We Can’t Just Adapt Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books, We Have to Transform Them | Tor.com

We Can’t Just Adapt Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books, We Have to Transform Them

It’s been coming on for a while now—easily for years; arguably for decades—but as of 2016, I’m calling it: We’re officially entering a golden age of SFF adaptations. Exactly where and how the trend started is hardly an isolated question, though I’d argue that the release of the first Harry Potter film and Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring back in late 2001 had a great deal to do with it. Not only were both films extraordinarily well-received, but they showed the major studios that, provided you got the fanbase onboard with the first installment, you really could bank on the sequels years in advance. With the special effects budgets needed to make SFF narratives work no longer cost-prohibitive to everyone beyond the biggest players, the steady trickle-down to television was inevitable.

By the same token, it’s impossible to consider the adaptation of SFF novels and short stories without also examining the commensurate rise in superhero properties, the one being inextricably paralleled by—and intertwined with—the other. Looking at the current ubiquity of comic book adaptations on both the big and small screen, for instance (to say nothing of the almost terrifyingly long-game future release schedules of both DC and Marvel), it’s easy to miss the comparative subtlety in how it all started. Officially, the MCU-as-is began in 2008, with Iron Man; unofficially, given Bruce Banner’s inclusion in subsequent MCU films, there’s an argument to be made that it really started in 2003, with Ang Lee’s Hulk. However, this series swapped Eric Bana for Ed Norton in the 2008 sequel, then brought in Mark Ruffalo for 2012’s The Avengers. Either way, the Hulk remains a narrative staple, though his conflicts have shifted from addressing classic mad science and the military industrial complex to focusing on the more internal battles of depression and self-acceptance.

Iron Man 2008 SFF comic book adaptations

Going back further, however, the rise of big Marvel movies arguably started in 1998, with Wesley Snipes and Blade. Though Blade did well enough to merit two sequels—Blade II in 2002, Blade: Trinity in 2004—it was more a cult success than a global phenomenon; and yet, it remains significant. The introduction of X-Men in 2000 was another milestone, though one that seems more obviously so in retrospect. It was X-Men 2, released in 2003, that garnered greater acclaim, though a lot of that figurative capital was subsequently squandered in the disaster of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Nonetheless, the X-Men films have kept on keeping on, due in no small part to the popularity of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and, following the release of X-Men: First Class in 2011, the younger versions of Professor Xavier and Magento, played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Not that the X-Men films exist in the same timeline as the rest of the MCU; to steal a phrase from Doctor Who, it’s all very wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, regardless of who’s responsible. Even so, their popularity laid a great deal of groundwork for the MCU’s subsequent transformation, and thanks to the success of The Avengers, we now have multiple related TV shows, all thematically different despite their interconnectedness: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013), Agent Carter (2015), Daredevil (2015), Jessica Jones (2015), and the forthcoming Luke Cage.

DC and its properties have undergone a similar metamorphosis. Looking back on the Batman films of the late eighties and early nineties, which can best be described with words like kitschy, camp and why?, they’re almost unrecognisable when compared to the grittier, Nolan-era reboots of 2005 and onwards. The Spider-Man films performed the same trick in a vastly shorter timeframe: Tobey Maguire’s 2002 debut has a shiny-happy-puppy quality which, by the third installment in 2007—the less said of which, the better, because what the actual fuck was that evil dance routine?—had well and truly lost the plot. Andrew Garfield’s 2012 revamp in The Amazing Spider-Man went a long way towards redeeming the franchise, but given that Sony’s control of the character is a use-it-or-lose-it deal, it was arguably a decision driven more by necessity than true apologia. (The fact that Spider-Man is going to appear in Marvel’s next Avengers film is a case in point.) And yet, from this structural morass, there’s still been a commensurate—and successful—jump to television: Following the success of Arrow (2012), we now have The Flash (2014), Gotham (2014), Supergirl (2015), and Legends of Tomorrow (2016), all of which have been well received by critics and fandom alike.

