What Do We Want in a Literary Adaptation?

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

For almost as long as film has been an art form, books have been adapted for film. In fact, the earliest known motion picture based on a literary source was filmed in 1896. (It’s a 45-second scene from George DuMaurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, if you must know.)

And for just as long we’ve adapted books for the screen, we have also discussed the question: What makes a good adaptation? Which matters more: the quality of the film itself, or how “accurate” it is to the book it’s based on?

Of course there is some complexity, even difficulty, to these questions. Novels and films are different art forms. To expect a 90-minute film, or even a longer TV series, to be an exact rendering of every detail of a book is a bit unreasonable. Novels also use many devices that are just impossible—or at least extremely difficult—to film. So filmmakers have to get creative, which, for me, is when it gets exciting.

Personally, I’ve noticed four different types or “levels” of adaptation. Each has varying degrees of adherence to their source material. I’d like to note that these are not degrees or measures of quality of an adaptation as a work in its own right. Each has its own merits, and every reader has their own expectations and wants when watching a film or TV adaptation of their favorite book.

These four categories are simply a way to make sense of how an adaptation chooses to interpret its source material. And since there are SO MANY of them, I’m going to use adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice as examples to compare and contrast.

The “Museum” Adaptation

A historical museum exists to preserve and protect historical artifacts and records; to alter them in any way is considered taboo. A museum is also concerned with placing artifacts and records within their historical context, through interpretive signage and other materials. In the same way, a “Museum” Adaptation is concerned with preserving every possible detail of the book exactly how it exists in the book, just transferred to the film medium.

Example: Pride & Prejudice (1995)

If there was ever a perfect example of a Museum Adaptation, it is the 1995 TV miniseries of Pride & Prejudice. This version includes nearly every scene from the book, however brief or fleetingly mentioned, and even some scenes that are NOT in the book. When I watch this adaptation I feel like I’m visiting a museum. Everything is perfectly preserved and nice to look at, but we are not allowed to touch. For many fans, this near-perfect preservation makes this adaptation their favorite.

The Artful Adaptation

The Artful Adaptation is where my personal tastes tend to lean. This type of adaptation is most concerned with finding balance between being true to its source material, and creating a film that can stand on its own as a work of art. I like to think of an Artful Adaptation as a conversation between the book and the audience. Rather than preserving every detail like a museum, an Artful Adaptation finds the essential elements of the book and interprets them in ways that are meaningful for the audience.

Example: Pride & Prejudice (2005)

The more artful elements are part of what turned a lot of Austen purists off to the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Its aesthetic is grittier but warmer than the 1995 version. Its set and costume design are less concerned with historical accuracy than with reflecting the characters’ personalities and relationships. It also by necessity cuts or combines plot points from the novel to fit within its two-hour runtime. This is definitely an artful film, and the most essential elements of the book are all present and imbued with meaning for modern audiences.

The Loose Adaptation

We’ve all seen a movie that we would call a “Loose Adaptation,” a film that keeps a few elements or some semblance of the premise of the book it’s based on, but then more or less does its own thing with them. We often discuss this type of adaptation in negative terms, as if its lack of exact similarity to its source material is somehow a failing. And for many people, it is. But a Loose Adaptation can still be a really good movie.

Example: Pride & Prejudice (1940)

Nineteen-forty was an interesting time, and in many ways the adaptation of Pride & Prejudice from that year is typical for the time. The story is sort of there, but the film rearranges or omits plot points seemingly haphazardly, and adds arguably unnecessary scenes. The costumes are decidedly more Victorian than Regency. Characters’ personalities have even changed, most noticeably Lady Catherine’s. But despite all that, this version is actually an enjoyable movie.

The Transformative Adaptation

We most often see Transformative Adaptations of well-known classic works from the English literary canon. Works by Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens, as well as fairytales like “Cinderella,” are common Transformative Adaptations. These films set their source works in a time period other than that in which they were written, often in the contemporary era. They may also take place in a different culture from the source work, or in a subculture of modern Western culture.

Through changing the setting, Transformative Adaptations seek to accentuate the timelessness and universality of their source works’ messages and themes. They can also be useful for commenting on the traditional whiteness and heteronormativity of literary canon. And while setting a Shakespeare adaptation in a non-European culture and casting actors of color should never serve as a replacement for elevating actual works from that culture, it can serve as a bridge.

Examples: Bride & Prejudice (2004); Pride & Prejudice: Atlanta (2019); The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)

Austen works in general, and Pride & Prejudice in particular, probably have the most Transformative Adaptations of any author or work. Bride & Prejudice sets the story in modern (well, 2004) India, Britain, and the U.S., turning Elizabeth and Darcy’s class differences from the original novel into a clash of cultures, as well. Pride & Prejudice: Atlanta casts the Bennets as an African American family in modern day Atlanta, with Darcy and Elizabeth as a politician and an activist, respectively, who clash over politics and miscommunications. And The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, one of the most innovative adaptations, takes the form of a modern Lizzie’s vlog. All three of these examples retain the essentials of the book, but introduce new significance to the themes through viewing them with fresh eyes.

I believe each of these four styles of literary adaptation has its place and value. We may prefer one type over the others, and that preference may even vary from work to work. But each type is equally valid.

Which style of literary adaptation do you prefer? What, for you, makes a good adaptation?