This blog was based on an academic paper by yours truly, Allison Schneider. If you’d like to see the source, well here it is. This is my work, please do not steal it:
Originality and Adaptation
Adaptations are so common in modern arts, that it has been estimated almost a third of movies are adapted from literature (“Adaptation: From Novel to Film”). A potential cause of this adaptation fever is that there are many mediums, new and old that are constantly evolving, while there are many great stories already told in other mediums. The written word is of course an older storytelling technology than movies, television shows, and the internet. Because books are an older medium, their stories are beloved and audiences often can’t get enough of the narratives they tell. This leads to adaptations and genre shifts. The thing is, these genre shifts don’t always stay “true” to the original story.
What makes a good television show is very different from what makes a good book. While the story may change, new genres can still be “faithful” by sharing the same overarching themes as the original medium, without taking a strictly “based on the book” or unoriginal approach. Sometimes the recreations of the source material spin off in an entirely different direction. Blatant changes aside, there are still nuanced aspects of the story that are also changed in the genre shift including characters and their development, and even the messages and overarching themes may shift. Some argue that because the book is the original, it is always the better rendition of a story. It’s common knowledge that reading has many merits, but television too can put forward interesting stories that entertain a wide array of audiences, and in our age often reach more audiences than books do.
When investigating the differences between adaptations, one must also take into account the differences in mediums of the two works. Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias of the A.V. Club wrote “What Makes a Good Book-to-Film Adaptation?” to discuss what makes a “good” film adaptation from a literature source, that can be applied to television adaptations as well as cinema. Using The Hunger Games as a case study, Tobias argues that the movie may have been too faithful to be interesting, but if it hadn’t followed as closely to the original work it might have been rejected by the fans of the books. These competing interests are something all creators of adaptations must deal with. Tobias’ idea is that in an adaptation he wants to see “an active engagement with the material, which doesn’t have to preclude faithfulness”. The writers come to the conclusion that the two mediums should be addressed as different entities (Robinson and Tobias). If one applies this idea of “faithfulness with engagement” as a good adaptation to other plots, audiences can get a better understanding of why and how show runners choose to make changes from source material.
Game of Thrones the television series produced by HBO and the book series it is based on, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, is a prime example of a popular adaptation and popular source material. In HBO’s Game of Thrones, readers of the books A Song of Ice and Fire, are often surprised when changes are made. However, when switching medium it is necessary to make changes, and even, when considered in the previously discussed light, a way of making a better adaptation.
The difference in medium always forces adaptations to change, if for no other reason than they are simply different ways of telling a story. The differences show themselves in unique ways depending on the adaptation. For example, when a work is transitioned from literature to television, it can’t always use the same perspective. In Game of Thrones this is a shift from the first person perspective of many characters, to the omniscient perspective of an audience. It would be impossible to keep the first person perspectives in the show, which affects how characters are perceived. For example, the scene in “Breaker of Chains” with Jamie and Cersei in the sept viewing Joffrey’s corpse, was essentially a rape in Game of Thrones. In A Storm of Swords, you get Jaime’s perspective, the dialogue is more consensual, and the scene is much less forced. According to George R. R. Martin, the scene “Was always intended to be disturbing… [but may have] disturbed people for the wrong reasons” (Hibberd). Budgets and time constraints are also real, and definitely affect the retelling of a story in a new genre. In Game of Thrones, the budget is now high, but looking back you can see the quality of wigs, costuming and some dialogue to name a few aspects, have changed drastically from the first episode. To be fair, the adaptation just can’t be exactly the same because of the genre shift itself. To investigate how medium switches in adaptations affect storytelling, there are numerous popular examples on television today.
Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are staples of pop-culture today and as such, have a large surrounding community holding conversations on all manner of topics related to Westeros and Westerosi culture. Issues in the Westerosi world have become a spring board for debates on hot issues in the real world, involving disability, violence, censorship, and even rape. Sansa Stark’s rape in season five sparked conversation in congress about censorship (Baila). On the topic of disability, Peter Dinklage has spoken out about portraying Tyrion, and how it was refreshing for him to be “humanized in fiction,” because of his disability as a dwarf (Selcke). Many people have decided not to watch the show because of the controversies. Yet, if one chooses to engage, one of the first conversations new fans of the series are introduced to is the difference between the books and the television show. It is all over the internet, in lists, blogs, articles, and news among other sources.
