Tropes: In Defense of Adaptations

Earlier this month I re-read H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" only to discover that I'd never actually read it before.

Let me back up. I knew the story, of course -- when I was a child, I owned one of those "Great Illustrated Classics" versions, a tiny little pocket-sized book that was covered in illustrations every other page. I cannot remember how I came by the book, but I suspect my parents bought it for me under the impression that reading would improve my mind, and that anything deemed a 'classic' by the powers-that-be would not threaten my moral fiber with ungodly thoughts. (I wasn't, in contrast, allowed to read anything with dragons on the cover until I went away for college, due to their association in my mother's mind with Satan.)

Those of you who are familiar with "The Time Machine" will of course be chortling at the delicate irony omnipresent in my childhood, and I will readily confess that Wells' terrifying tale of a future where white ape-like creatures prey in the dark on the small child-like humanoids that dwell in the ruins of civilization utterly scarred me for years, but in a good way -- like a facial scar on an anime character that connotates bad-assitude without any of the usual drawbacks that facial scars in real life usually carry.

So when I picked up an eBook copy of "The Time Machine" and an audiobook copy from Audible recently in various sales, it seemed high time to revisit a childhood memory that I held in terrified adulation.

My reading started pleasantly enough. The prose was a little heavier than I'd remembered, and the narrator had that annoying (to me) tendency to jump ahead in the narrative with little 'teasers' like (I'm paraphrasing) "that was what I conjectured at the time, gentleman, but as you will see if you keep reading, er, listening, you will find how disastrously, monstrously, and above all interestingly wrong I was!" I absolutely hate that technique in writing, but Wells' was a master in so many ways that I really felt I must give him a pass.

I was something like two-thirds of the way through the narrative before it finally hit home to me that the illustrated classic I had read as a child was not just the original tale plus pictures, but was actually a re-write, a paraphrase of the tale, adapted for... I hardly know what. Not for children, because in all honesty, I thought the re-write packed more punch, but re-written nonetheless. I realized that my childhood reading had been a re-write not because of the differing writing style in the original, but because Weena never got her chance to speak.

In the book, the Time Traveler saves a young girl, Weena, from drowning and she becomes his constant companion. In the original novel, Weena's role is mostly to provide a few key reaction shots and to cause a great deal of emotional turmoil when she is stuffed into a refrigerator later in the tale. In the adaptation, however, Weena is given a much more expanded role. Her reaction shots are more vivid (helped by the illustrations), and she is given speaking parts to heighten the mystery and provide a clue to the strange economy of the future in which the Time Traveler walks.

The childish "rhyme" that Weena and the others sing provides a vital clue that the Time Traveler ignores at his peril: the dark places of the world are now highly dangerous.

The inclusion of the riddle heightens the tension of the reader, and provides foreshadowing of later events, but there is another valuable aspect here that is brought over in the adaptation but missed in Wells' original narrative. When the Time Traveler first learns that the Eloi are not the god-like intelligent future-humans that he had hoped to meet, but are instead operating at the intellectual level of very small children, his disappointment is profound, but his disappointment is surpassed by his disregard.

The Time Traveler operates at a strictly colonial mindset; either the future-humans are more advanced than he (in which case he must sit up and take notice of their advanced-ness) or they are less advanced than he (in which case he is justified in treating them with indifference and disdain). He saves Weena, yes, but he saves her in order to ignore her -- in Wells' original, she follows him daily in his wanderings until her stamina gives out and she is left lying exhausted on the grass pleading at his retreating figure.

Whether or not Wells' intended us to notice this blind-spot of the Time Traveler is debatable; to my mind, I think the business with the Morlocks at the end is played straight by the author as a senseless tragedy that nonetheless could not be reasonably avoided. But in the adaptation, the Time Traveler's ethnocentrism -- his attitude of "either they have everything to teach me or nothing to teach me" -- is his fatal flaw; if he had listened to the Eloi's rhymes and games with an open mind and deduced the situation earlier, he and Weena might not have timed their ill-fated trip with the dark of the new moon.

In the original, therefore, Weena's death provides pathos to the Time Traveler, but little to the reader; in the adaptation, Weena's death is a true tragedy that could have been avoided if only he (and ourselves) had taken her more seriously.

