Wednesday, January 13, 2021

On Adaptation: Anne, Jo, and Percy

Talking to readers about adaptations of books they loved is like walking through a minefield where anything might blow up, depending on who steps on it. 

Sometimes if I really love a book, I'll avoid seeing a movie or television series made about it because I'm worried they'll ruin it. 

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And sometimes they have. 

Destroyed it. 

Gotten it SOOOOO wrong it hurts. 

I'm looking at you Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

Then again, I've really enjoyed some adaptations that make significant changes from the source material. 

Two in particular stood out for me recently: 

1. Anne with an E, a series on Netflix from creator Moira Walley-Beckett which was based on the novel Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. 

2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott adapted for the screen and directed by Greta Gerwig. 

Neither of these adaptations were religiously true to the source material, yet both of them felt more true to me than other arguably more faithful adaptations.  So, what's the difference? 

Why did changes to Percy Jackson's storyline horrify and offend me, but the addition of entire characters and plot lines to Anne with an E and the out of chronology telling of Little Women feel not only comfortable, but right? 

My theory is that it has to do with finding the heart of a work. What's the emotional core of the piece and of the characters? If an adaptation finds that, then even significant changes are not going to upset me. 

It's a trend I'm seeing in storytelling of this kind, a new kind of line creators are riding where they pay homage to something they love, but also bring it forward to a different or wider audience by changing significant details like time and place, race or background of characters, and even plot. 

Anne Shirley and Jo March are iconic characters, important to many a grown woman who consumed their stories when young. Similar in being women out of their time: headstrong, free-thinking, determined, and passionate. So many women I know aspire in their hearts to be Anne and Jo. And that's the core of any adaptation of these works: does the adaptation convey the heart of the character? 

In both of these pieces, I'd say yes! resoundingly yes! While I have enjoyed other adaptations of these books, this was the first time that I felt fully connected to the characters. The writers who adapted these works clearly loved the books and characters in the same way I do. 

Anne, Jo, and Percy: Yes! Yes! and…Nope.

Anne always was a social justice warrior, fighting for fair treatment for herself and for those around her. In Anne with an E, that becomes a step more overt, with less parlor-talk pussy-footing and more taking action. That meant adding entire plotlines, but I was completely fine with that, because they'd captured MY Anne. 

Jo, too, was fiercely loyal, and struggled with the part she was expected to play in society--docile, obedient, and feminine. She strained at those bonds and sought a life less ordinary, something that fulfilled her and brought her joy--writing!  Gerwig's version of Jo explored her story out of order--juxtaposing moments of childhood against moments of her budding adult life to show us the woman she became that much sooner. (Bonus points, too, for working in the ending Louisa May Alcott really wanted, but couldn't get her publisher to agree to). 

Poor Percy, on the other hand, was transformed in the script from a good-hearted kid who fought feelings of inadequacy into a badass just barely in hiding, needing barely a blink to turn into a heart-throb hero. Sure, that character might have interest for some, but the heart of the boy I'd enjoyed getting to know in Rick Riordan's books didn't make it onto the screen. I don't know who that boy was, but he wasn't Percy Jackson. 

One can only hope that, should I ever be so lucky as to see my work adapted for movie or television, that the show-runners understand the heart of my work and love my characters enough to do right by them. 

How about you? What makes you love or hate an adaptation? Are you a stickler for faithfulness to the original? How do reinterpretations and changes of setting play in your world? I'd love to hear from you in the comments. 


  1. So, don't recall ones that have gotten it so wrong it hurts, for me. Or angry about.
    But, The Hobbit is a standout one, I guess because it just seemed so ... poor? I mean maybe it's the same thing - I technically know I saw it because I remember seeing it at 60fps in the cinema and thinking it seemed a little weird, and the visual effects looked worse than the LotR movies about 15 years earlier. And I only saw the first and had no interest in the others despite loving the Lord of the Rings adaption.
    I loved Enders Game, the book, and watched the movie. I remember it being fine, though somewhat forgettable perhaps, so it's sad, intellectually, that I don't recall it as brilliantly as the novel.
    Maybe these cases are different because I went in with low expectations? Wasn't really expecting the Hobbit to be great, and I'd heard the Enders Game movie was terrible.
    But no real angry / hurt / letdown adaptions I can recall on seeing them.

    1. I was disappointed in The Hobbit as well, even though some moments sparkle in my memory as just perfect and it was much easier to keep track of which dwarf was which in the movie than in the book (at least for me). The extra stuff they added in didn't help. It *felt* like padding. I still haven't seen Ender's Game because I've heard from so many fans of the book that it was awful.

  2. I agree with you that some very popular books do not turn out well when adapted to a movie or TV show and are really disappointing. The Percy Jackson one was especially disappointing for my daughter and me.

    1. Yes! I took my older daughter, then a middle-schooler to see it and she was a DIEHARD fan of the books. She was ready to throw herself at the screen and tear things up she was so mad!