comic book adaptations The CW The Flash

Regardless of individual failures, as a collective whole, superhero and comic book adaptations have been on a steady upwards trajectory—both in volume and critical acclaim—for the better part of twenty years. For anyone who grew up in the nineties, it’s been an omnipresent and increasingly visible part of the cultural landscape: Regardless of your interest in comics, a trashy action blockbuster is a trashy action blockbuster, and if you’re aged between twelve and twenty at the time of release, the chances are you’ll see it, or be exposed to discussions of it, on that basis alone. (Which explains why, despite several years of vehement protestations to the contrary, I was recently outraged to realise I had a dog in the Marvel vs. DC fight. It’s not like I meant to start giving a crap, but there’s only so much you can do about fandom by osmosis.)

The rise in adaptations of other SFFnal properties, however—novels, non-superhero comics and short stories—has been a much more chequered process, despite the presence of an eager, overlapping fanbase. It doesn’t escape notice, for instance, that the adaptations most prone to failure are fantasies, either epic or urban, while those that succeed, or whose trashiness is often deemed a feature instead of a bug, are SF. Partly, one suspects, this is because SF has a longer, more established history as a cinematic genre than fantasy, though many superhero properties tend to blur the magic/science line in ways we don’t often discuss. But mostly, if we’re being honest, Hollywood just doesn’t seem to understand that fantasy narratives, however action-oriented their plots might be, are more than just a different flavour of blockbuster.

Flops like Eragon (2006) and The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007) weren’t merely badly acted; in fixating on visual spectacle, their adaptations entirely missed what made the source material so popular in the first place. Arguably the most egregious such failure was The Golden Compass, released in 2007. Adapted from the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the film attracted controversy from the outset, most loudly from Christian quarters. Pullman had never been shy about describing his books as the atheistic equivalent of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, with criticism of organised religion in general and Christianity in particular being central to the story. Frightened by the backlash the project was attracting, the studio tried to soften things. The end result, though visually beautiful, was fundamentally bowdlerised: still too radical a product for the protestors who’d never been going to watch it in the first place, but missing everything fans of the books had most wanted to see.

The Golden Compass adaptation fail

By contrast, the Narnia films were given a much greater leeway to adhere to the source material, yet never quite managed to enter the zeitgeist. Though The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) was ultimately successful, the studio still ummed and aahed about sequels. There were financial reasons for this, certainly, but Narnia is also something of a unique case: though linked, the books can be read out of order, there are multiple hefty timeskips between volumes, and as such, their structure and content varies wildly. With Prince Caspian released in 2008 and The Voyage of the Dawntreader in 2010, any future installments seem stuck in limbo; both The Silver Chair and The Magician’s Nephew are still slated, albeit nebulously, for future production, yet when that exactly might happen remains unclear.

Put bluntly, fantasy stories are often treated by Hollywood as an excuse to indulge in visual spectacle, instead of—as they really are—a vehicle for ideas. Though CGI isn’t as great a novelty in 2016 as it was in 2006, the idea that the thematic integrity of fantasy stories is of equal or even greater importance to audiences than how they look is still something movies struggle with. The success of the Twilight films is a case in point: whatever you might say about the quality and content of the source material, you can’t claim that the adaptations didn’t strive to respect it. (That both films and books were—and still are—criticised on multiple other counts is a different issue.) Similarly, the cinematic quadrilogy of The Hunger Games, released between 2012 and 2015, was successful precisely because it respected the political and emotional aspects of the novels on which it was based. No matter the acting talent of Jennifer Lawrence and her castmates, without that central thematic core, the first film would’ve been like The Golden Compass: beautiful, but missing everything that made it real.

