High fidelity

What makes an adaptation work well?

High fidelity
Graphic: Andrew Liptak / Images: Bungie, 343 Industries 

I had high hopes for Paramount+'s Halo series ahead of its release in March 2022. The trailers looked promising, with some good-looking scenery and a good-looking suit of Spartan armor. While there was some behind-the-scenes industry drama that accompanied this project, it felt like we'd finally get a solid adaptation of the video game franchise despite those problems.

However, the show's first season fell pretty far short of what I'd hoped for when it debuted: the story felt directionless, the details that helped define the game's world were off, and overall, it felt like a far cry from the story that I was a huge fan of. Paramount recently released the show's second season, and while it was an improvement, there's still a significant gap between the source material (and what I'd like to see in a Halo project) and what we've got on screen. It's a good lesson in the value of tempering one's expectations, but also a good example of where you can have all (or most of) the right elements, only to have the final product just not gel.

And, it provides an excellent opening to explore a bigger topic: just what do we expect when a work is adapted?

It's long been clear that there would be differences between the games and the show. Prior to the show's release, 343 Industries released a blog post that outlined that the show would be set in its own canon, the Silver Timeline. Canon should be an old hat for Transfer Orbit readers: it's something I think about quite a bit, because it's a useful tool for approaching and framing stories, and I think it's worth treating canon as a tool, but not something that's sacrosanct. A couple of years ago, I interviewed fantasy author Brian Staveley, who made a point that really stuck with me:

"The irony of writing is that, before you write anything, you can do anything! You have total freedom. And for every word, every sentence you write, it's like you're building your own cage. You hope that the cage turns out to be a beautiful structure, but you're limiting your freedom with every choice you make."

In a lot of ways, canon is a cage. It's a decision to keep things consistent across multiple stories and creators in order to create some sort of narrative stability. Some franchises adhere to it religiously: Lucasfilm has an entire story group that's tasked with tracking canon and making sure that everything that it's producing is congruent. That didn't stop them from splitting off the Expanded Universe to give director J.J. Abrams freedom of movement for what eventually became The Force Awakens. This seems to be the same approach that Paramount is taking with Halo.

While that approach gives creators some additional freedom, it's worth remembering that there's a reason why a work is being adapted: fans are attached to particular characters, story, or other elements of the world, and they're going to come to any adaptation with some expectation that they'll be seeing some recognizable elements.

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Image: Andrew Liptak

I'm usually thrilled when I hear that someone is working to adapt a book or story. Theoretically, it should help boost the visibility of said story to a greater audience, and within the SF/F industry, the conventional wisdom is that those successes eventually make their way over to other works and bring in new fans: adaptations of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, The Expanse, and others have brought in new readers and helped make the case to publishers that they should publish other books in the same vein. This era of peak TV has been a boon to new adaptations of existing works.

But before this, an adaptation was a dirty word for most fans. Word of an adaptation always came with a feeling of dread: how are they going to ruin this story? There is no shortage of films that have only lightly adapted their source books, sometimes only taking the name and vague concepts, like Alex Proyas's adaptation of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.

Halo isn't the first franchise to dredge up issues of fidelity to its source material. Apple's adaption of Foundation had long-time Asimov fans howling that the series was Foundation in name only, while Denis Villeneuve's recently-released Dune: Part 2 has divided some fans over some of the departures from the novel. These complaints aren't new: When I recently posted on the anniversary of Robert Heinlein's death on Facebook, the comments section lit up with people who were still angry about Paul Verhoeven's adaptation of Starship Troopers.

All of this begs the question: what what makes a good adaptation in the first place?

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Image: Andrew Liptak

The type of story you can tell with words on the page is structurally different than what you can put on screen. The author of a novel can utilize pages of description to sketch out their world, while a filmmaker can accomplish something similar with the right location and camera setup. But an author can also go deep into a character's head to explore their motivations and decisions, while a filmmaker has to find a way to show the results of those internal monologues. And sometimes, the scale and size of a story is so much bigger than what a filmmaker's budget allows.

I'm endlessly fascinated by the way films turn out because physical and financial constraints: everything that you see on the screen has to be created and positioned just right in order to work. George R.R. Martin famously noted that he'd write things for television that would have to be cut because of television budgets, and that in part turned him to write his A Song of Ice and Fire series: "I’m going to do something that is just as big as I want to do. I can have all the special effects I want. I can have a cast of characters that numbers in the hundreds. I can have giant battle scenes. Everything you can’t do in television and film, of course you can do in prose because you’re everything there."

There's an interesting anecdote that came out of James Hibberd's Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Official Untold Story of the Epic Series, in which the show's directors were stymied by weather and logistics while producing a complicated battle scene, and rather than filming a planned combat scene, they ended up with a shot of Jon Snow getting buried in bodies. It was a shot that worked well, and it's a good example of how the physical work that goes into a projection can impact the way a story is told – often in ways that aren't predictable when a production begins.

