As a cinephile and filmmaker, I have observed that there's been a change in the nature of film and television storytelling over the last fifteen years or so. There's been a general movement away from storytelling as emotional narrative and exploration of character and instead towards a far more 'functional' type that's instead focused on plot and intricate actions of the characters, instead of the characters as living people. I like to call this type of storytelling, 'utilitarianism' as in if the content of the movie is not directly associated with progressing the plot along a structured guideline, it is considered fat to be trimmed, even subconsciously. If you look at recent movies like Thor: The Dark World, this can be seen in how tightly structured the movie is. Even though there are plenty of character moments embedded in the movie, they never stop to explore the characters or the world.
I personally blame the Internet for the rise of utilitarianism. It has, in my opinion, caused people's thinking to change to a point of extreme focus and self interest. If it does not directly appeal to me, it is of no interest and is either worthy of my ambivalence or hatred. Transitionally this is expressed in utilitarian storytelling as 'if it is not directly applicable to the story being told, it is fluff that can be cut from the film in question.'
These have all been or will be adapted, exactly, the majority of them do or will absolutely suck...
This wholesale constriction of storytelling has led to some interesting freak side effects in the nature of adaptations. Mainly that fan bases and consequently filmmakers in question see a property being adapted as a mutated form of utilitarian thought, where everything is considered essential to the story being told. This can be seen in the rash of YA dystopic/supernatural romance thrillers being made at the moment. As crappy as they are, they do a near 1:1 adaptation of the story. Yes elements of the narrative might be left out or truncated for time, but the story as told in the book is essentially just being transposed to the screen. Things like Twilight, Divergent, The Host, City of Bones, Hunger Games, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Golden Compass, and so on, just get thrown on the screen for us to absorb twice. But in reality this act of transposition of narrative across mediums creates an unintended consequence, where the adaptation is functionally appropriate but seems soulless and hollow to anyone but the core fan base or they do not attempt to rectify the problems within the original work's storytelling. This is most clearly recognized by the geek community with Zach Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen (though I enjoy it personally as a pure work of visual cinema). Yes, there are exceptions such as the case with Catching Fire or the Harry Potter novels where a certain thematic or emotional depth is achieved in the act of transpostioning the story from book to screen. However, most of the time, the 1:1 story rings hollow.
So very, very hollow...
That's because in my years of studying film and film narrative, you can break down all works that can be adapted into two working categories, which for the sake of clarity, we'll call Open and Closed properties. Closed properties are the simplest to understand. They are a work that is, narratively complete. Their stories can be moved from one medium to the other without loosing that certain 'je ne sais quoi' that made the work appealing to its original audience. Certain things can be reordered or moved about for clarity, but the work is essentially a 1:1 adaptation. For example I feel the manga Linebarrels of Iron is a closed property. Its storytelling is so perfectly structured, visually displayed and thought out that simply to take what's on the page and move it to either film or television form would make for a something of equal value. If we look at the Linebarrels anime, which significantly changes the story (partially because the manga isn't finished, partially because the writer/director crew are idiots in my opinion) the final product suffers and is rendered both thematically inert and intellectually unstimulating (though is occasionally quite funny). The parts of the anime that work are when it sticks to original plot of the story (the initial conflict between Hayase and Yajima in the park and the emotional reasons behind his insecurity complex and Yajima's death to reexamine heroism not as a duty but a conscious personal choice) but where it changes it fails spectacularly. Another example is Mirai Nikki, AKA The Future Diary. Here, the story is essentially a 1 to 1 conversion of manga to anime, with some fixes and elements brought in from the one offs for clarity and the show excels because of it. Where it changes the plot significantly is in the OVA 'Redial' (not included in the dvds unfortunately, probably whenever it ends up on Funimation's bluray or on their Anime Classic imprint), where it improves the flawed one off post script comic from the manga for the better. Which brings us to the concept of Open Properties.
Yes, this show is absolutely insane. Yes it is amazing!
