Adaptation: I Saw the Movie First

Sometimes, the adaptation will come first. It's alright.

I have a few movie-centric quirks that others would find weird, even abhorrent. First, I’m good with spoilers. Unlike other people, I actively look up a film’s story and read the reviews before watching it. More recently, I’ve gone for online streaming over cinema viewing, but I still make an exception for superhero movies (#MCU4Lyf). And I regularly commit the “crime” of seeing the film adaptation before reading the book.

There, I said it.

Look, I love reading, but I find myself choosing the adaptation first because of time constraints. The movie often lacks context, takes liberties with the source material, and/or lets the other elements do the heavy lifting for it, but I can be done and out in an hour and a half or two, three max. Very few people (like Lav Diaz) can get away with five-hour screenings! And with some TV adaptations of novel and comics series — like Altered Carbon and Marvel’s Jessica Jones — I watch just a couple of episodes each day so I have more time to think about what the absolute fuck just happened there.

Three books that have their own film adaptation: Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", Andy Weir's "The Martian", and Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go".

But seeing the adaptation first also changes the way I relate to the source material, once I finally get around to reading it. In this case, the movie counterparts were top of mind while reading these science-fiction stories: Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life (in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others, and the basis for the Amy Adams-headlined Arrival), Andy Weir’s The Martian (which had its own movie version in 2015), and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (adapted for the big screen in 2010).


Of course there will be changes between the story and adaptation, and vice versa. But some comparisons are quite obvious. 

Story of Your Life keeps jumping between timelines — Louise Banks’ life pre- and post-alien encounter — while Arrival has a linear timeline, with the present as the focus and the past and future as brief interludes. Some names were also changed: Gary Donnelly is now Ian Donnelly, and the heptapods Raspberry and Flapper are now Abbott and Costello. Their ships don’t even land on Earth, yet we now think of them as sleek black floating oblong ships, thanks to the movie’s awesome visual effects team. Those scenes in the movie where Louise has a vision from the future involving the Chinese general, or where soldiers bomb the alien ship and kill one heptapod? Not in the novella at all. Lastly, novella Louise certainly doesn’t seem to me like Hollywoodized Louise: wearing a seemingly permanent worried expression on her face, and breathing heavily through half the movie. Click on this link out for a complete list of differences.

The Martian‘s novel and movie versions have slight differences as well. The difference I’m most disappointed about was that, like Amy Adams before her, Kristen Wiig was reduced to looking worried throughout her brief screen time, with none of novel Annie Montrose’s hardassery. Protagonist Mark Watney’s constant HARD SCIENCE!!! mode, while an effective coping mechanism for the character, nearly lost me after the first three chapters; only the entry of other characters and their POVs got me interested in the book again. The technicalities are only glossed over in the movie — there’s not enough time and film to explain the plausibility or implausibility of things, I guess.

Also, in the novel, the Chinese characters express their disappointment at having to scrap their own space mission to save a white American man; and Beck and Johanssen’s relationship has a more natural progression. In the film adaptation, the Chinese space agency personnel are benevolent AF; and the romance angle just pops up out of nowhere, as if filling the requirement that there has to be a hetero couple in every Hollywood movie.

As for Never Let Me Go, I think the differences aren’t as obvious, but of course they’re still there. The revelation that the so-called solution to prolong human life and health is cloning — and that the students of Hailsham and other institutions are all clones intended to donate their organs and die (or “complete”) young — is slowly drawn out in the novel. But in the movie, the mic drops quite early for everyone.

Miss Lucy, the guardian who spills the beans to the Hailsham students, did it years after she started working there, but in the movie, it doesn’t take her as long before telling the truth. The novel’s descriptions of Chrissie and Rodney don’t quite match their actors, Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson (I watched the movie mainly because of this guy; thanks, FrankEx Machina and Shadow Dancer!). And while Hailsham and its “Gallery” were experiments in both the novel and movie, the novel version was put up to prove that clones have souls, while the adaptation shows it as the last stand for ethical studies on cloning and organ donations.

The story and adaptation get it right

Despite those differences, I like all three stories and their respective adaptations. Both versions are acclaimed in their own right. Chiang’s Story of Your Life made me turn page after page because the way he wrote it really made me want to know how Louise learned the heptapods’ language. The power of knowing your future, and making the deliberate choice of not changing anything that leads to that future, is as huge in film as it was in the novella. And it’s awesome to see both a novella and a movie with language at their core.

The same goes for Never Let Me Go. I see Carey Mulligan in Kathy, Andrew Garfield in Tommy, and Keira Knightley in Ruth. That was inspired casting, although I seem to hate movie Ruth more than novel Ruth (again, context). Both versions ask questions not just about cloning and the possession of souls, but also about privilege, emotional loneliness and physical isolation, and the many forms of power one person can have over another. And both show that science fiction doesn’t need to scream its science fiction-ness at all times; subtlety works, too.

The unabashedly sci-fi The Martian is a success story on the page and screens big and small. From a self-publishing project where Weir took a per-chapter strategy a la Kindle Singles, to a full-length novel with a big publishing firm behind it, and then to a global hit film with big names fronting and supporting it, it’s quite an interesting study of adaptation.

As for the story itself, there’s science, suspense, scenery (or rather, the lack of it on Mars), and more science — with some of the science actually existing in real life.

An adaptation can be too faithful to the story

But The Martian also has one glaring negative trait for me. I can’t tell you how many times I wondered if the screenwriters just lifted the dialogue and logs of the book and called it a day. Andy Weir’s Mark is exactly the same as Matt Damon’s Mark, right down to his in-your-face-ing of Neil Armstrong and that Fonzie impression.

Sexy Happy Days GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I know I’ve harped on and on about book and movie differences. But you know what? It’s also nice to see a few changes between media. The book shouldn’t be treated as a strict blueprint for the movie.

There are no stereotypical villains here

Yep, all three stories and adaptations don’t have villains in them!

Rather, Story of Your Life depicts humankind as its own worst enemy, and The Martian shows a planet devoid of life being the unlikely host of a single human life (and a potato farm).

It can be argued that Never Let Me Go has the unmentioned inventors of human cloning as the villain, or even Ruth in how she stood between Tommy and Kathy. But I think of the novel more as a look at the costs and ethics of the science than as a classic good-versus-evil story.

Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang
E-book, Small Beer Press
Buy: National Book Store | Fully Booked | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Book Depository

The Martian, Andy Weir
Paperback, Broadway Books/Random House
Buy: National Book Store | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Book Depository

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Paperback, Faber UK
Buy: National Book Store | Fully Booked | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Book Depository