The issue with adaptations: we’re asking the wrong question

People are mad over this lame villain turning into a hamster.

Whenever we talk about adaptations, people will always ask whether or not the source material is superior. This strikes me as, well, the wrong question to ask in the first place. Textual media and visual media are so drastically different in execution and format that it makes little sense to pit, say, a book versus a movie.

If you appreciate the level of detail and minutia that words can lend to a story, how can a movie or TV show even compete with a book or manga in the first place? Likewise, time and money acts as serious constraints on movies and TV shows. To some degree, these limitations apply to books and manga as well, but we can all admit that a novelist or mangaka has far more flexibility with his or her story than a movie or anime studio. So what’s the point of asserting the superiority of a novel or manga over visual media?

I’d say his new look is a major improvement!

When it comes to adaptations, I think the better question is “How well does the adaptation respond to the source material?” You may notice that fidelity, i.e. the adaptation’s faithfulness to the original, is missing from my question. Before I explain why I’ve excluded it, let me explain why I am even writing this post in the first place. According to my fellow bloggers, the anime adaptation of “Ao no Exorcist” will diverge from the manga more and more as we near the end of the season and, to them, this isn’t a good thing:

“I suspect things are going to depart from the manga more and more now, and that’s going to be harder and harder for the manga readers to accept” — “Random Curiosity”

“They can go with some original content, but it won’t be a real ending to story.” — random “Random Curiosity” comment

“…just leave the manga alone until the manga is near finished before adapting the manga so that way fans can be happy and without all ranting.” — another random “Random Curiosity” comment

“A-1 kills Amaimon, this is MURDER!!” — Daifuuku

Accuracy is therefore a huge deal for manga fans, but why? Why do we need two versions of the same story? This simply strikes me as redundant and unnecessary. There’s something artistically stifling when an adaptation has to adhere closely to the source material. This sort of adaptation is passive and superfluous. Why wouldn’t I just re-read the manga? Deep down, we all know that the anime adaptation for “Ao no Exorcist” or any other story has to be different from its manga incarnation. That’s just an inherent truth for any adaptation, film or anime. Still, fans love to rail against some common enemy, even when it’s something seemingly unavoidable and inevitable.

Many people will claim that changes to the original story disrespects the story’s creator. I think this complaint is rather unnecessary, because no matter how bad the adaptation is, it shouldn’t affect the quality of the original. There’s always teeth-gnashing when Hollywood decides to remake an old classic, but I’ve never understood this mentality. Even if the remake sucks, we’ve still got the original movie to enjoy. Who can forget the horrible “Planet of the Apes” remake? Actually, everyone can because it was seriously bad. No one, however, will say that the original film is any worse because of the remake. So when we talk about adaptations, shouldn’t the same logic apply? Who cares if the adaptation is bad? You’ve still got the manga you can always re-read.

A good adaptation should stand somewhat on its own. It shouldn’t diverge completely from the source material, but it shouldn’t be wholly reliant upon it either. A good adaptation should thus be a response to the original; it should expand and/or subvert the source material and not merely copy it. I can’t help but think of the fan response to “Watchmen.” Fans were so insistent on the idea that the movie should wholly replicate the comic that they refused to see what Zack Snyder was trying to say in his adaptation. This, however, is neither the time or place to discuss “Watchmen” so I’ll move on.

Can there be bad adaptations? Of course! There can be adaptations that oversimplify the original story instead of adding something new. I’ve always felt that Madhouse’s version of “No Longer Human” renders a one-dimensional Yozo. As I’ve said above, some simplification is unavoidable, but an adaptation should still bring something new to the table. On the other hand, Madhouse’s adaptation of “Run, Melos” tells us the same story, but gives it enough of a twist that helps us understand the original even better. Plus, it also makes the ancient tale a little more palatable to a contemporary audience.

A scene from Madhouse’s “Run, Melos.”

(Speaking of which, there’s a movie adaptation of “No Longer Human” — I should check it out.)

Someone once said that a good adaptation allows one to enjoy the original story even more. I think there’s some kernal of truth to this idea. An adaptation with substantive changes to the original story allows us to debate over the adaptation’s various changes. Why has this changed? Why has that? How does the anime’s interpretation of the original story differ from ours? Do we understand the original story or its characters any better thanks to the adaptation?

Deriving enjoyment from these debates, however, require fans to understand both the source material and the adaptation. If an adaptation is nothing but a simple copy of the original story, however, how does it add to one’s enjoyment of the original? If anything, it seems as though bad adaptations help people to appreciate the source material moreso than faithful ones.