Open properties, alternatively, are works that need to instill changes in order for it to work in another medium. Either because it is the work contains elements tied to the medium its told in that don't work in another medium or because the work/story is flawed in nature yet contains an interesting thought, theme or idea and gives the filmmaker's leeway to make changes or enact their own personal interpretation of the narrative into their work. Lets take three best examples of Open properties and pull them apart for a second; The Godfather, Ghost in the Shell, and Children of Men all three works improved on in their transition from page to screen. The Godfather, for all intents and purposes is actually a fairly shitty novel. It's often crass, commercial, and poorly written. Yet the book contains an interesting seed, the dynamics of the mob family, the rise to power, the king lear aspects of the story. Coppola, who took the job as a gun for hire after his previous films, both directed and produced (his film The Rain People but more importantly George Lucas' THX 1138) were commercially unsuccessful. With this pulpy airport novel, Coppola was given free reign to change, refine and rethink the novel into what is considered one of the greatest films of all time. He would later go on to accomplish this again with The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now, which is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
In the case of Masamune Shirow's The Ghost in the Shell, the original work of manga is just as flawed as the Godfather in many of the same ways. It is alternatively overly comedic and smutty (partially apparently because he was coming out of Hentai industry at the time) yet it contains some brilliant concepts and ideas within it. Also it's kind of terribly drawn. Though Shirow's art and storytelling significantly improved (seriously they are kind of brilliant) over the course of his sequel comics GitS 1.5: Human-Error Process and GitS 2: Man-Machine Interface (which I assert is probably due to the influence of the first GitS film director Mamoru Oshii), the original work is flawed enough so that the people that would later come to the property wishing to adapt it would be able to bring their own interpretation to the ideas Shirow came up with. For example, Mamoru Oshii's original Ghost in the Shell and its sequel Innocence films rework the pulpy original into what are considered seminal works of cyberpunk science fiction that explore the nature of identity in a society where bodies and possibly minds can be mass produced. These works of slow, philosophical Scifi (which burst into stunning displays of violence as the incredible final sequence of Innocence or the opening of GitS show) use the ideas to toy with what it means to be human and what it means to go beyond and evolve. Innocence further deviates from the original text, adapting a single chapter from the original The Ghost in the Shell tankobon, moving the narrative from before Kusanagi's fusion with the Puppet Master to after, GitS 1.5 and 2 seem relatively untouched, other than 1.5 seeming to inspire the second major adaptation of GitS, Stand Alone Complex, instead using the source material and the director's examination of post- and trans-human identity to explore concepts of grief and being left behind by loved ones (as it's pretty obvious that Batou is love with the Major in GitS and Innocence and suffers from losing her/watching her evolve beyond human understanding, despite the fact that she still seems to care for him in some way with her "Whenever you go on the net, I'll be right there next to you" comment, and does not actually provide a answer or happy ending for him at the end of the movie, merely a persistence of being.)
In a radical separation from the source material is Kenji Kamiyama's Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Seemingly taking the ideas brought up by the original manga and the structure of GitS 1.5, Kamiyama radically reimagines the property as a police procedural, filled with all of Shirow's original ideas, (even going as far as radically reinventing the Puppet Master concept in the film Solid State Society) and Oshii's, which explores political intrigue, crime, tragedy and the dark underbelly of a cyberpunk society. Here it takes the idea of police work in the comic and expands upon it significantly, finding a new depth and interpretation.
The Adaptations? Fantastic! This? Not so much...
The latest adaptation of the material, Arise, which is a set of three 50 minute OVAs that further reimagines the properties, reinventing the dynamic between Kusanagi and Batou in their first meetings. This work explores the story in a more conventional manner, but still manages to tell a compelling and worthwhile manner. Which serves to show us that a story need not be radical or innovative in its deviation from the source material in order to work.
And finally let's take a look at Children of Men, the most drastic of the three adaptations. Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men has almost nothing narratively in common with P.D. James original science fiction novel The Children of Men. It reimagines and rethinks everything but the core premise to create a film that I have no doubt will go down as one of the all time greats of modern science fiction. It is a dark travelogue through a civilization and planet on the brink of collapse. It is allegorical, pulsing and sad and amazing. However, it bares little resemblance to the original novel which functions more as a political thriller and mystery. But why? Simply put, the story as told in the book doesn't work as cinema. Too much talking, too much speculation and so on. It works perfectly fine as a novel, because that type of storytelling is suited to a literary medium. But what matters here is the core of the narrative, the conceptual and thematic core that drives everything in both works, a species collapsing from infertility. The writer/director here takes his time to sculpt a new story from the existing intellectual property, that takes advantage of film as audio-visual medium, which can be imbued with the spirit and emotional impact/affect of the original work. To create a new work, informed by the old, with the strengths of both, but none of the weaknesses.
This. Yes. So much yes.
And as we bring this little article to a close, you may be wondering what the point of all this writing is? To get you guys to think next time you see an anime based on a manga, or an adapted novel, or news that yet another game is getting a film adaptation. Stop and think about the following questions instead of demanding that it simply be adapted 1:1 from the original text; Does this need to be adapted? Does the story gain or lose anything from being adapted? What can be changed in order to make an adaptation work? What flaws were there in the original work? What would you fix if you were doing the adaptation?
Why, exactly, does this need to be adapted? And who's to say it will be good either?
Remember folks, things are rarely perfect and it's okay to change things to make moving it from one medium to another easier or better for the audience experiencing it. Sometimes 100 percent fealty to the source material can be just as much a weakness as it can be a strength.
See you next time folks!
(P.S. If anyone on TAY is considering giving me author privileges, consider this my resume :) )