Define It: Adaptations

What is Adaptation?


The action or process of adapting or being adapted.

The action of changing or relaying source material from one medium to another (most often some form of art).

Literary adaptation, in particular, is the adaptation of a literary source (written material such as a novel or a poem) to another medium (such as a film or a stage play).

But adaptation is not limited — there is not one singular way to do it and one singular method or mode of adapting material to another medium. You can start with any art form and adapt it to any other art form you like. However, the most universal form of adaptation seems to be that of literature to motion picture.

Literal and Loose Adaptations

A literal, or strict or faithful, film adaptation adheres to the source material as faithfully as possible, retaining as many scenes, characters, and plot points as time will allow. The time period, language, and cultural elements remain (think iambic pentameter or Victorian-era costume). Adaptations such as these are often those that stretch the film’s runtime to the max!

Popular examples of literal adaptations:

  • Emma (1994), adapted from the book by Jane Austen
    • Set in the correct period and retained original language and characterizations
  • Lord of the Rings film trilogy, adapted from the trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien
    • Peter Jackson is notorious for the detail he put into following the trilogy faithfully
  • The Princess Bride, adapted from the book by William Goldman
    • The framing of the story is more elaborate in the book, but overall the device remains the same in the adaptation; the film’s story and events are faithful the the source material
  • No Country for Old Men, adapted from the book by Cormac McCarthy
    • Retained the bleak humor of the novel, following the book nearly to the letter
  • The Martian, adapted from the book by Andy Weir
    • Minor changes to accommodate visuals of a film; retained necessary scientific material, crass humor, and nearly every character from the source

A loose adaptation will not strictly follow the guidelines of the source material, often straying from the material completely. Loose adaptations often begin with the bones of that source material, then run in their own directions. Those in charge of these loose adaptations often view the adaptation as an entirely new piece of artistic creation.

Popular examples of loose adaptations:

  • O, adapted from Othello by William Shakespeare
    • Set in a modern-day high school
  • Apocalypse Now, adapted from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
    • The book was merely used as an inspiration for the film; overarching elements such as tone and mission are the same, many of those elements are brought into starker illumination in the film
  • The Color Purple, adapted from the book by Alice Walker
    • It’s been suggested that Spielberg took liberties with a controversial book in order to make the film adaptation more accessible to a wide audience
  • Clueless, adapted from Emma by Jane Austen
    • Set in a modern-day (for the release time) high school with adapted language and cultural context
  • Coraline, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman
    • Adapted to appease a younger audience; many of the “scary” elements from the original material muted or removed

Forever Faithful or Fairly Fastidious

I used to be a stickler for the faithful (even literal) adaptation. I remember going to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the movie theater and being extremely disappointed because of all the things the movie had neglected to mention that the book made (obviously!) vital to the story. How betrayed J.K Rowling must have felt, I thought! I myself felt betrayed — by the Powers that Be at those faraway Hollywood studios (or Leavesden, in this case).

Over the years, I would feel that disappointment again and again. Movies continually made changes to the books I loved. With some experience, I’ve been able to gain some insight into how adaptations even occur: what goes into the process, how the structure has to change from book to film, how time constraints in film can affect a story, etc. Despite my wish that all adaptations could be near-identical to their source material, the dream is unrealistic.

Now I can admit that adaptations don’t need to be perfect clones of their inspirations. The important thing to remember is to be respectful of the material — and the author for providing it to you. 

“In terms of screenwriting adaptations it’s trying to cut out stuff that’s extraneous, without doing damage to the original piece, because you owe a debt of some respect to the original author.” — Rod Serling (writer/producer of The Twilight Zone)

But where’s the originality?

Adaptation is an extremely common form of writing for film and television these days; so common that it seems as if there’s nothing original coming to our screens anymore. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with adaptation. They say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” after all.

And that’s true, in a sense. We want to show an original creator how much we love and appreciate their work by making it into something else. Then, of course, there are the times when we think we can do it better!

Sometimes I worry that adaptation is taking over; that there are no original ideas left in the world (was it Shakespeare who said there are only 16 story lines possible?). The fight for intellectual property is ubiquitous throughout the film industry and now book versions of original films are popping up in bookstores, all to feed off the populace who is willing to pay for anything relating to the fandom they love. Every time I turn around I hear of production companies that are developing the same public domain projects in different ways (e.g. there are currently two Tinkerbell projects in the pipeline, that we know of).

But it’s a negative view — original content is out there. And I still get excited to hear about upcoming adaptations — seeing or reading a great idea in a different medium changes a person’s perspective on the subject matter, sheds light on new aspects of the story. Adaptation provides outlets for vision and creativity. We can take those supposed 16 story lines and run with them as far as our imaginations will take us.

So here’s to the next great story: to reading it, seeing it, hearing it — and whatever else may come!



Further reading
Ten Types of Book-to-Film Adaptations
Further viewing
Adaptation. (2002)

About Kelsey

My name is Kelsey and I run Manuscriptable! I'm an editor by trade and a reader by obsession. Some things I love in no particular order: superhero TV shows, the Whedonverse, correcting people's grammar, pretzels, finding new books to fangirl over, word games, pies of all kinds, and playing with my Bengal cat, Freya.

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