Hey guys. There have been a couple posts recently (well, semi-recently now) about adaptation, and while they kind of talk about what adaptation is, I don’t think they really went into what makes adaptation so interesting artistically. And I have a lot of thoughts about that!
I was originally writing this post as a comment for one of the article links, but I figured that would probably get buried, and the artistic side of this is interesting enough to warrant its own discussion. My thoughts here aren’t law, or based in massive industry knowledge – I’m just a dude who likes stories a whole lot, and thinks about storytelling pretty much constantly. And I have far less of a single thesis here than I did with my Nisemonogatari writeup – if anything, my points are mainly that adaptation is both a craft and an art unto itself, and that understanding mediums is critical to understanding how and why adaptations work or don’t. The main point here is to promote discussion and your own opinions, not just say How It Is. Anyway, let’s get to it. What’s up with adaptation?
Why Are You Even Trying
One of the main reasons I find adaptation interesting is because, although I know this isn’t the actual intent, the very act of adapting something makes me think, “Why? Was it not suited to its original medium?” Every medium has different strengths and weaknesses, and most of the time, a truly great piece of art works partially because it takes advantage of the unique strengths of its medium. An adaptation seeks to take the “essence” of some work and translate it to a different format – but this does not imply a perfect 1 to 1 transformation. In fact, a “perfect” adaptation is very rarely the best possible adaptation, and some restructuring or refocusing is normally required to make the best work possible.
And obviously, from a production perspective, adaptations are chosen not because they make for artistic challenges, but because a proven property will sell regardless of the medium. But that doesn’t make the challenge less interesting, or the results less respectable. A good adaptation requires both a keen understanding of the work you’re adapting, as well as understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the mediums you’re converting both from and to. Misunderstand these strengths, and even an adaptation of a fantastic work can fall completely flat.
So let’s get into those mediums. I’ll only cover a point or two each here, but there are a ton of angles to take on what makes each of these mediums interesting to adapt, so I hope you guys offer some of your own.
Manga has traditionally been the largest source of adaptations, though the ascent of Light Novels has challenged its position. But it still reliably dominates certain genres, and it’s still the source of virtually all heavyweight long-running commercial properties.
In general, manga might seem like it’s the easiest to adapt, since you could consider it just a series of static anime frames already, with cinematography and everything. In a way, this is true – a strict adaptation makes by far the most sense for this transition. However, one major problem you can run into here is pacing. In a manga, the flow of panels can dictate pacing to some extent, but ultimately it is in the reader’s hands how quickly any given scene goes by. This matters so much when it comes to things like action or comedy – the flow of a fight, or the speed of a joke’s telling and its immediate aftermath, can entirely dictate whether those sequences soar or fall flat. This is why I only read shonens (outside of the rare shonen with both compelling writing and a well-directed adaptation), and why I couldn’t stand the Genshiken adaptation, despite the manga being possibly my favorite manga – the pacing felt incredibly belabored and drawn out, making me feel like I’m watching two seconds of joke and then seven seconds of “THAT’S THE JOKE!”
Also, because of manga’s similarities to animation, adaptations from this medium can sometimes hew closest to the “entirely redundant adaptation” problem. This isn’t actually a bad thing, but I feel it is a true thing – for instance, Monster and Cross Game are both manga with incredible pacing, because both of their artists have an absurd gift for panel flow and a flawless understanding of traditional storytelling. So how were they adapted? Panel for panel. Basically the exact same piece of art, in color, with voices. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course – but if something was absolutely perfectly suited to its original medium, what does an adaptation really accomplish? This is why the writer of Yotsuba has outright refused to have his manga adapted, which is a viewpoint I completely respect and understand. The pacing and mood of Yotsuba is perfect as-is – he chose his medium correctly. Granted, some people simply prefer watching things to reading them, and anime does offer a few things with no parallel in manga (like sound design), but I think this point remains. Anyway, moving on!
Briefly, 4-koma are a subset of manga that consist of a series of distinct 4-panel strips, normally reserved for comedies. They’re a kind of manga, but their adaptation provides unique challenges, so I’m separating them here.
