Adaptation. (Or, They Changed It, Now It Sucks!)

Adaptations are a tricky business. There are so many elements to deal with — the head honchos who want to make some coin off an (assumed) established property, the adapters who want to (presumably) put their own stamp on the story, the original creator who is curious (and maybe a bit mortified) to see a different interpretation of his or her story, and the fans who want to see justice done to a story they hold dear.

But what does it mean to “do justice” to a story when adapting it? Many fans, I am sure, would say that involves being as faithful to the original story as possible — and that means to the letter for many people. And, honestly, that is a view with which I find myself increasingly frustrated.

When Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood started airing, there were a fair number of people who were skeptical of the series because it came a mere five years after the conclusion of the original anime, a pretty short wait for a “remake”. The impetus on the part of BONES was to make a show that was more faithful to the manga, both in story and in spirit. Now the fans would get what they deserve — the exact same story they have already ready in manga form adapted into an anime! Don’t get me wrong; I have enjoyed Brotherhood (I would not be blogging it every week otherwise), but I cannot help but sympathize with those original skeptics who wondered what the point of the series is.

I’ve often read that there was a large outcry when the original FMA necessarily deviated from the original story. (I didn’t watch FMA until last summer, so the fan rage was largely outside of my zone of experience.) It’s understandable when last minute anime-original material leads to a not-so-great ending when an anime catches up to a manga near the end of the anime’s run (such as in the case of Claymore), but the direction in which FMA went wasn’t bad at all, aside from Dante, who was a truly shitty villain. The story was often quite strange, with a bizarre as hell ending, but it was also new and entertaining. But no — it should have been the same thing fans have already pored through countless times before in the manga.

I get why a production studio would want to adhere closely to the story they’re adapting. Animation is expensive, even with studios cutting corners as much as possible. Financially, it’s probably a hell of a lot safer for a studio to be conservative with an adaptation than to re-imagine it to even a tiny degree, much less a radical revision. But why do fans demand this so wholeheartedly? What is the point? Sure, you get to see this story you love animated with some touches anime offers that manga cannot, but what’s the draw beyond that?

(And then there was the bitching about the Umineko no Naku Koro ni adaptation, which was hilarious to keep up with week-by-week, if only because the visual novel fans were so insane. The anime wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination (though parts of it were good), and there were definite problems with story and character development, but the main contention seemed to be that the anime did not include every single detail of the visual novel, which was a laugh-and-a-half. A few particularly deluded fans even cried that Umineko should have been 50 episodes, which is, uh, ridiculous. If those fans had their way, the entire first episode would have been Battler blathering away about bullshit on the dock.)

Think of a manga’s story as the original song, and the anime as a cover version. If you heard a cover version of a song you like, and it sounded EXACTLY the same as the original, would you give a crap about the cover version? Of course not. It sounds exactly the same. You’d just stick with the original. Cover songs are only noteworthy when an artist/band interprets it with a different musical spin and owns it. This doesn’t have to be a radical reinterpretation — it just has to be different. Why can’t anime adaptations be viewed in the same way by fans?

Look at Gankutsuou: It seems like a radical reinterpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, but it really isn’t. The spirit and basic plot of the story are left intact; however, the changes in setting, the development of certain characters and the visual flourish made the anime unique. It paid homage to the original story while simultaneously standing on its own feet, and, frankly, it is more entertaining and interesting to me than the novel. (But that’s mostly because in some ways The Count of Monte Cristo has aged rather poorly.) For someone who has already read the story, it’s something exciting and different. How is that a problem?

The demand to strict adherence to a story stifles the creativity process. Anime and manga are different mediums; they have distinct strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, each story has its own strengths and weaknesses. The filter of an adaptation should emphasize strengths of story and medium. Again, not every adaptation has to be a major reworking — not every creator is a Mamoru Oshii type who can pluck the themes of interest and craft something entirely new and vastly different from them. And a good number of adaptations are going to be bad simply due to poor writing quality.

