Ranting About Adaptations

One of the benefits of my teaching education and internship is that I am finally reading some of the classics I managed to miss in high school and college. Despite toiling the speculative fiction world most of my life, I somehow never read Frankenstein. Since that is now being taught in high school, I finally sat down to read Mary Shelley’s work.

I was struck by my reaction to the prose given how variant it was from the media adaptations I grew up devouring. First of all, the book is about the creator not the creation and the secrets of the process are never directly mentioned. The monster’s personality and purpose also are divergent. As a kid, I first watched the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as the creature. Reading the book, I realized that Colin Clive’s over-the-top performance perfectly matched the constantly-tortured scientist from the book.

Adapting her work to film (or stage or comics) obviously requires adjustments, and is to be expected. The problem seems to be that once Universal chose to adapt a 1920 stage adaptation rather than the original source material, mass audiences built their understanding of the tale from a false premise.

This brought me to the larger issue of how the media adapts works from one source for another. I saw this with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (such poor adaptations nicely skewered in Easy A) and am witnessing it with Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (which I am listening to on my commute to and from school).

As a society, we see these adaptations or read comics based on the original material and it forms our impression of the work without the proper context. I can easily see students relying on the graphic novel adaptations of works (much as earlier generations based book reports on the Classics Illustrated versions). Worse, some may actually think Dean Koontz created Frankenstein given his series of books and comics based on his interpretation.

It also calls into questions the whole adaptation process. The creature’s observations and disastrous encounter with the blind man’s family has been forever reduced to the blind man and his violin (nicely portrayed by either O. P. Heggie or Gene Hackman). In fact, much of the creature’s experiences from the novel are ignored in most adaptations as are the disastrous deaths and the reasons behind them. Key dramatics elements can be ignored in favor of streamlined storytelling or a desire to emphasize more visual and bombastic elements for a visual medium. After all, the creature tells Frankenstein his exploits for many chapters which works for a book but has to be reimagined for the screen or graphic page.

Even the best book-to-screen adaptations change things. We all love what Peter Jackson did in The Lord of the Rings but look at the bitter disappointment at the configuring of scenes and the absence of poor Tom Bombadil. Rarely does the adaptation exceed the source material (Amazing Fantasy #15 vs. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark anyone?) but it can (Being There with Peter Sellers).

After immersing myself in these classics, I recognize that filmmakers and others need to pay closer attention to the source material, owing something to the people who originally conceived these stories and why they were created in the first place. All too often, the adaptations of Shelley totally leave out the moral implications and debates within her tale or fail to remember the book’s sub-title “A Modern Prometheus” and all that entails.

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