5 lessons we learned about film and TV adaptations in 2021


2021 saw movies and television adapt everything from chunky fantasy novels to Twitter threads, with results ranging from stellar at “we must not.”

What exactly separates an amazing adaptation from an adaptation that causes rabies? Honestly, there isn’t just one “right” way to tailor something. There are a few important lessons to keep in mind, however, and the best (and worst) adaptations of the year make great teachers. Here are the 5 lessons we learned about adaptation in 2021.

1. Take a look at what makes your source material unique

“Zola” brings a piece of Internet history to life.
Credit: Anna Kooris / A24

When you choose to adapt something, you recognize that there is something special about the source material, something that is worth the time and effort (and money) spent putting it on screen. This year, several films adopted what made their source material stand out, with excellent results.

Zola Director Janicza Bravo incorporated social media into her film as a nod to her debut as Aziah “Zola” Wells King’s viral Twitter feed. You’ll hear the chirping of Twitter notifications interspersed with dialogue, and Zola (Taylour Paige) will often deliver lines straight from the original tweets straight into the camera, as if we’re watching her feed in real time. While the heavily stylized approach can seem alienating at times, it still turns out to be a fiendishly smart way to recognize Zolanotoriety on the Internet.

Or Zola pays homage to the internet, this year’s film musical adaptations strongly honor their Broadway roots. In the heights brings the magic of musicals to life with fantastic elements that enhance its musical numbers, such as figures dancing on the side of a building or rolls of fabric unraveling from the sky. In the same way, tick, tick… Boom! and West Side Story direct their plays with appropriate theatricality and take advantage of how the film can enhance the already heightened realities of musicals. (tick, tick… Boom! is also full of musical Easter eggs for all the kids in the theater.) Compare that with the less successful musical adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, which is so close to reality that the songs – which sound natural in a theater setting – seem out of place.

2. A good update can do wonders

Men and women dressed in vibrant clothes dance on the street

A musical adaptation to remember.
Credit: Niko Tavernise / 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Speaking of musicals, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is more than a simple adaptation. It’s an update that works hard to bring out the themes of the original and reconfigure some classic scenes. Kristy Puchko from Mashable writes that “Spielberg and [Tony] Kushner figured out that it wasn’t enough to bring back the book and songs with a brilliant new cast (although it’s actually a cast with the Latinx talent in the roles of Puerto Ricans!) That revival was there. ‘opportunity to reinvent a classic story in a way that honors what came before, but also gives audiences new insight. ” West Side Story proves that while an adaptation can right the wrongs of its predecessor and deliver something new, it is definitely worth filming.

3. Stand-Alone Novels continue to make great mini-series (movies, take note)

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

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

Some of the best mini-series of 2021, like The Underground Railroad, The pursuit of love, and Eleven station, are based on stand-alone novels. The miniseries is an almost perfect form of adaptation – it’s long enough to run through many storylines and provide a satisfying arc for its characters, but it’s also short enough that it doesn’t go overboard in its welcome. (Would like The Handmaid’s Tale were better as a miniseries? Yes.)

That’s not to say we should ditch book-to-movie adaptations and switch to a miniseries-only approach. There have been some truly amazing film adaptations of books this year, including The power of the dog and Dune. However, there were also films that may have benefited from having more time to breathe, such as The Too Long Gucci House. Based on Sara Gay Forden’s book, the Gucci family’s multi-year-long saga seems like the perfect story to tell in a longer episodic format.

5. Deviating from the pounds can be a good thing …

Four omens dressed in red sit on horses, a woman stands in the foreground.

We get more from Aes Sedai, and “The Wheel of Time” is better for that.
Credit: Jan Thijs

2021 has seen multiple adaptations of sci-fi and fantasy novels deviating from their sources a bit, with compelling effects. The wheel of time, based on the extremely long Robert Jordan series, rightly cuts quite a bit of material and broadens the perspectives of its characters, so that we don’t primarily see things from Rand’s (Josha Stradowski) perspective. It also adds new storylines showcasing the powerful all-female order Aes Sedai and brings to life other scenes that we only hear about in the books. The end product is quite close to the books that it will satisfy longtime fans, but that it is different enough to pleasantly surprise them as well.

While The wheel of time cuts a lot of material, Foundation spans a whole new territory. Isaac Asimov’s novels are collections of short stories and short stories spanning thousands of years, making them difficult to adapt as a continuing story. The show ends up taking creative liberties in order to give Foundation more connective tissue than “these stories all involve the Foundation.” These freedoms include an entirely new scenario involving a dynasty of cloned emperors, which resulted in one of the most captivating episodes of the year, as well as the addition of characters from the Foundation prequels and more developed stories for characters like Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell). Thanks to many of these changes, Foundation feels more cohesive, with a rich universe and defined characters.

5. … but too much deviation can wear out

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

Leah Harvey is great in “Foundation”, which suffers from too many changes.
Credit: Apple TV +

The biggest problem with Foundation is that once it starts making changes, it can’t stop. The Terminus plot involving Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) and Anacreon is as far from its source as possible, even plunging into Star wars planet destroyer spaceship territory at one point, deviating from the tone of Asimov’s diplomacy-centric, Salvor-centric stories. As a result, this plot is the most unsatisfying part of Foundation, despite the strong performances of Harvey and their co-stars and the stunning visuals of the series. Good acting and good effects can only compensate for part of a story that goes wrong.

The same goes for Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the classic anime. Cowboy Bebop, Who Mashable’s Alison Foreman Reviews for changing elements of Jet’s (Mustafa Shakir) story and altering villainous Vicious (Alex Hassell) and love interest Julia (Elena Satine) beyond recognition. Foreman writes: “I found the audacity to claim this series as a Cowboy Bebop successor kept me from appreciating what he was doing well. I couldn’t see past the anime inspiration he was mutilating. ”

Projects like West Side Story and The wheel of time Prove that adaptations can certainly make changes for the better, including updating outdated hardware, but go a little too far and you’re looking at something totally unrecognizable. The success of an adaptation often depends on how well it balances the new and the familiar, and how well it understands its source material in the first place.


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