What Defines a “Good” or “Bad” Adaptation?

As many (many) hot takes in various media outlets have proclaimed: adaptations are all the rage. Of course, adaptations have been around since the earliest days of moving pictures—and have always varied wildly in quality and success. For every Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, there’s a Legend of Earthsea or a Queen of the Damned. And even the ones considered successful often have their fair share of unsatisfied fans. What is it about transforming a written work into a film (or miniseries, television show, etc.) that gets us so excited (or so worried)? It’s easy to guess why studios love adapting; having an existing, successful script and built-in audience is certainly an advantage. Considering how often hardcore fans are disappointed in the big-screen iteration of their beloved source material—and casual viewers couldn’t care less—I often wonder what keeps bringing us back for more. Is it simply curiosity, the tantalizing prospect of seeing what we’ve only imagined?

What kind of magic do you need to make a good adaptation? What even is a “good” adaptation? Is it a faithful reproduction of the source? Does it use the material as a springboard to create something different? Is it a blueprint, or is it an outline? When is a novel/story/comic the complete basis of a film or TV adaptation, and when is it just inspiration? Does it matter when you experience the original vs. the adapted version? I wish I had the space or the time to dive into these questions with the depth they deserve. For now, however, I’m hoping to scratch the surface a bit with a rather specific test case.

Not so very long ago, I was what I like to call an “adaptation purist.” You know the type: the nit-pickiest, killjoy-iest of fans, the ones that can never accept deviations from the beloved source material and have to talk about it to everyone that mentions the movie. Loudly. And over the years, no film has triggered my fangirl ire quite like Practical Magic.

The book never really had an organized fandom, per se, though it was a bestseller when it came out in 1995 and the author, Alice Hoffman, was fairly well-known among a certain set of readers. I didn’t know much about it when I first encountered it by chance at the library when I was probably around 13 or 14, back when I was still picking most of my reading material at random from the options the nice librarians had set face-out on the shelves. Practical Magic isn’t a perfect book, but I found it at the perfect time in my life and it hits all of the right buttons for a comfort read, one I could return to again and again. I’ve read it at least a dozen times and can recite entire passages from memory at this point.

I’ve probably seen the movie Practical Magic almost as many times since it first made its VHS debut in 1998. This is actually rather odd, considering that until very recently I didn’t particularly like the film. It takes a deeply interior work about women’s lives and family dynamics and boils it down to a thin plotline about romance and poorly-planned necromancy. The music and tone are all over the place. Moreover, two of the book’s most interesting characters are aged down and clipped almost completely out of the story. In spite of this, and in dire need of witchy watching for my favorite holiday, I decided to re-watch the movie around Halloween last year and, for maybe the first time, I actually enjoyed it. I had been growing more and more mellow about it over the years, but this time I genuinely had fun. Maybe I was helped along by the twentieth anniversary appreciation pieces I had read around the same time, but I think it may have been something else…

Another witchy adaptation, the first installment of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, was released on Netflix around last Halloween as well. Usually, being an “adaptation purist” also means that you simply MUST ALWAYS read the source material before you see a film or TV adaptation. However, I was too excited for Sabrina (and too wary of being spoiled by the internet) to wait, so I binged the show over a few days and resolved to give the comics it was based on a read soon after. The show was great—flawed and uneven in places, but a lot of fun. A week or so later I read the first 7 or 8 issues of the comic series. And now I know my opinions on adaptations have definitely shifted, because I think the show is better than its source material. Realizing that it is, in fact, okay to think these thoughts—thoughts that a younger me would have considered bordering on blasphemous—I wanted to reconsider my experience with Practical Magic, and adaptations more generally.

And here is where I notice the first major difference in my experience of Sabrina vs. Practical Magic: order of operations. I read Practical Magic first and saw the movie later, but with Sabrina I experienced the show before going back to read the comics. Perhaps we tend to imprint on our first experience of a story and that may be what determines the nature of our comparisons. True or not, I find that the comics are less interesting than the Netflix show. Like Practical Magic, the show borrows elements of the source material and uses them to very different ends, though I would argue that, in this case, it adds interesting material and fleshes out the characters we meet in the comics (rather than cutting and simplifying, as the movie did). Frankly, I found the comics, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a bit of a letdown; they basically just ask “what if Sabrina the Teenage Witch was, you know, dark?” And it is very, VERY dark. The kind of darkness that sacrifices character and story for creepiness and shock value.

The other major difference, obviously, is grounded in the distinct mediums involved. Cutting a novel down to a movie that clocks in under two hours is very different undertaking than spreading an already-thin comics story across ten episodes of television. I’ve always known, logically, that film and books offer fundamentally different experiences and the languages of these mediums are not always compatible. The same goes for comics and TV, or short stories and film, or any combination thereof. Each does something unique with its material, something that doesn’t translate entirely when it is moved to a new format. This theoretical knowledge hasn’t prevented me from completely melting down about the “betrayal” of a lousy adaptation—but when is that reaction fair and when is it just being a fan who is impossible to please?

