Evolving a project – the virtues of a daring adaptation

Evolving a project – the virtues of a daring adaptation

by Shane W Smith


Did you ever consider that your comic project might be better in another format? That maybe instead of an ongoing series, it’d work better as a finite mini, or as a standalone graphic novel?

Perhaps you’ve taken it a step further, and think that its definitive edition might be a film, or TV show, or live theatre performance, or an experimental operatic interpretive dance set to an unholy trance/country hybrid soundtrack?

Why not consider it?

I turned my wholly unsuccessful novel into a graphic novel that made the Aurealis Award shortlist. I’ve adapted an instrumental concept album into a full-length graphic novel. The project I’m about to wrap on started as a short comic, developed into a full length novel, and will end as a long-form graphic novel. And I’m currently in the process of turning one of my modestly successful graphic novels into a TV series (wish me luck).

And at every stage in this adaptation process, I’m learning. I’m learning not just about the rigours and demands of working in a different creative form… although I am learning those things. But more importantly, I’m learning new things about the story itself.

You know how they say that you never really understand English until you become fluent in a second language? Same applies here. Until you’ve seen your story come to life in two radically different formats, you won’t truly understand what it’s about. And until you write in multiple formats, you won’t have a complete appreciation for the potential and limitations of your chosen form.
What can be jettisoned. What needs to be changed for the new format. What a story’s core values and key moments are, and how they’ll land differently. And you learn to REALLY experiment when you do something like this.

Maybe your story is being strangled by the formal restrictions of its current form. You’ll never know for sure until you test it in another environment, free from those restraints. It might be in its ideal form already, or a change might bring it new heights to soar to.

Adaptation is the reason I was able to transition from twenty years as an amateur writer across to the (admittedly low-paid) pro circuit, and it’s an integral tool in my ongoing campaign to level up professionally. Maybe it can do something for you, too.

The three stages of adaptation

Steve Martin’s comedy Masterclass included a section on screenwriting. And in it, he talked about the three stages of adaptation: fidelity; transgression; and divorce. This sequence resonated with me and reflected my experience with adaptation, so I’m borrowing this structure to unpack it a little for you. This progression makes adaptation a useful toolbox for a creator; here’s how.

Step 1. Fidelity

The first draft of an adaptation – be it book to screen, novel to comic, or some other transition – tends to stick pretty closely to the source material. It might dip its toe into the specific structural and formal conventions of its new form, but for the most part, the story as told will bear a striking resemblance to the original text.

Many adaptations don’t progress too far from this step. Although this approach appeals (in theory at least) to purists and die-hard fans of the source material, particularly in the comics industry where the most iconic characters are older than us all, I personally think it’s a shame to stop here.

Because most of the innovation happens in steps 2 and 3.

Step 2. Transgression

Tom Bombadil was, although a fun character in Lord of the Rings, not necessary to the central theme and plot progression of the Fellowship adaptation, so his scenes were cut. The Shawshank Redemption was originally written with a procession of wardens, but doesn’t the movie flow so much better with just the one?

Films have different requirements from comics – casting and budget, for example. Novels can be any length, but a TV episode is much more rigid in terms of duration. A crowd ten thousand people strong costs nothing in a novel, costs one artist his/her sanity in comics, and can cost millions in a blockbuster film production. But the demands of the production aren’t the only reason changes are made. The way in which the audience will consume the story also matters. By and large, films need to be kinetic and visual; comics need to be visual and succinct; songs need to be emotive.

Moving from one form to another in the right way will necessarily involve some changes to the story and its flow, and the first steps of divergence from the source material. And through it all, the core remains steady – the primary relationships, or key events, or strongest thematic idea. That’s the part the artist will come to recognise as the central mechanism around which the story revolves.

It’s an encouraging start.

Step 3. Divorce

One of the most daring adaptations I’ve seen in recent years is Damon Lindeloff’s version of Tom Perotta’s novel The Leftovers. The TV show remains true to the core of the story – the key relationships, and the thematic throughline of processing life through a veil of unfathomable loss – but makes a vast array of significant narrative changes that suit the fast-paced visual dynamism of television, and provide the momentum to extend the show beyond the novel into a two additional mind-bending seasons.

This is the point when the adaptation stops being a slave to its source material and develops into its own entity: a self-contained experience for the audience. This, I think, should be the ultimate goal of any adaptation, because that’s where the real power of the process lies. Adaptation is not just transference. It’s a transformative process, one that distils a story to its most crucial elements, and then builds it back up into something brand new that suits its new narrative form.

Even if you never intend to stray outside of comics, I encourage you to rewrite your comic as a prose story, or as a screenplay (adhering to the different structural requirements of your new form), as a musical, an opera, an oil painting, an interpretive dance. My guess is that the second or third draft of this adaptation is going to reveal something that completely changes how you see this project.

And that then when you turn that new product back into a comic, you’ll end up with something richer, deeper and much better than you started with.

Closing thoughts

Here’s something to consider if you’re (understandably) baulking at the idea of completely rewriting your work: ‘adapt’ it into a pitch document. Distil your story down to a logline, a one-sentence summary, a very short theme/setting statement, and half a dozen one-sentence character profiles. Chances are that many of you have already done this.

Turning a creative piece into a marketing document is a crucial skill for all creators to develop, and it certainly shares a lot of DNA with the other adaptation principles I’ve discussed above.
If you find that you’ve learned something new about your project by doing this, there might indeed be more for you to learn from a more daring adaptation.

Might be worth a shot. It certainly worked for me.

About Shane W. Smith

Shane W Smith is a long-form graphic novelist, editor, and scripturient who uses genre as a window into understanding the human condition. His first two published graphic novels were adaptations of absolutely unpublishable novels, and the second one was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award. He has a Bachelor Degree in Creative Writing, and he might be the only person to get a comic published in a refereed academic journal. His current work in progress is a 515 page fantasy graphic novel called Triumviratus, which is being serialised on Patreon and will be published in late 2018. Keep up with his writing misadventures at http://changetheworld.shanewsmith.com

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