Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Going Off Script: When Adaptations Run Out of Material

What happens when you've got three seasons' worth of source material but five seasons to fill?  ♦ 
It’s no secret that some of the best films began with a great novel. Take the list of the highest-grossing films of all time, for example, and you’ll see that a number of titles on that list—Marvel’s The Avengers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King—first appeared on the bookshelf. These inspired adaptations don’t just stop at the silver screen, though; novels are also having a big moment on television, as the number of TV adaptations of novels and novel series has seemingly increased every year (2018 alone has brought us The Terror, another season of The Handmaid's Tale, and Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, to name a few). Everywhere you look, whether on streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix or network television, familiar characters and plots are being brought to life for audiences and drawing big numbers of viewers.
   For many, seeing their favorite novels transformed into a beautifully visual, nail-biting weekly installment may be a dream come true, but for some, the transformation required to move the story from page to the small screen might seem a step too far. In order to keep viewers interested and contracts renewed—as well as to take sometimes limited material and make an even bigger story and world over the course of an entire season—screenwriters have to add their own twists to previously loved stories, sometimes editing plot, sometimes adding to it, and sometimes completely changing it as the project requires. But how far is too far when it comes to artistic license in adapting books for television?
   Take the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. Based on the best-selling memoir by Piper Kerman, this show follows the main character, Piper Chapman, throughout her short sentence in a women’s prison. At first glance (or, on first viewing), it appears that the real Piper had one heck of a time in prison, but as it turns out, many scenes and plot points that appear on the show were dramatized for viewing purposes. The book focuses solely on Piper’s own experience during her time in prison and what led her there, which provided the show enough material for the first two seasons. However, Piper’s actual time in prison was just over a year, so screenwriters had to get creative and generate new content that could sustain seasons to come. They managed this by giving secondary characters their own backstories and highlighting compelling racial and class issues, so even as Orange is the New Black went off script, it did so in a way that impacted viewers and added even more meaning to an already meaningful piece of writing.
   Game of Thrones first aired on HBO in 2011, based on George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. Both provide readers and viewers with exciting stories and the history of a kingdom that is power-obsessed, and the first few seasons of the show followed the novels as best they could. Of course things had to be altered due to the length of the novels, but the early changes and diversions wouldn't compare to what was to come. Around season five, the show’s writers began generating their own material for the series, as Martin is known for taking a long time to write his novels. Since HBO could have had viewers waiting longer than a year—potentially much longer—before Martin’s books could tell the story first, the writers instead tried to emulate Martin’s voice and storytelling as best they could while also telling stories that had not yet appeared in the books. Fast forward to today, and the final season of the show is on the horizon (expected in 2019), and while the show’s writers were indeed able to capture the spirit of the story and continue the series, this has lead some critics of the show to suggest that the new material feels more like elaborate fan fiction than a more straightforward adaptation of beloved material.
   HBO’s Big Little Lies is a more recent adaptation to run into a similar problem. Based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel of the same name, the series follows the lives of a group of female friends in a small town after a disruptive crime has recently taken place. The first season of the series is pretty much in sync with the novel, leaving out only minor details, but the success of the series has led to an interesting problem, as it’s been renewed for a second season, even though all the material from the novel was already used during the first. The second season will be made up of all-new material, but it’s possible the show might run into the same problems that movie sequels often face: struggling to do as well as the initial movie because the second go-round must live up to viewers’ expectations while also taking the story someplace original and exciting in its own right.
   While there may not be a correct way to adapt a novel into a television show, one thing seems certain: if a show wants to remain successful and interesting in the eyes of first-time viewers and fans of the preexisting novel, it must retain the integrity of that novel while also succeeding to break new ground. It shouldn’t change or add too much, of course—just enough to serve the medium and the material in balance, because as it turns out, sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.
  • About the Author
    Morgan Bertsch is currently a senior at Miami University, where she studies Strategic Communication and Professional Writing with a focus in editing. Last summer she held an internship with the Ohio Writing Project through Miami University. After graduation, she will intern at n2y in the marketing department. In her free time, Morgan enjoys cooking, shopping, and exploring new places with her friends.

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