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Thinkin' About Adaptations

I cross-posted this from tumblr, because Discussions are Important, so... that's why all the pictures. ;)

I remember being still in school, and going to see a movie called Clueless with all my friends. I sat there enjoying myself and then slowly, slowly it started to dawn on me that I KNEW THIS STORY.
SARAH: Guys guys guys! This is Emma! It’s Emma!
SARAH’S FRIENDS: What’s that? Blithering as usual…

I was the only Jane Austen fiend among my friends. But they certainly started to pay attention when I began whispering the plot twists.

They thought I was psychic.

I am a Jane Austen fiend, and I have watched almost all the adaptations I can think of of her books—but Clueless remains, I think, with some fierce competition from the BBC Pride and Prejudice, my favourite Jane Austen adaptation.

Because I am a writer, and because I am a ferocious reader who goes loopy and starts reading cereal packets without regular books, I think about story a lot—and a lot of stories are riffs off ideas, themes, tropes, and sometimes riffs off specific stories. I generally go to see movies adapted from books because I’m curious about what they’re going to do with them. It’s fun to see different imaginations shaping a story.

So I watched both Sherlock Holmes films, and I’ve watched a good bit of Sherlock, too.

I didn’t intend to watch ‘Elementary,’ an American modern version of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures, because I’d heard it described as the American version of Sherlock. No, thanks, said I to myself! I am not American, my books aren’t American, and I don’t see any reason that stories need to be changed just to be American and therefore relatable.

I’m currently at a writing retreat: last year I brought DVDs of a British dark fantasy show called Misfits, and all my Americans loved, loved, loved it. No need to American it up!

But… always a need for a good adaptation.

A rule of good adaptations for me… do something new, do something cool, do something different because you are working in a different space/time/medium/philosophy from the original. Make people have fun and make them think. (Those two goals really should be the goals of all good media, of course…) I mean, one of my long-cherished projects has been to write a modern Pride and Prejudice with a gay storyline.

My new favourite show is an adaptation of a classic story (the Count of Monte Cristo) modern’d up and with a lady lead.

Hello, Revenge.

So yesterday, looking up from my computer where people assumed I was Virtuously Working, I totally blew my cover by announcing ‘LUCY LIU JUST GOT CAST AS DR WATSON!’

The doctor’s in the house.

And instantly, Casa Writing Retreat to a woman and a man, all of whom are writers or artists (Holly and Theo Black, Paolo Bacigalupi, Cristi Jacques, Cassie Clare, Josh Lewis and me) was in.

Because hey, something new and cool! Something that indicated the people making it were thinking of ways to make it their own, and thus more entertaining. Because if we want the same thing over and over, well, nobody has to go to the bother of making a whole show/movie/writing a book.

Amazing ‘rewinding’ and ‘re-reading’ technology has been available for ages.

So I happy-clapped and tweeted my joy, and received… mixed responses. And I was entirely freaking confused by said responses.

1) It will be TOO DIFFERENT from and against the spirit of the original.

Oh, okay. I guess that’s why everybody hates that show Sherlock, where they moved the story a hundred years in the future and solve so many crimes with modern technology…?

2) It will be just like every other show! Cynical grab for cash!

It will be just like every other show with a lady of colour front and centre? Because there are… so many more of those shows than white guys…? There are so many more ladies of colour who are huge box office draws as compared to those poor white guys?

It will be just like every other show with an interracial couple (platonic or otherwise) front and centre?

Is everyone watching TV in Opposites Land? Can someone give me a TV subscription in Opposites Land? I can think of a couple of shows that fit this description, but very, very few.

Besides which, speaking of being like every other show, it’s not like we’re short on bromances. Which brings me to my next point…

3) Le Bromance!

Hey, I am all in. I love a bromance. I wrote a whole trilogy devoted to a bromance! I generally like a bromance which also has a lot of time for the ladies, but… bromance. Sure. In. I love friends, I love family, I love people of whatever gender and in whatever relation to each other having loving complicated relationships!

(Aw, look. Those vampire bros love each other.)

But we have, like, out this very year just gone by, two different Sherlock Holmes franchises separately doing the shimmy and crooning along to ‘Guy Love.’

Nobody is tearing Starsky & Hutch, Supernatural, Sherlock, the Sherlock Holmes movies, House (which is in fact just another version of Sherlock Holmes, and also centers on the bromance of Two White Guys), need I go on, out of anybody’s arms. But a third version of Sherlock ‘I Love You Man’ Holmes in the space of two years sounds a bit like ‘For the Lord’s sake whatever you do, it’s gotta be all about dudes, all the time!’

And it’s not like bromances are doing badly commercially, either.

4) It’s… homophobic to cast Lucy Liu as Watson…

I would like media to be less sexist, less racist, and less homophobic.

