BBC Sherlock: An Intersection of Adaptation and Fan Fiction

To get ready for the Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things (SherlockIoT) MOOC that’s just started, I’ve been re-reading all of the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s something I’d been meaning to do since I read Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, because Sherlock Holmes is considered the original fandom. That is, it’s the first property that historians and anthropologists agree exhibited a lot of the activities we associate with fandom today.

Re-reading the stories has been interesting because between the last time I read them and this time, BBC has released a rather fun adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes world, bringing the famous detective’s world into our own times. So as I’ve read, I’ve marked up places where showrunners/writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss directly lifted material, and where they wove in something that caught their attention or that they felt was important for whatever reason. (I’ve also rewatched the last season, because it’s amazing how much I don’t remember those episodes. Heh.)

As I’m fascinated by the practices of adaptation and fan fiction, working through the stories with this eye towards analyzing how someone else adapted the material while thinking about how I was going to adapt an object for the class has been educational. Being able to see what Moffat and Gatiss chose to call out and how those elements were used in BBC’s Sherlock provides a bit of insight into what the two self-proclaimed fan boys felt was noteworthy from the stories. But then they layered in original elements, like the OC (original character) Molly, who was a wonderful addition to the modernization of the tale. Sherlock is a great example of what you can do while adapting material and how fan-created elements can co-exist peacefully within an adaptation.

I’ll be spending the next couple of months hanging out with the Sherlock Holmes stories, so there may be more meditations as I really think about what I see in the series against what we’re creating in the MOOC. It’s amazing how much you can see working with material and seeing how the people around you are interacting with that same material. (I think that’s part of why I enjoy reading fan fiction when I can.)

Adapting Avatar: The Last Airbender

I finally got around to watching The Last Airbender. I had been warned it wasn’t good, but it was downright painful. I’d read that Shyamalan claimed he consulted with DiMartino and Konietzko while making the movie, but there was a ton of evidence that showed that not only did he not talk to the creators, he never watched the show itself.

This was most plainly obvious when Zuko, trying to prove a point to Iroh, had a child in a tavern tell the story of how Zuko got his scar like it was common knowledge. In the cartoon, Iroh tells the story to Fire Nation sailors talking mutiny because they have only heard he was wounded in an accident, and Iroh wanted them to know the real story. In one well-crafted stroke, we learn about Zuko, Iroh, Ozai, and the relationships between Zuko and Iroh and between Zuko and Ozai, and we develop some sense of sympathy toward the rather unlikable Zuko, wanting him to find some sort of happy resolution for his personal issues.

Part of the problem was that Shyamalan decided to take a story spread out over twenty episodes (489 minutes) and condense it down to the length of a single children’s movie (103 minutes). Had he really been trying to distill the season into a single movie, he essentially would have had to summarize each episode in sequential five-minute segments in the movie. The season’s story is a beautifully woven, coherent story, but there are also hooks set up for events that come in the two later seasons. When so much care was taken with the writing to begin with, how do you decide what’s “truly important”? I can see where the challenge originated, but Shyamalan decided to look away from that well-crafted story and focus the last third of the movie on the last three episodes of the season, which meant only focusing on those bits of the season’s story that either led to that moment of the story, or that allowed for fight choreography (because that’s an appropriate way to celebrate pacifist Aang), or that allowed for intricate special effects.

Rather than adapt a nearly impossible situation to a single movie, Shyamalan should have taken a more transmedia approach, instead telling a story of the world recovering from the Fire Nation’s control or set in main characters’ adult lives (something we get a fleeting glimpse of in The Legend of Korra). It might have been a better movie.

Extended Book Trailers

I don’t remember what provoked it (it may have been finally seeing The Hunger Games), but I’ve decided to start calling movie and television adaptations of books “extended book trailers”.  I know that book trailers themselves have been around for a while, giving upcoming books a little movie trailer boost in their marketing.

