The Beautiful Contradiction of Adaptation

Written by: Kelley Gifford

Since Méliès’ 1899 Cinderella, the film and book industries have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, and yet it seems that the way we approach page-to-screen adaptations can still be boiled down to the maxim: “the book was better”. I’ve personally fallen victim to this line of thinking: I hadn’t even left the AMC parking lot when I complained that Dune: Part 1 didn’t include enough Dr. Yueh. 

It’s no secret that part of the reason literary adaptations will be a constant in film and television is because a pre-existing IP often comes with the reassurance that there is an audience that has been sold on this idea once before. But more recently, with the influx of streaming services competing for subscriptions, the focus has shifted slightly to be less about the individual idea, than a consistent lineup of stories that keep us coming back. It’s quicker and easier to develop film and TV narratives when working from a pre-existing source, rather than starting from the ground up. 

But if the general consensus is that the book is always better, then why is the adaptation so low risk? Why haven’t they been dismissed as inherently inferior copies of a story that should have been left alone?

Well, because they aren’t. Despite my opinion that Yueh’s character was underutilized in Dune: Part 1, the film is still one of my favorites from the year. I have Part 2’s premiere date marked in my calendar and I’m hoping that Villeneuve will be able to finish his proposed Dune trilogy with an adaptation of Dune Messiah. In fact, I think this small complaint, rather than diminishing my appreciation for the film, actually increased my admiration for both Herbert’s and Villeneuve’s works.

To dilute the value of a literary adaptation to a simple fidelity criticism is to ignore the complex and deeply layered relationship we, as individuals and as a culture, have with art. Each iteration of the same story adds to its legacy as an entity that is simultaneously a product of, and transcends, its form, its time, its author, and its audience. The beauty of seeing new versions, new visions, is that each one gives new insight into the magic that captivated you in the first place. 

Magic is scarce enough these days, so here’s a list of some adaptations that I’ve loved in the past, and some new ones I’m looking forward to!

Some of my favorite book-screen adaptations:
The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman
Adapted to: The Princess Bride (1987)

The Lord of the Rings (1954*) by J.R.R. Tolkien
Adapted to: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors (1968) by Richard Hooker
Adapted to: M*A*S*H (1972-1983)

The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels (1992**) by Edward St. Aubyn
Adapted to: Patrick Melrose (2018)

Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh
Adapted to: Trainspotting (1996)

Breakfast on Pluto (1998) by Patrick McCabe
Adapted to: Breakfast on Pluto (2004)
New and upcoming 2023 film/TV adaptations:
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
The Lying Life of Adults (creator: Edoardo De Angelis)
Show Release: 4 January 2023
Book Publication: 7 November 2019

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Daisy Jones and the Six (creators: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber) 
Episodes 1-3 Release: 3 March 2023
Book Publication: 5 March 2019

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)
Film Release: 28 April 2023
Book Publication: 1970

Dracula (Bram Stoker)
The Last Voyage of Demeter  (dir. André Øvredal)
Film Release: 11 August 2023
Book Publication: 1897

*Date re: publication of The Fellowship of the Ring

**Date re: publication of the first book in the series, Never Mind

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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