Adaptation is like translation… it’s hard.
If you’ve checked out any of Kaze’s articles on the topic, or perhaps tried translating anything yourself, you know that translating from one language to another is not as easy as it sounds. First, you must be aware of the nuances of the language itself, which are then further complicated by the language’s intrinsic link to the culture that created it. Idioms must be accounted for (e.g. “hot under the collar” or “hold your horses”) and cultural references understood. Sometimes you even run into the issue that the destination language has no concise way of communicating what the source language is trying to say! And let’s not forget those instances in which the destination language has too many ways of communicating the same message…
Case in point: it’s hard.
While a slightly different beast, adaptation struggles from similar issues. When converting a book to a movie, the director must decide what to keep, what to cut, what to modify, etc. In the rare case that a movie receives a proper novelization (not a junior novelization, which more or less tells a simplified version of the same story), the author must decide where to expand, which scenes to modify, and numerous other issues. These problems are not relegated to the relationship between books and movies, however: These problems are inherent to the very process of altering a story to fit a different medium.
From my very (very, very) biased perspective, I can think of no place where this process is more hotly debated than in the world of anime. Visual novels, light novels, manga, video games… While these can sometimes be, and in many cases are, the destination adaptation for a story (I’m not referring to spin-off sequels), more often than not they serve as the source for the marketing end-goal of “getting an anime.” Steins;Gate, Spice & Wolf, One Piece, God Eater, need I even continue?
…I would contend that one primary cause [for the failure of anime adaptations] is the ability of some studios and their directors to understand the fundamental differences between mediums and make changes appropriately.
With the prevalence of adaptations in the anime market, why is it that some succeed when others fail? There are innumerable reasons and theories for this, but I would contend that one primary cause is the ability of some studios and their directors to understand the fundamental differences between mediums and make changes appropriately:
Visual novels often focus on nonlinearity and lengthy dialogue. Light novels also tend to be heavy on dialogue, but are expressly linear. Manga have almost nothing but dialogue, relying on still frames to communicate motion. Video games have nearly endless possibilities, but almost necessitate repetition as a form of player/viewer interaction.
All of these can be told from the first person perspective, but visual novels are almost exclusively told this way (in fact, I can’t even think of one that isn’t as I’m writing this). Only two of these even have the option to include music, and all but one rely heavily on visuals, though some visual novels do succeed with barely any images at all.
Some of these are created almost entirely by one person, while others require large teams, resulting in writing by committee, often promoting overall quality while stifling creativity.
I think you get the point. While all of these mediums are intimately linked with anime, none are anime.
To get into the nitty gritty, I’d like to present the case of the Utawarerumono series, a recent fancy of mine.
Utawarerumono began its life as an R-18 visual novel/strategy RPG in 2002. In 2006, Aquaplus, the publisher, released an all-ages version of the game for PS2 and PSP which removed the entirely unnecessary hentai elements found in the original, and the game has since became a favorite of mine. Clocking in around thirty or so hours, the game is actually on the short side compared to many of its JRPG peers, but it is still not slouch, particularly considering that its visual novel side is about 80-90% of the playtime (this means that the majority of that 30+ hours is spent reading text).
All in all, this makes for a pretty easy anime adaptation. Unlike many visual novels, the length is manageable and the story is entirely linear… just like anime. So, a fan of the original game might go into the anime with moderately positive expectations, right?
Completely ignoring, for a moment, the possibility that the adaptation might make excessive story changes, rearrange events, and then storyboard in such a way that ruins many of the most impactful moments of the original story (of which Utawarerumono’s anime offends on all counts), one must remember what can be achieved with what resources in each medium. While many video games tend to be expensive to create, visual novels require limited art assets and minimal animation, making them among the cheapest to produce. Thus, a visual novel can narrate a compelling scene with only a few pictures and a lot of words (and words are cheap!). An anime, on the other hand, requires each individual frame to be drawn or modeled on a computer. This can result in amazingly beautiful works that trump the originals in many ways simply by virtue of the medium… or, if they’re produced cheaply, they can look like this:
And speaking of computer modeling, while it can be a great way to create numerous extras without the labor required to hand draw all of them, sometimes it can end up looking worse than a simple hand-drawn still shot. Just look at these for evidence of that:
If you ever get the chance to talk to me about Utawarerumono, you’ll know immediately that I am very vocal about how much I love it, but how poor my opinions are of the anime. Unfortunately, this is primarily due to the entire adaptation process, to which Utawarerumono fell victim in conjunction with its low production values.
Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen (Utawarerumono: The False Faces), the sequel game and anime of 2015-2016, share many of the same problems, but are even more exaggerated in certain areas. Namely, this game is more than twice the length of the original, clocking in around 60 hours. At a run time of somewhere around 7 hours, the 2-cour anime had to squeeze about 45 hours of talking and 15 hours of battling into just over 10% of the space. So this begs the question of how they did it. The answer?
Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen is a fine anime. It stands well on its own, which is, frankly, what it has to do. It is simply not the original, nor does it even seem to try to be in various ways. Many of the interactions in the original story were entirely scrapped for time. Entire plot points left out. Characters removed. Personalities altered. Events pieced together in ways they were not intended. Music repurposed. Everything is different.
So what does all of this really mean? What does it all come down to?
Just as a language is intrinsically tied to its culture, so a story is intrinsically tied to its medium. Even when an adaptation is superior to its origin (I’ve often claimed the Clannad anime to be superior to the Clannad visual novel, though I suppose that’s up for debate), both productions are themselves and nothing more. As much as I’m frustrated that the Utawarerumono name is attached to two productions of vastly different quality, in the end, the game tells its story while the anime tells its story.
Just as a language is intrinsically tied to its culture, so a story is intrinsically tied to its medium.
Mediums both bind a story and set it free. The next time you find yourself absorbing an adapted story, whether it’s simple fiction, something spiritual, or anything in between, consider how it is being conveyed. Then, consider why that medium was selected to convey it in that way. Perhaps it’s something as simple as practicality: The creator didn’t have access to expensive tools, or the publishes was just looking to make a quick buck. Maybe, though, this medium offers something unique that the original simply couldn’t.
Granted, if Utawarerumono is an indication of anything, chances of that are pretty slim, heh.