Adaptation is a tricky business. When moving a story, world, and characters from one medium to another, something is likely to get lost in translation. When you’re moving from books to film and television, for instance, you’re taking what existed in people’s imagination and creating an audiovisual canonical existence for a broader public that will likely cut away details or change the focus of some arcs. Comic adaptations try, with mixed results, to ground outlandish sci-fi and fantasy, often with silly costumes attached. Videogame adaptations try to bring wider resonance to stories that are very frequently generic action frameworks targeted at a 14 to 24-year-old male demographic. All these processes tend to make self-proclaimed nerds fussy, so one wonders: Is it worth it? There tends to be an obvious financial reward for the corporations involved, so it’s going to continue regardless. But can modern adaptations ever make fans happy, and should they try?
Self-proclaimed nerds (many of whom seem to believe they’re living in a 1980s coming-of-age narrative, even though the biggest movies in the world are now based on comics) are famously, often caustically, precious with their favorite IPs being adapted. I’m not sure how abrasive and corrosive people were when classic novels and the works of Shakespeare were first turned into movies, but they also didn’t have Twitter and Reddit and YouTube to complain on, whereas now every shade of big-budget pulp genre work has several factions of loud, angry fans.
I found this jarring with Paramount+‘s Halo TV show because, despite Microsoft subsidiary/Halo game developer 343 Industries letting everyone know in advance that the show was going to be a separate timeline from the games, many fans were outspoken about being shocked by continuity changes. Halo tries to build a story around the character of Master Chief and the people who make up his world, giving greater interiority than the games (outside of perhaps Halo: Reach) have attempted. Building a human story took precedence over slavish commitment to replicating the plot of the games.
I’m a casual fan who is skeptical of fan overreactions. Nothing can hurt me but Star Wars and my sports teams, and even those are losing that power because I’m now an adult with real problems. At the end of the day, sequels, prequels, and adaptations shouldn’t be able to hurt any of us because we usually still have access to the original works, be they novels, comics, other films or television shows, or videogames.
My own appraisal of Halo fluctuated over the season. The first two episodes provided very different perspectives on the universe—a pirate kingdom and rebel colonists—both contrasted with the center of human power in the United Nations Space Command centered on the planet Reach. By Episode 4, the pace was slowing, but the show bounced back by endearing fans to Kate Kennedy’s Kai, and by the end of the season had further invested in the story of Kwan Ha, heir to the rebel army on the planet Madrigal. As it concluded, my biggest aesthetic complaint remained that they made the Sangheili (Elites) too big, reshaping the scale of battle, and my main storytelling complaint was that Kwan Ha’s arc just disappeared—we could have used another episode to further develop Kwan Ha, Soren (Bokeem Woodbine), and Vinsher Grath (Burn Gorman).
Much to my surprise, the loudest, most upset responses seemed to be in response to Master Chief having sex. The idea that Master Chief and the Covenant’s “Blessed One” (Charlee Murphy’s Makee) would sleep together after discovering they’re kindred spirits so connected by space magic that they share vital signs is easy to understand. I can think of other problems with it happening—like that she died too quickly for me to get particularly attached to the character—but the relationship itself is too quick and too chaste to be upset that it happened. That it affected the plot seems like it should be a point in favor for those of us with strict requirements for the introduction of sex into non-erotic film and television. The fact that the UNSC doesn’t trust her and treats her with violence that leads to her responding in a way that brings the Forerunner artifacts back to the Covenant also follows straightforwardly. And, at the end of the season, Master Chief is a silent protagonist whose body has been overtaken by the A.I. Cortana, at his behest. Maybe next season, as the show approaches the actual Halo installation, fans will be happier with the depiction. And this isn’t to say the show is without problems, I just don’t think Master Chief sleeping with someone is among the biggest. I find the videogame-like recruitment commercials for the real life U.S. Marine Corps more offensive.
