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Fiction Friction: Pragmatic Adaptation, Part 2

By Tom Anderson

Denethor, apparently, a character portrayed very differently in book and film.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Part 1 of this series can be found Here.


Please note that, by its nature, this article include plot spoilers for a number of works of fiction, including Agatha Christie mysteries, Discworld novels, The Expanse, Harry Potter, and Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.


I want to begin this second part of my look at positive and negative examples of strategy in media adaptations with one of the best examples of pragmatic adaptation that I have ever seen. This is in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. I am a Tolkien purist and am happy to talk for hours about how the films ruined Denethor, and after a few pints, why it’s a criminal act that no adaptation includes the single best character, Tom Bombadil. But having said that, there are several examples of pragmatic adaptation decision-making in the trilogy. Possibly the single best of them comes in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring.


In the book, Frodo – who came close to death – wakes up in Rivendell only to be surprised that Gandalf is waiting by his bedside; Gandalf was supposed to meet them before they set off on their perilous journey, but never turned up. In both book and film, Gandalf replies mysteriously: “I was… delayed.” In the book, he does eventually tell Frodo what happened, but waits until the Council of Elrond when matters of great import are being discussed in confidence.


It turns out that on his way back to the Shire, Gandalf was stopped by another member of his order of wizards, Radagast the Brown, a friend to all living things. Radagast came bearing a message from Saruman the White, the head of the order, asking Gandalf to urgently come to his fortress of Isengard. Gandalf asks Radagast to use his friends the birds and beasts to send out word, then goes to Isengard, only to find himself betrayed.


Saruman has decided the war is unwinnable and now advocates siding with the Enemy, Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. He has also declared himself ‘Saruman of Many Colours!’ which the adaptation unfortunately did not feature. When Gandalf refuses to join him, Saruman has him imprisoned on the roof of Isengard’s tower of Orthanc.


One of the most important themes of The Lord of the Rings is that the small and humble, overlooked by the proud arrogance of the mighty who serve evil, can slip under the radar and save the world. This is most obviously seen with Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, a race Sauron barely even knew existed, can resist the One Ring for longer than any mighty warrior or wizard. Furthermore, Sauron cannot comprehend that someone would seek to destroy the Ring rather than take its power for himself, and so is blinded (until it is too late) that they would infiltrate Mordor right under his nose (or Eye) to bring it to Mount Doom for destruction. While The Lord of the Rings has more conventional heroes such as Aragorn, they are not the main character.


This theme is reflected in the events Gandalf recounts to the Council in the book: although Saruman had turned to evil, Radagast had not. Saruman sneered at Radagast: “Radagast the Brown! Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part I set him,” (ie, to con Gandalf into coming). But, though Radagast had trusted Saruman’s tainted instructions, because he had not fallen himself, he acted sincerely and sent out his messengers as Gandalf had asked.


Saruman, in his arrogance and conviction that only his own conception of power mattered, never bothered to consider whether Radagast’s simpler ways might yield a flaw in his plan. The birds learn that Gandalf is held captive, and he is rescued from the top of the tower by Gwaihir the Windlord, greatest of the Eagles (who are not, as Tolkien irately commented on a screenplay that overused them, “Middle Earth’s taxi service”, and nor could they fly into Mordor in the first place before it was destroyed by eruption, any more than Neville Chamberlain could fly into Berlin in 1939 through all the anti-aircraft fire and arrest Hitler personally, as should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. I digress).

Gwaihir the Windlord (right). Described in some parodies as Deus ex machina airlines, totally missing the point and the set-up. What can an author do?

Picture courtesy One Wiki To Rule Them All.

Due to the usual need to economise on cast and simplify plot threads in a film adaptation, Peter Jackson did not want to introduce Radagast just for the sake of one flashback. (Ironically he would appear, however, in the inferior Hobbit film prequels, when in that book he is only mentioned). However, his slimmed-down substitute to explain Gandalf’s rescue is a brilliant piece of thematically fitting pragmatic adaptation. A moth flying through the night happens to come to Gandalf atop the tower, and he whispers to it to bring Gwaihir – meaning he is rescued just in time (as we see in a flashback; it’s ambiguous whether he actually tells Frodo about it). What makes this work is that the moth just as neatly fits the theme as the original Radagast subplot; it is small and humble and overlooked by Saruman with all his great armies. An excellent piece of adaptation work.


While we’re on the subject of fantasy, let’s discuss some of the problems of adapting particularly complex plots and concepts – especially due to the loss of the inner narrative or omniscient narrator that I mentioned in the first article Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is a great example of a challenging adaptation. As much of his trademark humour comes in narration, monologue and in footnotes as in dialogue itself. A similar, but more minor, problem comes in the cartoon adaptations of Peanuts, where Snoopy’s erudite thought-narration is missing and some of his words are clumsily transferred to dialogue from the other characters.

