What Constitutes An Adaptation

I began working on a new thing I am planning on doing for the website, a bi-weekly (or weekly if I get better about time management) Top 50 list. The first list that popped into my mind was The 50 Greatest Book To Film Adaptations. As I began to do my “research” (I use quotes because it seems a gross overstatement of my method) I found that I was running into a problem, what constitutes a great adaptation? You would think the answer was easy and obvious, a great movie based on a book, and maybe it is and I am just over thinking the whole of it, but I have run into at least four kinds of adaptations that I am having trouble calling great even though the movies most definitely are:

The “How To Train Your Dragon” Hullabaloo 

First of all, I LOVED How To Train Your Dragon. To me I would put it right along side the best of Pixar, which is about the highest praise I could give an animated film. My son, who just turned 8, loves it too. In fact he loves it so much we bought all of the books in the series (8 books in all) last Christmas and we have been reading them every night for the last month. They are great! Funny, fast paced, the perfect length (you can finish one in a couple of hours depending on how fast you read), like the movie there is not a thing I would change about them. I wouldn’t even change the fact that there is almost no correlation between the books and the movie.

Well, maybe no correlation is a bit harsh. Hiccup is a viking, he does live on the Isle of Berk and he is the only son of the chief and he is small for a viking his age. Stoik the Vast (Hiccups dad) and Gobber the Belch exist in both the movie and the books and they share some similarities with the literary counterparts. And, that’s about it. In the books everyone has a dragon at the start, they all fly them and use them as pets and beasts of burden at times, they are not attacked by dragons (often) and there disputes are between Hiccups tribe, The Hairy Hooligans, and the other viking tribes that inhabit the areas around them. And Toothless, well Toothless is a harmless little dragon about the size of a cat, who is always getting into trouble. So, to recap, the plot is different, the themes are different, but the title and some of characters appear in each. It honestly feels like the screenwriters never read any of the books and through some unbelievable coincidence also created a terrific story about vikings and dragons. Is that an adaptation? Technically, obviously it is, but if you are listing the best adaptations doesn’t this almost disqualify itself?

Verdict: I say yes, this should not qualify as a great adaptation based on the divergence not just of plot and tone, but of the underlying themes of the books.

The “Bond, James Bond” Ballyhoo

There are a lot of things you could say about and argue about when it comes to the bond films (Sean Connery is the answer, but the way). What is hard to say or to argue is which if any of the films are true adaptations of the novels. Dr. No would certainly qualify and some of the other early ones kind of do it, but by the time Roger Moore takes over not much more than the name and the profession are the same. So when do they stop being great adaptations and start being simply a great movie franchise? And its not just Bond films, The Bourne Identity kind of follows the book, but each movie after moves further and further away, so are any of those movies great adaptations in addition to being really fun movies?

Verdict: Dr. No and The Bourne Identity may qualify as great adaptations, but after than they are just great movie franchises

The “Mean Girls” Mash Up

Tina Fey wrote Mean Girls. Tina Fey is very smart and quite funny and wrote a successful comedy based on an anthropological study. The plot of Mean Girls is entirely of Tina Fey’s making, the ideas and observations about teen girl interaction come from the non-fiction Queen Bees and Wannabes which describes how high school social cliques operate and what effect they can have. So, when does something stop being research and begin being adaptation? I understand why Tina Fey put the “based on” tag onto the screenplay given that Dan Brown was sued for basically using research when he wrote The Da Vinci Code, but does calling Mean Girls a great adaptation somehow diminish what Tin Fey did creatively?

Verdict: The themes and ideas started with the book and she used, however creatively and cleverly, a lot of the anthropological verbiage throughout the film, so great adaptation it is.

The “Iron Man” Irrational Classification

So, what book was Iron Man based on, exactly? How about The Dark Knight or Batman Begins or Batman Forever? Constantine the movie comes from Hellblazer the comic, but which issues exactly? Superman, Superman Returns, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, The Incredible Hulk, Green Lantern, Spiderman, you name it, they are all based on characters and none are based on specific books (most mix and match story lines and some don’t even pretend to reference the source material beyond the fact surrounding the main character). Great adaptations? I think you know what my verdict will be here, but here, check out the trailers for all three of the non-adaptations opening this summer.

Verdict: Unless you are based on a very specific and referenced story arc or graphic novel then no, you are not a great adaptation. In other words Watchmen or V for Vendetta yes, The Dark Knight, as great as it is, no.


There are other movies and issues that will no doubt arise in my mind as I tabulate the 50 I feel are most deserving (Adaptation, is it an adaptation?), but at least now I won’t have to go into these quandaries when I am writing that one up.

Please do enjoy and remember, what do I know, I’m fat.