Meanwhile, in Disney-land, toxic Star Wars fans have begun their semi-annual tradition of embarrassing the rest of us through racism and sexism. They seem to have seized the conversation around criticism of the Obi-Wan Kenobi show by doing things like erecting straw man arguments about canonicity to decry key antagonist Third Sister, and sending lead actress Moses Ingram racist messages on social media. By blaming “politics” or “wokeness” for their dissatisfaction, they avoid engaging with the idea that maybe these stories aren’t as good as they used to be for reasons including, but not limited to, the fact that they’re stories they first encountered as children. Doubtless some of them are still children, though—racist, sexist children. They harassed John Boyega, they harassed Kelly Marie Tran, and now they’re harassing Moses Ingram. Hopefully before the series is over, the wider conversation can shift toward the failures and successes of the script, direction, and performances, but it remains to be seen.
For another example, if you jumped into a series like The Witcher later than its original airing on Netflix and/or just don’t follow that fan community very closely, you may have missed that the show was divisive, despite its dominance on the Netflix charts. It is an adaptation of a book series that had also been adapted into a wildly popular game series that author Andrzej Sapkowski doesn’t exactly consider canonical. That is to say that The Witcher has three mostly separate, mainstream continuities and fans that have entered the franchise through each doorway. This leads to confusion and criticism handled in ways such as accurately pointing out how travel across the continent went from a huge deal in the first TV season to happening in a blink of an eye in the second, and in less legitimate ways like review bombing the second season shortly after it aired. The legitimacy of the criticisms about the second season is worthy of debate-changes done to flesh out a thinner novel story which included making Geralt’s buddy Eskel a short-lived bad guy and changing the background of Geralt’s friend that lived with the Bruxa may make sense within the context of fan expectation, but don’t automatically make something a structural or artistic failure. Generalized complaints about performances are sometimes used as cover to legitimize insular fan gripes.
Besides my belief that numerical ratings of art are imperfect, I think nerds/geeks/pop culture-mass media enthusiasts may need to be cut off. They’ve had too much of a thing, and lost sight of the most compelling ways to assess quality. Contrast the fan and critic reception of the Witcher (six novels and 15 short stories translated into English over 11 years, concurrent with three videogames and followed by two seasons of television) or Halo (16 major or minor game releases and re-releases in 20 years before the TV show) with the responses to legacy sequels like Top Gun: Maverick (released 36 years after the original), Blade Runner 2049 (released 35 years after the original), and Mad Max: Fury Road (released 30 years after Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). It might seem tedious to some people to discuss whether or not a federally-funded movie about Navy pilots with recruiters outside of screenings is propaganda, but it’s much more interesting than continually unmasking vague “something is off” criticisms as racist dog whistles by people who glommed on to the same mass media as you did as a child.
Maverick also has higher fan and critic ratings than the original Top Gun after breaking Memorial Day Weekend box office records. Mad Max: Fury Road has just had a book released about its production process and has the highest IMDb fan rating and critical Metascore of any George Miller picture, including Happy Feet and Lorenzo’s Oil. It is also his highest-grossing film. Though fans were divided on Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, the arguments less often devolved into sexist, racist rants. Arguably, concerns about race in casting with of his Dune adaptation mostly went the other direction, wondering why the cast of a film based on a story that takes cues from Lawrence of Arabia lacked Southwest Asian and North African actors (though you don’t have to scour the internet to find evidence of the [not entirely hopeless] debate around Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s casting as Liet Kynes in Dune).
We need to be forced to have other experiences with other sorts of art to figure out what’s artistically valuable about the things we’ve attached an inordinate amount of our personal value and identity to. It also perhaps allows creators the time to come up with original and interesting story ideas as opposed to regurgitating what already exists or adapting videogames in ways fans get upset about—they might still end up in that same latter space, but at least with time, the fans have a chance to get some separation and not overly invest in the translation. Otherwise, we just get incessant moaning about how a story or world designed in one format doesn’t properly fit into another.
Loathe though I am to say it, many fans don’t know what they want or why the things they like are good. Art in one medium is not meant to be a popularly sourced copy-paste of art in another medium. The endless pursuit of appealing to the widest audience through four-quadrant focus group testing is how we get things like The Rise of Skywalker. At the end of the day, none of these stories are perfect. They have lots of subjective flaws, but the pursuit of authentic and interesting storytelling, and interesting conversations around it, is held back by the closed-mindedness of its most hardcore fans. Really liking an IP isn’t enough on its own to make you an expert on what makes it successful. Artists and studios are better off just trying to make what they think is the most captivating version, because the fanatics will always, rightly or wrongly, have a bone to pick.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.
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