Another major constraint on filmmakers is time: big books contain a lot of narrative, and the vast majority of audiences are only willing to sit so long in a theater to enjoy a film. While plotting out his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson famously planned only two films. As recounted in Ian Nathan's Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-earth, when he went to New Line Cinemas to pitch the two films, the studio's founder Robert Shaye asked "why would you make two films when there are three books?" The rest is history, and even then, Jackson was pushing the limits with films that ran up into the three-hour mark. There's a reason why the Extended Editions were a home release.

The streaming world has helped alleviate time as an issue for a narrative. Audiences have become accustomed to seeing a book or game get the streaming series treatment that can take that longer story spread out across eight to ten segments, thus allowing writers and producers to capture more of the narrative in their adaptation. The result, by and large, has been that they're able to produce projects that helm far closer to their source material, allowing them to keep more important scenes and dialogue in the story, rather than abridging them in favor of crowd-pleasing action scenes.

There are also some mundane, boring things that feed into this: as they've worked to build up their subscriber numbers, streaming services have benefited from low interest rates, meaning they can borrow lots of money, and kick the can of profitability down the road a bit while they try and lock in as many paying subscribers as they can. The result is an environment where executives have greenlit lots of expensive productions, which in turn, helps those filmmakers and writers better realize the worlds they're adapting. When I visited The Expanse's sets in 2015 and 2018 in Toronto, I was amazed at how big the production was, and how much detail they were able to pour into it. When I visited the sets for the Syfy Channel's Dark Matter and Killjoys in 2016, it was clear these were running with far fewer resources.

The result of these factors means that filmmakers and studios generally have the space and resources to play out a story without having to make huge abridgements to fit it into a production, and in many cases, can helm closer and closer to the original source material.

But I don't think that "close to source" automatically makes an adaptation better. It can, but I don't think that it's an essential element for making a great movie or show.

On a whim, I took a look through my closet of DVDs, came up with a list of adaptations, and began plotting them on a chart to see where how well they fared as a good movie.

Graphic: Andrew Liptak, with thanks to TO's Slackers. Green = book, red = game = orange = comics. Don't yell at me: this is all subjective.

Stepping back to take it in, here's what I saw: some films/shows are great because they're close to that source material: HBO's Band of Brothers, Syfy/Amazon's The Expanse, Ridley Scott's The Martian, and Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park are good examples of the filmmakers and studios understanding what made a story succeed and either not having to compromise too much, recognizing that the stories translated well to their respective mediums, or seeing that changing things too much wouldn't work as well.

But that's not universally the case. One good example that stuck out to me is Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 film Children of Men, which departs mightily from P.D. James' novel to tell an incredibly touching and frightening post-apocalyptic story. Spielberg's 2002 film Minority Report is another that's easy to point to: borrowing some of the central ideas from from Philip K. Dick's novella and using them to examine themes around surveillance and predestiny in a technological world. It's one that I like even more than the original story.

On the other side, you have adaptations that are close to their sources but which don't really feel like they came together in the same way, like Gavin Hood's 2013 adaptation of Ender's Game or Duncan Jones' 2016 take on Warcraft: they had all the right elements, but didn't click. Zack Snyder's Watchman slavishly adhered to the visuals of the original graphic novel, but missed some of the meaning behind the art and story and was something of a dud.

An adaptation is essentially a translation of a story, and by extension, it's a glimpse into another person's mindset and vision for what a story is. Here's an experiment: ask some of your friends to read a passage of a book or a story, and have them draw the scene or character based on the descriptions. None of them will draw exactly the same thing, because everyone will come to that story with different eyes and experiences. Even if you have a super popular story like Harry Potter, where you have a general acceptance of what the characters and world look like (aided by lots of cover art and film adaptations), you will still have noticeable differences from person to person.

The same goes with a book: the author sets out to tell their story, while a filmmaker might draw anything from a similar-but-different narrative to something that's very different as they construct their picture. How well that adaptation plays out often comes down to well the story lends itself visually to film and how well a filmmaker can realize those elements in a way that the film can stand on its own.

Where Minority Report and The Martian worked well and Watchman and Warcraft didn't feels like it comes down to "we're setting out to make a good movie" and not "we're setting out to make a good adaptation of this story." A good adaptation can have all the right elements, but not work well as a film or show, while a good film can have all the right components from the source material that also makes it a good adaptation.

If fidelity to the source isn't the key indication of quality, what is? Certainly, the quality rests somewhat on the state of the physical elements that go into a film: having the right cast and crew, conceptualization of a world, a studio that trusts a director's vision, and so forth. And if you're drawing from a world that folks are familiar with, bringing over the building blocks, whether it's in the design of the characters/props/surroundings/world itself and an understanding of the big concepts that underpin the story are useful to have.

Years ago, director Gareth Edwards made an insightful comment about his approach to Rogue One that has stuck with me: "it's touching my favorite movie of all time, but if you're too respectful of it, that you didn't do anything new or different, take a risk, then what are you bringing to the table?"

That's something that's been on my mind because anyone who's adapting an existing work has to balance some competing priorities: what do you bring that existing fans (because if you're adapting an existing work, you're operating on the idea that you'll have lots of them coming to check your thing out) want to see, verses your strengths as a writer/director/artist that might diverge a bit?