The 4-koma format is interesting to adapt, because if you’re actually going to transition what was originally a series of 4-panel gags into 23-minute episodes of cinematic television, you basically have to create an entirely new work – it’s barely an adaptation at all. All you’re carrying over is a collection of jokes, characters, and, if you’re lucky, the “feel” of the comic – you need to either flesh out that world and add another dimension (like K-On), or sequence those gags in such a way that they add up to more than the sum of their parts (like Azumanga Daioh). Adapting a 4-koma probably requires the most inherent artistic input of any adaptation – that is, unless you are strictly presenting a series of the 4-koma gags, only animated (which is frankly a huge waste of animation’s potential), you need to find some larger thread to build these gags around.
Recently, light novels have become the primary source for a wide variety of popular anime, from the industry-shifting Haruhi Suzumiya to otaku favorites like OreImo or action shows like Sword Art Online. This makes sense to me – the popular aesthetics and tropes of the core anime-buying market have largely shifted from the action and adventure of the past to slice of life and romantic comedy, and these genres lend themselves to the character and dialogue-focused style of light novels. But creating a light novel adaptation that actually makes use of the anime format is deceptively difficult.
Light novels are tricky for almost the opposite reason of 4-komas – there is very little direction or scene-setting (usually), but there is a very established script, and normally a very specific narrative. The problem here is the mediums have completely separate strengths and weaknesses – light novels are about conversations and character, and generally read more like a play’s script than a novel, whereas anime is a visual medium that is at its best when scripts and characters work in tandem with a strong visual aesthetic. Thus, even in some of the best light novel adaptations (like Spice and Wolf), it’s incredibly clear that this is a light novel adaptation, because it really is just a series of conversations linked by an understated overarching plot. At the other end, some light novels succeed beautifully because a visual component would always have made them better – I think Haruhi is a solid example of this, though that might just be KyoAni being really good at their jobs. But normally, to add a strong visual component to a light novel adaptation is incredibly difficult. Some shows get away with it by essentially treating their material like an actual live-action sitcom, complete with the standard camera angles and lengthy multi-camera-sitcom-esque single-room sequences. In my opinion, this is a huge waste of potential – as I explained at excruciating length in my Nisemonogatari rundown, active cinematography can add a huge amount of emotional impact to a show, or even undercut the spoken message, and by limiting yourself to the tools of a conventional sitcom, you fail to take advantage of your true toolset even if you succeed in making a popular show.
Full novel adaptations are the rarest of the possibilities I’ll be covering here, but they really, really, really shouldn’t be.
Actual full-length novels are possibly the medium best-suited to anime adaptation, and in fact I’d argue that no medium is more suited to successfully recreating a novel than anime is. They just match up on so many critical variables: they’re both long-form narratives that are generally separated into smaller subsections, they both involve a creator having absolute creative control (unlike the sitcom, or even film, where your ability to manipulate the frame and conjure the unreal is significant, but never infinite), and they both have a critical emphasis on and ability to manipulate mood and tone. Most novels are extended, character-focused narratives that successfully create a strong voice (either through a character or the narrator’s own voice) and contain several distinct plot strands that reflect off each other and ultimately present a number of consistent and well-explored themes. A novelist can conjure literally any scenario he wishes, and have the reader take it for granted as the truth of that world (as long as he doesn’t betray his own truth through inconsistent characterization or world-building). The mood and “feeling” a book evokes in the reader is the result of both conscious narrative choices and the collective impact of the language chosen and the style of writing used. All of these things translate absolutely naturally into anime, and reflect the extraordinarily similar strengths of that very distinct medium. Frankly, it’s crazy to me that more novels aren’t adapted into anime – although considering the sales numbers of Shinsekai Yori, perhaps those producers aren’t so crazy after all.
A fan favorite, and the one I’m sure my opinions will be the most controversial for. Visual Novels are essentially branching “choose your own adventure” games, generally with a huuuge focus on characters and conversation, and often formatted as a love story where the largest branches correspond to a set of several potential love interests. Because of the player agency and the distinct nature of the main paths, visual novels are often a collection of several very different and separate narratives, though the themes and characters of each may intersect and overlap.