But in this day and age, when people are more likely to hear of a book and then wait for the inevitable movie or television series to come out, movies have effectively become highlight reels or really long movie trailers advertising the books they’re based on. But that got me to thinking. There have been many cases where I have loved the book and felt the movie fell flat. For example, I have strong issues with some of the Harry Potter movies (mostly everything in the middle, although they all really had their own issues). The books handed us this richly developed world, with all sorts of interlinked side stories that not only fleshed out the world but set up later plot points, and the movies focused on a single strand through the books (or, in one case, focused on the director wanting to put his own personal stamp on the Harry Potter world to the general detriment of the story he was supposed to be telling).

But there are also cases where I would never have watched the movie or television series if I had read the accompanying book(s) first. My favorite example of this is Pretty Little Liars, which I watch faithfully even though I stopped reading the series after Book 8 (and getting through Books 6-8 was painful). I found those books sleepy and predictable, and am grateful the show’s writers aren’t following the books and are having a little fun twisting things back and forth (sometimes ad nauseum). It is fun, though, to follow discussions on the show where readers are still trying to map events and major plot points from the books onto the show. It shows just how invested people really get in seeing a favorite story in more than one medium.

How do you guys feel about this trend of adapting books to movie or television? Do you read something and then hope it does or doesn’t get turned into something suited to a screen? Have you ever watched something based on a book and had it inspire you to seek out the book itself?

Reimagined Stories

Have you read the Harry Potter books and seen the movies? I have. Enjoyed them all. But when someone asked me what I thought of the second half of Deathly Hallows, my response was, “You could see David Yates all through it. It’s a shame, because he did such a thorough job with the first half.” I’ve never been terribly complimentary toward what Alphonse Cuaron and Mike Newell did to their respective books, either. There were plot points that were important to me that didn’t make it in or felt too summarized in the movies. But Rowling was involved in the movies, and she didn’t seem to be overly disturbed by those missing elements, so I feel silly for even complaining about them.

I react the same way to X-Men. My friends who are hard-core fans have long complained about all of the problems in the cartoons and the movies, and my response has always been, “Yeah, but Stan Lee was involved with those. He was fine with the changes.”

We so often look forward to movies based on favorite books. We want the world in our head to appear on the screen. We want to see what the moments that really touched us looked like. Then we see the movie and walk out disenchanted because it was nothing like what we imagined. That’s because movies are creative adaptations- often marked as “based on the books by” or “inspired by” so we will keep our hopes in check. But some of us take it really personally when the director’s vision doesn’t match either the book’s own descriptions or our own imaginations.

By and large, though, creative adaptations can be lived with. On the other hand, what I call “second chance reimaginings” take a little bit more patience. This is actually a new territory for me. I’ve seen many movies, television series, and cartoons based on books and comic books, but I’d never seen one that claimed to be based on the books where I had to add in the word “loosely” to calm myself down.

Have you ever seen or read Pretty Little Liars? While I’ve seen the entire series so far (and I’m not ashamed to admit it), I’ve only read the first four books. Unfortunately, I read through them quickly enough that I learned who A was and who Alison’s killer was before the series made it that far.

Except it didn’t. The first A never materialized (because there is apparently another A in the second four books). And the series has left some doubt as to whether or not the killer actually killed Alison. So reading those four books didn’t actually spoil anything in the series for me. In fact, outside of the character’s names and favorite pastimes, I had a hard time seeing the connection between the two. That’s because the Pretty Little Liars series doesn’t creatively adapt the books. It seems to tell a “But this is how it could have happened” version of the same story, and I find that just fascinating. I don’t know what led to it, or if that was Shepard and Alloy’s plans for the series (since Alloy published the series to begin with), but it opens the door to wondering what other books would be well-received in this reimagined format.

It also leaves me hesitant to read the rest of Pretty Little Liars or start The Lying Game.

Having experienced both creative adaptation and “second chance reimagining”, I’m not sure which I think is better. Both leave room for appreciation, derision, and discussion, but the reimagining really leaves you with little room to think, “Ooh! I wonder how they’ll interpret this event”, because you don’t know if it’s really coming or not.