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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Adaptations

Not long ago I had the pleasure of engaging in an online debate about the feasibility of adapting a certain literary work to the screen.  I should be candid from the outset and say that as a reader, one must avoid certain prejudices to enjoy adaptations—even very good ones.  There is simply no point in comparing the book to the movie.  Each medium has attributes unique to itself that do not translate well or at all.

 

No movie will ever capture precisely the visuals that I imagined.  The characters will not look or even behave as the author or I envisioned, and the narrative arc, packaged for a few hours or so of consumption must take some significant license from a work that I may have spent days or weeks reflecting upon.  So, when I see an adaptation I try not to make comparisons or make note of where the movie departed from the book—and enjoy each for what they have to offer.

 

But, in my opinion some books just should not be adapted because the experience of the book cannot in any way be recreated without such a wide departure as to create something entirely different. The experience puts me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s misogynistic quip "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all!”

 

In the specific case in point my well-read online counterpart suggested adapting William Gibson’s seminal science fiction novel, Neuromancer turning it into a futurist Daishiell Hammet inspired cyber noir tale.  For those unfamiliar with Gibson or this particular novel let me say that it was the first or nearly so from an author I much admire, among other things, for his use of language, and precocious foresight about the unintended—one might add dystopian outcomes of our techno-obsessive culture.

 

Neuromancer was written in 1984 and it is at heart a straightforward story, but what makes it worth reading and a novel that makes it to almost every list of great works in the SciFi genre are those two virtues I mentioned—the invention of ideas and the vocabulary that described them which have passed into our current vernacular and a remarkable vision of what is now referred to as cyberspace, the metaverse, the Internet writ large and how it pervades every aspect of our lives.

 

I am not engaging in hyperbole, Gibson saw into the glass darkly and what he envisioned, –everything from AI to the machine human interface has already or is about to become manifest. That alone would be a remarkable achievement—but what makes this such an important work is its influence on our thinking about the future.  It has inspired generations of storytellers in the genre and that is precisely the problem.  Any adaptation made today that is even infinitesimally derivative runs the risk of being seen as a collection of well-worn tropes rather than the original and prescient invention it was.  

 

Could it be adapted—of course something could be made of it if one carved away almost everything about it that made it such an important work.  But at what point would that adaptation be akin to the dog dancing on its hind legs, if it fails to embrace the essential genius of the original?

 

My online acquaintance and I agreed to disagree—with good will and understanding of our differing perspectives but it got me thinking about the subject and I wanted to invite your thoughts—not necessarily about this book but of the larger question.  When does an adaptation cross over the line and in doing so obviate the author’s intent to a degree that it is no longer an adaptation but rather an homage or an inspiration, or something else all together?

 

I’d love to hear about adaptations you loved or hated—and if you like, any thoughts you might care to contribute to the question of adaptations as a separable art form.  Have at it.

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