One common conversation involves how adapted characters are not quite the same as source characters in nuanced ways. One view, is that only two criteria determine significant differences in characters: one, if author and ultimate guru on the topic, George R. R. Martin says they are significantly changed, or two, the character dies at a different point (“Characters Significantly”). Characters that Martin admits are different include Osha the Wildling, Shae, and Littlefinger; other characters that differ greatly according to this assessment include Old Nan, Talisa Maegyr, Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark, and Daenerys (“Characters Significantly”). While the mentioned characters are significantly different due to plot changes, they also portray different characters than in the books because of their reactions and personality nuances. Take for example, Peter Baelish, other wise known as Littlefinger. In the show he has no friends and is clearly untrustworthy, while in the novels, he was everybody’s friend, the ever so helpful (subtly plotting) character (“Characters Significantly”). Seemingly insignificant aging up of the child characters, especially those in positions of power like Robb Stark or Joffrey Baratheon-Lannister, changes the way viewers interpret the characters. Even small changes, such as names, cosmetic differences and aging up of characters, effect the ways characters are portrayed. While deviating from the original work is often for good reason, it can affect the the over-arching themes of the story, which add to the discrepancy between the story each medium tells.
Source themes are changed both purposefully and unwittingly by adapters. Some examples in Game of Thrones involve the addition, or highlight, of various social concerns that were less apparent in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. One of these topics that is present in the novels, but doesn’t directly involve point of view characters is rape. In Game of Thrones, rape is a much more prevalent issue than in A Song of Ice and Fire, where it occurs primarily in the background. In the television show, rape occurs to some of the main characters. Daenerys’ and Khal Drogo’s first night is much less consensual in the show, and Sansa is assaulted in season five by her new husband (Baila). The discussion of rape and its portrayal in media is a theme less present in the books because it remains primarily a background subject. Another highlighted topic is Renly’s “supposed” homosexuality, which is much subtler in the books than in the show. There are mixed opinions about this thematic development, with which not everyone is pleased including George R. R. Martin’s editor, Jane Johnson; she believes it makes the characters less dynamic and more of a stereotype (Harris). There are other issued raised by the adaptation that are not at the forefront of novel conversations, and it makes the messages of the two works veer into different directions.
While the two stories may be unique in certain ways, adaptations tend to follow the same plot of their original source; except, when they don’t at all. Game of Thrones is adaptation that has its own kind of originality and story telling. An example of this is the emphasis in the HBO show on the “true enemy”: The White Walkers. Many scenes have been added to emphasis this, and while this threat exists in the books, show runners have made it much more a part of Game of Thrones than can be said of A Song of Ice and Fire (Anders). When show runners blatantly “go off script” from Martin’s novels, they face another challenge that isn’t a problem with source work. They have a pre-existing fan base to appease, and are aware of the discussions surrounding their work. Director of Game of Thrones, Jeremy Podeswa, says creators listen to the conversations surrounding the series, and are certainly influenced by it (Baila). In an interview, author George R. R. Martin said that when people stop and realize that they are giving the power to the leaders is when the world is changed (asoiafuniversity). If a response to the show can affect the work itself, it is amazing the power that is given to fans of the series even if they do not realize it. When an adaptation is created fans have certain expectations, these expectations sometimes value the original work more than the adaptation, sometimes they appreciate a bit of originality and deviation from the new source. The adaptation is highly influenced by the fan base and what they value in a work of art they are consuming. A lot of the “power” goes to the fans, whether they realize it or not, and what they like and don’t like in the medium translation affects the translation itself.
If characters, themes, and plots are all shifted in an adaptation, then how true to the source material can the adaptation really be? When you shift a book’s story to television it must be changed to fit the new medium, the real question is: is it the same story when even the entire message is being affected? Underlying shift of medium discussions, are bigger and timeless questions about originality and what society values in art. In other words, how should we perceive the idea of originality? Should originality be defined by Mark Twain who cynically wrote to Helen Keller, “The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources” (Clemens)? Or rather, does “Originality consists not in a new manner, but in a new vision”, as Edith Wharton wrote in her book The Writing of Fiction (Wharton)?
While the two series are basically the same story, Game of Thrones by HBO isn’t “original” because it can cite, for the most part, the source of it’s plot, characters, setting and themes. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is “original” because he can’t remember, or doesn’t tell us what sparked all his ideas. Martin’s story, according to Mark Twain’s outlook, is a culmination and remixing of many stories, ideas, conversations and values that the author has picked up over a life time and rearranged to make a book, not truly original material. Twain’s opinion that all writing is plagiarism didn’t stop him from writing, rather, Mark Twain is known as one of the greatest of American writers. If a master of the craft sees his craft as “unoriginal”, but still persists, he must not place all value on “originality”. Nor do we, if we continue to put the master of the unoriginal craft on a pedestal. If we don’t value ultimate originality, then there must be another value that we are actually judging a work by in the guise of “originality”.