It should probably not come as a surprise to anyone reading this that I somewhat prefer the Great Illustrated Classics adaptation of the story to Wells' original, though I think there is room for both versions in my library. Adaptations sometimes get a bad name in the fiction industry; some believe that the original source material should never be tampered with, while others simply concede that some adaptations are very badly done, and care must be taken. There is very little talk, however, of the adaptation that makes the source material better in the process -- not the least of reasons being that "better" is a terribly subjective term in itself.

Google Books lists "Shirley Bogart" as the creative force behind the "Time Machine" adaptation, although how much total input Shirley Bogart had into the adaptation I cannot say. However, in reading "The Time Machine" last week for admittedly the first time, I found myself thinking about her a great deal. Did she believe (as I do) her adaptation to be an improvement over the original with our more advanced literary techniques of foreshadowing and post-colonialism? Or did she see her adaptation as a necessary evil, a sort of 'translation' for early readers who should eventually graduate from their Great Illustrated Classics baby food and turn to the originals for more solid fare?

I suppose I'll never know, unless Shirley Bogart happens to google her name someday and see this blog. (In which case, shirley bogart shirley bogart shirley bogart!) But I do hope that someone, at sometime, told her that giving Weena a real voice was the best thing since... well, since sliced Eloi, I suppose.*

* This is, of course, a joke entirely without taste, but I hold a suspicion that Wells -- were he alive to read it -- would have a good chuckle at it. And at the terrible pun that precedes this current sentence.


Patrick Pricken said...

Too true. It’s almost a truism that bad books make for good movies, and I actively dislike the excuse of faithfulness in adaptations.

Cupcakedoll said...

Or you could google Shirley Bogart and ask her!

On a sister subject to adaptations, I enjoy writing novelizations of movies I like, usually because the official novelizations, wrirtten before the movie is even made, are so horrible that even my worst writing is sterling by comparison.  It's actually a lot of fun to look at something that's already good and bend it just slightly towards what I think is 'better.'  So Miss Shirley may have enjoyed herself immensely, in between, "What in the heck am i supposed to do with THIS scene?!" moments.

BrokenBell said...

I suppose we're satisfied enough with granting altered adaptations their own distinct identity when they're movies based on books. Why shouldn't we grant the same opportunity to books also based on books?

Maybe Shirley Bogart (shirley bogart shirley bogart) didn't intend her adaptation to be an improved version over the original, or even an easy-mode edition from which people can graduate to the true story at all - maybe she just thought "Hey, there's this great story here, but I worry that it's just not going to be as powerful to modern audiences as it should be. Can I adapt it so that it retains the significance of the original, but will be more welcoming and meaningful to people who usually wouldn't give 'classic literature' the time of day?"

Ana Mardoll said...

Broken Bell, I really love that point of view - it sort of elevates the work from "adaptation" (either for better or ill) into really stellar fan fiction.

I actually really love fan fiction when it's done well. Clearly we need a Shirley Bogart Scale of fan fiction, as in "This is an 8.5 on the Shirley Bogart Scale..." ;)

chris the cynic said...

The classics (Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and such) are all adaptations because that was the way people did things back then.  Homer adapted stories that had been around for generations and did it so well that people decided to save his version, which has been continuously adapted since then.

Euripides decided that Medea would intentionally kill her children in his adaption, and he did it so well that (though he only took 3rd place) almost all who followed would do the same.  And that "almost" might be unnecessary, but I try to shy away from absolutes.

We don't have as many things that work that way.  King Arthur and Robin Hood come to mind though.


Anyway, adaptations can be awesome.

Joshua said...

Stephen Baxter wrote a sequel to the Time Machine expanding the postscript to the original novella, the second time voyage from which the traveler did not return. He also devoted some space to the traveler's colonial prickishness, with tragedy ensuing.

It might or might not be to your taste. It includes Baxter's characteristic traits of large infodumps about quantum mechanics and a very negative and cynical opinion of humanity.

Matt Smyczynski said...

Ahh... I read so many Great Illustrated Classics as a lad. I loved them. Sometimes I forget that I haven't read the "real" versions of most of the stories, but this post makes me think that maybe that doesn't make me an illiterate yokel...

Ana Mardoll said...