Having an Asian lady instead of a white dude as a lead character gives me at least some of that.

Less homophobic, well, I don’t know yet about Elementary, but Holmes and Watson are not portrayed as openly gay in any adaptation I’ve seen. You cannot ‘straighten up’ something that does not contain a gay storyline to begin with! (We don’t even know whether or not they are going to put Lady Doctor Watson and Sherlock in a romantic pairing.)

I am all in for Lady Dr Watson/Sherlock True Love if they do it well, and I am in for just friendship. Romance is awesome. Friendships, also awesome.

I’ve also seen it suggested that Watson had to be cast as a woman because American audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with gay subtext. I think that anyone who has seen the Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr. and watched more than an episode or two of House will agree that American audiences appear to be fine with gay subtext and Sherlock (in fact, see above point regarding bromances). Both the TV show and the movie are wildly popular successes. I think the creators of this show wanted to do a new thing — not had to, but wanted to. And that’s fine.

Gay subtext fine with audiences, who can enjoy it or not notice it… gay text happens less.

I would be all in for gay Sherlock/Watson too! I haven’t at any point got it in a movie or a TV show, but I am all in. I own and have read A STUDY IN LAVENDER, a book of short stories where Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters are gay. (I recommend it highly.)

I would be all in for girl Sherlock and boy Watson. I would be all in for girl Sherlock and girl Watson.

All those things would be great things to do, but this thing they have done is a great thing to do, too. And I am all in for the girl Watson we have, and I think it’s especially cool she’s a lady of colour.

I actually saw pictures of the three Watsons, with a note saying ‘One of these things is not like the other.’

One of these things is not like the others? And a good thing too.

To summarise again my Rule For Adaptation: All things new again. Don’t do the same thing over and over, do something new with the material… and do it well.

A show with a girl Watson automatically being regarded as going to be worse than a show with a boy Watson… is very close to saying that girls are not as good as boys.

Is Elementary going to be good? I don’t know. Maybe not! But something I do know… I’m going to watch it.


( 110 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 1st, 2012 08:57 am (UTC)
Fantastic post, and basically, yes -- there's no way I won't watch it NOW.
Mar. 1st, 2012 10:56 am (UTC)
Yes, that would all be fine, but based on her fairly limited range, she is actually horrendously miscast, it's a very unsuitable part for her. There's quite a vast difference between claiming 'an actress can play Watson' and 'Lucy Liu can play Watson'.
Mar. 1st, 2012 04:18 pm (UTC)
Well, opinion of the actors = subjective and how someone'll play a part = something we'll see when the pilot airs--I like Lucy Liu in Southland and think she can play the part, whereas I wouldn't have thought Martin Freeman could (and I would've been wrong).
Mar. 1st, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
Really? I admit I have not seen her in more than 2-3 films, but she was mediocre at very best in all of that. And I don't actually think opinions on acting ability are subjective. Well they are, but in the way every opinion is. There's acting range, there's ability to engage the audience, conveying emotion etc. We can criticise an actor just as well as we can criticise a script or a directing style. Anyway, I'm on the negative side on this one. Shall we bet cocktails on it? I'm saying boring procedural, two annoying people and cancellation within a year. If I win, I'll have the mojito.
Mar. 1st, 2012 07:50 pm (UTC)
Sure, we have different views on the actress. I've seen her in several roles I didn't think were demanding, and she did fine but I couldn't tell how good she was, and then was impressed. So we'll see--could be a mismatch, could be a great fit. No idea, any more than I have with Jonny Lee Miller.

I have no clue likewise whether it'll be good or not, but I do think this move was a great and fresh one, indicating that they'll do something new rather than the same old ho-hum. Could do it terribly, could do it well! But I'm always up for a cocktail bet. Mine'll be something fruity.
Mar. 1st, 2012 10:59 am (UTC)
This is exciting! I can't wait to try it out! Though if they do end up getting Holmes and Watson together in this, I hope it can be a sort of foregrounding for the *next* adaptation having LGBT relationships! My current problem with the homoerotic subtext in the Holmes adaptations is that my more closed-minded acquaintances are happy to ignore it. I was once in a seminar group with a girl who, every time lesbianism appeared, just went "I just didn't see it like that at all" full stop, subject closed. We were reading Never Let Me Go, Virginia Woolf, and all sorts of texts with more or less explicit LGBT relationships. You can't really challenge that, because any "don't you think that's a little homophobic" comment can be so easily dismissed with "I have nothing against it, it's just not my interpretation of the text". And all interpretations are valid, but when it becomes a pattern... Likewise, my housemate, who is fine with openly gay relationships, is still living in such a heteronormative inner world, that she refuses to 'believe' or register any other kind of subtext; we can't watch Sherlock together, because I am so caught up in the Sherlock/John subtext that she ends up driven crazy with my 'unnecessary politicisation' of the show. I feel like it would really help my case if I could go "look! It's Sherlock and Holmes in an opposite sex coupling! Why does that automatically mean romance if the other pairings don't?"