Also available as a blanket.

The Editor is fond of the song by The Guardsman, but the Editor has strange tastes.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Stephen Briggs did tackle the challenge of adapting a large number of Discworld novels as stage plays. Screen adaptations took longer. Cosgrove Hall made two well-received (including by Pratchett) cartoon adaptations, of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music. As good as these were, they nonetheless had some limitations due to the problems of getting across complex concepts without narration.


This is more of a problem in Soul Music. The book has an extended analysis of Death’s house by Susan (who points out the logical issues with it due to the way he thinks, such as having bath towels that are just a fused part of a towel rail, only there for the look of the thing. This is mostly missing from the adaptation.


Another problem is that near the end of the book, “Buddy” Celyn (a stand-in for both Buddy Holly and Elvis) is about to be abandoned by the spirit of rock and roll music (or rather ‘Music with Rocks In’) as he’s about to die in an iconic vehicle accident like many real-life rock stars. Death, however, gets his way by taking the guitar that contains the spirit of the Music and playing the only chord he knows – the empty chord, the equivalent in music theory of zero in maths. As he does so, the very rhythm of the universe – day and night, birth and death, seasons – starts to crumble. The only person who can restart it is Buddy, so the Music is forced to keep him alive. This was very clever in the book, but the best the cartoon can manage is to portray Death as playing the guitar in a frenzy and then slamming the strings to silence “AND THAT’S ENOUGH”, which is not quite the same.

Trademark hat. Trademark beard. Trademark jacket. Not Death, not the Hogfather, but a legend.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1990s there had been much speculation about live-action adaptations of Discworld, usually coupled with dread that Hollywood would ruin it. This was not uncommon in adaptations of the time; despite my complaints in the last article [LINK!!!] about the Harry Potter films, they were probably the start of a trend for more faithful adaptations, especially of British works. Live-action Discworld adaptations did not materialise until 2006, when Sky and Vadim Jean produced a script (“mucked about with by Terry Pratchett” as it says on the scriptbook) for Hogfather. They went on to collaborate on two more, The Colour of Magic (actually adapting both that and The Light Fantastic) and then Going Postal. There are positives and negatives to all these adaptations which I don’t have time to get into here, but it’s worth mentioning how the sheer plot concept complexities of Hogfather really do not lend it well to a live-action adaptation.


I’ve already mentioned this article will contain spoilers, but it’s perhaps doubly important to provide a reminder here. Saddle up, because this will take a while!


Mr Teatime is a sociopath who spent much of his childhood figuring out how to kill anthropomorphic personifications as a thought exercise. Now the Auditors of Reality want to destroy the Hogfather because they hate how humans think and how much it disrupts their orderly deterministic universe. Near the start, Death witnesses a brilliant worm-flower life form from an undersea volcanic vent be killed by a rockslide, and it is implied (when he tells Susan at the end) that the Auditors caused this, because they hate how life brings forth crimson petals in the darkness where there is no-one to see. NOW IMAGINE WHAT THEY THINK OF HUMANITY.


Anyway, to “kill” the Hogfather, you need to make the children stop believing in him. You can do this with very, very old traditional magic. If you have a bit of someone like a nail clipping, you can control them. This is foreshadowed when Ridcully, in Bloody Stupid Johnson’s bathroom at Unseen University, tells the Verruca Gnome that there’s a special container for nail clippings out of the (justified) superstition to stop this happening. It’s gradually drip-fed to the reader how Teatime is using this. The driving question, which is foreshadowed when one of the kids Susan is Governess to (and I think Pratchett said it got him thinking when he encountered it with his own kids) is “Where does the Tooth Fairy take the teeth?”


We find out at the end that the Tooth Fairy is actually a bogeyman (in fact, the very first bogeyman) who became compassionate for human children because they were the only ones who still believe in monsters under the bed after human civilisation came. He realised that children could be magically controlled if someone got hold of their milk teeth, so created the tooth fairy myth (and employed others to work for him) to give an excuse to take the teeth (in return for money) and store them all in the realm where he lives to keep them safe.


This grew up around him, driven by the effect of the children’s belief in him. From the inside it looks like a tooth-shaped tower, but from the outside it looks like a child’s drawing of a square house, with blue sky only at the top and square windows and smoke twirling out of the chimney. It’s disturbing for adults to look at. Crucially, Teatime also knows that going there will protect him from Death, because Death cannot go there – modern children have no concept of Death because they are just told granddad has gone away etc. (Really clever bit). And when people are killed in the realm, they just vanish, and reappear in random places on Discworld as corpses.


