Wednesday, May 29, 2024

George R. R. Martin Makes a Valid Point About Adaptations That Disrespect Their Source Material, but Not Every Change and Loose Interpretation Is Automatically Sacrilege

Recently George R. R. Martin in his blog post ‘The Adaptation Tango’ once again expressed his opinion on screenwriters taking liberties when adapting books for TV or film, more precisely stating his dislike about the tendency to alter the source material in order to make the adaptation its own thing. And, he is not exactly wrong, at least not for many cases, his main point is undeniably valid. But also things are rarely black and white. Frankly, I feel the exaggeration of the statement: “They never make it better, though.  Nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand, they make it worse”, rather harms the message, which otherwise has indeed a very solid basis.

Without question, there is a tendency to milk on the popularity and the already-existing fanbases of books, comics, and video games. Companies often view it as a guaranteed investment that they don’t need to put much effort into, because the name alone will draw people in. There have been numerous examples of people adapting something for the big screen without even having any regard for the source material. Amidst the avalanche of cash-grabs, it’s not hard to come up with dozens of examples of adaptations that fell short, completely missed the point of what made the original work appeal to people, or delivered a final product that carried none of the spirit of the story and characters.

For comic book films in particular, especially before the genre was propelled into mainstream popularity, there have been several movies that made extreme effort to change and derive from the original work as much as possible, because the people involved considered it too childish or too weird to appeal to the average movie-goer. The infamous “What would you prefer, yellow spandex?” line from the 2000 ‘X-Men’ film is not the movie’s biggest crime against its source material, but it’s very indicative of the disregard that a lot of people tasked with creating a live action version of those stories and characters felt at the time.

If we have to divide badly adapted material into roughly two categories, there are those that never really cared about it to begin with, beyond the popularity it already carried, and those whose heart was in the right place but for one or more reasons failed to deliver a live action adaptation that lived up to expectations. As much as it may sound pretentious, films and books are quite different in the way they tell their stories, the same goes for comic books and video games. Sometimes a project seems perfect on paper, but the transition from one medium to another turns out flawed or lackluster.


Many use the theory coined in 1967 by French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes in his essay “The Death of the Author” while arguing that the author’s intentions aren’t the end all and be all when it comes to interpreting their work, especially considering how art is subjective and often meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Particularly when it comes to books, a lot of the story, the way the characters look, act, or sound, takes life through the reader’s imagination. Thus very often readers see parts of themselves represented in characters in ways the author never intended.

 It can be argued that this usually is a complete misinterpretation of the story, however it can also be claimed that if someone finds meaning in something, in a way that makes them feel understood, or even inspired, this holds a special kind of sacredness, and it’s something that belongs to them that nobody can really take away. Naturally, when it comes to adapting a book into another medium, even if the screenwriters don’t intentionally aim to alter it at all, the final product will inevitably be infused with and build upon their own understanding of it.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the perspective of the author, it is also both reasonable and very human for someone who has put time, effort, and a little part of their soul into a piece of creative work to feel the need to say that a specific interpretation or adaptation doesn’t do it justice, or does not convey the message they were trying to get across.


Among the names that George R.R. Martin mentions as examples of people whose work is important enough to be considered untouchable, and therefore should be exempt from alteration, are those of Stan Lee and Roald Dahl, author of beloved children’s books like ‘Matilda’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, two of my absolutely favourite books as a kid. At the same time, it is common knowledge that Dahl has been a rampant misogynist, racist, and antisemite, a fact that has been acknowledged by the Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center too. The recent controversy regarding the altering of some of his books, changing the language in order to make it more inclusive and less offensive, mainly to still appeal to modern audiences, brought up the very valid argument that erasing someone’s problematic history also shields them from accountability and the possibility of younger generations rejecting their work because it’s no longer relevant and choosing to read something else. As Philip Pullman very accurately put it: “Dahl’s books aren't classics in that sense. As I say, let them fade away. Read better writers.”