According to Edith Wharton, “True originality consists not in a new manner, but in a new vision” (Wharton). Is it the vision of the art that we value? Ideas that seem so different from their source(s), that they in turn allows others to have their own vision? Perhaps if “vision” is what humans value, we merely like to see things in a new light, which is something that story telling allows. In adaptations especially, we see a different “vision” rather than originality, when a work is changed from a book to a screen. When what we value is redefined as “new vision”, rather than “originality”, it allows adaptations to become less of an infringement on the source material, and more of a way for the source work to reach larger and different audiences.
Referring to Game of Thrones, author George R. R. Martin cites a “butterfly effect” that says each change from the beginning is like a butterfly that gets bigger and bigger as the series progresses eventually turning into a dragon, that is very different from the books (“The Show the Books”). When something as small as Jamie’s presence at his son’s death is added in the adaptation, it opens the door for changes to ripple down, making his characterization different and opening his plot to more changes. The adaptation isn’t “original”, but at times it takes some different turns from the original storyline and characterization. The journeys are different, but Martin for one, believes they are equally entertaining and should end up at the same destination (“The Show the Books”). If so, there can potentially be a “new vision” that is perfectly valuable. If the creator of the original “vision” himself, puts enough faith in adaptors to trust that they will make a good adaption and “new vision”, is it for viewers to say whether the adaptation is “faithful” enough?
Still, adaptations from book to screen are rarely considered as valuable as the source work. While the translation from screen to book can be done just as poorly as the reverse, the medium shift isn’t considered bad, rather it is blamed on translation. When a book is turned into a show like Game of Thrones, there are elitists that believe the source is superior. However, when screen plays are adapted to novels, and the novels are poorly written, no one cares. Did you know Star Wars has a novel series? Though less well known, they just aren’t facing the same heat that the Game of Thrones adaptation is. In that case, neither “originality” nor “new vision” is what audiences are giving value when they decide what makes a “good” work of art. The genres themselves could be influencing audience’s opinions of the adaptation. “Literature” as a genre has a very different connotation and place in society than the genre “television”. Preconceptions about the genre, positive, negative or neutral, affect the experience of a story.
Books have an established place in society and have for more than a thousand years. They are taught in schools and only in the turn of the century have computers and televisions revolutionized our youth’s practice of learning. Student’s may sarcastically say “I read it on the internet, ‘It must be true’”, of course insinuating that is a silly idea. There is no such saying about books. They’re considered to contain worlds of information and pave the path to education. When children read, parents rarely tell them they only get thirty minutes with their nose in a book, then they have to go play outside, as they do with the internet or television. Reading is often viewed more positively in society than other forms of media.
Television, cinema, and the internet are new on the scene of education, given the greater context of books’ longevity. Recent generations are the first to experience growing up with televisions and the internet formally introduced into their schooling; they’ve never written a report without the internet. As is often the case, younger generations are changing the tides of these negative views towards new technology. Book readers are often labelled “nerds”, meanwhile, “netflixing” has grown all the more popular. This looks like good news for adaptations, because they usually adapt from book to television or film, rather than the other way around. Perhaps it is a shift in media preference that will make certain works of art more valuable than others, allowing adaptations to screens, when done well, to be the preferred method of viewing a story. This has precedent, radio shows were very popular in the 1940’s, while today they are virtually unheard of. This could be the way of television, growing in popularity until the next big technology comes along. With new technology comes a cultural viewpoint shift, where the new medium comes into and eventually out of favor. With television adaptations of literature being a product of the last 100 years, they are doing pretty well as far as popularity and advancement goes.
When “faithfulness” of adaptations from books to television is in question, it brings to light a whole host of other questions that spark conversations in the community surrounding the adaptive and original works. The adaptations are different from the source material because they cannot remain exactly the same when adapted to a different medium, because of the differing qualities of each medium, and can also be a stylistic choice. However, the value of both works is dependent on the interpretation of the consumer. Preconceived notions and personal opinions, on both the subject and the medium through which it is represented, affect the value we give to the original source work and to the adaptation.
Is originality as Mark Twain, a master of “originality”, wrote: “Second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources” (Clemens)? If “originality” is defined by Twain, then our society doesn’t value true originality, which is inventiveness, because it doesn’t exist. If “True originality consists not in a new manner, but in a new vision”, then ideas that seem so different from their source(s), that they in turn allows others to have their own vision are valuable art (Wharton). The pressure of adaptations not being “faithful” to the source is less, if adaptations are viewed as a “new vision”. Whether adaptations are or aren’t valuable to an individual, they still spark conversations that are; adaptations allow society to look at works of art with a new vision.
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