I love comic books, movies, anime and manga but I am a writer first. And as a writer, I’m always curious about what says as sacred canon and what gets changed in the process of taking something from page to film or to stage. Let’s talk about adaptations: when a cut’s right and when it ruins the entire soup.
When I was a young lass in the early days of anime serialization and broadcasting, I picked up Fullmetal Alchemist as an anime. I immediately fell in love with the characters, music and animation and have called it one of my favorites of all time on more than one occasion.. So like the good girl I was, I picked up the manga. Now, many of you may know that the anime and the manga split off dramatically from Funimation’s cut of the anime due to a rush to finish the anime and well, money. The anime broke off from the manga around volume 7. I continued with the anime and fell off with the manga because buying manga was out of the question and anime was (mostly) free and I could catch up weekly on Adult Swim. The anime’s narrative of two brothers determined to fix a mortal wrong and its relative low amount of romance and high amount of drama and science/magic was perfect for me. By the time I got the manga after the place it split: I was crestfallen. The manga more heavily focused on building up relationships and took the focus away from Edward and Alphonse and made it about literally everyone else and thus the anime adaption of the manga Fullmetal Alchemist:Brotherhood also followed the manga’s journey to the letter. But, from fans, I get a lot of criticism for saying I prefer Funimation’s run of the original anime more than the one done by the creator of the work.
Let’s take an opposite approach to this but we’ll switch it up with comic books. Captain America: Civil War was a very popular Marvel movie. It was also a mostly offensive fanfiction that absolutely neutered the ethos, paranoia and allegories to real social and sociopolitical events in the Civil War I and II. I loved the mystery, complex morals and ambiguous questions in the first Civil War comic series and I loathed the fact that the movie chose to make the central conflict two grown men fighting over the affection and attention of another grown man. But many saw the movie as a more than acceptable part of the MCU while more than one comic book fan found themselves disappointed and angered by the choices to take down one of the most powerful storylines in Marvel history.
But let’s be honest, plenty of things that happen in books, comics and manga just…cannot be brought to the big or little screen. Let’s take a hot button issue to task: whitewashing and when it’s not actually an issue of whitewashing. Dr. Strange is another comic book and now popular movie that was written…well, in a different time. The titular character actually morphed into an “Oriental” man in the earliest run of the comic. So when the movie came out, there was a lot of criticism over the changes made in adapting from a psychedelic orientalism-centric comic book to a modern cinematic creative venture. The biggest criticism in Dr.Strange was the casting of Tilda Swinton as “The Ancient One”. Now, for those of you who have not read a comic book, The Ancient One was…made in a different time. He’s a grand Tibetan magic man with a long stereotypical moustache and speaks in a way that is…well, offensive. So the casting of Swinton and adjusting her version of The Ancient One to a Celtic magic user or great power, it actually made more sense. It wasn’t an issue of whitewashing: if the original version of The Ancient One had run, good heavens, I think that would be even more offensive. Real whitewashing comes in the form of choosing to cast American actors when there are viable options for actors of a certain race are available. Take the movie Aloha. That movie is set in Hawaii, films in Hawaii and has many characters that are said to be half-Asian. There is not a single native Hawaiian, Asian or Asian-American actor or actress in the movie. The main character is said to be half-Asian, and I can assure you, she is not. I’ve been to Hawaii, and it does not look lily white like Aloha would like moviegoers to believe. An issue of whitewashing that also took the world by storm was Iron Fist. The comic book turned Netflix series received lots of backlash over being whitewashed but while being influenced by the magical Orientalism of the 60s, the main character (or at least the main continuity’s character) has been a white man since the comic’s inception.
Censorship is another common influence when it comes to losing something in an adaptation. Gravitation is probably one of my favorite manga. It has an anime. An anime fangirls don’t like to talk about because of terrible 90s American dubbing, weird animation and clothing including shoulder pads oh and the fact that the anime completely makes a straw man out of the main issues of the manga. The themes of sexual abuse, trauma, time, mortality and mental illness are downplayed because frankly, it’s difficult to read sometimes. The panels of Yuki Eiri saying he wanted nothing more than to be as dead as his sensei are painful but when you remove all the trauma and hurt and darkness: you’re left with a saccharine sweet series that was never meant to be. It also turns complex characters into hollow shells: Yuki’s just a jerk when you don’t know all of the past events that made him the man he was. Ryuichi is just an odd fellow when you write out that he battles with mental illness and is strictly under Tohma’s control. It doesn’t rationalize or take away how awful these characters can be but it certainly helps frame the series a little better. You don’t forgive Yuki for being emotionally abusive but you can at least get what made this man the way he is.
Speaking of censorship. Should we adapt scenes that make us uncomfortable? Watchmen is a brilliantly nuanced graphic novel about what it means to be human, free will and what it really means to be a hero. The movie of the same title directed by someone I don’t want to give much credit to deals with a few of the same themes…just differently. But Watchmen has more than one uncomfortable scene that’s lifted from the pages of the graphic novel. Out of all the things that were cut because reasons: why keep the ultra-violence or almost rape scene? Why keep all of that in? I think the vitriol around those scenes was that it didn’t add anything to the narrative of the movie. It added a lot to the graphic novel and built tension, characters and helped cement storylines. While on the other hand Teen Titans: Judas Contract’s animated movie to a rather uncomfortable scene from the comics, updated it and through its clever adaptation added something that satisfied comic book fans who were aware of the scene in question while simultaneously not totally unnerving the lay comic book fan who has seen lots of comic book movies without touching a lot of actual comic books.
So when is an adaptation just an adaptation? There are plenty of movies I can say are good fun even if they violently ignore the original source material. The Spirit is a fantastically fun movie even if it looks and sounds nothing like the original comics. Grendel is one of my favorite novels (probably says a lot about me) and it couldn’t give two hoots about its original source material. Sweeney Todd was fantastically reimagined by Tim Burton and it actually made the source material dare I say, better. I think the issue is when something is lost in adapting from page to film. When Civil War was neutered for the sake of shoehorning in a subplot about how Tony Stark is secretly jealous that Steve Rogers is spending more time with his lifelong best friend. When the ethos of the source material is cut because movie directors and studios assume it won’t make money, that’s when adaptation is sick and terrible and makes me so so very angry.
So what’s your favorite adaptation? Did I leave anything out? Comment below!