Wednesday 3 April 2013

To Adapt or NOT to Adapt?

By Jenny Mak

I was in London over the Easter weekend visiting a friend. She had the TV on and I noticed that Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Howl’s Moving Castle was showing. If you haven’t watched it before, it’s a Japanese adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ original book of the same name. The Miyazaki version is an amazing film in its own right and was even nominated for an Oscar! But seeing it again got me thinking about that oft-debated question about the film adaptation process of books: should the film stay true to the book?

Now, there are loads of academic research about this topic which mostly fall under the very formal-sounding heading of ‘Literary Adaptation in Film’. That might give you an idea of just how many people over the years have been interested in this seemingly simple question. But it’s a topic that is becoming much more pertinent especially when we consider the plethora of film-book adaptations that are coming out of Hollywood in the recent years. Look at the comic book trend and their sequels—Batman, Spiderman, Ironman and so many more!

The YA genre has also been very active. The various Harry Potter and Twilight series, the Lemony Snicket tales, The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Invention of Hugo Cabret—I can literally go on. This merging of book and film has changed the world of media and entertainment. Today, having a film made out of a story you wrote is not just a mark of exceptional accomplishment, but also a given. It’s part of the deal as it were, if you do write something that is a runaway success, to also lobby for a film production contract (well, your agent would do it for you).

So yes, this all sounds very exciting. But don’t get starry-eyed and start imagining yourself hobnobbing with A-list celebrities just yet. In many instances, the original authors don’t get a lot of input (if any) on the film adaptations. A screenwriter will often be hired to adapt the story for the silver screen because ultimately, presenting a story on a screen for an audience is very different from printing it on paper for readers. Grab your dad or mum’s video camera and try shooting your surroundings. Imagine if you had to make a story out of it. Now try writing the same story on paper. The details you choose to include or exclude for each medium will vary a lot.

I think this is one of the major ideas to consider when we criticise a film adaptation for not staying true to the original book. And in the YA genre, it’s often more difficult for us to consider the film adaptations objectively. We are naturally very protective of the original stories we’ve read just as we were starting to learn about the world, and watching film adaptations that don’t feel true to them can be a difficult and unpleasant experience.

But what I say is: keep your mind and heart open. Let these film adaptations suggest new ideas that you’ve never considered before. Think about why the director and screenwriter have chosen to adapt the book this way. Film is just another mode of storytelling, and it has its own boundaries to consider.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Diana Wynne Jones when she first watched Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of her book:
‘It's fantastic. No, I have no input—I write books, not films. Yes, it will be different from the book—in fact it's likely to be very different, but that's as it should be. It will still be a fantastic film.’


  1. I agree with you that film and a novel/written texts are different mediums and any judgements should be made in this light. Thus, I am not in favour of qualitative assessments, as in, which one is better...I guess that as much as the consideration of different mediums is necessary here, so is the understanding of personal involvement. Reading a book suggests features, traits but always leaves a lot for the reader's imagination, whereas a film is a rather strong director's (screenwriter's too) vision of the story, which might clash with ours and as you pointed out, cause dissatisfaction....

  2. DWJ adored the finished product, though there are some very significant changes (and one or two bonkers changes, like the name of Howl's assistant.) Personally I missed the Welsh sequence and the use of Donne's poem.

    I wrote an article, published a couple of years ago now, about the changes made to DWJ's work when it transfers to screen. I wish there were a few more examples.