“Don’t Judge a Book by its Movie”: Adaptations

 

The Magicians has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I’ve had several people tell me to read it, and since it is often lauded as Harry Potter for grown-ups, I really should have read it before now. But of course, life and a ridiculous penchant for buying too many books, plus an outrageous TBR pile put the project on hold.

But then Syfy (God, I still hate that pretentious respelling. Why can’t we just be good old fashioned Scifi?) decided to do their mini-series and I thought it was about time I give it a try. This is not really a review of the book, but I will say that, only having read the first one, I did enjoy it. The characters are a little hard to like sometimes (Quentin in particular does not change as much as I would have expected), but I thought the magic system was really cool, and I enjoyed the meta Narnia parallels.

Upon finishing the book, I decided to give the mini-series a try. I’d heard good things already, but I am always suspicious about book adaptations. I think all readers are, and for good reason. We have been burned many, many times. Too often our precious stories fall into the hands of people who could care less and what we are left with is a puddle of half-assed cinema that doesn’t even come close to capturing what we felt when reading. They make changes, cut out important things and add in events that never even happened. Characters are miscast. It’s wholesale slaughter. My favorite example of this is the Ella Enchanted movie, which is so removed from the source material that I wonder how they even got away with using the name of the book.

So, I was not entirely surprised when upon watching the first episode, there were deviations from the book. A lot of deviations. But, surprisingly, I liked it. The changes created a story that stood apart from the book, but still retained the spirit of it. It is an homage to The Magicians more than an adaptation and it works. You have the feel of The Magicians, the atmosphere and general architecture. Despite the differences, it is still believable that this is the same story. This is not the first time I have been accepting of changes from book to film. Many people complained when Tom Bombadil was left out of the Lord of the Rings films. It never bothered me. As much as I love Tom, I found Peter Jackson’s explanation of why he wasn’t included in the cast satisfactory. Tom did not contribute directly to the narrative of the ring, which is the main story they were trying to tell in the film. The story still worked without him, despite his awesomeness.

I guess I find myself wondering what makes changes acceptable when it comes to adaptations. Reading is a deeply personal experience, so of course there are going to be people who are dissatisfied no matter what. But there are adaptations that are universally hated while some who had significant changes seem to work.

My personal theory is that as long as the story is generally intact, as long as the characters feel authentic to what the represented in the book, the adaptation will work. Harry Potter worked well, despite changes, because it still felt like Harry’s story. It still represented the world J.K. Rowling created. When adaptations are not authentic to this aspect of the book, they fail. See again, Ella Enchanted. The book deals more with the consequences of not being able to make your own choices. The movie did not really touch on this theme at all, adding song numbers and a weird villain that completely detracted from what was great about the book.

I could be way off base. I’m sure that people can come up with some great examples of adaptations that while essentially true to the book, failed. I would love to see some of these examples so I can further refine this theory. In the meantime, I’m going to finish The Magicians.