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Adaptation

“We're only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!”

    - Jack Lipnik, from Barton Fink (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1991)



Image from Akira Kurosawa's The Macbeths
Image: Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans

Old stories for a new medium

From the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers have looked to short stories, novels and plays for source material. Classic novels such as Little Women and plays such as The Taming of the Shrew were already familiar to audiences and carried associations of ‘quality’, helpful for a young medium coming under fire for its corrupting influence. Adaptations spanned national cinemas, with the great Japanese director Kurosawa drawing on Shakespeare’s Macbeth for his Throne of Blood (1957) and King Lear for Ran (1985), and literary and popular classics translated into period dramas, Disney animations and perhaps the best-known British adaptation series of all, the Bond films.

Image from Never Let Me Go
Image: NEVER LET ME GO, from left: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, 2010. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./courtesy Everett Collection

The Art of Adaptation

In adaptation, writes Joseph McBride in Writing in Pictures, the challenge for the screenwriter is to “[tear] the original work apart to see what makes it live and breathe and then [find] a way to translate those qualities into cinematic terms.” The legendary screenwriter William Goldman proposed that “the most important rule of adaptation” was not to be faithful to the source material, but “totally faithful to the intention of the source material.&rdquo In his introduction to the screenplay of Never Let Me Go (2010), adapted from his dystopian science fiction novel, Kazuo Ishiguro reflects on the creative process by which text is translated to screen.

Image from 300
Image: Warner Bros. / Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans

Adaptation in the 21st century

Contemporary adaptation has moved beyond the literary classic, with comics, graphic novels, video games and movies themselves providing inspiration for movies such as Dredd (2012) and 300 (2006). The adaptation process works in both directions, with successful movie franchises and characters spawning novelizations, video games, TV series, stage musicals, theme park rides and a bewildering array of merchandise.