The Alchemy of Adaptation

By Susi Liarte

Stories can be adapted in many different ways, and adaptation can be found as a field of study at certain universities. The type of adaptation that springs to mind will vary depending on the kind of media consumed by the reader or viewer. Here are some common examples:

  • Dramatising a piece of written fiction, for example by turning it into a film or TV show. For anything not in the public domain, e.g. Game of Thrones, then the appropriate rights need to be acquired to interpret the work in a new format (a screenplay that will be televised).
  • A transformative work, such as fanfiction, where the characters and setting are used as starting point to tell an alternative story or to add insight not in the original. This kind of story has also found its way into television, e.g. Lost in Austen, where a new character stumbles into the world of Pride and Prejudice and changes the events of the book.
  • A retelling of a traditional story that has been reinvented many times over the years, particularly fairytales and folk tales. Some of these have a clear origin and author, while others only have an earliest known record. Changes in the story can happen due to cultural differences in the places it is told or societal changes over time. They can also be simply due to taste or creative liberties.
  • Creating a narrative around known historical events and people, filling in the blanks or writing an alternative outcome. It might be that there is also doubt that the records that survived are faithful retellings, and this can provide scope for other stories to be imagined.

Some adaptations can cross several of these categories:

  • Disney adapted fairytales such as The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen into animated feature films, but have recently published a set of books with the premise showing what happens if the villains got the upper hand.
  • A fanfiction author might take characters from two completely different stories and create a crossover of universes. Or they could take characters from a well known work and make an alternate universe (putting fantasy characters in a modern setting or vice versa).
  • A book takes material in the public domain and adds completely new elements (e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), which then subsequently gets produced as a film.

So what about the process of writing an adaptation?

Once you’ve decided whether you are looking to publish (and considered the appropriate copyright issues) or just write for pleasure, you should get to know your source material well and try to map out what elements you want to take from it, and what it is that you are bringing to the adaptation. What excites you about the project? It can be finding the beats in a story that resonate with a particular character’s journey, creating an “aha” moment. Or getting the chance to imagine events from an underrepresented perspective, and bringing in some historical research to piece together what could have happened.

The most important part is knowing when to let go of the source material. The first outline and draft is like a satisfying puzzle – fitting a lot of different pieces to create a picture. However, as clever as some of the parallels might be, and as fun as it is to create references for readers who know the original work, ultimately the story needs to work as a story in its own right. The same consideration for pacing, dialogue and the flow of the plot needs to be taken as with an original piece. Any wandering too far from the central character or premise might detract from a cohesive narrative.

For example, one of my pieces of original writing is loosely based on an album, with each chapter representing one of the songs. I had fun using this as inspiration, however in the rewrite I have to think hard about what it is that I am trying to get across. The characters don’t need to have every last lyric worked into their story, otherwise it can feel disjointed, especially as the original work was not necessarily meant to be imagined with any connection between the songs. They have their own story now and I need to break free from my jumping off point and treat it like I would any other piece of original work. Does it make sense to the reader, especially one going in unaware of the original reference? This is still a work in progress, and fortunately I have a wonderful writing group to give me feedback.

A final point on story structure – the same puzzle like approach can be used to create stories around familiar plots such as the Hero’s Journey. In this case a similar mindset can be helpful. Write first, wrangle later. Other people’s stories, the ones that came before, can educate and inspire, but ultimately you are still writing your own. It’s the balance of the constraints of the ideas, with the freedom to write what you want, and then once again bringing it back at the editing stage, that gives me the image of an alchemist or a witch, swirling a drop of each idea into a pot and watching it mix. Unconsciously, even what we feel are our truly original stories will have elements of those we’ve absorbed in the past. And when we create words, we create magic.

One thought on “The Alchemy of Adaptation

  1. Grace Teri says:

    Ah, thanks for all the wonderful points here. It is fun, and rewarding, to rework something old and familiar into something fresh. Like Gardner’s Grendel, or Macguire’s Wicked.



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