What Makes a Screen Adaptation Faithful?


George R.R Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, hates unfaithful adaptations. So does Neil Gaiman, whose work is among the most frequently adapted to the screen. In an interview, Martin said he hated it when screenwriters said they would make a work “their own,” while Gaiman reflected on how infuriating it was to see people adapt his hit comic series The Sandman without even reading the original. Fans are also often critical of TV and film series that stray too far from the source material. Sometimes, it seems as though every new adaptation of a popular franchise leads to anger and vitriol, raising the question of whether screenwriters should be allowed to make adaptations as unfaithful as they want.

When discussing this matter, it’s easy to reduce everyone to caricatures. It’s important to resist this urge and remind ourselves that screenwriters aren’t trying to destroy our childhoods, and that outraged fans wouldn’t really throw a tantrum just because somebody made a meaningless change. The truth is that most of us agree that adaptations have to be unfaithful to some degree. It isn’t always possible to include everything in a limited run time, so plotlines and characters have to be cut. Even Martin agreed that changes have to be made when there just isn’t enough budget to execute the author’s original vision. Fans also understand this. For example, Lord of the Rings is known for having a very passionate fanbase, and yet Jackson’s film adaptations have been widely accepted. This is despite the fact that whole characters, such as Tom Bombadil had to be cut, as well as plotlines like the scouring of the Shire.

What can explain this acceptance? In their interview, Martin and Gaiman make a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate changes. Although he doesn’t elaborate on exactly what the difference between these is, he does give some examples. Making a change due to budget constraints is legitimate, whereas adding a new character to increase relatability is illegitimate. At first glance, this seems to suggest that only the changes which are strictly necessary to bring the story to the screen should be accepted, but I think the matter is more complicated than that. Adaptations should also be allowed to make improvements to enhance the viewer experience. This is actually something that Martin himself would agree with. On other occasions, he has praised the way the TV versions of his work have changed some of his characters, including Viserys in House of Dragons and Osha in Game of Thrones. He was pleased that the screenwriters turned them into “fully-fleshed” and complex characters rather than the passive way he had written them. Similarly, Stephen King has praised the adaptation of the Mist for producing a better ending than his novel.

We cannot say these changes are strictly necessary to adapt the source material. We also cannot say that they are minor or unimportant, especially in the case of the Mist. How can we reconcile the idea that screenwriters shouldn’t make adaptations “their own” with the idea that they should make substantial changes to improve on the original? At first glance, it seems that screenwriters are under two different and incompatible obligations. Firstly, they must make a good film or TV series. This explains why they should make improvements. However, they must also respect the source material. Fortunately, these duties are only incompatible if we follow the idea that changes must be strictly necessary in order for the adaptation to remain faithful.

When it comes to popular adaptations, fans, authors, and producers alike often consider how faithful the on-screen version is to the spirit of the original. Although this concept is vague and rarely taken into account by modern film critics, it can help illuminate why some changes are viewed as legitimate or not. We can define this spirit as being something specific about the original work that made fans like it. In speculative fiction, this might be a unique world, while in romance this is more likely to be a charming love interest or compelling relationship. It doesn’t matter exactly what this element is, so long as removing it takes away what makes the books unique and enjoyable. 

Are fans then justified in claiming that an adaptation has failed if it is brilliant but unfaithful? After all, adaptations such as Dr. Strangelove, Starship Troopers, and the Shining are all famously unfaithful but still gained critical praise. In fact, some people even consider them improvements on the original. This depends on what we consider the purpose of an adaptation to be. The purpose of a fictional film or TV series is to be entertaining, thought-provoking, or both. By virtue of belonging to this class of media, a screen adaptation also inherits the purpose of being thought-provoking and/or entertaining. However, if its purpose stopped at that, it would be indistinguishable from any other kind of film/TV series, so it stands to reason that an adaptation also has additional goals. At the very least, it is also representing a pre-existing story, and as a result, an adaptation should also provide a good representation of that story. For fans, authors, and most other stakeholders, this means remaining faithful to the spirit of the original. 

The only problem that remains is determining what exactly the spirit of any given book is. We might know that it’s the aspects that are most important to it, but different aspects may be crucial to different fans. It therefore stands to reason that an adaptation may be seen as faithful by some and unfaithful by others. We have two options at this point. Firstly, we can accept the author’s full authority. They can identify what aspects of their work are central to it and therefore objectively determine the spirit of the original. However, this doesn’t help us when an author is dead, unavailable, or not willing to comment. In these cases, it may not be possible to objectively decide what the most important aspects of the books were. In this case, the screenwriters have no choice but to rely on their own critical thinking and subjectivity. They would have to decide which parts of the books are most important to them and produce an adaptation faithful to that.

The screen version may never be exactly like the book, but it can still be faithful to it. Firstly, since a good adaptation needs to work as both a representation of the source material and as a film or TV series, all changes made to translate it from one medium to another are legitimate. For the same reason, screenwriters can and should make changes to improve the story. This doesn’t mean that all changes are legitimate, since screenwriters must still remain true to the spirit of the original. If they fail to do this, they may make a good or even brilliant film, but not a good adaptation. 

Featured image by: mohamed_hassan // Pixabay

Sabina Narvaez
Sabina Narvaez
Originally from Mexico, but mostly grew up abroad and has Spanish nationality. Studies Philosophy, Politics, Law and Economics and mostly writes about these topics. Also interested in sustainability.

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