rules of writing critically is to write an engaging hook; now that I have your attention, I must regretfully inform you that my piece today has almost nothing to do with orgasms (unless you count the intellectual variety). Another of the first rules is to make certain that your hook thematically matches your overall argument, and for the love of all that is holy, try not to use an obscure quote. In other words, every single thing that you put on the page (or the screen, if you are a TV or film screenwriter) needs to have a purpose, a unifying theme; you should be able to defend your reasoning for every single glance between characters, not to mention every action and plot device, with something better than “because”.

So, what is my purpose today, you might ask with a sigh of annoyance and a “get this moving” gesture? My point is that when adapting a piece of art from one medium to another—such as, as I will discuss here, adapting a book into a film—the writers and other artists involved need to be aware of the fact that 1) there is a fandom (be they ever so small and devoted) who you will be trying to placate and please every step of the way, and 2) while you can do your best to be true and faithful to the material, you will inevitably offend portions of said fandom. But furthermore, I say to the fandoms, because of the nature of film and television, a completely faithful interpretation of the book material simply will not translate into a coherent, cohesive narrative that will play well on screen.

Now for whatever reasons, I was never involved in any fandom until pretty much after I had finished my Master’s degree in 2013. I watched Supernatural from the series’ beginning, so I had heard of fan fiction, but I had never (to my knowledge) read a single piece of it. I tried my hand at an idea I had for a piece of fan fiction, but the idea that I would share this with other fans of the show would have genuinely terrified me—I am a perfectionist and painfully wary of negative criticism, but I am now much better at pretending to not be bothered by it. Further, the idea that through my fic I might myself gain followers and any sort of notoriety would have seemed ludicrous in the extreme… And then, suddenly, another of my favorite shows—Once Upon a Time—introduced Captain Hook and, while still fanon at that point in the narrative, the great ship Captain Swan was launched. Thus began my current cinematic obsession and my fan fiction career. (Pause for shameless promotion of my first multi-chapter fan fic, Never Neverland.)

Since that first fateful venture, I have learned a great deal about the writing process and in particular the strange, confusing world of script writing for a television series or film. The format is completely different, for starters; there’s almost zero room for the writer to imply motivation through physical gesture; and then there’s the fact that your words are being constantly revised throughout the life of the script (even after being handed to the actors) and that those words are then filtered and interpreted altogether differently by the actors, the directors, the other writers, the producers, and finally, the editor. All of this after the fact that you have probably pummeled every single syllable into its “proper” place to convey just the right intention. Truly, there’s very little room for ego stroking as a writer, so it’s a wonder anyone bothers to take on the job. Bear in mind also that, relatively speaking, OUAT and Supernatural do not have a single literary source material that defines the narrative and mythology of the show—yes, there’s a lot of Biblical and mythological allusions in Supernatural, and yes, there’s the whole Disney canon to be considered, but both of these shows freely divert away from the traditional stories.

But my concern of the moment is, in my opinion, very well exemplified by the television show Outlander and the Harry Potter films. I know that the fandoms and audiences are widely different from each other, as is the subject material, but in the instance of both series, there is a level of detail and complexity to the original which cannot possibly be covered in a cinematic interpretation (and, again, for vastly different reasons).


Let me preface this section with a disclaimer: I started reading the books just before the first half of season one debuted, so I was prepared for some of the violence depicted on the show; however, during the third book Voyager, Gabaldon permanently strained my willing suspension of disbelief when she had young Jamie kidnapped by pirates and sold into white, sexual slavery. I finished that book and went on to read the fourth, but again was quite literally exhausted by the woman’s insistence on coincidental meetings and overall hyper-dramatic tendencies. (I mean, I know that the times were more openly violent than they are today, but when almost 100% of your main characters have been sexually assaulted or raped?! That’s when I call Shenanigans, my friends.)

That being said, I had finished the first book just before the season one premiere and assorted Comic Con hoopla, so my biggest problem with the adaptation was apparent immediately—I was not a fan of the fact that Gabaldon and Moore openly supported a Frank-Claire-Jamie love triangle, that they wanted people to be rooting for Frank to be the one Claire refused to live without. As a reader, it was obvious to me that my sympathies and loyalties were supposed to be engaged by Jamie; he was crude and brash at times, but ultimately he loved Claire passionately and truly, enough to be willing to admit to being in the wrong at times and to let her go when he felt that her happiness (and later, her life) were jeopardized by remaining in the past with him. And while I could respect Frank for moving on with his life and finding his own love, his treatment of Claire during their marriage as revealed in flashbacks was simply too appalling for me to forgive; it certainly made the show’s attempts to make him a romantic lead to equal Jamie seem in poor taste.