But wouldn’t it be great to have more adaptations that are good for reasons other than the quality of the original story? You know, since the industry doesn’t seem to be breaking out of the manga/light novel/visual novel adaptation cycle that has gone on for decades.

Giving credit where it is due: This post germinated after reading this entry on Behind the Nihon Review again.

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20 Responses to “Adaptation. (Or, They Changed It, Now It Sucks!)”

  1. Adaptations can go either way depending on the creative choices made, but they really ought to be judged on how good of a story they are and not on how closely they follow the original material. They can follow the original and be a better or worse form depending on how the medium is used. Or they can deviate and be better or worse depending on the creative choices made. It’s sort of a two by two chart in that way.

    True Tears basically scrapped its source material (even down to the character design) and was a great show. From what I’ve read of the original VN, it ended up with a vastly superior story.

    Planetes on the other hand deviated pretty far from its source material in terms of themes and character development and in my opinion suffered greatly for it. Though it’s still well regarded by many, in this case I have to wish that they’d have adapted it more straightforwardly.

    Honey and Clover is almost exactly as it was in the manga, but it ended up surpassing the manga in my view because of how well it used its medium. There are things that just can’t be conveyed in the manga format that the anime did using the tools available to audio-visual media.

    And the fourth quadrant of the chart might be something like how you described FMA:Brotherhood, or how Kimi ni Todoke was adapted. I loved Kimi ni Todoke, and I’ll keep reading the manga to find out what happens after the anime story arc, but getting through the volumes that the anime covered is kind of grueling since it’s 1 for 1 with basically no variation. It’s good in both forms, but there’s nothing really there in the first volumes of the manga if you’ve watched the anime, and vice versa.

    • That’s a good way of breaking it down. Monster is another series that fits into that fourth quadrant . . . great, great story, but man, I totally understand why people who have already read the manga would not want to watch the anime. It’s basically the same thing the whole way through.

      I need to read the Planetes manga eventually. 😦

  2. I’ve always been of the following stance: An adaptation from one media to the next will require changes and creative cuts that deviate from the original story in order to be good. This is for more than just manga and anime, to let you know. For example, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park novel is fantastic and brilliant. It’s a science fiction adventure. The film is just an adventure film, because such science talk would not have worked in the movie at all. The film is still considered genius, as is the book.

    I myself used to do adaptations, except from video game to film, which is even more difficult. After a while I decided the only way for it to work was to cut out a good deal of the original, put in a lot of new material, but do so in the spirit of the original works, which is what I feel anime adaptations, more often than not, try to accomplish.

    • Oh yeah, I didn’t bring in discussions of other mediums, just because I wanted to keep this post as simple as possible, but the book-to-movie argument (and vice versa) has been on my mind for years, haha. A skilled adaptation does just that — it shifts and changes the story just enough so that it fits neatly within and takes advantage of the new medium instead of force-feeding everything from the old medium into the new.

      I look at the whole book-to-movie thing like this: People often say “the book is better” in regards to quality, but I believe that’s a misnomer. What they really mean is that the book takes better advantage of its medium. I really admire someone who can pull off a skilled adaptation, because it’s in my opinion tougher to mold a story created for one medium and maximize its potential in another than it is to build a story from the ground up for a particular medium.

  3. I think the key to a good adaptation is recognizing what makes a story good and seeing how you can utilize the strengths of the medium. Shounen with a good budget often translates very well the first season (until bad filler takes over) because the anime brings to the story amazing visuals that only the anime medium can provide.

    • I agree with that. What a lot of fans seem to forget is that some things just do not translate well in the crossover from different mediums (as Mo Rocking points out in his comment above with the Jurassic Park example). For instance, it’s much more fun to watch a fight scene than it is to read a description of it in a book; a good writer can get across the pure physicality and brutality of a fight, but it just cannot compare to actually seeing it unfold in front of one’s eyes.

