What Do We Want in a Literary Adaptation?


This post was originally published on BookRiot, because I’m a contributor now. I’m cool like that.

For almost as long as film has been around as an art form, books have been adapted for film. In fact, the earliest known motion picture based on a literary source was filmed in 1896. (It’s a 45-second scene from George DuMaurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, if you must know.)

And for just as long as books have been adapted for the screen, book lovers have been discussing the question: What makes a good adaptation? Which matters more: the quality of the film itself, or how “accurate” it is to the book it’s based on?

Of course there is some complexity, even difficulty, to these questions. Novels and films are inherently different art forms. To expect a 90-minute film, or even a longer TV series, to be an exact rendering of every detail of a book is a bit impossible. There are also devices used in many novels that are just unfilmable, or at least extremely difficult to film satisfactorily. So filmmakers have to get creative, which, for me, is when it gets exciting.

Personally, I’ve noticed that there tend to be four different types or “levels” of adaptation, each with varying degrees of exactness or adherence to their source material. I’d like to note that these are not degrees or measures of quality of an adaptation as a work in its own right, as each of them have their own merits, and every reader has their own expectations and wants when watching a film or TV adaptation of their favorite book. 

These four categories are simply a way to make sense of how an adaptation chooses to interpret its source material. And since there are SO MANY of them, I’m going to use adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice as examples to compare and contrast.

The “Museum” Adaptation

A historical museum exists to preserve and protect historical artifacts and records; to alter them in any way is an egregious offense. A museum is also concerned with placing artifacts and records within their historical context. There may be interpretive works that help place the artifacts in a modern context for visitors (such as signage and brochures), but these works exist outside of the artifacts; the artifacts themselves are not altered. In the same way, a “Museum” Adaptation is concerned with preserving every possible detail of the book exactly how it exists in the book, just transferred to the film medium. 

Example: Pride & Prejudice (1995)

If there was ever a perfect example of a Museum Adaptation, it is the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Nearly every scene from the book, however brief or fleetingly mentioned, has been included, and even some scenes that are NOT in the book are included. Watching this adaptation to me feels like visiting a museum: everything is perfectly preserved and fascinating to look at, but we are not allowed to touch. For many fans, this near-perfect preservation makes this adaptation their favorite.


The Artful Adaptation

The Artful Adaptation is where my personal tastes tend to lean. This type of adaptation is most concerned with finding balance between being true to its source material, and creating a film that is, well, artful, and can stand on its own as a work of art. I like to think of an Artful Adaptation as a conversation between the book and the audience; rather than preserving every detail like a Museum Adaptation, an Artful Adaptation finds the essential elements of the book and interprets them in ways that are meaningful for the audience.

Example: Pride & Prejudice (2005)

The more artful elements are part of what turned a lot of Austen purists off to the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Its aesthetic is grittier but warmer than the 1995 version, its set and costume design less concerned with historical accuracy than with reflecting the characters’ personalities and relationships. It also by necessity cuts or combines plot points from the novel to fit within its two-hour runtime. This is undeniably an artful film, and the most essential elements of the book are all present and imbued with meaning for modern audiences.


The Loose Adaptation

We’ve all seen a movie that we would call a “Loose Adaptation,” a film that keeps a few elements or some semblance of the premise of the book it’s based on, but then more or less does its own thing with them. This type of adaptation is often discussed in negative terms, as if its lack of exacting similarity to its source material is somehow a failing. And for many people, it is. But a Loose Adaptation can still be a really good movie.

Example: Pride & Prejudice (1940)

Nineteen-forty was an interesting time, and in many ways the adaptation of Pride & Prejudice from that year is typical for the time. The story is sort of there, but plot points have been rearranged or omitted seemingly haphazardly, and arguably unnecessary scenes have been added. The costumes are decidedly more Victorian than Regency. Characters’ personalities have even been changed, most noticeably Lady Catherine’s. But despite all that, this version is actually an enjoyable movie.


The Transformative Adaptation

We most often see Transformative Adaptations of well-known classic works from the English literary canon, and most commonly Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens, as well as some fairytales, such as “Cinderella.” Transformative Adaptations set their source works in a time period other than that in which they were written, often in the contemporary era. They may also be set in a different culture from the source work, or in a subculture of modern, mainstream Western culture.

Through changing the setting, Transformative Adaptations seek to accentuate the timelessness and universality of their source works’ messages and themes. They can also be useful for commenting on the traditional whiteness and heteronormativity of literary canon. And while setting a Shakespeare adaptation in a non-European culture and casting actors of color should never serve as a replacement for elevating actual works from that culture, it can serve as a bridge.

Examples: Bride & Prejudice (2004); Pride & Prejudice: Atlanta (2019); The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)

Austen works in general, and Pride & Prejudice in particular, probably have the most Transformative Adaptations of any author or work. Bride & Prejudice sets the story in modern (well, 2004) India, Britain, and the U.S., turning Elizabeth and Darcy’s class differences from the original novel into a clash of cultures, as well. Pride & Prejudice: Atlanta casts the Bennets as an African American family in modern day Atlanta, with Darcy and Elizabeth as a politician and an activist, respectively, who clash over politics and miscommunications. And The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, definitely one of the most innovative adaptations, takes the form of Lizzie’s vlog, which she creates as a final thesis for her Master’s degree in Communications.

All three of these examples retain the essentials of the book, but introduce new significance to the themes through viewing them with fresh eyes.

I believe each of these four styles of literary adaptation has its place and value. We may prefer one type over the others, and that preference may even vary from work to work. But each type is equally valid.

Which style of literary adaptation do you prefer? What, for you, makes a good adaptation?


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