On the nature of adaptation…

No, this isn’t a treatise on evolution. I haven’t even my mother’s (non-evolution-focused, hence “even”) biological doctorate, so I’d be beyond out of my depth on it.

Anyway, of course, I’m referring to the adaptation of things like, well, comic books (okay, not “like” them, I mean “actually them”).

I’m still watching Arrow, and the truth is, I was never a Green Arrow reader. I was never a D.C. reader, for that matter. I know a lot of D.C. minutiae, because, well, comics. So I recognize the Ted Kord references, and what Roy Harper means, or a two-toned yellow and black mask, so on and so forth. But I have no investment in the characters, no background, no real awareness–GA appeared on my D.C. poster (the one I rather inexplicably decided to cut out from its frame, for reasons I’m still not sure of), and he does appear in the famous O’Neill/Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow books (oh, yes, I got the reference to the folks who made GA what he’s known as today via street names, a la Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–the 1989 film adaptation–and its “Eastman and Laird” address).

But beyond that? It’s not like watching X2 and seeing Lady Deathstrike turned from motivated character to cardboard cutout, deprived of personality, strict, factual origins–everything. It’s frustrating, because all conversations regarding this seem to have to start with, “Well, they can’t exactly adapt 50 years of history into a single…” Yeah. I know. That’s not the issue. It’s jamming a character in unnecessarily for “geek cred”: that’s the Smallville M.O., and that’s not an M.O. anyone should be copying. The only reason that show could stand under any geek-oriented viewing is the constant hook-baiting with this or that detail that pointed toward establishing the D.C./Superman world.¹

The funny thing was, it was most willing to utterly abandon origins in favour of those tricks. Which just made that trick collapse in on itself. Geeky references work best when they are not the core focus, nor lazily manipulative. You know–“Look! It’s Aquaman! It’s Green Arrow!” No time to establish these characters, of course. Just their presence to try to draw in fans of those characters, or people who like the interactions, or just people like me who love the references and associations and connections on such a visceral level that we will put up with lazy writing, awful acting (with a handful of exceptions), bad characterization–all of those qualities that made Smallville what it was. Arrow has made the thankful decision to not commit to an asinine rule like Smallville did (“no tights, no flights”), which denies the chance at the things that make the character people are watching, even the things people who’ve never touched a Superman movie know. And really, really forces plots to drag–without the Dragonball excuse of “We don’t know the plot yet!”²

This does make me extremely nauseous and weary when it comes to a number of upcoming things I do recognize, though. Namely, Thanos (surprise!) and John Constantine, who is allegedly coming to NBC with the right nationality and wrong regional dialect [distracting moment wherein I go and see if new information has appeared]. And apparently a guardian angel and something about the battle between good and…oh fuck. Well, go ahead and write that one off, looks like…

Anyway: the entire idea of adaptation is fascinating. Lazy cash-ins are largely the most successful (…Smallville.), and that’s just…odd, in a way. Considering nearly all adaptations these days are rife with references and nods and hints, you would think that, nevermind the obvious niche draw in the first place, geeks would be the primary audience, and would demand, in some regard, more accurate representations. But, we’ve got limitations: it isn’t as if you can say, “No, no: do that over.” Not successfully anyway. 

I guess that comes down to the larger issue that has been troubling me lately, which is, if I were to be inarticulate: “people like things for the wrong reasons.” But that’s both supremely condescending and inaccurate, in terms of even my own feelings on the subject. It’s more that people don’t actually like things. I mean, they do–but they don’t know what the thing that they like actually is. I’ve seen people suggest that Thanos is “never subtle”, which shows a fundamental failure to understand anything in that character’s 40 year history. Others just talk about his power, or strength. Starlin wrote him as a nudge from some learnings about psychology, and eventually used him to explore character–which he has done with all the characters he writes. That’s what the character is. Some people like him for being the unsubtle brute that…he isn’t. So, I guess, to be fair: people like things for banal, surface understandings.

And I guess that explains it all, doesn’t it?

An un-clever, thoughtless, meaningless, simplistic reference would appeal to anyone who is most interested in the shallow, flashing moment that amounts to nothing real or meaningful. And that seems to be the most popular approach to things–I don’t mean any of that to be critical of people who like those things. I’m less bothered when people talk about how awesome Thanos is and have no concept of, well, how awesome he is–I’m bothered when they criticize unique, interesting approaches like Starlin’s to that character, instead preferring that something utterly exchangeable instead occupy that role, but needing to be purple, blue, and gold.

And, of course: it does mean that generally I’d prefer we not have an adaptation of Thanos that is that bad. The rest of the world isn’t actually going to mind, as any “super-powerful badass” can occupy that space they’ve defined as his. The existing character won’t be ruined (…per se…), but a bad adaptation further cements the idea that a good adaptation simply won’t occur. And, in the process, it’s actually entirely possible that the character in continuity will continue to slough off Starlin’s hard work at a multi-faceted character in favour of that banal, boring-ass brute.

Such is life, I guess…

¹I suppose the one thing to let Agents of ??? survive is that it doesn’t do this. But then, it ends up harder to connect it to that universe it’s a part of. Bit of a catch-22 I guess, but the solution is “good writing”, which neither show has.

²The infamously drawn out Dragonball plots have an obvious cause–Toriyama hadn’t finished the manga, and no one knew what was to happen, though the anime continued to come out.

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