I can barely remember the Journey to the Center of the Earth one, but I remember liking it.

I read the real thing last year and HATED it. No offense to Jules Verne, but I thought it one of the worst things I've ever read and utterly steeped in problematic race issues.

Random tangent there. Just to say that I think you're safe from the illiterate yokel label. :)

Ben said...

I've found that many things that I am told are classics to be somewhat...lackluster.  Greek drama comes to mind.  The plots are too simple for me and rarely can I sympathize with the characters.
I feel it's especially bad in sf, because sf stories are relatively new and authors of the genre have become more skilled (though, in my personal opinion, The Time Machine is an exception*).  Maybe that makes me an illiterate yokel.  So? :P

*This might be because it's a shorter work.  I've found that, while I have trouble with "classic" sf stories of novel length, old short stories are usually fine and, quite often, very good.

chris the cynic said...

There's a new Three Musketeers movie on the way.  Even before I knew that I was thinking that that should have made my list of things that are frequently adapted in the modern world alongside The Count of Monte Cristo and, to a lesser extent, The Man in the Iron Mask.


On Greek drama, I think that the plots of tragedy tend to be simple for two reasons.

The first is because they tend to flow from a single situation where a character can't win.  (Often times it's about an impossible choice, but there are enough counter examples that I think it is worthwhile to use the broader description.)

The second is because the audience already knows the stories.  It isn't just that they have a broad outline of what will happen in their heads, the way I might if I go to see a new version of The Count of Monte Cristo, it's that they know the back story in depth.

So when you sit down for the Agamemnon you know that he is a member of the cursed house of Atreus, and that his family has been going wrong since his great grandfather Tantalus.  You know that Agamemnon's father Atreus  chopped up his brother's kids and fed them to him  as a meal (he probably got the idea from Tantalus serving up his own son.)  You know that that brother (Agamemnon's uncle Thyestes) was told that he had to commit incest to get revenge, you know that the product of that was Aegisthus who got into a relationship with Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra while Agamemnon was off trying to retrieve Clytemnestra's sister Helen from Troy.

And, obviously, you know many many more things from that.  Which means that none of it needs to be in the play.  You already know it all.

There's also not a lot in the way of twists, because you know that Ag will end up quite dead by the end of it.  (Though there is some definite room for reinterpretation, for example I know of one case where it turned out that a certain character didn't really die, she was switched with a stag at the last moment by a goddess so that she could show up in the sequel.)

So, anyway, you already know all the complexities so the play can be a simple thing about what happens to Ag now that he's coming home.

Ana Mardoll said...

I hadn't thought of that before. That means the plays are essentially really good fan fiction, no? ;)

Ben said...

I get that, I guess.  It causes problems, though, when one author's version is held up as independently excellent.

chris the cynic said...

It's very much like fan fiction actually, which is probably an argument fan fic authors should make in their defense sometimes.

Brenda said...

I used to get Great Illustrated Classics as presents a lot. I liked reading them. But when I found out what "abridged" meant, I was really upset. I was furious. I felt like I had been cheated. And some things got left out in a really bad way. The one I can still really remember is Huckleberry Finn. They did a pretty good job of recapturing the narrator's voice, but so much is lost - including the all-important scene near the end where Jim has been captured and Huck is agonizing over whether to save him - legally he is property, so helping him escape is stealing, and a sin - and he finally bursts out that he'll GO TO HELL THEN, and save his friend. The entire satire of what is right versus what is legal, and most of the other satire, and Huck's entire character arc, are completely lost. I am still mad about that. They mostly told about the same events, but the WHOLE POINT OF THE STORY was lost.

Brin Bellway said...

When I was little, I had a collection of Wishbone Classics. I particularly liked three: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, A Connecticut Yankee Pup in King Arthur's Court, and The Man Mutt in the Iron Mask Muzzle.
I was fourteen when I read the original Connecticut Yankee. It seemed less...lively, somehow. Probably has something to do with the way it was trying to seem mildly archaic to nineteenth-century readers, which makes it a bit tricky to understand for a teenager of 2008. Same with Journey to the Center of the Earth, but less so, as it was set in the then-present day. It was still something of a slog-through. I haven't dared try Man in the Iron Mask.

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