The Role of Adaptation in Children Book Series. An analysis of the importance of the adaptation industry to children book series, with 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' as case study
Essay 2017 8 Pages
The Role of Adaptation in Children Book Series
In this essay I am going to reflect upon the importance of the adaptation industry to children book series, beginning with a consideration on the different age targets involved; this will lead to outlining the benefit of transforming viewers into new readers, the role played by nostalgia in older viewers and the positive marketing effects brought by adaptations.
The adaptation of a children book series instead of a single novel comes with a peculiarity that needs to be considered when choosing the target audience: between the publishing of one book and the following there are usually months or years, meaning that the readers have grown up with the series. For example, the last Harry Potter book was published ten years after the release of the first one. The children who used to enjoy the enchanting wonders of his magical world are now ready for darker themes, much longer novels and a blurring of the division between good and evil. For instance, we find out that Harry’s mentor was planning on letting him die to destroy the enemy, whilst the professor that we were led to hate was trying to protect him all along (Rowling, 2007, pp. 529-553).
Therefore, the writers and directors of films based on children book series need to consider this age gap, which can also increase if the adaptation is filmed years after the release of the first books.
Nevertheless, despite the challenge of targeting the film to a fragmented audience, this age gap alone offers two main benefits, to both film revenues and book sales: the adaptation has the potential to attract children who had not read the books, compelling them to do so, but also older readers, giving them the opportunity to relive their childhood and rediscover the novels.
This is because the adaptation of children books works on two levels: ‘the first is the entertaining visual adventure experienced by the limitless imagination of the child viewer, and the second is the adult viewer’s struggle with feelings of loss through a nostalgic childhood imagination and the realisation of the limitations within “reality”’ (Rolufs, 2015, p. 38).
Let us take A Series of Unfortunate Events as our case-study, an extremely successful series of thirteen books written by American author Daniel Handler under the pen name Lemony Snicket. They were released between 1999 and 2006, and sold over 65 million copies (Pratley, 2017).
The protagonists are three siblings—Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire—who lose their parents in a fire that destroyed their home. They find themselves dropped from one guardian to another, constantly threatened by evil Count Olaf, desperately after their fortune. Whilst trying to solve the mystery behind their parents’ death and the secret organisation in which they were involved, they are always misunderstood by irrational or incapable adults.
The story is set in an alternative and anachronistic world, plunged in a Victorian gothic and steampunk atmosphere. As Todorov explains, ‘the fantastic implies an integration of the reader into the world of the characters,’ (1975, p. 31) and this is mainly achieved with metafictional narration. Lemony Snicket addresses the reader frequently, especially through the use of reverse psychology—‘If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book’ (1999a, p. 1)—or to explain complicated terms with sarcastic pedantry—‘The word “oblivious” here means “not aware that Stephano was really Count Olaf and thus being in a great deal of danger”’ (1999b, p. 79); furthermore, he actually leads the younger readers to believe that he is part of the story that he is trying to document.
The books were subject to two adaptations: a film and a TV series. Because of the different nature of the media, it is important to mention Cahir’s reminder that an adaptation should not be analysed on the premises of its resemblance to the books: instead of a strict adaptation —which means ‘move that same entity into a new environment’, she suggests the idea of translation —‘move a text from one language to another’ (2006, p. 14). Consequently, ‘a fully new text—a materially different entity—is made, one that simultaneously has a strong relationship with its original source, yet is fully independent from it.’
The film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was directed by Brad Silberling in 2004, when the last volumes had not been published yet and the children who had read the first book in 1999 were already five years older. The film told the story of the first three books and was broadly advertised for having Jim Carrey starring as Count Olaf.
Some theories state that ‘an adaptation should be faithful not so much to the source text, but rather to the essence of the medium of expression’ (Stam, 2000, p. 58). The film has actually achieved this: the reverse psychology of discouraging the readers from continuing the books was translated into ‘The movie you are about to see is extremely unpleasant. If you wish to see a film about a happy little elf, I'm sure there is still plenty of seating in theatre number two’; also, since Lemony Snicket played a big part in the books, he was portrayed as a silhouette, often narrating the story. Furthermore, the events of the three books have been rearranged in order to create a climatic ending (Silberling, 2004).
Obviously, the release of the film was beneficial to the original novels: many children who had not heard about them before have been encouraged to read them, thanks to the peculiar story, the funny villain or the narrator who seemed to be addressing them directly, making them feel part of the Baudelaires’ unusual world.
Nevertheless, the film failed to fully involve those who were growing up with the books. Since children are unlikely to be familiar with the faithfulness debate on adaptation, it is fair to say that their disappointment was—probably unconsciously—the one ‘we feel when a film adaptation fails to capture what we see as the fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of its literary source’ (Stam, 2000, p. 54).
The success of the books lies in the empathy felt by the reader towards the three protagonists and the mutual hate towards horrible Count Olaf, an extremely dislikeable character: book after book, the reader follows the Baudelaires in their sad adventures and hopes that their desperate plans to escape Olaf’s traps will not fail. As pointed out by Barry Sonders, one of the producers of the TV series, ‘what was great about the books was that they were about the kids. I felt the movie let the kids disappear in the whole Jim Carrey of it all’ (Eames, 2017). Since he is such a famous and popular actor, the director chose to allow him more screen time and jokes, resulting in his portrayal of Count Olaf as a funny character and in less focus on the children. This is probably the reason why the film—which had a budget of $140 million—made only 118 in the USA and, despite the remaining ten books, no sequels were ever made (“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”, n.d.).
Thirteen years after the release of the film, A Series of Unfortunate Events was brought back on the screen: in January 2017, Netflix launched the first season of a TV show dedicated to the Baudelaires. This time, instead of squeezing multiple novels into one script, directors and producers Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld chose to dedicate two episodes to each book.
Like the film, the TV series proved to be faithful to its medium, recommending viewers to ‘stream something else’ or ‘look away’ and ending each episode on a climax that pushes the viewers to watch the following one; the narrator was developed into a round character, physically appearing on the screen and, again, often explaining complicated words (Sonnenfeld & Hudis, 2017).
The main difference with the film was that the directors of the TV series proved to be more aware of the fragmented target audience: Sonnenfeld explained that it is ‘Netflix’s first four-quadrant show. Meaning, they were wanting to get as many demographics as they could, to be respectful of the people who read the books when they were younger but also to encourage people who are young now to watch it’ (Travers, 2017). Not only it led them to be successful and have the second and third season reconfirmed (covering all the thirteen volumes), but it also meant that more viewers were likely to develop an interest in the books. Let us see how.
Cartmell and Whelehan explain that ‘more than what’s left out, more attention is cast on what is added; it is the additions, not the deletions to the source that are largely responsible for an adaptation’s box office and critical success’ (2010, p. 73). This is what happened with the TV series, that added new scenes, intrigued the viewers with more members of the secret society and even added a married couple trying to return to their children, infusing a false hope that the Baudelaires' parents had somehow survived the fire. These stratagems proved to be very effective, hooking in even the viewers who had not read the books.