Teatime hires some thugs and captures one of the junior tooth fairies, getting out of her how she drops off the teeth. They use this to break into the Tooth Fairy’s realm, make a huge pile of teeth from over the centuries and use the old magic to make children stop believing in the Hogfather. Because the teeth go back through generations, this starts to stretch back in time and becomes an allegory for the commercialisation of Christmas. Death tries to fix it by taking on the Hogfather’s clothes and going around the world letting the children catch glimpses of him – YOU’D BETTER WATCH OUT.


Meanwhile, all the spare belief from the Hogfather being killed causes new anthropomorphic personifications to blip into existence, for newer ‘household god’ phenomena like pens going missing.


Because the Tooth Fairy is a bogeyman, after Teatime’s thugs take over his house and are trying to break into his locked bedroom, he is able to send their worst childhood fears after them to pick them off one by one like a horror film – which manifest as dark shadows passing through the white marble of the house before manifesting when they are alone.


Death uses the University computer HEX to analyse what will happen (as well as, in a moving sequence, asking HEX to believe in the Hogfather as well by writing it into his permanent memory). Because the Hogfather is descended from a pagan sun god of human sacrifice to turn the winter, if he does not return, HEX calculates that THE SUN WILL NOT COME UP. The arc words are “old gods do new jobs”.


At the end, when he and Susan manage to reverse it, Death clarifies that if they hadn’t saved him, the sun wouldn’t have come up – A MERE BALL OF BURNING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD. Susan is annoyed at the semantics, but Death explains that without human stories to describe the universe, the human condition would be gone – humanity is WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE. (I love that phrase, as you may be able to tell).


The final twist is that Teatime attacks the household where Susan works. He tries to make the kids hate death, but they know Death is no monster – Teatime is. Foreshadowed early on that the child Twyla knows Susan’s poker “only kills monsters”, she’s able to throw it through Death because of the childrens’ belief, and it nails Teatime in the ribcage and kills him.


All of this is great and makes Hogfather a top-tier Discworld book – but chuffing good luck trying to explain it in a purely visual medium!


So much for the challenges of adapting Discworld’s complex concepts. What about the difficulties of adapting story settings involving many plot threads and many characters? This was the challenge of the TV adaptation of The Expanse, released first on Netflix and then continued on Amazon Prime. This had the same problem as the Harry Potter film franchise, that the adaptations were being released while new books were still coming out and the series was not concluded. Despite this, the adaptation was achieved very well, taking full advantage of everything that had been revealed so far.


The Expanse books are written by James SA Corey, the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Amusingly enough, Franck was George RR Martin’s personal assistant and the book covers contain glowing quotes from him – surely no conflict of interest there! Abraham, on the other hand, was once unable to finish a story (Hunter’s Run) through writer’s block and successfully got Martin to finish it for him, which must be the greatest irony since the Anti-Masonic Party nominated a Mason for President.


Anyway, the Expanse books are mostly ‘hard’ science fiction novels set in a future Solar System in which Earth has 30 billion people (half of them jobless and on ‘basic’ benefits), while Mars is populated and is an independent, well-armed state. This refined society is dependent on the ‘Belters’. Miners working in the Asteroid Belt and outer planets and who get the filthy end of the stick in all this. A radical Belter group, the Outer Planets Alliance, now seek full independence and rights. The running plot thread throughout the novels is that an evil corporation has discovered that Saturn’s moon Phoebe is actually an interstellar artefact and the source of a mysterious alien “protomolecule”. The protomolecule infects and transforms life (including humans), driven by a fundamental drive to recreate something of its long-vanished alien creators. After many, many events, this eventually results in the creation of an interstellar gateway, allowing humans for the first time to leave the Solar System. So now it’s time to fight over it.


I am passing over many plot complexities here, of course – it is a long series of thick books. As I said before, in the 1990s the assumption would be that any adaptation attempt would inevitably crush it down to an in-name-only film that, at best, explores a brief glimpse of the setting. But instead, building on the ideas of HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation of George RR Martin’s work (how appropriate) The Expanse adaptation radically does the opposite. Instead of trying to compress a long and complex story, it actually expands (haha) it. Instead of simplifying plot threads, it increases them, building the setting, trusting that the viewer will keep watching.


Characters routinely enter and leave the book narrative. For example, the important characters of Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN politician from Earth, and Bobbie Draper, a Martian Marine, only appear from book 2 onwards (and not consistently after that). By contrast, the TV series features both of them from near the beginning. Indeed, Avasarala’s first TV appearance, confronting a Belter agent, heavily foreshadows a dramatic event in book 5. The Revd Anna Volovodov (yes, unfortunately the writers haven’t heard of gendered Russian surnames) also gets to appear earlier than her first appearance in the books, helping establish her character.


