Zen and the Art of Adaptation: Three Rules to Better Adapt Art


They say the greatest evolutionary trait that humans picked up was the ability to adapt. There’s a reason we live in Siberia and Hawaii. Humanity can catch curve balls unlike any other animal. It’s pretty gosh darn amazing.

Except when it comes to art.

As gifted as we are when it comes to the mathematics of survival, when we look at the abstract, things get fuzzy.  It’s no easy task, and with a market that regularly turns a profit on a crappy tie-in video game on the regular, less and less emphasis is put upon the assurance of adaptation quality.

But despite the Catwomans starring Halle Berry, we have Duck Tales for the NES. We have our Lord of the Rings film trilogies to ease the sting of our Superman 64s. Adaptation of merit can be achieved…but why so often isn’t it?

Like any other aspect of art, there is discipline and lessons to be learned. And maybe through spreading these seeds of wisdom we can see adaptation be more than shoe-horning and cash grabs. Maybe we can see the art of adaptation develop into just that: an art.



One of the best lessons I learned as a playwriting student was to always ask yourself “Why does this work?” My mentor would have us read Shakespeare and Tyler Perry. And whether we loved it and especially when we hated it, he would ask us, “Why does this work?”

It was a great way in better understanding mechanics of storytelling and the impact of art in general. It forced us to be utterly objective, put aside our own prejudices or preconceived notions, and view things in an entirely original way. There was a reason this work was published. It wasn’t luck. Something about it clicked. Listen, and find it.

Once you realized what it was, it opened up the work in a new way. You don’t have to like it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it. And if you do like it, figuring out why it works not only benefits you from an artistic craftsmanship perspective, it just increases your love. And that’s just dippy.


Why were the Spiderman video games so good? Because the designers looked at what made Spidey work, why he resonated, and reflected it in the gaming experience. Spiderman was a free spirit, undaunted by gravity, slinging his way serenely through the least serene city out there. Sure, good combat mechanics and a fair adherence to the Spider-stories helped, but tell me you didn’t just spend hours web-slinging away.

The Scott Pilgrim movie warmly embraced the video game, quick-paced aesthetic in the comic, and brought it to the big screen.  They knew the viewers loved the characters and wanted to see what happened with them, but they understood that the little nods to RPGs, the brief snippets of Zelda music, the Pac-Man origin story was what made people love Scott Pilgrim.

It’s when you think you can just slap a skin on a game or movie when things fall apart.  Did the Fight Club video game mention any of the anarchy? Did Blade: Trinity really feel like Blade or just generic super-powered action star? These products thought you could just transfer names and everything would be gravy. Maybe they made money, but for the people who care about these pop culture icons, the people responsible for their rise to prominence, the people who made it possible for these adaptations to even take place, there was nothing about what made them work other than names and costumes.



Controversy time.

I recently binged on The Shining. And by that I mean I read the book, watched the movie, watched the fascinatingly esoteric documentary “Room 237”, and even watched (most) of the 90s “The Shining” TV mini-series. And you know what?

I don’t like The Shining movie.

Not after I read the book, at least.

Don’t get me wrong, The Shining is a great film. A beautiful, haunting, unforgettable film. Among the greatest in the horror genre by far.

But it ain’t “The Shining”. It’s “Spooky Hotel Shenanigans starring Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson”.

Now, now, I know. Adapting a book to anything is tantamount to impossible. You’ll forget something and piss off everyone and blah blah blah, I’ve heard it. I’m a massive Harry Potter and Game of Thrones fan and I’ve spent far too much time in far too many message boards watching blood get spilled over the lack of Peeves.

I don’t mind exclusion. Really. If you want your movies or your games based off of whatever you love, that’s the price you pay. I can live without Tom Bombadil.

But The Shining film is a clear example of an artist unwilling to adapt themselves as well.  The Shining film is Kubrick through and through, and while I love Kubrick, I can also understand why Stephen King wasn’t too hot to trot with the film adaptation. There is an unspoken contract between artists whenever you’re adapting. The original creator trusts you to handle their baby with care. Nobody’s perfect and no one should expect perfection, but there should be effort to honor thy father and thy mother.

That didn’t happen with The Shining, just like it didn’t happen with the Transformers movies, and others. These adaptations were spearheaded by creators unwilling to bend. They wanted to take something from someone else and force it through their lens no matter how rough a transition it may be. There’s artistic bravado in there, sure, but it’s heartbreaking, too. It’s as if there’s war being waged between source material and new hotness, and why can’t we all just get along?


Look at the Dark Horse Comics Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. While it’s true that Joss Whedon is the driving force of the series, there’s still the necessity to make it work on the page, and that ain’t easy. Whedon and Co. could’ve just taken a regular Buffy episode script, story-boarded it, and added color and word balloons and call it a day.

Instead, they looked beyond themselves, beyond what worked for them for seven years, and evolved their storytelling techniques. So now a show that had to work with a more minimal budget could go bananas with magic and monsters. A show that so heavily relied on the pinpoint precision comedic timing of an incredibly talented group of actors had to find a way to make us laugh through words alone.

They had to reinvent the wheel, and you’ll never be able to do that without a certain amount of reinventing yourself.



This right here is the myth of Sisyphus when it comes to adaptation. Time and again I see ambitious projects flop because wannabe adaptors don’t want to just climb the mountain, they want to build a much larger mountain at the peak. They want their version to be the definitive version and they’re willing to do anything to do so.

And, often, that “anything” turns into sacrificing quality. Or losing your way entirely. Or both. Or something much worse. Or all three.

Look, I love South Park: The Stick of Truth. It’s brilliant, it’s irreverent, it may be the best licensed game of all time.  Yeah, I think it’s that good. However, it will never be better than South Park the show. The experience of watching South Park, the evolution of its methods and means and messages is actually beautiful, and undeniably impressive. It’s a work of art. Fart jokes and all. No doubt about it.

South Park: TSOT is a wonderful reimagining of what worked in the show, of creators allowing themselves to briefly step out of the spotlight to let it shine, and of just how incredible an act sublime adaptation can be.

But it’s not South Park. And it never will be.

And through that, it is free.

And, hey, South Park’s great, but it never allowed me to beat up aliens with Jimmy’s crutch. It never let me navigate a school teeming with pissed off Ginger kids.  It showed me South Park, but never let me really explore. South Park: The Stick of Truth sure did, and I even got to customize my facial hair.

By endeavoring to make a quality product over a superior product, you are refocusing your artistic goals on something important rather than something competitive. You are remembering why you are creating art to begin with. And, even more importantly, why the art you are adapting was created to begin with.

Adapt how you adapt.

And now I’m going to adapt my mouth to a cup of coffee. What are your views on adaptation, Unrealtors? What have been some of your favorites and why? Or some of your least! I’d love to know. And we’re all just gonna keep on pretending the Green Lantern movie doesn’t exist, right? Thanks!

Adam Esquenazi Douglas is a playwright who was born in Texas, grew up in Arkansas, was raised by a Jewish man and a Cuban woman, and, somehow, he doesn’t have an accent. His plays have been produced across the United States, as well as in Canada and Japan.

He is co-host of two podcasts, The JimmyJew Podcast Extravaganza and Schmame Over, which can be found at http://jimmyjew.libsyn.com/ and http://schmameover.libsyn.com/ respectively, as well as on iTunes. He is a contributing writer to www.GamersSchmamers.com.

He currently lives in Brooklyn where he drinks far too much coffee.

One Response

  1. Nick Ramsay April 1, 2014

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