5 lessons we learned about movie and TV adaptations in 2021

2021 noticed films and TV adapting all the things from hefty fantasy novels to Twitter threads, with outcomes starting from stellar to “let’s not.”

What, precisely, separates an incredible adaptation from a rage-inducing one? Truthfully, there is no one “proper” approach to adapt one thing. There are, nonetheless, a number of essential lessons to maintain in thoughts, and the very best (and worst) adaptations of the yr make nice academics. Listed here are the 5 lessons we learned about adaptation in 2021.

1. Lean into what makes your supply materials distinctive


“Zola” brings a chunk of web historical past to life.
Credit score: Anna Kooris/A24


While you select to adapt one thing, you are acknowledging that there is one thing particular about the supply materials, one thing that makes it well worth the time and effort (and cash) spent placing it onscreen. This yr, a number of movies embraced what made their supply materials stand out, with nice outcomes.

Zola director Janicza Bravo included social media into her movie as a nod to its beginnings as a viral Twitter thread by Aziah “Zola” Wells King. You will hear the chirp of Twitter notifications interspersed by dialogue, and Zola (Taylour Paige) will typically ship strains straight from the unique tweets proper into the digicam, as if we’re watching her thread in actual time. Whereas the closely stylized strategy can really feel alienating at occasions, it nonetheless proves a fiendishly intelligent approach to acknowledge Zola’s web notoriety.

The place Zola pays tribute to the web, this yr’s movie musical adaptations closely honor their Broadway roots. In The Heights brings the magic of musicals to life with unbelievable components that improve its musical numbers, like characters dancing on the aspect of a constructing or bolts of cloth unravelling from the sky. Equally, tick, tick…Growth! and West Facet Story stage their set items with acceptable theatricality and make the most of how movie can heighten the already heightened realities of musicals. (tick, tick…Growth! can be overflowing with musical Easter eggs for all of the theater children on the market.) Distinction this with the much less profitable musical adaptation of Expensive Evan Hansen, which skews so near actuality that the songs — which really feel pure in a theater setting — really feel misplaced.

2. An excellent replace can work wonders

Men and women in vibrant clothes dance in the street

A musical adaptation to recollect.
Credit score: Niko Tavernise / 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Movie Company

Talking of musicals, Steven Spielberg’s West Facet Story is greater than a straight-forward adaptation. It is an replace that works onerous to floor the themes of the unique and reconfigures some basic scenes. Mashable’s Kristy Puchko writes that “Spielberg and [Tony] Kushner understood that it is not sufficient to convey again the guide and the songs with a shiny new solid (even whether it is one which’s truly solid with Latinx expertise in the roles of Puerto Ricans!) This revival was a chance to reimagine a basic story in a method that honors what got here earlier than but additionally offers audiences a contemporary perception.” West Facet Story proves that if an adaptation can proper the wrongs of its predecessor and convey one thing new to the desk, it’s most definitely worthy of being put to movie.

3. Standalone novels proceed to make nice miniseries (films, take word)

A young woman in a blue dress stands in front of a mural.

Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” is a masterpiece.
Credit score: Kyle Kaplan

A few of 2021’s finest miniseries, like The Underground Railroad, The Pursuit of Love, and Station Eleven, are primarily based on standalone novels. The miniseries is an nearly excellent type for adaptation: It is lengthy sufficient to maneuver by lots of plot and present a satisfying arc for its characters, but it surely’s additionally brief sufficient that it would not outstay its welcome. (Would The Handmaid’s Story have been higher as a miniseries? Sure.)

This isn’t to say that we ought to abandon book-to-movie adaptations and pivot to a miniseries-only strategy. There have been some actually superb movie adaptations of books this yr, together with The Energy of the Canine and Dune. Nevertheless, there have been additionally some movies that will have benefited from having extra time to breathe, just like the overlong Home of Gucci. Based mostly on the guide by Sara Homosexual Forden, the years-long saga of the Gucci household seems like the right story to inform in an extended, episodic format.

5. Deviating from the books could be a good factor…

Four omen dressed all in red sit on horses, one woman stands in the foreground.

We get extra Aes Sedai, and “The Wheel of Time” is best for it.
Credit score: Jan Thijs


2021 noticed a number of adaptations of sci-fi and fantasy novels straying a bit from their sources, with compelling results. The Wheel of Time, primarily based on Robert Jordan’s extraordinarily lengthy collection, rightfully cuts fairly a bit of fabric and broadens its character views so we aren’t primarily seeing issues from Rand’s (Josha Stradowski) viewpoint. It additionally provides new storylines foregrounding the highly effective all-female Aes Sedai order and brings to life different scenes that we solely hear about in the books. The ultimate product is shut sufficient to the books that it’ll fulfill long-time followers, but it surely’s completely different sufficient that it’ll pleasantly shock them as properly.

Whereas The Wheel of Time cuts lots of materials, Basis expands into brand-new territory. Isaac Asimov’s novels are collections of brief tales and novellas spanning 1000’s of years, which makes them onerous to adapt as a steady story. The present finally ends up taking inventive liberties in order to provide Basis extra connective tissue than simply “these tales all contain the Basis.” These liberties embrace a completely new storyline involving a dynasty of cloned Emperors, which resulted in one the yr’s most compelling episodes, in addition to the addition of characters from the Basis prequels and extra developed backstories for characters like Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell). Due to many of those modifications, Basis feels extra cohesive, with a fleshed-out universe and outlined characters.

5. …however an excessive amount of deviation can put on skinny

A woman looks out over an icy planet. A moon looms in the background.

Leah Harvey is nice in “Basis,” which suffers from too many modifications.
Credit score: Apple TV+

The most important drawback with Basis is that when it begins making modifications, it could possibly’t cease. The Terminus plot involving Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) and Anacreon is as far faraway from its supply materials as attainable, even diving into Star Wars planet-destroying-ship territory at one level in a departure from the tone of Asimov’s diplomacy-focused Salvor-centered tales. Because of this, that plotline is essentially the most unsatisfying a part of Basis, regardless of Harvey and their co-stars’ robust performances and the present’s gorgeous visuals. Good appearing and results can solely make up for a lot when a narrative goes south.

The identical goes for Netflix’s live-action adaptation of basic anime Cowboy Bebop, which Mashable’s Alison Foreman critiques for altering components of Jet’s (Mustafa Shakir) backstory and altering villain Vicious (Alex Hassell) and love curiosity Julia (Elena Satine) past recognition. Foreman writes, “I discovered the audacity of claiming this collection as a Cowboy Bebop successor stored me from having fun with what it was doing properly. I couldn’t see past the anime inspiration it was mangling.” 

Initiatives like West Facet Story and The Wheel of Time show that adaptations can definitely make modifications for the higher, together with updating outdated materials, however go one step too far and you are one thing totally unrecognizable. Whether or not an adaptation succeeds typically relies on how properly it balances the brand new and the acquainted, and how properly it understands its supply materials in the primary place.

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