“But wait,” you hopefully ask yourself, “if visual novels are actually a *collection* of stories, then how do you adapt that into the linear narrative of an anime?”
The answer is, “Most of the time? Very, very poorly.”
Now don’t get mad just yet. I’m not saying this is a fault of the visual novels themselves, and I’m not dismissing anyone’s legitimate attachment to and experience with a visual novel adaptation – I’m just saying that when you take four or five unrelated stories and smash them into one continuous narrative, something’s gotta give. Normally, visual novel adaptations result in very disjointed narratives, where a primary set of characters and perhaps main narrative are established in the first couple episodes, and then the story takes its time exploring each of the other potential plot arcs in turn before weaving its way back to that central narrative. While this tactic keeps the fans happy by not significantly shortchanging any favorite character, it is absolutely death to a coherent, focused narrative, and is in fact a fairly poor representation of the original source anyway. After all, does the main character of a visual novel do everything for everyone the way these super-humans often tend to in their adaptations? No. They have one story arc with one character, and that is their story. If you want to have another story, you start over from the beginning, and having another story. Sure, you might “progress” only by completing all these stories, but that’s a meta trick of game design – that’s not the same as all of them being part of the same narrative.
The “fit all arcs into one narrative” approach to VN adaptation not only results in a wandering and unfocused narrative, but it also generally results in an unrelatable superman of a main character, unless the character’s wanderings are somehow related to the main themes and point of the show (School Days, for all its faults, does a wonderful job of making the inherent weirdness of combining separate love stories into The Point Of The Show). I was actually hopeful Clannad would do something similar, and that Tomoya’s savior complex would end up being a reflection of his wish to avoid becoming his father… but Maeda instead merely uses the concept for a deus ex machina ending, and the show remains unfocused throughout. Honestly, I think this approach is nearly impossible, and requires a very, VERY specific narrative for it to work – the only two examples I can think of are the aforementioned School Days and Steins;Gate, which manages to work both the necessity of helping a set of side characters and the temporary nature of the character growth thereby gained into a clever conceit in its third act. So basically, unless your story is about time travel or womanizing, it’s pretty difficult to pull this off and have your story still work as a coherent narrative.
Another approach to VN adaptation, and one I think has a great deal more potential, is to simply drop the ruse of a single narrative and actually adapt your VN as a collection of separate short stories. I feel Yosuga no Sora isn’t a particularly good show, but I think it actually used this approach to fairly strong effect. Other problems do emerge by taking this strategy – for instance, to continue with my example, the second-most-important character in Yosuga no Sora is the main character’s sister. However, she starts off the story in a very unhealthy place emotionally, and because most of the show consists of establishing characters other than her and then backtracking to the start, her personality ends up coming across as artificially and frustratingly static, even though the second the show actually focuses on her, her character growth is immediate. But I feel problems such as this are much, much more easily fixed than the inherent problems of single-route adaptations.
That said, I don’t think the single-route adaptation problems are inherently unsolvable – but for most shows, they would require a far more significant restructuring of content than they tend to receive. Plots would have to be woven together more coherently. Characters would have to take the place of others to avoid “hero protagonist” syndrome. Storylines that could possibly reflect or influence each other would have to be merged. Essentially, a new coherent narrative would have to be created by smashing each storyline into pieces and then patching them together as a single framework – and this is both at least as hard as writing a story from scratch, as well as less likely to appease the fans that desire a strict adaptation of “their” route. As far as I can see, the question of successful visual novel adaptation is still an open one, and the relative success of many very unfocused current adaptations leaves creators with little incentive to truly answer it.
I would welcome more examples of different styles of visual novel adaptations, or examples from within these styles that work well. I’d also love to hear of any adaptations that actually adopted my “smash the storylines to bits, make one coherent one” proposal, regardless of the results. The concept of adopting a visual novel is extremely interesting creatively, even if I have mixed feelings about a lot of the results.
And the rest
There are a variety of other sources for adaptations – toys, idols, videogames, etc – but for most of them, there isn’t really a process of translation so much as full artistic creation or re-imagining, so they’re not really as relevant for the specific topic of adaptation. But anyway, those are just some of my initial feelings on the subject. I know better than to narrow the discussion with any specific questions, so…