But personal interpretation aside, the idea that Frank was the one for Claire was adamantly refuted in the text because of the fact that his “ancestor” Captain Jack Randall looks precisely like him. How can Claire love a man who wears Frank’s face and speaks with Frank’s voice, while she is brutalized by him? When she watches him commit, or hears report of him committing, vile and terrible deeds? (The genetic impossibility of the situation aside, if my significant other had an evil twin who physically assaulted me, I’m sure I’d be more than a little gun shy around my partner for a while.) While, as a writer myself, I acknowledge that the show is its own creative entity—distinct and separate from the books, and thus capable of being changed or altered to suit a different tone or theme—it is still indissolubly tied to its source; the books will always inform the show’s concept in some form or another and, as long as Gabaldon continues to write the books and to be a producer on the show, it is possible that the show will inform the content and thematic elements of the books. They are like fraternal twins, very similar in their genetics but ultimately different entities or beings.

And while I respect that, perhaps, Moore and Gabaldon wanted to make Frank more likeable in order to increase dramatic tension for Claire and/or the other characters, I feel that they could have increased the drama without having resorted to the rather tired love triangle device. In my opinion, the show did a fantastic job of highlighting Claire’s sense of otherness, her sense of being out of place with the people around her because of her Englishness and not because of her being out of time (in fact, her ability to adapt to the Eighteenth Century standards of dress, drink, and cleanliness is quite advanced because of her rough and tumble upbringing in the early Twentieth Century, in spite of the fact that the differences between the two are still plenty extreme in reality). They could have played up or changed the struggles she faced every day as a woman out of time, or as an English woman among Scots; and while some of those were brought into play, most of them were deferred until the second half of the season, which made the two halves feel unbalanced with much of the hard-hitting, truly emotional moments of the show coming near the end. To a certain extent, this makes sense for the show as it is intended to create a tension/desire in the audience to be anxiously waiting the next season, but it hampers the overall narrative of the show and (for me, at least) felt like a hard brick to my skull, emotionally.

If you haven’t seen the last three episodes—1.14, 1.15, and 1.16—already, then you should (once again) be reminded that this is not a spoiler free post… But my biggest issue of all, with Gabaldon’s books and with the show, is the rather casual representation of sexual violence in the name of “historical accuracy”. And I specifically use the word casual to describe the scenes of Jamie’s rape by Jack Randall because it serves no genuine purpose in the narrative; indeed, Gabaldon defers the physical representation of the rape itself by describing it mostly in flashback. This deflection allows the reader the space to “look away” so to speak—we can know that it happened and make an educated guess as to the physical mechanics of the act, but we aren’t forced to view it. The show does not give us this out, this movement of our gaze/eyes; for all intents and purposes, we’re watching what amounts to a snuff film (as Randall has promised Jamie that he will kill him after he’s “finished”). But while watching the scene of Jamie’s rape and torture were incredibly nauseating, what took it into unnecessary territory—for both the book and the show—was the intensity of Randall’s reconditioning of Jamie.

I use this term specifically because Randall isn’t a sexual sadist simply toying with a chance plaything—Randall appears to be grooming Jamie to be a more permanent fixture, a pet. This is only a necessary representation of the specifics of Randall’s sociopathic tendencies IF Randall intends to keep Jamie alive. If he truly plans on killing him, then why the insistence, not only that Jamie be a willing participant in his own rape (by consenting to give Randall free reign over his body in exchange for Claire’s safety), not only that he physically break Jamie, but that he emotionally and psychologically breaks Jamie from reality? In the most disturbing scene of all, Randall douses himself with Lavender oil (which, thanks to its natural abundance worldwide and the ease with which it can be extracted, was historically a very common female perfume), undoes his long hair, and essentially seduces a hallucinating Jamie before penetrating him anally. It’s not just that he gives Jamie a hand-job while doing this—it’s that he snuggles with Jamie and spreads his long hair along Jamie’s shoulders while saying, “I’m Claire.” He determinedly takes what Jamie loves most—his relationship with Claire—and actively tries to twist and poison that love. Why is any of this important to Randall if he’s just going to slit Jamie’s throat? Answer: it isn’t. We don’t need these intimate details, unless 1) Randall intends to keep Jamie alive and continue to abuse him (which glorifies the rape), or 2) to create or manufacture “drama” for the future.

And this is precisely the type of drama created by depicting Jamie’s rape in the way that the show did—manufactured, unnecessary; readers of the books know that Randall survives into the next installment of the series, causing what amounts to unnecessary strife between Claire and Jamie and increasing our loathing for this character by having him commit further atrocities, pedophilic rape among them. We, as the audience, did not and do not need to have his vile deeds represented for us in high definition just to convince us to hate him. While I applaud both Sam and Tobias for being brave enough to act these scenes out, and to act them out so believably, it broke my heart as an audience member and as a writer to watch them be forced to commit to their roles to this level. No matter that the victim does not share my gender, as a survivor of rape any cinematic depiction of a crime that so viciously violates a person’s body, self-image, and sexual identity is difficult to watch—American History X was equally painful, despite being less graphic—but it is even more upsetting when there is no higher purpose to the commission or representation of the crime. Not only does the intimate, detailed acting and setting heighten my discomfort with the scene and the character, but it feels like complete disregard for my experience as a survivor, and the experiences of other survivors. It’s like a man bursting into a meeting of a rape support group and aggressively shouting, “Hey, not all men are rapists!”

