Word About Adaptation

"Read the book; see the movie!" "Now a major motion picture!" "A novelization..." "A new musical based on the stage play..." "...based on the book..." "...based on the hit movie!" "The timeless story of..." "...a classic tale..." "...updated for today's audience..." "...colorized..." "...reformatted to fit your screen..." "edited for television."

It's the same old story. Or is it? Is a story really the same when translated from one medium to another and if not, how is it different? What qualities must be changed to maintain a story's integrity? To adapt adeptly an author needs to know the answers to these questions.

Before we can investigate answers, it would be prudent to define some terms. First, what do we mean by "adaptation?" Simply, adaptation is the process of translating a story from one medium to another. What is a "medium?" A medium is a physical facility for storing information and the processes involved in retrieving it. Finally, what is "story?" For our purposes we shall define story as any information an author wishes to communicate to an audience (including considerations, experiences, and feelings).

So, putting it all together, adaptation is the process of translating information from one physical facility for storage and retrieval to another in such a way that it can be communicated to an audience. Sounds pretty cold, doesn't it. That's because this is simply the logistic description of adaptation.

A more organic description might be: Adaptation is the process of reproducing an audience experience in another medium. That has a better feel to it, but is much less precise. Also, we can clearly see a difference in the purpose of each approach, as indicated above when we spoke of the new story's identity versus its integrity. One seeks to maintain the parts, the other to be true to the whole. And that is the paradox at the heart of the adapter's dilemma: should authors strive to accurately recreate the structure or to faithfully reproduce the dynamics? More to the point, why can't we do both?

The answer lies with the media themselves. Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. Often what can be easily accomplished in one medium is either difficult or even impossible to achieve in another. Books are not very good at directly communicating sounds or visual atmospheres. The motion picture, on the other hand, is a poor medium for directly communicating a characters' inner thoughts and feelings.

In each case, indirect means must be employed to accomplish what might be directly communicated in the other medium. To successfully adapt a work, an author must determine what to add or remove in order to achieve the same effect as the original medium.

It would seem that adaptations will always fail to capture some aspect of the original, either in substance or essence. That is true, but it does not have to be a fatal problem. An audience tends to regard certain aspects of a story as being essential. As long as an adaptation retains and/or recreates those essential elements, the audience will find the effort successful.

Beyond the essential, other elements may be more or less fully developed than in the original, providing something of the same flavor while allowing the latitude to tailor the piece for the new medium. The question then becomes how to determine which items are essential and how deeply they need to be developed, on a case by case basis.

The first step is to do a complete analysis of the original work. Just reading the book a hundred times or watching the movie until images are imbedded on your retina is not good enough. You don't want to know a work just from the inside out, but you want to know it from the outside in as well -- the way the audience sees it. To develop both an understanding and an empathy for the story, it helps to examine it in terms of the Four Stages of Communication.

The Four Stages of Communication describe the manner in which the author's original intent makes its way from his mind into the minds of his audience. Stage one is Story forming, in which the author first defines the message for himself. Stage two is Story encoding, where the author comes up with images and events to symbolize the message. Stage three is Story weaving, which is the process of arranging these images into scenes and acts. Stage four is Story Reception, which describes the relationship of the audience to the work. By analyzing how each of these stages functions in a story, an author can make sure that the adaptation will connect at all levels of appreciation.

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