Adapt or Die: Adaptations, Reboots, and Retellings

by Daisy Jasmine, Staff Writer


A Wrinkle in Time poster. Courtesy of Collider.

When the teaser trailer for the Wrinkle in Time movie first appeared on my social media feed, I frantically scrolled down to conceal it before any of the cast appeared on screen. I had missed the memo that there would be an adaptation of one of the books that shaped my mind the most as a child, and I was leery of whether any major actors could do justice to the depiction I had carefully crafted in my own head. This suspicion was made stronger by the failure of the 2004 adaptation which has apparently died in well-deserved obscurity.

The first attempt at adapting A Wrinkle in Time. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I eventually let curiosity get the better of me and watched the trailer, slowly becoming more hopeful—until the eternally youthful Reese Witherspoon appeared as a stranger apparently intended to be the old, dotty, and lovably frumpy Mrs. Whatsit, and I closed the trailer again with a grumble and a vow to avoid the film. In doing so, I briefly flirted with the long-running tradition carried by low-tech literature lovers. I made the mistake of dismissing an adaptation for doing exactly what the name implies: adapting.

For as long as humankind has had any form of language, we have passed on stories both real and fictional through an ever-growing battery of media. As we have grown culturally and technologically over the millennia, we have broken ground on new and engaging ways to tell our stories—and with each new development, our fear of change rears its head and we push back against the unfamiliar. The written word, the radio, the movies, the movies with sound, television, video games—each has been decried as the downfall of society and the death of imagination. In today’s interconnected world, many people have realized just how alarmist and far from the truth this claim is.

Emoji Movie’s flub. Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

However, the fear of change still lurks in our minds with regards to our entertainment and our imaginations. With the open platform of the internet, it would seem we have a plague of movie adaptations to contend with. And while this phenomenon is not limited in the least to any one source medium, the most common “victim” of this treatment is beloved works of literature. Even phenomenal successes such as the Harry Potter franchise are met with in-depth critique and criticism from enthusiasts of the books, picking the two portrayals apart side-by-side and page-by-page to highlight every missed detail.

Other adaptations have begun with promise and proceeded to flop so spectacularly that fans act as though the movies never happened, such as the Percy Jackson franchise. Still other movies have been derided from the start, such as the disastrous Emoji Movie which scored a 9% on the film review site Rotten Tomatoes.

The problematic casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender, compared with the original characters. Courtesy of Colorlines.

It is true that film adaptations often face major problematic issues such as whitewashing and removal of important character representation for disenfranchised groups. For example, the film of the wildly popular Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender has been treated by fans as nonexistent, due to the poor decision to cast primarily white actors for characters in a story and world filled with various Asian cultural influences, with the exception being the insensitive casting of a darker-skinned actor for the villain.

Adaptations which lean further towards diversity and representation are also often met with unfortunate resistance from the more-biased purists of the source material. For example, the casting of A Wrinkle in Time has lead to some criticism, such as claims that the film has a “diversity agenda.” However, the source material of A Wrinkle in Time was already a meaningful representation for women in STEM fields—the book already stood up against bigotry, so the diverse casting is more than appropriate.

When care is taken to avoid and prevent discrimination and erasure of identities in casting, however, adaptation is by no means something to be feared. Adaptations and retellings have existed for much longer than people tend to acknowledge. Even Disney’s The Lion King, considered a classic which stands on its own, is in its own way an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet—and Shakespeare himself penned his retelling of the death of Julius Caesar.

By the nature of the differing media alone, a movie cannot and, in fact, should not match its source material line for line and page for page. Things can be achieved in film that cannot be done justice with words, for example, and the reverse holds just as true. It is valid to feel resistance to changes made to works which have shaped us. However, the original work is unchanged—an adaptation is merely a new angle, a new spin, a production by a new artist. Each new version is a work of its own, to be enjoyed separately or in conjunction with its source. One particularly strong example is the popular and meaningful yet lighthearted Broadway musical, Wicked. This play is based upon a novel of the same name, which is decidedly darker, contains violence and detailed sex scenes, and ends completely differently. The novel itself is written from the source material of the film, The Wizard of Oz, the saccharine use case for color in the movie industry and Judy Garland’s breakout role—which in turn was loosely adapted from L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel of the same name, believed by some to have originally been an allegory for monetary policy and the gold standard.

Two equally-appreciated works in a chain of retellings. Courtesy of The Scarlett Woman.

This widely-known and cherished story has followed a winding yellow brick road from politics to children’s entertainment to adult fiction and back, and each iteration is followed by its adoring fans of all ages. The success of each retelling of L. Frank Baum’s work should be how we view all adaptational work, at least going into the experience. By supporting our favorite source material and opening our minds to new retellings, we can ensure that our most loved tales continue to be passed down for generations to come—which, after all, is what stories have always been meant to do.

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