An anime original episode… a chance to branch out… and give us a sinister crow. :I

Since “Ao no Exorcist” inspired this post, what do I make of the anime’s latest direction? Well, I’m actually relieved to some degree that there will be some finality in the adaptation. We know the manga will be ongoing til god knows when. Although I don’t want the story to “grow up” and add unnecessary seriousness to the story, like “Harry Potter,” I also wouldn’t mind if a shounen series actually, well, ended. The anime’s ending is going to be real no matter how much people complain. Besides, if people don’t like the anime’s ending, the manga will still be there for them to read.

27 thoughts on “The issue with adaptations: we’re asking the wrong question

  1. Hogart

    My favorite episode of this series is one that was apparently filler – the one that introduced the demon cat Blackie. Frankly, I enjoyed seeing the plug pulled on Amaimon .. he should have been defeated and gone in the previous arc anyway.

    I think people forget that an anime often runs with the manga these days, and so doesn’t have the chance to follow it at a certain point. I don’t understand why anime don’t make the decision to diverge sooner, either.. just for fans of the manga who will hate it anyway?

  2. Lirael

    To me, an adaptation doesn’t need to be exactly like the source material. but I can’t help but get angry when it diverges for the worst.

    Right now the no.6 anime is deviating from the source material, but I’m not very bothered by it. Not only because I understand the anime has time limit to tell the plot but because while the original material was much more interesting and the characters deeper, the anime is still very good.

    But in AnE…it feels like each and every change they make ticks me off, and there’s nothing they’re doing that makes me go “Oh, this is better than/just as good as the original”, to me it doesn’t feel like it “expands and/or subverts the source material” and knowing it could have been so much better made me stop enjoying it -_-

    1. E Minor Post author

      Until I see how the season ends, I guess I don’t really see what all the anger is about. If there isn’t really much time left, why wouldn’t you “kill off” Amaimon? If Satan’s the endgame, why dwell on some ugly broccoli dude? Well, that’s the impression I’m getting anyway; I heard A-1 doesn’t actually intend to animate this anime forever.

      1. Lirael

        The only thing that bothers me in the ‘kill off Amaimon’ thing at all is that Rin shouldn’t have had the power to off him. But really, that’s a minor detail and I don’t really care, in fact, I wasn’t at all happy when I saw the green hamster. (Besides, he also goes away in the manga.)

        What I don’t like is that every anime original scene/interaction has been, at best, ‘funny’ (the cooking filler). Every new part is cliche and bland. Example: Rin coming to his senses due to the power of True Love. I started reading the manga because it didn’t feel as cliche as most shounen (just like Fullmetal Alchemist) but the anime version is becoming more and more like any typical shounen. There are lot’s of people who will enjoy it like that, but I don’t and I’m bothered byt that.

        1. E Minor Post author

          Do you think the non-original scenes, aka borrowed from the manga, are any less cliche and bland?

  3. Shinmaru

    I wrote about this a while back, but basically I agree 100 percent with this post. Fidelity to source material is not a concern of mine; if you obsess over accuracy from one medium to another, then that basically shows you don’t really understand the media in the first place. (I sure as shit didn’t when I called for this kind of crap as a dumb teenager.) Telling a story using the strengths of each medium should be the focus — you can get vastly different stories from books compared to movies and TV shows and whatnot, because what each is best at is so different from the other. They lend themselves naturally to different kinds of stories. If something’s changed from the original story, but it’s still of interest, then that’s basically enough for me.

    I’m not watching Blue Exorcist any longer, though, so I can’t really comment on that, haha.

    1. E Minor Post author

      There’s just this weird dogma out there where people always go “THE BOOK/MANGA WAS BETTER.” Well, the adaptation isn’t trying to out-compete the source material to begin with, and if a carbon copy is all you want, how can it be better anyway? You’ve already pigeon-holed the adaptation into a corner — it has to resemble another medium 100% but still beat it at the same time?

      But it’s funny — most people are not fanatical when the adaptation goes the other way. If an original movie or anime is turned into a book or manga, there are much less whining about this adaptation going wrong. I think fans fall into a rut; there’s this dogma with reading and it just makes it all the easier to have something to bitch about, i.e. adaptations aren’t 100% faithful to my favorite stories.

  4. A guy from /m/

    What really irks me about the anime industry is that the majority of the content in each season is largely, if not completely, made up of adaptations that follow the source material (manga or light novels) to a T, instead of using it as mere template on which they would build their own show.

    What makes this unspoken production rule even worse is the fact that eventually they will diverge from the source material, all while knowing that it isn’t done so the writing staff can flex their own creative muscles but rather because they ran out of material to adapt. And the end result isn’t pretty.

    1. E Minor Post author

      I just dislike how most adaptations are carbon copies of the original, so when you go into any given season, fans already know how half the shows out there will end. What’s the point of this? Where’s the fun in watching a story organically evolve over time?

