Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Last week, during the analysis of the TV adaptation of The Dresden Files, I mentioned that pragmatism will play a factor in how a work gets adapted. There will be times when what the original work envisioned just cannot be translated over to a new medium, whether the cause is budget, technical limitations, or needs of the new medium. Pragmatism does not necessarily affect quality, provided that there’s effort put in to acknowledge not just the change but what was changed. The originals tend to be written works – novels, short stories, even comics – where there isn’t a limitation based on practicality. Words and pictures cost time and energy to create, but can go beyond earthly limitations.

Let’s start with budget, a big factor in making both movies and TV series. No studio has an unlimited source of cash and no movie has made an infinite amount of money. Budgets, through methods that seem like dark sorcery, are drawn up based on expected rates of return. Even then, there’s no guarantee of success. Big budget flops have occurred. Sometimes, the studio is just using the film for other reasons, as in the case of Alien From L.A., where the movie was meant to get money out of a country under international sanctions. Low budget works have to work around the restriction. The ITV Playhouse adaptation of “Casting the Runes” didn’t have the budget to show the demon or the climactic plane crash; instead, the teleplay relies on using the actors’ reactions to hint at what’s happening and getting the viewers’ imaginations to fill in the rest of the details. However, budget isn’t always a limiter in a production. Studios are aware of how much production elements cost and won’t try overextending capabilities.

Where a budget may allow for an effect, technical limitations may be the bigger restriction. The advent of computer graphics in special effects has reduced the difficulty of staging effects. However, CGI isn’t a cure-all. Practical effects and props are still more cost effective than computer generated objects and easier for actors to interact with. In books, literary or comic, if a creator wants a character to own something specific, there is nothing to prevent the object from existing in the work. A custom piece of jewellery, an unusual and impractical weapon, or, as seen in The Dresden Files, a battered Volkswagen Beetle can easily be added. On screen, it’s not as easy. Jewellery can be approximated, but an exact likeness may not be possible because of the materials used. On TV, Harry Dresden’s Blue Beetle was replaced with a war surplus Jeep; the latter being more readily available than the now collector piece VW Beetle. The key when working around technical limitations is to remember why the original object was chosen. The adapted piece of jewellery should reflect the heritage the original has, from age to design. With the TV version of Dresden, the Jeep was of similar vintage as the Beetle, old enough that its mechanics were simple enough to not be affected by Harry’s tech bane nature.

The needs of the new medium may cause changes that don’t make sense otherwise. Television and film are visual media, often not having a narrator. Even when there is a narrator, the insights provided are for what’s not shown, such as a character’s thoughts. In contrast, written works use words to paint scenes for the reader; the narrative carries the story. Whether the point of view is first person or third, the reader gets to see what the author wants to show. Film and TV default to third person, specifically, the cameras. Even DOOM, based on the first person video game, only had a short scene from that point of view. Audiences want to see the actors. And while writers can show what characters are thinking and feeling directly, on screen, the actors have to do the heavy lifting. In the Dresden books, Bob is a spirit in a skull with some limited ability to take over a cat’s body for short joyrides. On TV, though, a skull doesn’t do that much, and Bob would be, effectively, a disembodied voice. Giving Bob a body, though, allows the actors to play off each other, adding to the depth of the scene. Human actors are also far more convincing than cat actors, who may become difficult to work with when naptime hits.

Another restriction placed on an adaptation by the needs of the new medium is time. Books don’t have time limits; readers read at their own pace. As long as the reader enjoys the work, there isn’t a problem. Television and movies, though, do have time limits. With TV, a work has to fit a thirty- or sixty-minute time slot as a series or a two-hour slot if a mini-series of movie of the week, plus leave time for advertising within the slot. Theatrical films have a minimum running time of around eighty to ninety minutes, any shorter and audiences won’t bother, and seldom run longer than two and a half hours. Longer films have happened, but tend to be ones that will draw an audience because of the running time. The film adapations of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first and shortest of the Potter novels, still had to lose scenes to fit the allowed time, which also took into account the young age of the likely audience. Even when spread across a full television season, details can be lost because there’s just not enough time to show everything in a novel.

Comic books run into similar. Unlike written novels, comics are a visual medium, but one with its own language. Comics are a series of panels, each one contributing to the story. Readers know how to fill in the details from one panel to another. Artists can compress time by showing a clock in two separate panels having a later time in the second. They can slow down time by repeating an image with minor changes between panels. Individual issues of a run may not fill the time of even a thirty-minute TV slot, but multi-part stories can work for feature film. The aesthetics of a comic book is difficult to pull off; Deadpool being a rare exception. A well done adaptation from a comic can be done well, but the studio involved cannot be lulled by the fact that comics and film are both visual. They have separate tropes, sometimes similar but not always.

Getting an adaptation perfect may not always be possible. The change in medium necessitates changes to the work. It’s in the how the change is done that will make the difference to an audience.

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