Stephen King famously hates the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining. From a creator’s perspective, it’s hard for me to blame him. Kubrick borrows only the barest elements from the novel, alters all the characters to suit his vision, and completely trashes the theme of addiction and recovery that runs so strongly throughout the book. King hated the film so much that he heartily supported a new version (a made-for-TV miniseries) that was more faithful to the source. We all remember Kubrick’s Shining; I don’t think most can say the same for the later, more faithful “correction.” And that’s the conundrum that runs my brain in circles: what can you call a good adaptation? I don’t think it’s very fair to consider films like The Shining to even be an adaptation—its inspired by an idea, perhaps, but it is its own beast. Sometimes you get lucky and the author of the original work writes the screen treatment—and the stars align in some unnamable way—and you get films that are as good (or better) than their sources, like The Princess Bride or Interview with the Vampire or The Shawshank Redemption.

I can’t remember if I was excited when I found out Practical Magic was being adapted into a film. When I did encounter it, I was immediately irritated. It leaned very hard into the witchcraft element and the novel isn’t really about magic or witchcraft as a practice or ideology. Magic, as such, is a bit of an undercurrent to the story, something that may or may not be literally real; Hoffman uses elements of magical realism throughout and you’re never quite sure if the Owens women are witches in a literal sense or if “magic” means something else altogether.

The story centers on orphan sisters Sally and Gillian Owens, beginning with the loss of their parents as children and skipping and jumping across their lives before coming back into focus when the pair are in their mid-to-late 30s. As far as very basic overviews go, the film and the book are on the same page. But whereas the book is mostly focused on the interior thoughts and motivations of the characters, movies (generally) need to focus on a plot, so the death of Gillian’s abusive boyfriend Jimmy is reworked into a plotline about irresponsible magic use and a very on-brand late ‘90s homage to the power of sisterhood.

But if I remove the experience of the book—just mentally set it aside while considering this—does the movie stand on its own just fine? Honestly, yes. It’s a product of its time in a lot of ways, and yet ahead of its time in its focus on the relationships between women, family, and community. One of the major changes from the book to the film was the fleshing out of the aunt characters, played magnificently by Stockard Channing and Diane Wiest, who make the film about a million times better every time they are on screen. The film has different goals than the book—and that might actually be okay.

To hope that a favorite novel or story will come directly to life via moving pictures is something we keep clinging to—but it never really does, not in the way I think many fans desire and demand. Some of the most faithful adaptations are often failures, mostly because of the soullessness that can occur when creators are unable to bring their own vision to the material; attempting to reproduce someone else’s work has got to drain some of the magic out of the whole process, leaving a vacuum. Meanwhile, others make additions, edits, and eliminations that certain hardcore fans hate but that most people accept as necessary, like those made in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter films (and while they aren’t SFF, I’d add most classic literature adaptations to this pile as well).

And what does it mean when we say that an adaptation is “better” than the original? Is it still an adaptation, or is it something separate and new? The NeverEnding Story comes to mind; better or worse is sort of thrown out the window when the film becomes so beloved by a certain generation that few realize it was based on a book at all. The book’s author, Michael Ende, hated the film version. And then there are cases of notoriously “bad” adaptations like Mary Poppins: Disney gutted P.L. Travers’ original work to create something entirely different, enraging and deeply wounding the author. Yet the film is beloved as a classic, and many fans have forgotten (or never knew) it was an adaptation at all. As in the Stephen King situation, you have to consider: as a viewer, does it matter? In so much that we will likely always be determined to judge an adaptation against its source (and authors will always be rightfully biased in favor of their work), yes, it does. But really, in a practical way? Probably not.

So, has this little comparative exercise taught me anything? Not in a direct way, no. But it did help me to pinpoint and articulate some nebulous ideas I have been toting around in my brain for a while. I think I’ve finally come to accept that expecting an adaptation to completely capture a book may be wishful thinking—even in the era of big-budget prestige television—and that sticking mindlessly to that expectation will cost you a lot of fun. I could have spent years just enjoying Practical Magic for what it was, instead of obsessing over what it wasn’t. (The same can’t be said for Queen of the Damned, which comes from another favorite book; that movie is still really terrible). But  I think I’m finally in recovery from the adaptation-purist stage of my life—just in time to put it to the test with Good Omens and the completely off-book Game of Thrones finale around the corner!

What adaptations have you struggled to accept—or simply refuse to? Which ones do you love? And which ones are you looking forward to (or maybe dreading)?

Amber Troska is a freelance writer and editor. When she isn’t reading, you can find her re-watching Stranger Things again.

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