Three Things to Remember When Studying Adaptations

Fidelity in Adaptations

When you are studying adaptations, it is important to remember that fidelity is not a valid criterion for understanding them. Fidelity implies a direct adaptation, changing only the actual media platform it uses. This is not a good way to study adaptations because it is impossible to study a work of media, when presented on another media platform, as the same thing. They are entirely different. For example, a book is words on a page that people imagine as they read them.

A movie is a bunch of images strung together: light hitting a piece of film. You simply cannot translate one thing to another without making “changes” to the story. For example, some things are easier to do in literature than in film, like point of view. POV can be used constantly in a written medium, but is very hard to sustain for long periods of time in film because of the viewers need to actually see the protagonist.

Additionally, new insights can also be gained by adapting a work that were not present in the “original,” thereby evolving the story even further. An example would be the short story “Farewell to the Master” written by Harry Bates, which was adapted to the film The Day the Earth Stood Still. This film presents a message that is entirely different from the short story, even though many plot elements remain.


Plato wrote about the idea that everything that we see is a copy of a perfect copy, and that everytime we adapt a story, it becomes a copy of a copy, thus becoming less and less perfect. This doesn’t work when studying adaptations. First of all, in adaptations there is no perfect or original story. If we looked at Rapunzel, for instance, you might want to assume that the Grimm brothers version of the story is where the story originates, but this is not so. The Grimm brothers were collecting oral traditions of the people, and there were many versions of the story. The Grimm brothers standardized them into one version of Rapunzel. We could consider a film like Inception as an original work, but most of that film comes from the writings of Carl Jung, dream theory, and the collective unconscious. Everything has its root in something.

Another reason why Plato is wrong comes from the fact that each time we adapt a work it has the potential to grow. The newest adaptation of Rapunzel, Tangled, creates a version of the story that is unique to a more modern culture. Rapunzel gains more independence, the prince disappeares, and the story as a whole fits our more feminist and equality-driven society. The story does not diminish, as Plato would argue, but rather modern culture enhances it. Instead of a copy of a copy, it is more like looking into a diamond: every angle brings you a different perspective.

Perception of Story

When studying adaptations, we often think that the story exists independent of the medium we tell it in. This cannot be entirely true. We have already established that there is no such thing as an “original” work, but that authors gain inspiration from many different sources. One could say that the story exists independent of the medium by existing in the mind of the reader/consumer, but this doesn’t acknowledge the fact that every person is different and that the story would not be the same in everyone’s mind.

Let’s look at Rapunzel again. If you asked any two people to relate the story of Rapunzel, it would likely be entirely different each time. Therefore there is no “pure” version of the story. Each adaptation might contain similar elements to the story, even using the same names and places at times, but this does not mean that the story exists independent of the medium.

It is also important to remember that stories only exist because of the medium we present them in. Without oral tradition, we would never have Rapunzel, and that is just one form of presentation. Literature and film, today’s most widely used platforms, are the main vessels to tell a story. Without these things it is impossible to tell stories. Therefore it is impossible for a story to exist independent of the platform or container we present it in.

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