  5. Knowitall

    I think the reason why fans are reluctant to see adaptations diverge from the original source material is because they simply don’t trust the ability of the film/anime studios to tell a good story. Often these adaptations aren’t made with the intent of simply telling a good story but are rather intended to bring in another source of revenue, and the fans understand this.

    Seeing your favourite characters being rendered flat and unlikeable and being subjected to often stupid and trite plot developments for the sake of profit is honestly painful. Rather than that, it’s much preferable to just see a carbon copy of the original, because in the process you get to see the characters being brought to life. Also, action scenes are often much more impressive when enacted in visual media.

    That being said, I personally don’t have any particular bias towards original adaptations. For example, I’m a big fan of the first Full Metal Alchemist anime series. I even prefer it over FMA: Brotherhood. It did a great job of fleshing out the characters, and the ending they created was very cathartic, while Brotherhood felt less like a story and more like a visual recitation of the manga.

    However, when it comes to Ao no Exorcist, I have my doubts about the studio’s ability to create a fulfilling storytelling experience. Judging by the fillers they’ve already produced, they seem to be relying on many typical anime cliches. That doesn’t bode well for the possibility of a unique ending. So in this case, I’d be much happier with a mere retelling of the original story.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Seeing your favourite characters being rendered flat and unlikeable and being subjected to often stupid and trite plot developments for the sake of profit is honestly painful.

      At this point, I think fans are taking their stories a little too seriously if a poor adaptation is actually painful.

      So in this case, I’d be much happier with a mere retelling of the original story.

      If they don’t have time to retell the original story, there really isn’t any point to this path either.

  6. Taka

    I love Game of a Thrones new TV series. It’s quite faithful to the books especially in terms of the plot, much of the dialogue, and generally the way things were described in the book. However my favorite scenes were actually those in which something was added or which were entirely new. They made tremendous sense in the adaptation and in the series as a whole and generally were excellent.

    Ao no Exorcist…I actually read the manga up to the furthest chapter recently and aside from the few fillers (the squid and the chef) it is a surprisingly faithful adaptation. Artistic credibility is one thing, framing the shot correctly, giving a more emotional touch to one scene or another but I generally think an adaptation should follow the source’s plot. While changing material due to budgetary constraints and such is understandable. I don’t agree with the way that they adapt manga before a sufficient amount of the manga for a series has aired. If they only wanted to adapt 15 chapters of the manga and then go with all the rest original I would have preferred they just do a 13 episode 1 cour series and adapt more when the rest of the manga came out.

    I don’t particularly mind Amaimon’s death because it actually was a sort of neat round up of the arc. Though not really consistent with the themes of the show, which generally have to do with judging someone before you know them, but that could just be compounded from reading the manga as well. What I do mind is complete deviation. When Death City in Soul Eater comes to life and fights a giant metal arachid, I’m gonna have some qualms about a show. I don’t know how the business side of things works but if you don’t have enough of the manga to cover a 26 episode series, maybe wait for more to come out, or yknow…don’t make it 26 episodes.

  7. Taka

    As a side note reading some of the comments I generally think you place a larger emphasis on the story and the plot and not much on the production quality.

    You would be surprised how much the quality of the voice acting/acting, music, lighting, animation, direction, cinematography, quality of the CG, etc affect the enjoyment of a show or movie.

    To me it seems you talk plenty about the story and the characters but rarely mention music, shot framing, voice acting, character design or animation quality. In my opinion (and this isn’t just directed at you) animebloggers ignore some of the qualities the television media affords. It’s my complaints about Avatar all over again. Everyone zeroed in on the shallowness of the story or the poorly veiled message but no one paid attention to the 3D or the world he brought to life in CG. Why ignore those elements though, they are why the movie was made.

    1. E Minor Post author

      I don’t mention the animation quality in general or in this post? I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at here. Why are we bringing production values up all of a sudden?

      Avatar’s problem isn’t really its shallow story. Its problem is much deeper than that, but this is neither here nor there.

      1. Taka

        In general.
        Specifically a response to this comment you made to a guy from /m/:

        I just dislike how most adaptations are carbon copies of the original, so when you go into any given season, fans already know how half the shows out there will end. What’s the point of this? Where’s the fun in watching a story organically evolve over time?

        I was just trying to give my reasoning for why I think someone might watch a show when they already know an ending. To me, a lot of bloggers believe the production values of things like the music, voice acting, shot framing, color pallett, etc. should play second fiddle to the story. When I think all the elements should be weighed against one another. I don’t know if I have the wrong impression but oftentimes it seems to me those things don’t really factor into your opinion of a show. Which is your prerogative but to me misses some of the point of the visual and auditory medium. I’m very much an audio/visual person (emphasis on the audio).