When it comes to Stan Lee, and this is in no way to oversimplify it as "Stan Lee was sexist", as I hold immense respect for him as a creator, and for his ability to evolve, but a lot of his work, and a lot of the comic books of the Golden and Silver age in general, were most definitely a product of their time, depicting stereotypes and gender roles that have been long proven harmful and do not belong in modern storytelling.


Stan Lee, on the contrary, is a very different case in general too. Not only has he grown and evolved as a creator throughout his career, he has also been extremely vocal against any form of bigotry, and has also been very actively involved with and enthusiastically endorsing adaptations of his works and his characters, having several cameos in most of the Marvel films that have been produced prior to his death. When it comes to comic books, given the very nature of the medium to span several decades, it’s no surprise that dozens of different writers have adapted and added their own touch to beloved characters, shaping them to what they have become today.

Interestingly enough, this mention of adapting Stan Lee’s work happens very close to the airing of the first season of ‘X-Men ’97’, an undeniable critical success, that has been considered a triumph for Marvel adaptations, which not only was a pure love letter to the original work, but also managed to brilliantly update it in a way that allowed the allegory and themes of the X-Men comics to feel relevant to modern issues surrounding bigotry and prejudices. It is projects like this that serve as a strong counterargument to the “they never get it right” claim, because realistically, sometimes they actually do. Especially since a lot of screenwriters adapting books, comics, and games, approach the source material with nothing but love and respect, and put a lot of effort into making the transfer into a different medium work. Even with some alterations, there is no denying of the vast popularity and classic status of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which for many acted as a gateway to discovering Tolkien’s work.

Change doesn't necessarily alter the original material for the worst. Sometimes it even comes from the creators themselves. For example in 'The Princess Bride', in the book there is a scene where Westley slaps Buttercup, that scene has been removed from the film, which was also written by William Goldman. A change that takes nothing away from the story, nor from the classic status of the film, but arguably adds to it by avoiding the romanticising of abusive behaviour masquerading as love. Additionally, in the recent adaptation of 'The Last of Us' video game, a whole new story has been created surrounding Bill and Frank that was not in the game, a story that not only added more depth to the show, but also gave us one of the most heartfelt, genuine, and beautiful depictions of affection and companionship between two people, and one of the most emotionally impactful episodes in television history.

Artistic liberty, even when it comes to deciphering and altering another creator’s work, is by no means a new thing. There is a long tradition of Shakespearean adaptations, ranging from the 1996 ‘Romeo + Juliet’ and 2010’s ‘Macbeth’ starring Patrick Stewart, to even looser interpretations like ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ and ‘West Side Story’. It would feel like quite the stretch to completely deny the artistic value of these works, just because they differ significantly from the original material that inspired them. 

And seeing that Charles Dickens was also mentioned in the same blog post by George R. R. Martin, it's impossible not to bring up that one of the most beloved and immensely popular adaptations of his works is 'The Muppet Christmas Carol'. Which not only features a flawless performance by Michael Caine, but also keeps the spirit of the story intact while masterfully retelling it in its own unorthodox but brilliant way, without showing a hint of disrespect towards Charles Dickens' novella. 


 Adapting a book or any other piece of media into a different form is never an easy task, and there is no magic recipe to follow in order to get it right. There have been adaptations that followed the source material to the dot, yet completely failed to replicate its magic. Then there are films that took liberties and did not remain completely faithful to the original work and they are considered classics, or even masterpieces. 

Not every adaptation will succeed, and most certainly not every adaptation happens with the best of intentions at heart. Very often more value is put into profit rather than delivering a legitimately good product. The frustration from the perspective of the audience when it comes to that is both real and justified, as real and justified as the right of any author to feel that their brainchild was misinterpreted or wasn't treated with respect. But in the history of cinema, too many worthwhile adaptations that, in one way or another, added their own touch to the source material exist to condemn any such attempt as a task almost always doomed to fail.



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