One example that comes to mind here is Pete Travis's 2012 film Dredd. The film adapts the comic character Judge Dredd from the comic 2000AD, and it had a mixed history of adaptations: Danny Cannon's 1995 adaptation made some critical errors, like star Sylvester Stallone not keeping his helmet on the entire time (as in the comics). In this new film, the film keeps star Karl Urban helmeted up the entire time – it's one of those details that is important to the spirit of the character, and the rest of the film seems to have captured tone of the world and story. It's not a slavish adaptation of any particular comic, but a handful of storylines.

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Image: Andrew Liptak

In April, Netflix released its adaptation of Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, and while I watched, I went back and re-read / re-listened to the novel. It's been an interesting experience, because it made it easier to see the changes and compare them in the moment. The show retains the story's broadest strokes: it begins in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, involves first contact with an alien civilization, and they're now bent on coming to Earth to find a more stable home.

But there are differences. The showrunners changed some of the characters around and took a more international view of the story, while some of the sequences and events have been moved around a bit. Where the book had long stretches of technical exposition, the show largely accomplished visually. The result is that 3 Body Problem feels like a well-edited version of the novel, one that moves quickly through the important story beats.

When I posted about the book on my Facebook page, a number of commenters noted that they prefer the recently-released Chinese version of the show, because it's a more faithful adaptation, told across 30 hour-long episodes. I haven't had a chance to see it yet, but by all accounts, it's a pretty faithful adaptation because it helms closely to Cixin's novel, which again begs the question: what are we looking for in an adaptation?

Are we looking for a movie or show that is an exact copy of the source novel? Or are we looking for reassurance that others see the book in the same way we do?

I think it's the latter: people will accept a less-than-faithful adaptation if it's a good film (like Children of Men), but will bounce off of it if the adaptation isn't recognizable to them (like Starship Troopers). Adaptations work the best when the right elements line up: a good story, good design, and an understanding of what themes are important to the character of the story. But a carbon copy isn't and shouldn't be what we set out to make or watch.

When it comes to Halo, I think it's pretty easy to see why it doesn't quite work. Its showrunners inherited a tough situation: not only has the project been in the works for a long time and has accumulated some narrative debt from the succession of creators and writers involved in it, the entire franchise has a lot of lore and canon surrounding it.

I don't think that a series that faithfully reproduces Halo: Combat Evolved would work well: taken beat to beat, you'd just follow a guy as he runs around the Halo ring as he kills scores of Covenant soldiers. That makes for a great game, but the stuff that makes for a great film or show go beyond that: touching on the various things that the games and books have fleshed out, the side conversations that happen between cut scenes, Master Chief's introspection at how he got to that place; all moments that build the character in the story. The potential is all there.

At its core, the original game about a soldier running around in power armor plowing through lines of enemy aliens amongst some ruins on an ancient ringworld. But the rest of the Halo franchise doesn't always have a good grasp on what it's about: sometimes it's about saving the galaxy from a civilization of religious fundamentalists (Halos 2 and 3) and other times, it's about the overreach of a military industrial complex (ODST and Reach). Throw in some AI malfeasance here and there (Halo 4 and 5), and you've got a bit of a mixed bag. (That's not to say the games are individually bad.)

Halo Infinite delivers on a long-standing promise
Exploring the Zeta Halo ring

As a result, the show really doesn't know what it wants to be about, because there's not really an agreement from the creators on makes a good Halo story. The resulting show felt like it was trying to do everything Halo was known for and ended up splitting its focus between the "mystical ancient civilization" stuff, the "Aliens-style military SF" stuff, and the "introspective commentary about military industrial complexes run rampant" stuff, it never gets to a place where it does any of them well.

I think that's the key problem with this series, and all of the other problems–the budgetary constraints that limit the show's action and a weird reluctance to draw on some of the existing world's basic elements like sound effects or weapon effects– result in a series that looks like Halo, but which largely feels like they lost sight of the franchise's core appeal, and why it's attracted legions of fans in the first place.

I'm an optimist, or maybe just hopeful that it'll improve. The show's latest season was run by a new showrunner and that came with some noticeable improvements, so maybe it's headed in the right direction (especially now that we've actually arrived at the titular Ringworld), and hopefully there it'll hit its stride if we get another season.

So, just what is it that makes a good adaptation? A sense of recognition of what makes the original text special, and a genuine effort to take those ideas and reinterpret them for a new medium. Ideally, it's a film or show that can sit on its own, without having to read the book or played the game to fully understand the ideas, themes, and character motivations that make up the story. Sometimes, it's a take that is pretty close to the book. Other times? It's a filmmaker using the film as a jumping-off point to tell a new story that draws from the source.

There will be plenty of adaptations in the future near future; the rest of this year and next will see adaptations of Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Wild Robot, Joker: Folie à Deux, Wicked, The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim, Mickey 17, How to Train Your Dragon, and shows like Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, The House of the Dragon, Dark Matter, and plenty of others. Undoubtably, we'll put them under some scrutiny to see how they stack up, and how well they stand on their own.

And if this latest adaptation doesn't quite work out? Maybe someone will get a second chance at it down the road for another crack at it.