The Hunger Games adaptation emotional core Katniss salute

That being so, the steady transfer of fantasy adaptations to TV rather than movies makes a certain degree of sense. Whereas many SF and dystopian stories are built around a central “what if” premise whose moral and social implications can be cleanly addressed in under three hours—what if everyone had robots, or children were trained as military tacticians, or life was determined by rigid factional alliances, or you woke up in a post-apocalyptic setting without your memories, for instance—fantasy, as a genre, is frequently built on variations of the hero’s journey. Thematically, such stories are as much about the world and its magical particulars as they are the development of the protagonist, and trying to do justice to both within the cramped time-frame of a single film is seldom easy. TV pacing is a much better narrative fit; but up until very recently, it was somewhat tricky to manage. Not only were the necessary special effects prohibitively expensive for the small screen, especially given the lack of certainty in the payoff, but it wasn’t until the DVD-and-streaming era that TV was able to move away from episodic, procedural styles and trust that their audience was able to follow a longer, more overarching narrative.

Arguably, the first major TV show to really take this approach was 24, whose premise saw an entire season depict the real-time events of a single day. First airing in 2001, it was successful enough to merit nine full seasons and multiple spinoffs: a game-changing move in upending the primacy of traditional TV formulas. The applicability of this setup to fantasy adaptations came later, but when it finally started to catch on, it did so with a bang. In 2008—the same year that the first Twilight movie hit the big screen—HBO debuted True Blood, a southern gothic urban fantasy/murder mystery series adapted from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. Though the show departed steadily from the books the further it progressed—and wavered in the process, though not without making some solid original decisions first—it was nonetheless hugely successful, not just in its own right, but in establishing the viability of long-game fantasy shows.

Game of Thrones adaptation A Song of Ice and Fire HBO

And then, in 2011, midway through the seven-season run of True Blood, HBO premiered Game of Thrones. Now approaching its sixth season, the popularity of GoT is undeniable, both in mainstream and genre circles. So many words have been devoted to unpacking its various strengths and foibles that it feels redundant to add any more; and yet, with the show now thoroughly outpacing the source material from which it has steadily diverged—first subtly, then overtly—since the beginning, it’s difficult not to feel newly reinvested, if only for the sake of intellectual curiosity. To what extent will the two forms of narrative dovetail? Which one will we prefer, and why? And what might the comparison tell us about successful adaptations?

Because while it’s important to respect the source material—not so much literally, as a verbatim transfer, but thematically, in terms of the meaning—the best adaptations are also brave enough to innovate. The trick is doing so in the spirit of the original, taking advantage of the structural differences between screen and page to explore new narrative avenues. The new Shadowhunters show on Netflix, adapted from Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, is a compelling case in point, especially when compared to the 2013 flop movie, City of Bones. Not only does Shadowhunters star one of the most effortlessly diverse fantasy casts I’ve ever seen—a conscious evolution of the source material—but it makes good use of them. Where the film tried to cram the events of the first book into 130 minutes, the series, now on its fifth episode, has already surpassed that by over an hour, making up the difference with a mix of character development and worldbuilding.

Shadowhunters TV adaptation

Photo credit: ABC Family/Bob D’Amico

Yes, it runs a little thin at times, and the fight scenes are less tightly choreographed than they could be, but these are small failings compared to the fact that Shadowhunters is unapologetically fun. It’s just the right blend of spectacle and emotion, popcorn absurdity and character depth to make you want to curl up with it for an evening. Perhaps the most important change, however, is the diffusion of the source material’s love triangle—Simon loves Clary, Clary loves Jace, Jace loves Clary but can’t admit it—into a clever mirroring device. In the books, the tight perspective on Jace and Clary means that, while we’re aware that Alec, Jace’s best friend, is in unrequited love with him, the tension of it takes a background seat. In the film, there isn’t time to address it at all; Magnus Bane, who goes on to become Alec’s boyfriend, is reduced to a mere cameo. But in the show, with its omnipresent perspective and longer timescale, Simon’s feelings are no longer a source of claustrophobic tension, but are rather contrasted with Alec’s, the pair of them forced to watch as their closest friends and secret love interests fall instead for each other. (Matthew Daddario’s nuanced portrayal of Alec is already a highlight, his shy interactions with Magnus rendered all the more touching when compared to his regular, tightly controlled persona.)

