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What Makes a Good Adaptation?

By Zoe Doyle, Lauren Jones, Amy Wright, Rowan Jackson and Ana Matute

Following the recent and highly criticised adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which was panned for its anachronistic dialogue (among other things) we started thinking about what makes a good screen adaptation. Read on to discover our favourites, what makes them successful and why we think they’re great!

Emma (2020) based on Emma by Jane Austen

Another Austen adaptation, the recent Emma joins the list of numerous Emma adaptations and it definitely holds its own against them.

The last of Austen’s novels to be published in her lifetime, Emma is a satirical novel that centres around the titular Emma Woodhouse, a rich, beautiful young woman who causes mischief with her misguided attempts at matchmaking. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma and she does not shy away from the more unlikeable aspects of Emma’s personality – here we see the character’s selfishness and arrogance clearly. And yet, we still root for her as she becomes more self aware and reflective. The movie embraces and plays into the comedic elements of Austen’s novel; has a stunning, frothy, confection-like palette reminiscent of Wes Anderson; and uses an interesting mix of folk and operatic music for its soundtrack. All this makes the film unique while largely keeping to the heart and essence of Austen’s novel.

Ballet Shoes (2007) based on Ballet Shoes: A Story of Three Children on the Stage by Noel Streatfeild

Starring some big names such as Emma Watson and Emilia Fox, Ballet Shoes is an adaptation of Streatfeild’s 1936 novel. Both the novel and the film tell the story of the Fossil sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, as they work on the stage to make ends meet during the Great Depression. A real strength of this adaptation is the dedication to preserving the original characters: from Pauline’s confidence to Petrova’s tomboyishness and Posy’s determination, there is no risk that these characters appear as anything other than individuals, and the individual personality of each character contributes strongly to the enjoyable and believable story. Some elements of the story have been altered to facilitate the book to screen transition, but the effort to include as many of the original events and characters as possible ensures that the film remains true to the book, and the attention to detail, especially regarding costumes and the soundtrack, is very praiseworthy.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) based on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

One very touching book very well adapted by Mark Herman to tell the story of Bruno. This movie focuses on the details to transport us to this moving story of two children in World War Two, one from a nazi family and the other in striped pyjamas living in Auschwitz. For me, this adaptation achieves the author's vision and handles the complexity and horrors that people had to deal with well – especially children and innocents.

The Age of Innocence (1993) based on The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The 1993 film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a popular adaption of this classic novel set in 1870s New York. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film tells the story of Newland Archer, a privileged young gentleman from a prominent family who is engaged to the beautiful debutante May Welland. However, with the arrival of May’s cousin Countess Ellen, an unconventional and scandalous outsider who couldn’t be more different to May, Archer begins to question not only his engagement but also the restrictive society that he is a part of. This romantic drama, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, is an enjoyable adaptation of Wharton’s novel, as it does not lose Wharton’s criticism of social conventions, and successfully demonstrates that this is more than just a story about characters in a love triangle.

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) based on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s popular classic The Great Gatsby encapsulates the glamour and corruption of 1920s New York, in addition to themes of enduring hope, loyalty, betrayal and love. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the infamous Jay Gatsby, Tobey McQuire as Nick Carraway and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, alongside many other great actors and characters. Baz Luhrmann is known for taking existing source material and putting a unique spin on it. This adaptation of The Great Gatsby features a beautiful soundtrack pairing jazz music with modern songs from artists such as Lana Del Rey and Beyonce. This, accompanied by Luhrmann’s distinct cinematic style, the highly stylised aesthetic of 1920s New York, and the deliberate colour choices, shows the stark contrast between the wealthy and poor sides of New York in the aftermath of the First World War. The result is a captivating and innovative portrayal of the enduring story of the relentlessly hopeful, and fateful, Jay Gatsby.


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