Great Adaptations (I Expect…)

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS about season 5 of Game of Thrones 

Adaptation from one medium into another is an interesting thing. This week I’ve seen a number of examples where works have been adapted from existing material, with a varying degree of success.

First off, although only one episode in, its clear that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell could easily become a BBC classic. I had high hopes going in, having re-read Susanna Clarke’s book a few times. It’s playing with territory that Aunty Beeb does so well. A Regency period drama with a twist and big budget effects that add rather than detract from the tone or the story. The adaptation enhanced the story by, you guessed it, adapting. Scenes are not exactly as they appear in the book but they feel faithful whilst working within the chosen medium and carrying a voice of their own. After watching it I wanted to grab my computer and start a petition for the BBC to be given the rights to adapt His Dark Materials for television too.

The second adaptation this week is actually my second chance to see a work adapted, this time as a musical. I first saw Women on the Verge of s Nervous Breakdown adapted as a musical on Broadway in 2010. The film had been one of those formative pieces from my late teens. My first glimpse at new wave Spanish cinema of the 1980s. The colour, the camp, the melodrama. Broadway matched all of this with its set and masterful performances from Sherie Reni Scott, Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti. But the show was ultimately unsuccessful in its storytelling, chiefly down to structure. The songs, whilst wonderful and witty, didn’t add to the storytelling. I felt this was mostly because the book was trying too hard to replicate the film almost scene for scene, character for character. The West End version was an incremental improvement but not the leap forward I’d been hoping for. Still too many storylines that detract from the core. It’s a good example of an adaptation that doesn’t adapt enough.

Musical theatre can be a challenging form. To be successful, the addition of songs to an existing work has to actually add something. They have to enhance the narrative, give us commentary or a new perspectives. Sometimes, in order for the songs to land effectively in this new form of story world, changes need to be made. A story on film that uses ten characters to create a complex ensemble narrative can get complicated when performed live on stage. Adding songs can just add further complication. I have hopes that Women on the Verge continues to develop, the story deserves more work and the songs deserve a stronger structure to house them.

Finally it’s back to television and the latest episode of Game of Thrones. As the material from the books begins to run out the television makers are taking more licence with storylines and characters. The inclusion of the rape of Sansa Stark is the latest in a series of controversial decisions. The internet has responded with a flurry of pro/con arguments to this scene. The general just seems to be about the ‘purity’ of the original text rather than problems with yet another rape scene on television.Is this an adaptation too far? The challenge here is that we can’t really decide if the change is justified or not yet. We don’t know how this scene is enhancing Sansa’s story or Theon Greyjoy’s? We don’t know how it fits in the overall arc of the televised world of Westeros. Time will, I guess, tell…

I used to be a purist. I wanted a simple translation from one format to another. I soon realised that this was lazy. Generally that kind of adaptation feels like a way for people to avoid reading or viewing the original. Now I feel that adapting from one source to another needs to enhance and add. The adaptation needs to provide the reader/viewer with a point of view, preferably allowing us to see something that we hadn’t initially seen in the original. At a bear minimum an adaptation has to borrow from my favourite improv concept ‘Yes, And…’ It has to agree to the spirit of the original and build on it.