Most of the works analyzed here at Lost in Translation have been the a partial or full adaptation of the story in an original. While the degree of success may change from work to work, the intent was to take the whole of an original work and move it to another or, in the case of remakes and reboots, the same medium. However, not every adaptation aims for that goal. A small few don’t use the story so much as the main character or characters. The most recent analysis featuring a character being adapted is the 2007 Nancy Drew film.
For the most part, when a work gets adapted, it’s because the adapter wants to bring the story over to the new medium. With movies, the studio wants to bring in the fans, and the safest way is to remake the story in the original work and place it on screen. Tinkering can cause a backlash, especially with the speed of today’s social media. Warner Bros. would have been crucified if they had altered the Harry Potter films in any way from how the novels presented not just the characters but the setting.
With some works, though, chosing an iconic moment to tell is difficult. This becomes especially true for long running series. The tendency for non-comics media versions of superheroes to go off in their own directions has been discussed before; the short version is that the needs of the new medium, either a film with limited time to delve into the intricacies of the character and plots or a TV series with time to fill, will cause the adaptation to veer in a new direction. Even Marvel Studio’s offerings and Fox’s X-Men films, based on story lines in the comics, have their own take.
It’s not just superheroes, though. Supers are noticeable because of their popularity in theatres. Other long running series have been adapted. The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories ran from 1930 until 2003, with 175 titles released in that time. With all the titles available, the 2007 movie still created a new mystery for her; the character is better known than any one of her published books. Even James Bond, with Ian Fleming writing 12 novels and 2 collections of short stories, has been adapted as a character. While the first three Sean Connery movies, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger stayed close to the original novels, though with some changes, later works, including The Man With the Golden Gun and Octopussy, both with Roger Moore, and the entirety of the Pierce Brosnan run, featured new stories about Bond*.
That’s not to say that anytime a character with a series gets an adaptation, the work is automatically a character adaptation. The 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve and 2013’s Man of Steel are both about the same character, but they also both retell the character’s story, just through different interpretations. Likewise, the 2011 remake of The Mechanic told the same story, just with a different approach, an action movie instead of a character piece.
The flip side to the above is that a work doesn’t have to focus on just one character to be a character adaptation. The exemplar here is The Addams Family from 1991. The movie showed the Addamses coping with life among the mundanes. Each character was recognizable, not just in appearance but in action and personality. The movie extrapolated from both the original one-panel comics and the 1964 TV series to explore what they would do outside the comfort of their home.
At what point does an adaptation become more about the character or characters than the original story? The main difference is having a new plot created for the character, as with Nancy Drew, The Addams Family, and the sequels to the Tim Burton Batman film. This approach works well when the character is better known than any of his or her existing stories, which tends to happen with older characters. Pop culture osmosis means that a younger generation will know of the character in general without having experienced the original work first hand, if at all. Nancy Drew is a teenage girl detective who can get herself in and out of trouble. The Addamses, as the song says, “They’re creepy and they’re kooky.” James Bond is a suave British agent with a license to kill.
Another way to tell that a work is a spin-off. Spin-offs are works that are related to an original or even an adaptation, based on a character or situation that was minor in the original but got attention from the audience. The Ma & Pa Kettle series of movies came about after the hard luck characters in The Egg and I became breakout hits despite being supporting characters. The Angel spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed the tortured vampire to LA after leaving Sunnydale. After Cheers ended, Frasier followed the character to Seattle. In each of these cases, the character’s/characters’ story continued. Note that not all spin-offs are popular. There are times when a studio misreads the audience’s desires; this was the case with the Friends spin-off, Joey. Friends was popular, lasting ten seasons. When it wrapped up, fans still wanted more, so NBC spun off the character of Joey. The new show didn’t maintain the ratings the parent show had, and only lasted two seasons.
Like full works, characters can also be adapted. While adapting a character for a new medium is part of the process of adaptation, it is possible for a character to be adapted without the rest of his or her story. The degree of success lies in how well the adapters – whether studio executives, comic artists and writers, or even fanfic authors – understand the character and can portray that understanding to the audience.
* Special mention here for the Timothy Dalton outing, The Living Daylights, which re-told the short story of the same name, then expanded on it. The full 007 series deserves to have its own project as it covers not just simple adaptation, but character adaptation and expansion into a franchise.