Occupying a similar Popcorn Feelings niche to Shadowhunters is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, adapted from Terry Brooks’ series of (roughly) the same name. Not having read the books, I’m on slightly shakier ground in assessing the validity of the adaptation, but while I’m enjoying it thus far, albeit with reservations, it’s hard not to compare its comparative lack of diversity with Shadowhunters’ abundance of same. Not only is Shannara predominantly white—despite, as others have pointed out, being set in a far-future version of America’s Pacific Northwest—but I’m yet to see so much as a glimmer of deliberate queerness. Deliberate being the operative word: because while we’re clearly meant to view the relationship between half-elf Wil Ohmsford, elven princess Amberle Elessedil, and human rover Eretria as a traditional love triangle, the women behaving antagonistically towards one another while expressing mutual interest in the young hero, the chemistry between Amberle and Eretria far outweighs anything that either of them has with Wil. (Their ship name, for the curious, is Princess Rover. And yes, there is fanfiction; overwhelmingly more for the two of them, in fact, than for any other pairing on the show.)

It’s the kind of thing which almost makes me want to read the original Brooks and see if their relationship reads the same on the page, or if it’s become more obvious in the transition to screen. Almost. But either way, I’m not holding my breath that we’re heading towards a canonically queer relationship: From what I know of the novels, it wouldn’t materially change the plot for Amberle and Eretria to end up together, and yet I can’t quite imagine it happening here. While I can think of a few instances in which characters who were straight in the source material are made queer in their adaptations—notably Tara, Pam and Eric in True Blood, a show which had multiple queer/magic dream sequences, but only sometimes translated them to queerness in waking—it’s not a common phenomenon, and especially not when the end result would potentially deny a main male character their happily ever after. (But god, would I love to be wrong!)

The Shannara Chronicles MTV adaptation

Which is ultimately the point, when it comes to adaptations: that slavish adherence to the source material can often mean a lack of diversity, particularly when the stories being adapted, like Shannara or Lord of the Rings, are products of a different time. By making a conscious choice to racebend certain characters, Shadowhunters has done something largely unprecedented in modern fantasy adaptations of any kind, but especially in those aimed at a YA audience: produced a show with a majority POC cast. It’s a striking change in some respects, and yet it doesn’t violate the spirit of the original story or undermine its themes, because none of those things were race-dependent in the first place. Instead, it gives us a new, more expansive interpretation of the source material by telling the same story about a wider range of people, simply because it can. Whereas The Shannara Chronicles, having created something unfathomably rare and wonderful right off the bat—a relationship between two female characters so complex, engaging and chemistry-fuelled as to have not only produced a femslash ship, but one more instantly popular than any canonical straight pairing, and oh my god, do you even know how rare that is?—is going to ignore it in favour of a heteronormative love triangle, because Tradition.

The very best adaptations aren’t carbon copies, but intelligent variations on a theme. They make changes to the source material, not because they fail to respect or understand it, but precisely because they do. You can’t make a coherent judgement about what matters to a story—what it fundamentally is—without, in some sense, interpreting it anew, and that means putting your money where your mouth is. The diversity of Shadowhunters reflects the fact that it’s set in present-day New York, a city famed only for its whiteness in contexts where storytellers have made a conscious decision to ignore reality; the lack of diversity in The Shannara Chronicles, no matter how true to the source material, is a failure to imagine how our multicultural present could lead to such an overwhelmingly white future.

By their very nature, adaptations are always at chronological variance with their source material: The world moves on, the audience shifts, and our understanding of stories—both culturally and personally—changes. That being so, if we really want to create a golden age of SFF adaptations, we have to acknowledge the truth: that golden ages are defined, not by how successfully they imitate what came before, but by how splendidly they transform it.


Next time: a list of adaptations I’d love to see, and why I think they’d work.

Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality. Her epic portal fantasy, An Accident of Stars, is due for release from Angry Robot in August 2016. As well as being the author of two YA novels, Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt, she reviews for Strange Horizons, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate. Her writing has also appeared at The Mary Sue and The Book Smugglers, and in 2014, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. She like cheese, geekery, writing, webcomics and general weirdness. Dislikes include Hollywood rom-coms, licorice and waking up.


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