        1. E Minor Post author

          I’d get into the production values if more anime would stand out in those particular areas. For example, I’ve deconstructed a single frame in “Hanasaku Iroha.” I’ve praised the visuals in “No.6,” especially the dance scene. I’ve criticized the art direction in “Sacred Seven.” I’ve questioned Barnaby’s stilted voice acting when he should clearly be consumed by anger. I’ve argued how the aesthetics in “Deadman Wonderland” fails to match up with the narrative’s tone. I don’t think I short change production values at all. Often times, however, I don’t feel that there’s anything remarkable — positive or negative — going on in most anime with regards to music, voice acting, shot framing, etc. If I did, I’d say something.

  8. Ando

    Honestly I think it depends on what the viewer wants out of the anime adaptation. Some people just want a good anime and don’t mind changes if it improves the show or are necessary, but some fans just want to see their favourite manga in colour with moving pictures. It’s a mindset that comes from thinking the source material is already perfect and therefore any changes are BAD. (I have to admit I’ve occasionally been guilty of the latter for personal favourites like Level E where I kept thinking any minor tweaks to the dialogue, addition of fan-service etc were RUINING EVERYTHING. I still bought all the dvds though…)

    Mind you, people seem to care less if the anime is completely different from the manga than if it half-heartedly sticks to the source, because the anime then becomes something else altogether and no longer has anything it’s “supposed to be”. I guess it comes down to whether the studios are trying to sell this anime to fans of the manga or a whole new audience?

    1. E Minor Post author

      I dunno, how many people out there actually think the source material is absolutely perfect? Few of us do. Most us acknowledge that even our most favorite stories are flawed. Yet when an adaptation rolls around, we think it’s impossible to improve on the source material. It makes no sense.

  9. SailorSonic

    I know this is going to sound like a stupid arguement, but I don’t like anime that stray away from the source material at all because of a little thing called “canon”. You see, with many different versions of a series, the creators are very likely to change a few, or a lot, of things, and it ends up being confusing which is the real story and which is the fake one. I’ll use my favorite series, Haruhi no Yuustu, as an example.

    The first manga series in 2004 by Mizuno Makoto, strayed abit away from the light novels in terms of charaterization and plot. Personally, I liked the manga; the art wasn’t the best in the word, but I liked Kyon’s personality better, and Haruhi was nicer as a whole, and it made me mad when the next manga was declared the official one. The next manga by Gaku Tsugano in 2006, was a better manga as a whole, but had some stories that were never in the original, like Knowing Me, Knowing You, and fans debate all the time on whether or not the non-original stories are canon. Then the anime came along in 2006, and it changed some things like Remote Island Syndrome and Endless Eight, and it became confusing which series was canon: the manga or the light novels. And, to add insult to injury, lots of games and a spin-off comedy manga were made that obivously have no place in the canon.

    1. E Minor Post author

      I can’t really address your comment because I just don’t put any stock into canon. I think it’s largely irrelevant to the enjoyment of stories.

      1. SailorSonic

        Well, it’s important to me which version of a series is the “real” story and which is the “fake” story. If it doesn’t matter to you, that’s fine. We have different opinons, is all.

  10. thearbee

    One thing that ticks me off about Anime Adaptations are how even if the manga itself (which may or may not turn up interesting even after the anime ends) is still running, we were to expect a cut-off/open ending in the anime. What if they can just wait for the manga to end THEN start the anime with the already completed source material?

    1. E Minor Post author

      You know if A-1 didn’t get the rights to adapt AnE, someone else would’ve. You can only then A) form some kind of anime studio pact not to adapt any manga that isn’t finished or B) convince publishers not to sell the rights to their manga so early.

  11. catchercatch

    I believe that every work should be viewed by its own internal quality, and that the “source material” should be inconsequential. Every single work is canon on its own. I encourage the idea of taking artistic license, as even though it produces horrible works such as Yumekui Merry, it also, on occasion, brings about wholly refreshing takes on characters such as in Fullmetal Alchemist.

    Like you said, we don’t need two carbon copies of a story floating around. In fact, I tend to get bored by exact adaptations from manga to anime, no matter what I believe and the quality of the creation. The reason? I don’t want to read something again. I don’t feel that enough shows take the idea of “faithful adaptation” correctly. Certainly, they get the “faithful” aspect down; how can you not if you copy the source exactly? However, they fail at the point where “adaptation” is concerned. When adapting between media, there are tools that one form cannot use and others can; it’s up to the director to choose what he wants to do with that aspect.

  12. flomu

    Welcome to the N.H.K. is #2 on my list of favorite anime, but I’ve been told by many people that it sucks compared to the manga. Who cares? It’s a great anime, and if the manga’s better, awesome! And if the novel’s better than that, hooray!

    Three ways to get the same story, each better than the last. But this doesn’t mean “read the novel, not the manga. Read the manga. Don’t watch the anime.” People…

    And don’t even get me started on Nichijou!


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