content by

Amber Troska

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.

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Even Magical Families Are Complicated: Adoption and Obligation in Sorcerer to the Crown

Ranked high among my favorite things in the world are the writings of Jane Austen and Susanna Clarke’s 800-page alt-history opus Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. So you can imagine my excitement when the pre-publication hype and early reviews for Zen Cho’s debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown made copious comparisons to both Austen’s work and Clarke’s epic masterpiece. Add to that the knowledge that it also centered on a Black man and a mixed-race woman in a period that rarely granted people of color any time, agency, or a voice of their own—in reality or in fictional portrayals—and, much like reviewer Alex Brown, I was most definitely sold.

The novel did not disappoint. Sorcerer to the Crown was by far my favorite book of 2015—and may even be on the short list of all-time favorites. Much to my delight, it feels like the Georgian/Regency period is gaining more and more traction in the fantasy genre, but at the same time, many stories set in the period often rely a bit too heavily on the preconceived tropes and mannerisms of the time, trying for the social depth of Austen and ending up with something more along the lines of the surface-level trappings of Georgette Heyer. Sorcerer is alternate history written with the insight (and hindsight) of the current era that still manages to stay true to its chosen historical period. Its characters and setting allow it to do what all the best fantasy stories do: to look at our current world through a particular lens and with a certain amount of distance. As much as fashion and manners may have changed since the 19th century, too many elements of the world have stayed the same, or shifted only slightly. The book’s nuanced critique of racism, sexism, and other still-prevalent issues have already been well analyzed elsewhere, and if you haven’t read the novel, you really should experience the plot firsthand to see just how fun and inventive it is. Rather than summarizing the novel as a whole, I want to take a look at a particular element of the story that I find especially fascinating and worth a closer study: Cho’s critique of family relationships and obligations.

[Warning: vague spoilers ahead.]

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Shaping the Speculative Fiction World: Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

It is difficult to overestimate the tremendous value of editors. The contributions that authors make to their respective fields, and their impact on the readers that encounter their work, can’t be overstated either, of course—but it is equally important to remember that no truly great author goes it alone; there are always strong editors behind the scenes, shaping the individual stories themselves as well as the publishing world at large. The Hugo Awards are named for an editor, after all.

Yet I can count most of the editors I recognize by name on one hand. Even with such a limited group to choose from, only two have had an extremely significant, identifiable impact on me as a reader: Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. I could never hope to cover everything the two have contributed to the publishing world—their careers have stretched too far and are too varied and far-reaching for me to do them full justice. However, there are several projects that are worth looking at in order to appreciate their impact and get a sense of how influential their work has been, and continues to be.

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I Loved These Books As a Teen — Do They Hold Up Now?

I recently found myself combing through some boxes of old books and papers and came across a fascinating personal artifact. On the surface it’s a pretty unremarkable object, just a crumbling spiral-bound notebook covered in childish graffiti. But inside is over a decade of my life—a handwritten list of every book I read between 4th grade and college graduation. Looking through it was a bit like spelunking into the past, a unique look at the strata of different life stages, delineated by changes in handwriting and shifting interests like so many compressed layers of rock.

Paging through the tattered old list, I was seized by a sort of anthropological interest. If different parts of the list reflect phases of my life, what would happen if I took a deep dive into one of these distinct stages and revisited some of those stories? One place in particular caught my interest: from about the age of 12-15 there is a sort of genre bottleneck where my tastes suddenly narrowed from an indiscriminate mix of anything and everything to a very distinctive preference for fantasy and (to a lesser extent at the time) science fiction. There were dozens of titles to choose from, so I picked a handful of stories that conjured up particularly strong feelings, like sense memories that come back clearly even when my actual recollection of the stories is hazy (or nonexistent).

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