Harry Potter

Now, given how much I said about a show I no longer watch (but might be coerced back into) and on books I no longer read, you might be justified in thinking that I’ll take the next five pages to get to my point on a series that I actually enjoy. Lucky for you, I know when to be brief and have a much easier time explaining my point on something that I dig. I know that a lot of people within the Harry Potter fandom have favorite characters who they wish were better represented in the films, or represented at all. While I am not a huge fan of the house ghosts, part of me wishes that the second film had included Nearly-Headless Nick’s Deathday party; and because repeated, random posts on Tumblr tell me so, I know that a lot of people wanted Peeves the Poltergeist. But realistically as a writer, I know that neither the party nor the spectre really add to the narrative in any real way; when you have two hours or less worth of film before your audience starts to lose interest (even among the devoted fans, not everyone can agree on which interactions with beloved characters are most important), you have to start making sacrifices. As much as I loved Hermione’s quest for House Elf independence, her political activism at 14 does nothing to advance the plot of Goblet of Fire, and would have caused the pacing of the film to drag if included.

Pacing a film or show properly is a science in and of itself, and major kudos to any and all movie and television editors out there. Whatever the show or film, pacing helps keep our interest engaged, especially on shows that are heavy on any sort of internal or external mythology; and while a TV show as a whole has more time to develop some of their characters and plots, in reality they only have about 42 minutes of your time on any given week thanks to commercial breaks (one hour shows on cable, like Outlander, still can’t fit everything in within that timeframe and their seasons tend to have smaller numbers of episodes total; thus, they actually have the same amount of airtime or less than a network show). But even if Harry Potter were developed for television, the executive producers and writing team would still find themselves sacrificing characters and storylines; it’s just not manageable sometimes, and when the books are adhered to religiously, you can still wind up with a product that people aren’t happy with.

But realistically, to quote a friend and fellow fan fiction writer, there is no such thing as universal popularity. Even if a production team, from the executive producers to the directors to the actors, were all unanimously agreed upon and given the blessing of the author of the original series (*cough* Game of Thrones! *cough*) there will still be major deviations from the books and people who will be vocally outraged when the episodes premiere. Another thing to consider here? The writer of a series is not infallible. I know that as a writer I am supposed to pretend that I am God in my little literary fiefdom and that I see all and know all… But let’s be real here: people make mistakes. Even J.K. Rowling can do or say the wrong thing when it comes to Potter-phenalia; announcing that she now feels that Hermione and Harry should have gotten together? Bad call. While I applaud her for admitting to being capable of a wrong decision, I don’t think that telling her fan base ten years or more after the fact that the wrong guy hooked up with the wrong girl does anything positive for the fandom or for the stories.

As a writer, I understand her compulsion… because for writers, our stories are like our babies—beloved babies who will we constantly want to improve and edit and correct well beyond the day that our editors pry the manuscript from our kicking, wailing, extremely exhausted, and possibly self-medicated hands. Creative people tend to be their own worst critics, and part of that is never truly being satisfied with what we have produced; anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar… ask Jesus if you don’t believe me. We are going to want to fix things that are not broken, in part because, years later, our minds might come up with something different, something that perhaps we alone might see as a “better” ending; but once our precious little brain children are released into the wild, they start behaving as actual children—doing their own thing regardless of how much you try and apologize for them—I mean explain their behavior. Our mistakes become a part of the story, an integral part of the history of that story and a history of ourselves as writers. And while we can explain the reasoning behind our mistakes, we cannot simply unmake them because we suddenly “discovered” a better motivation for a character or a better plot twist.

In brief, shows and books, like the people who write them are riddled with flaws, with plot holes and uncharacteristic behaviors; no matter how closely you stick to the subject material, adaptations are quite simply that—an attempt to reproduce a copy of the original, but which by its very nature is another creature altogether. What matters, at the end of the day, is whether or not you as an audience enjoyed the books, enjoyed the film, enjoyed the episodes; or whether or not you allowed yourself to enjoy it. For me as an audience member, I know that I try and distance myself from expectations because I know that I am doomed to see them disappointed. The reboot of the Star Trek franchise was painful for my brother, a lifelong Trekkie, to watch, but I thought it was fun. I had to blackmail my sister into going to see Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with me for my birthday, and she loathed it; knowing that Harrison was significantly older than when he last wielded Indy’s whip and the presence of Shia La Boeuf made me keep my initial excitement to a minimum, and I enjoyed the time with my sister. It’s not about having low expectations, but about managing them. If you always come in with high expectations, odds are high that you will be disappointed.

But even if the adaptation is not perfect, hopefully you can find something to love or enjoy about the experience. If nothing else, you can be grateful that you have the book, and you can always go back and read it, experience it the way it was always meant to be: your way. Until next time: keep calm and geek on!


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