  4. Regarding FMA: I watched the first series, but lost interest about half-way through. I never watched the movie or Brotherhood (nor have I read the manga). In situations like this, where the anime gets ahead of the source, I have to wonder why there is such a burning desire to keep moving “the story” forward. I would have thought the series was highly entertaining if it ended after the revelations at the prison. Maybe they could have just taken a break there, and waited a few seasons for the manga to get more lead time. Another way of putting it is why do they have to be in such a rush to adapt a story that is far from over? Shouldn’t they consider that before production begins?

    On the general topic of liberties taken in adaptation: I agree that the intention of the adapters should be, above all, to make an entertaining experience. Fidelity to the source might help or hinder in that regard.

    • I’m pretty sure the general idea is to cash in on a series’ popularity while the fire is hot. A studio can wait until a series is finished or mostly finished before proceeding with an anime, but the furor surrounding a manga (particularly a shounen manga) might have died down a bit by then. As long as there is money to be made, the filler is probably not such a big deal in their minds.

  5. I don’t really have that much to add to this except that loyalists are stupid (way to not understand that there’s more to making good anime and manga then just the story) and we need more anime originals. Or shows like True Tears (which, admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of… I loved how it started, but wasn’t so impressed by how it ended) which take the concept of “adaptation” in bold new directions.

  6. I think games turned into Anime show the most of the process.. While some can be VERY good (Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni), others can be so bad that you think it’s saying ‘HEY WE CAN MAKE ANIMU TOO’ rather than ‘The game is epic, if you don’t believe then try the Anime!’.

    In other words, adaptations go well as long as the studio responsible isn’t desperate to create it, but actually has many ideas to do so.

    • Yeah, visual novels strike me as some of the trickier stories to adapt, just because there is so much detail to them, and their structure often does not translate well to anime.

  7. I think that any form of adaptation can ultimately create a good anime. But generally the only way to pull the loyalties of the fans is to stay true to the source material. This is especially true for mangas, LNs, and VNs with a strong storyline. Occasionally you’ll find animes like True Tears that just takes a completely different route and succeed, but if you have a well-established manga with an already devoted fan following, then you’ll have difficulty escaping the boundaries set by the source material. I personally think that’s a bad thing, because it limits creativity on the director’s part to do what he/she wants.

    That being said, the best adaptations are undoubtedly those that convey in anime what can’t be conveyed in manga. It’s hard to build up a horror-type atmosphere in manga, but it’s easy to do that in anime. Action panels can fail miserably in manga, but they work exceedingly well in anime. It just comes down to the skill of the director mostly.

    • For me, as long as an adaptation stays true to the heart of the original story, I’m cool with it. Visuals can be used to tell a story in so many ways; the same ol’ story can look like new when presented in a different way. Again, I agree with you and everyone else that adaptations absolutely have to play to the strengths of the medium, or else they’ll fail. I mean, if they don’t take advantage of those strengths, then why make something into an anime in the first place?

  8. Interesting bit of trivia: The anime adaption of Aria actually influenced the manga a bit. An anime original character ended up later appearing in the manga as well, leading to both of them ending the same way.

    • I think that same situation happened with Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series — she was such a popular character that she became a regular in the comics.

  9. Great post! I think I’ve just come to the point as a fan of accepting adaptations as a completely different thing. You have to weigh and judge them differently than you would an original piece. I personally like that the original FMA took such a vastly different turn because 1) the manga was far from over and 2) it was interesting to see how the studio interpreted base themes, characters, and plots from another person’s work. I know I’ve read interviews with Hiromu Arakawa where she was similarly intrigued by the different interpretation.

    All in all, adaptations are just different and need to be acknowledged as such. 🙂 Thanks for the thought-stimulating post!

  10. […] written before on how I wish more animation studios would take chances with their adaptations, and this is an example of Madhouse taking chances and […]

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