Similarly, characters or places that only briefly appear in the books are expanded on in the TV series. An entire episode is devoted in flashback to the invention of the Epstein Drive that made colonisation of the Solar System possible, which is dealt with in all of a paragraph in the books. Julie Mao is a narratively important but effectively posthumous character in the books, and we don’t really see her evil corporate father much; by contrast, in the TV series we do get to see more of both of them and even a bit more rounding of her father’s character.


With this richness devoted to developing the setting and the characters, we find we can forget some of the changes that the producers had to make to the source material due to live-action limitations – for example, Naomi Nagata and other Belters are not taller than the Earth humans due to growing up in low gravity. It was certainly an audacious gamble but it has paid off, and has been reflected in many other adaptations (with varying degrees of success).


I will conclude this review at pragmatic adaptation with a look at the unorthodox Anthony Horowitz mystery novel Magpie Murders, which was written in 2016 and then adapted for television in 2022 (and released on channels people can watch in 2023). Horowitz, who shot to fame for a wider audience for the Alex Rider series of young spy action novels, has a diverse portfolio. His involvement with Golden Age murder mysteries goes back to him adapting a number of Poirot stories from Agatha Christie for the David Suchet ITV series. He also wrote most of the early episodes of Midsomer Murders, and has unsurprisingly turned to writing murder mysteries of his own.

Anthony Horowitz. It's a lot easier to do adaptations when you're the author of both both and screenplay.

Or is it?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Magpie Murders is, innovatively, a book-within-a-book. Our protagonist is an editor named Susan Ryeland, who works for the small publisher that publishes the temperamental author Alan Conway’s series of detective novels. These star a German Holocaust survivor named Atticus Pünd and are set in 1950s England, with deliberate influence from Christie and other Golden Age mystery fiction. Ryeland is sent the manuscript for what Conway has said will be the final Pünd novel, but the last chapter is missing – and Conway is dead under suspicious circumstances. Now Ryeland has to solve his murder for real.


The book has a little scene-setting with Ryeland, then contains the entirety of the last Pünd novel (minus its last chapter, and also titled Magpie Murders) before proceeding with Ryeland’s story. It concludes with the final chapter when it is unearthed. It is a very original way of storytelling, and also lets Horowitz get away with clichés in the Pünd section – it’s someone else’s writing, after all! More interestingly, there are all sorts of clues hidden throughout the Pünd novel, with real people having influenced characters in the narrative. Maybe one of those clues hinted at a secret so damaging that Conway was murdered for it…


This arrangement makes sense from the point of view of a literary narrative, as Ryeland will have read the manuscript before starting to act. However, it would not make much sense in a TV adaptation. Indeed, it would seem rather challenging to embark on one at all. It is thus all the more impressive that the adaptation (for which Horowitz himself wrote the script) pulled it off so well, in my opinion (and that of the critics). Rather than the viewer seeing the book-within-a-book all in one go, in the first episode we just follow Ryeland. However, as she starts to investigate, she fantasises about an imaginary Atticus Pünd helping her, and we keep cutting back and forth between the fictional story and the real drama as it progresses.


Rather than the narrative just hinting at which character is tied to which real person, the same actors consistently play both. While this might be limiting in some ways if one wants to create ambiguity over this point, in this case it works well. It did lead to some changes. For example, Detective Inspector Locke (the Lestrade of the piece) is black in the book but has an in-book white character based on him named Chubb (as in the lock company – Conway was fond of wordplay). As this wouldn’t work with the visual language of the production, Locke is white in the TV version, but two other characters are black instead.


One might assume that the production would use some kind of visual cue to show which one we’re in (such as colour vs black-and-white), but it revels in ambiguity to keep the viewer interested. For example, it cuts rapidly back and forth between Conway’s own funeral and one in the story, both held by the same actor playing the real vicar and the fictional vicar based on him.


In another splendid example, one thing we’ve become used to is that the fictional story is heralded by old cars on a street… but then we see Ryeland held up by a classic car meet and actually it’s the real world. It’s an audaciously ambitious way of storytelling.


The adaptation otherwise makes a few changes to the book, some positive and some negative. For example, it provides more of a reason why Ryeland might worry her Greek boyfriend was involved in the murder, which comes across as a paranoid leap in the book. Conversely, Conway’s gay lover is portrayed much more negatively in the adaptation for no apparent reason. On the whole though, this is an excellent and ambitious adaptation of a complex story, let down only because I can’t suspend my disbelief that the eventual secret uncovered (the same in both book and adaptation) would be worth killing someone over. Nonetheless, Horowitz unexpectedly managed to pull out a sequel (despite the apparent lack of room for one), Moonflower Murders, which has a much more satisfying twist in my opinion, and I hope this is adapted to the small screen as well.


This concludes my run-down of pragmatic adaptation tactics, pros and cons. There is a lot of fiction out there and a lot more room for future analyses, by myself or others!



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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series


among others.



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