Normal People + What Makes a Successful Adaptation

Before I was a screen junkie, I was a page junkie. I would consume books faster than my favorite authors could write them and then lounge around aimlessly while the next release dates would creep up on me. More than anything, I understand the power of the written word. Most TV shows and movies begin with a written script that requires hundreds of people to attempt to put them together. It can be argued that a book is the initial script for any good screen show. This is why so many of our favorite shows and movies originated from a book. Nine times out of ten, the written story is better than the adaptation. Why’s this? Because it was the original story. 

I’ve always struggled with the concept of needing to make a story plausible on the big screen. I never understand how, with all the advancements in technology, a story as seemingly simple as demon hunters with magic runes was so complicated to translate to the screen. When there are adaptations that misuse CGI, it almost always seemed like there was no reason to have a bad adaptation. In the years since truly beginning to understand the influence of media on society, I’ve come to realize that adaptations aren’t logistically hard to make. The issue with adapting old stories is the need to modernize stories that don’t seem to have a universal theme that people nowadays can relate to. My example for this is Little Women. Most of the adaptations preceding the 2019 remake ended with Jo March marrying Friedrich as the book did. Yet, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation strayed from the original ending to give Jo an ending that was much more aligned with her characterization. Why was this alternate ending successful? Gerwig managed to stay true to the movie but exploit a theme that was partially developed in the original story but abandoned due societal expectations. In an era where it’s socially acceptable for a woman to not marry, Jo’s decision makes sense and is hailed as revolutionary. I applaud this adaptation for keeping with what was clearly consistent characterization, but I cringe when I think that those who have not read the book will think that this is the original ending. 

This brings me to the concept of numerous remakes. I understand that Hollywood is a viewer dependent industry. If the viewers aren’t willing to watch a film, it holds no value amongst the production companies despite any critical acclaim. Films such as Little Women, Cinderella, and Aladdin are remade in order to revive the box office success of the original (I name Cinderella as an adaptation because it is based on a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aladdin is based on a story from 1001 Nights). But, the original stories contain themes that can be seen as morally corrupt and not suitable for children. In the original Aladdin, he was not a good man. He was infernally jealous and performed acts that would have warranted a restraining order in today’s society. These stories deserve a place in modern society, but not in their original form. Hence the need for constant remakes (i.e 1992 Aladdin and 2019 Aladdin). The 1992 film became outdated for the same reason that the original story did, unrelatable themes. In this movie, they came in the form of the characterization of Princess Jasmine. In the 1992 version, Aladdin is clearly the hero and saves the princess; in the 2019 remake, Jasmine is shown to be more fiercely independent, keeping with today’s acceptance of fierce women. While I’ll never claim that modernizing these stories are bad, the consistent change of these stories will cause the original plots and themes to become obsolete, thus causing an altered view of history. 

In terms of modern literature with a strong fan base, such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Mortal Instruments, deviating from the story when the publication date is only in the near past only serves to create wildly unsuccessful adaptations. Why’s this? Many of these adaptations don’t trust the success of their source material. Often, the screenwriters, so used to elevating scenes for cinematic effect, forget that the large scenes are not often what makes these books popular. Citing Percy Jackson, the lack of incorporation of blue food takes away from the knowledge that Percy is a son of Poseidon. Riordan’s incorporation of a quirk that is a large part of Percy’s character is what allows the audience to relate to him. While Logan Lerman acted well with what he was given, he couldn’t do Percy justice because there was no chance to develop the character that the audience had already gotten to know in the book. In terms of The Mortal Instruments, this is another case of the screenwriters not trusting the source material. The beauty of this series in particular is that even the smallest of moments are used as a tension building device, meaning that incorporating these seemingly insignificant moments wouldn’t take away from the adaptation but instead keep the story following closely to the original story. Here, the modernizing of themes doesn’t hold as a valid argument because the themes are already modern enough that the audience can relate to them. Instead, the screenwriters hype up the action scenes in order to attract the audience’s attention, not understanding that the original is more than enough to result in a high box office value. 

Now, after citing some common mistakes with adaptations in a world where the screen has taken over the page, I want to talk about one adaptation that is successful for dispelling all of the above reasons. Normal People. 

Normal People follows the relationship between two people who essentially always find their way back to each other in a world where it’s easy to lose true love. The source material thrives in its subtlety and the nuances of growing from a teeanger to a young adult with a relationship that has defined you for your whole adolescent life. While Connell and Marianne fight, they fight in ways that any normal couple would fight in. Their fights weren’t overly dramatic and were written in a way that was clearly not meant to shock, but rather to portray how they overcame it. When looking at the adaptation, the screenwriters clearly trusted the source material. Instead of hyping up their fights and separations, they chose to trust that the nuances of the source material were successful in their own way because they were realistic. Even in the fantastical stories that I used as examples above, the movies did away with any sense of realism that truly did exist in the original source materials because these stories are rooted in other cultures and mythologies. While Normal People takes place in rural Ireland, the show does focus on certain cultures; it focuses on the culture of teenagers and young adults. Generational cultures. In genuinely portraying these generational ideas as they were meant to be written, the show immortalizes this time period and provides something that discusses the highs and lows of a young adult relationship.

Instead of modifying themes to make them more modern, the screenwriters trusted that themes about love are universal and they can transcend generations, thus making this a successful story to adapt. The discussions about mental health that are demonstrated through both Connell and Marianne’s characters open the door to conversations that have long been shoved aside. This show and this adaptation forces conversations about mental health to become mainstream and forces people to consider that even the most “normal people” struggle with some unseen demon. 

Now, even though Normal People focuses on normal people and everyday stories, this doesn’t mean that other non-normal stories don’t deserve to be adapted. Normal People’s success comes from trusting the source material. And that, essentially, is what makes a successful adaptation. Despite adapting seemingly outdated stories, trusting the source material provides evidence of societal change. It’s one thing to read about how society evolves in textbooks but it’s another to watch it on the big or small screen. Changing someone’s story and claiming that it is inspired by its source material doesn’t make a successful adaptation because fans of the books don’t come to the movie theater wanting to see a drastically different story. They come to see the words they fell in love with translated to the big screen. And as any page junkie knows, watching a truly good adaptation makes you fall in love with the story all over again. 

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