Something that came to mind while working on the last entry for the history of adaptations is how publishing and, indeed, writing, has changed over time. While series have been around for some time in several genres, from mysteries to westerns to science fiction and fantasy*, Over time, though, the length of novels has been growing, not just in page count but in story.
A few examples before continuing. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë and released in 1847, has anywhere between 350 to 500 pages, depending on edition, and covers the title character’s life from childhood to adulthood in detail. Eyre was also originally published in three novels, not one. A Study in Scarlet, the first novel-length Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is slightly over 100 pages. A Princess of Mars, the first of the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is 186 pages. Daybreakers, part of the Sackett family saga by Louis L’Amour, is 240 pages. Casino Royale, the first 007 novel by Ian Fleming, clocks in at over 210 pages. Jumping ahead, Firefox, by Craig Thomas, is over 380 pages and A Game of Thrones, the first of the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin, is over 835 pages.
If the above paragraph made your eyes glaze over, longer novels gave way to shorter ones which then were muscled away with longer novels once again. Casino Royale was fully adapted as a movie. Firefox was adapted in full, but details were lost along the way to keep to the core of the book. Comparing the two original novels, there was far more happening at different levels in Firefox, from Gant’s infiltration of the Soviet Union to the monitoring of the mission by the head of MI-6. Casino Royale kept the focus on Bond and his investigations. The two stories fall into the Cold War-era espionage genre, but Firefox gets into greater detail.
In the fantasy genre, doorstoppers are de rigeur today. Earlier works, like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series and Burrough’s John Carter and Tarzan series, were of a length that allowed entire books to be fully adapted. A Game of Thrones, however, required a TV series to do the novel justice. Martin has a large cast, with each character having his or her own plotline. There is no way that a movie could hope to encompass everything happening. The game changer in the fantasy genre was JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When it gained in popularity in the Sixties, a number of future writers became inspired by the scale of the story.
What does the expansion mean for adaptations? First, the best format for the adaptation may no longer be a feature film. While movies still have the cachet of being the premier form of entertainment, they have a time limit. Few movies lasst longer than three hours, and most are two hours or shorter. Casts of characters have also grown, which leads to either having a large number of actors or rolling several characters into one. Both have pitfalls. A large cast means that a favourite character might get only a few minutes on screen. Combining several minor characters into one conglomerate means a new character appears.
Adding to the complexity is that, while series seem to be on the wane in science fiction and fantasy**, multi-book epics are the norm. Stories like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and Martin’s unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire all provide a challenge to complete. The Harry Potter movies dropped several elements just to get as much in as possible. This task had added difficult as the successive books in the series got longer and more detailed and intricate. Both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games needed to split the last novel into two movies to wrap up the story properly.
The expansion of stories may be one of the reasons why comic books are a popular source today. Comics have had ongoing plots mixed in with one-issue stories in the past, and today’s focus on writing for the trades still allows for an arc to be easily adapted. Even if a story needs to be compressed, it is still possible to get a popular story filmed with minimal loss of detail.
Peter Jackson’s recent film treatment of The Hobbit may be the vanguard of a new approach to adapting novels. Provided that the book is popular, adaptations may no longer be kept to just one movie but as many as needed. Again, there is a risk. If the first movie doesn’t perform to expectations, the rest of the film series may never be made. The Mortal Instruments fell to this fate, with just one movie, City of Bones released to a lukewarm reception.
In short, adapting novels to movie form, a tough task of balancing audience expectations with practical and budgetary demands to begin with, now has added problems in terms of including the full story. There is no simple solution. The best that can be done is to see what works and what doesn’t.
* Including planetary romance, which includes the John Carter of Mars novels.
** Excluding tie-in novels and urban fantasy. Tie-in novels exist to take advantage of an existing property, acting as an extension. Urban fantasy appears to be taking its cue from both fantasy and from mysteries, where there are single plot arc series leading to a pre-planned ending and series that return to see how characters are faring.