"Waiting for the Scene I Like": On Adapting the Familiar

I love thinking about adaptation—from entire genres like biography and historical fiction that perhaps only very vaguely deserve the word, to stories like ancient mythology and characters like Sherlock Holmes that have been remixed and rebooted more times than I can count, to the relatively (only very relatively) simple adaptation of a source text into a single “version” in another genre—the kind of 1:1 development that lets us pull a face and say, “yeah, but the book/movie/graphic novel/text-based adventure game is better.”

By chance I’ve recently seen a few live adaptations of musicals with preexisting and extremely popular film versions. Fox’s Grease Live (which, to be clear, I watched on television) and Broadway’s current revival of Fiddler on the Roof have both been generally well reviewed; for what it’s worth I quite liked both, and was particularly blown away by Fiddler’s dance breaks—I have a non-dancer’s respect for the talent as what it is, a superpower.) In each case I overheard from fellow audience members mostly praise, with one uneasy criticism cropping up both times—something along the lines of “I’m just so used to the movie…” politely, or perhaps nervously, trailing off before the implied “…and this wasn’t as good.”

So much of why we respond to the stories we love—particularly pop culture; also particularly performance art—is because of personal association. On repeat viewings or reads, especially as months turn into years turn into decades, nostalgia plays an increasingly huge role in why we like what we like. Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about this phenomenon on My Brother, My Brother, and Me, specifically regarding failed musical adaptations of hit movies: “The general rule is, it’s gotta be something that’s not dependent on the star. Like, one of the biggest flops of all time was Big the musical, because, hey, that whole movie is Tom Hanks’s face being charming. […] When I see a movie adaptation, even some of the best ones, I’m just kind of waiting for the scene I like to happen.” I’m amazed by the way the same love for a work that tugs us towards a new adaptation can send us away disappointed, sometimes for no greater reason than the fact that we didn’t have the precise experience we were expecting to. (This didn’t happen to me particularly with Grease or Fiddler, since neither film happened to be a tentpole experience for me, but I’m no stranger to the feeling.)

But what about the ones that work? What about great adaptations that somehow seem to tell the story better—or at least differently, in an interesting way; more complex, more responsible, more surprising. Grease Live gave us a newly diverse cast and the particular joy of quick-change costumes. The Fiddler revival comes at an especially poignant time to think about refugees and exile. And if great movies make disappointing stage musicals, how do we explain Legally Blonde? (The addition of Elle proposing to Emmett, ratcheting up her empowerment arc a notch further—forget it.) To clamber to a higher-brow example, I recently heard a veteran Shakespeare fan hold forth on the special joy of seeing a production of Hamlet that showed her something new about the play, after she’d loved it through many years and even more adaptations.

So often contemporary writing is a matter of respinning familiar stories—and not just in an intensely purposeful ways, as with gender-bent fairy tales or modernized myths or reclamation novels or, or, or. We couldn't avoid it if we wanted to, and I'm hoping that few of us would want to, to somehow opt of of the endless ongoing conversation of working and reworking the human experience. Not to get too post-modern about it, but since you're going to reference and adapt no matter what, it’s worth remembering to be mindful of where your story, its plot arc and tropes and characters, have been before you get to them. Don’t think of the reader before it’s productive to do so, but for you—or even for the characters themselves—what threads tie in from the tapestry of associations large and small, ancient and modern? How can we weave in the associations we love and mindfully drop the ones we don’t—and what will we use to replace the latter?

If all these questions make you nervous, just look to Grease Live and remember that for every John Travolta you jettison you’ll have the chance to gain an Aaron Tveit.