As for changes in adaptations, I am all for them. I can only enjoy watching the same stories over and over again if they're somehow made new and different. Otherwise the original will always win out in my mind, and I'll be dissatisfied with the remake. And kickass women are awesome, so hopefully Lucy Liu will qualify as a really awesome female character. Particularly since Stephen Moffat has such a bad track record with women in Sherlock, as far as I can see. Poor Irene Adler... Strong, independent, a match for Sherlock... Obviously she had to be humbled somehow! And that's not even mentioning the controversy surrounding her strong reclamation of/total reduction to her sexuality...

Edited at 2012-03-01 11:02 am (UTC)
Mar. 1st, 2012 10:16 pm (UTC)
I, too, will at least be giving this a chance, along with my roommate, chibisaturn, because I'm very interested to see where they will be going with it. However, both my roommate and I, when we got the news of the casting, went: "wait, what?" Probably because we really wanted SHERLOCK to be cast as the woman, even though we didn't think it would happen.
Mar. 2nd, 2012 05:39 pm (UTC)
You beat me to this. How did I not see this before I posted my other comment?
Mar. 2nd, 2012 03:38 am (UTC)
I don't know if you've already seen this, but since you said you'd be "all in for girl Sherlock and girl Watson," here's some awesome fanart and cosplay I saw linked recently.
Mar. 2nd, 2012 03:40 pm (UTC)
The only rule I have for movie/TV adaptions of books is that every deviation from the original document must have a reason behind it and any change that's made because it will make the story/character better must be done with caution and respect. If that change doesn't succeed in it's goal, then it's a fail.

I take most of this rule from Hayao Miyazaki's adaption of "Howl's Moving Castle". It's a great movie that very much deserved an academy nomination, but so many changes were made to the story and characters that I barely recognized it. The stereotyping of Howl into a classic romantic hero, the lack of Sophie's genesis into a kick-ass woman, the 7-year-old "Marko", the nice-old-lady Witch of the Waste, the removal of Wales, Bird Howl, the somehow evil combination of Ben Sulliman and Madam Penstemon... None of them actually added to the story and it felt like the writer had no respect for Jones' novel. If they wanted to write that story, go for it! Leave her book out of it.

I do love adaptions though, some of my favorites being "Contact", "Merlin", the "All Creatures Great and Small" BBC series, "Sherlock" (Moffat's), "The Bird Cage" (adaption of "Le Cage aux Folles"), "Easy A", "The Color Purple", "It's a Wonderful Life", "Fight Club", "Bones", "House"... the list goes on elsewhere.
Mar. 3rd, 2012 01:24 am (UTC)
OTOH I absolutely hated what they did to Contact. By removing the other 4 characters who also went in the 'vehicle' and experienced the alternate world with Foster's character (blanking on the names right now) it made it far easier to dismiss all her experiences as 'just a hallucination' and completely ruined the ending for me. YMMV, naturally.
Mar. 2nd, 2012 05:38 pm (UTC)
My reaction to this news was mostly "Dear CBS, I think your press release got it backwards, obviously you meant to cast Lucy Liu as Sherlock and Jonny Lee Miller as Watson." 'Cause that was the dynamic I was hoping for, given it was unlikely they would do a fully genderswapped cast. I'm still looking forward to Elementary, though.
Tess Williams
Mar. 18th, 2012 10:57 am (UTC)
And we nailed it with THAT'S THE POINT OF AN ADAPTATION - something new! Half the films being made right now (two thirds, three quarters even?) are based on ADAPTATIONS of books (especially children's and YA lit) and no matter how you slice it, the film is not going to be just like (or sometimes even LIKE) the book it's adapted from.

It will be fascinating to see "The Hunger Games" when it's released next week!

Now I'm sort of fascinated by the idea of a female Sherlock/Watson pairing ... who would I cast?? Now that I'm thinking about it, I'd almost want Lucy Liu as Sherlock - she's got the potential for that austere, potentially manic quality I find so fascinating about the Conan Doyle character .... and her Dr. Watson could be .... Queen Latifah! Okay, probably not, but if you want to get into diversifying gender roles AND ethnicity and you wanna throw in a little unconventional Hollywood.

Great, I had plans today and now I'm not going to be able to stop thinking about this ^_^ Thanks for a thought-provoking post! P.S. LOVE LOVE LOVE the cover!! So excited to get my hands on the new book!
Jun. 8th, 2012 05:51 pm (UTC)
links: random
User rose_griffes referenced to your post from links: random saying: [...] She also talks about adaptations [...]
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