Adapting the Story

Warner Brothers Studio Tour, England by Kathryn Duncan

I am watching the second season of Bridgerton and enjoying it a great deal though I know it is anachronistic. Because it is not trying to be historically accurate, I like the classical covers of pop songs and the diverse cast.

I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm. When I received an invitation to join a Bridgerton Facebook group, I was met with a post complaining about how this second season is too different from the book on which it is based.

This doesn’t bother me, for I’ve only read the first book and part of the second. I’m aware of differences, but I’m not invested and can appreciate the narrative arc on its own.

But I get it.

Recently, I re-watched the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with my daughter who had never seen it before. She would hit pause every time I murmured or sighed and ask me, “What?”

“All that mud! That pig in the house! They were not poor and didn’t go around saying they were poor. Yes, there were financial issues because of how the estate would be settled on a male heir, but they weren’t poor!”

My daughter enjoyed the movie because, unlike me, she hasn’t read the book countless times and hasn’t written articles and a book on Austen as I have. She could enjoy the movie as a movie.

However, we are both on the same page with the book I am currently teaching in a Harry Potter class, which is the sixth in the installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I love all the Potter books and like the movies, but that sixth movie irritates me.

Where are the flashbacks?

The whole purpose of the sixth novel is to give insight into Lord Voldemort’s past. It’s an essential plot device for the next and last book in the series. Much more importantly, the novel is doing something thematically critical, which is to complicate the typical villain storyline and, shockingly, create compassion for Tom Riddle.

The memories also help us to appreciate Harry as hero.

All but one flashback scene from the novel is cut in the sixth movie, which has the audacity to then add a scene not in the novel. What?!

Why do we have such moral outrage over adaptations changing our favorite novels?

An academic explanation goes by the name of Reader Response theory, which argues that meaning is made between text and reader, which means, yes, there’s an author, but I’m creating a personal connection and interpretation as I read my favorite books. In that way, I make the story my own.

When I see an adaptation on screen, my version of this story is gone; I’m looking at a version created by other people: directors, actors, set designers, costume designers, actors, etc. It’s no longer my story though I feel invested and even “own” it.

There’s no harm in this other than some annoyance.

However, we can do the same thing in life, resulting in harm. We constantly create narratives, stories about our day, about the people in our lives. Those stories then create expectations, ideas about those people, and we can get angry when loved ones don’t follow the script we wrote for them, even though we never have shared that script.

When I tell someone close to me stunningly good news, I’d better get big and happy congratulations immediately in the way that I scripted for them. If not, then my feelings are hurt, and that person has done something “wrong” according to my narrative idea of what should happen.

When I think about such moments of disappointment or anger in relationships, I can see how they’re real-life versions of being angry that I don’t meet the Gaunt family in the film version of Half-Blood Prince or that I have to see Dumbledore yell at and grab Harry in the film version of Goblet of Fire even though the book explicitly describes Dumbledore as calm in that moment.

In life, I suppose we would be better off mimicking how I’m seeing the new season of Bridgerton. I’m taking the story at its face value, not annoyed by historical inaccuracies, accepting the changes while taking pleasure in the beautiful costumes, and appreciating the diverse cast.

I will always balk at changing my favorite books too much, but I’m going to accept that things get lost in adaptations and that my own script writing can cause harm if I’m not willing to adapt also.



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Kathryn Duncan

Kathryn Duncan is an English professor and author of the book Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment.