Friday’s Feature: A True Champion Can Adapt To Anything, But Don’t Mess With The Source Material

Last week I reviewed the Netflix Death Note movie and I tried really hard to review it as a movie in its own right rather than as a poorer version of the psychological masterpiece that is the original anime (at least the first half of it). However, while I read a lot of reviews about this movie, what I noticed repeatedly was that a lot of reviewers were not reviewing the movie on the screen. They were reviewing how well it managed to follow a different script or the manga. Some reviewers even put side by side pictures of the live action characters from the American production with the anime version of the character as though this somehow added weight to their argument that the movie was appalling.

Now, I don’t actually want to argue about whether the movie was good or not because that isn’t even the issue. While I enjoyed it on my second watch through, there are some actual plot and character problems that the movie has, even ignoring the source material and the changes that were made, and it definitely has some pacing issues in the second half. Is it the single worst thing I’ve ever seen and would I threaten the production team with having their names written in a Death Note? Probably not, but nor do I care to try to defend the movie because this movie is pretty much doomed to be a five minute discussion topic and then the world will move on.

However, I have to wonder why fans get so attached to the source material that any variation feels like some kind of criminal act? By its very nature, adapting material forces changes. From manga to anime, anime to live action, it is kind of certain some things are going to be lost or changed. Some because of the medium involved and others because of different interpretations, and still others by deliberate choice. While those choices may produce a lesser quality work (and regularly do, I’m not even going to try to claim that the majority of works that have ended up with this treatment aren’t pretty dreadful) it isn’t necessarily because they chose to change them. In the case of Death Note, I would actually argue that the changes didn’t go far enough.

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In an effort to pander to the fans of the manga and anime, several characters and events were left in the film, though they served little purpose and actually just took up screen time that could have better been spent on fleshing out some of the more original ideas. The pacing fell apart toward the end because we’d wasted time building L up as any kind of antagonist when he actually wasn’t the one Light had to confront, and because they bothered to leave Light’s father in the story as a character of any significance. Which of course in the other variations of the story, L and Light’s father are important and of course should have screen time, but in this version of the story, they were merely the face of the police, but the climax isn’t about Light facing off against the police. It is about Light facing off with Mia, his partner who for whatever reason wants to use the Death Note to judge whoever she wants.

If you sat through Netflix’s Death Note and felt frustrated by the ending, think about how much better it would be if L just remained a background character. A voice on the TV reassuring people that the police were looking for Kira, and someone Light mocked to make himself look good to Mia, and then they went about their business. What if the police received a tip that Light and Mia might have been Kira after they were overheard discussing the Death Note in the school grounds (because they do and that is stupid), so the police still show up at the dance forcing Light to tell Mia to go to the ferris wheel and still leading to a chase sequence, only no L and no space gun.

Suddenly the whole sequence is cleaner and less complex because you aren’t trying to deal with L’s emotional break down which is unimportant to the viewer because this version of Death Note gave us no reason to care and you aren’t trying to figure out what is with the gun. Light no longer has to try to justify his actions in hysterics and we actually have time to give Mia some actual character development. It would all work so well.

However, let’s pitch that idea to Death Note fans.

So, I’m going to make a live action version of Death Note.

Go on.

It’s going to be set in America.

What?

No, it will be fine. We’ll just give Light an American sounding surname. No problem.

Assuming that’s true, what else will you change?

Okay, I’m going to get rid of L as a main character. He’ll still be there, but the investigation isn’t going to get that close to Light, as I’m going to focus on how Light changes as a character because of the Death Note rather than how smart he is and how well he can play cat and mouse with a detective.

Right, so the table just got flipped and that discussion ended rather abruptly. Because for some people that change means it is no longer Death Note. What it means to be Death Note is gone. For me though, Death Note is the power to kill with the book. How that power is handled by different people in different times and places could be fascinating. There’s an endless parade of stories that could come from that idea and some of them could be brilliant. They may not involve two super geniuses anonymously facing off using the entire world as their battle ground, but the stories could still be pretty brilliant. So that is where I feel that saying the reason the Netflix Death Note movie is not that good isn’t because they changed the source, but because they didn’t have enough confidence to take the core mechanic and make it their own. They tried to have their cake and eat it, by appealing to fans by keeping things they should have just cut and trying to make a very different style story at the same time.

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But if we turn our attention to the other big adaptation that got people talking, Ghost in the Shell, we have much the same argument. Some people accusing Hollywood of White Washing, others saying that the writers missed the point, still others saying Scarlett was not a good Major whereas some would say she did a fine Major. But maybe it is the fans missing the point.

I don’t know how many of you have ever read the novel ‘Jaws’. I’m sure most of you have either seen the movie or know of it. It’s a great movie. Lot’s of suspense and jump scares, excellent musical score, some buddy moments with the cast, and of course a giant shark eating people. It’s classic and it works. But the movie wasn’t supposed to be that suspenseful. The shark was supposed to appear a lot more and the reason we only get limited glimpses of it, adding to that great atmosphere, is because the shark malfunctioned and they couldn’t get any more footage of it. The drunken singing and storytelling occurred because one of the cast was genuinely drunk (regularly). Many things that make that movie amazing occurred entirely by accident.

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And when you read the novel, aka the source material, what you find is an incredibly different story and one that the movie was clearly never trying to tell. Yes, there’s still a killer shark. But there’s also a love triangle between Brody and the scientist and Brody’s wife and the book spends a lot of time on the drama and relationship aspects and far less time with the boys drinking on the boat. It is almost as if the only thing kept the same were some of the character names and the killer shark. I’ll also point out that the movie is much more entertaining than the book, though doesn’t have the depth of characterisation you will find in the book.

But comparing the two is kind of pointless. The book has its place and its audience and it inspired one of the greatest classic horror stories to hit the cinema. The fact that the two stories have ended up vastly differently doesn’t mean that the movie is trash or that the writer should somehow be fed to the broken mechanical shark.

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To bring this back to anime though, I think Sailor Moon (1990’s) and Sailor Moon Crystal are a great example of why following the source isn’t the be all and end all. I loved the original Sailor Moon anime. Yeah, it isn’t following the manga but as I didn’t even know it was based on a manga when I was young that isn’t really a criticism I care for. It was a great story and one I fell in love with. That didn’t mean I wasn’t excited about Crystal. Seeing the story in a new form. Same characters but with a different interpretation. One that was apparently closer to the source but different from the one I knew. The end result is that while the main characters did great out of Crystal, the Sailor Scouts really get sidelined a lot and their personalities are pretty bland. So, sure, fans of the manga may really appreciate Crystal for how true it might be, but for me, while it is great to see Sailor Moon with more modern visuals and less filler, the 1990’s version is always going to be my go to version for the champion of Love and Justice.

I’m going to reiterate that the point of this post wasn’t to tell you that Death Note was an amazing movie. Nor was it to criticise people who want to criticise the movie. It was more a musing on how our preconceived notions of what something should be like affect our ability to accept variations on it. Which makes me wonder why we have so many reimaginings of super heroes and why we’re tolerant of those guys getting darker and grittier with every retelling but aren’t happy to see a character made more human or actually get a girlfriend.

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Anyway, over to you and I’m sure I’m asking for it but let me know your thoughts on how fans deal with adaptations of source material.


Thanks for reading.

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Thanks,

Karandi James.

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46 thoughts on “Friday’s Feature: A True Champion Can Adapt To Anything, But Don’t Mess With The Source Material

  1. Indeed, a lot of fans expect to hate the live-action film adaptation before even watching it. This is worse when it doesn’t follow the source material. As for me, I personally would prefer the adaptation to respect the source material but I would also be intrigued when it chooses its own path. Whether it works or not is another matter. But I think it’s just not fair to hate all adaptations because they’re not anime or the source material.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Your Name argument is a good one to look at with a number of people already saying they don’t want it made, or that it will be ruined by adding sci-fi elements, etc. Nothing other than an announcement has been made and yet so many people are already predicting it will suck (which they might be right about but at least let them start making it first before you decide that).

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Even if it isn’t awesome, at least judging it on its own merit makes more sense than just assuming it sucks or blaming it for not being the same as the original. There wouldn’t be a lot of point in making something exactly the same (looking at what they did with Psycho – why bother).

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel the adaptation argument, especially with anime production coming into light, is a shaky debate. If people say the anime is bad because it didn’t follow the manga precisely, then they don’t know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, having an author’s story in anime format can be an exciting thing, especially if the source is really popular. I feel anime adaptations should meet in the middle. Adapt, but get your creative merits in to make it dashing or even better than the source. Look at KyoAni’s adaptations. Naoko Yamada takes a source material and can make it as good and even better than it. K-On, Silent Voice. Both are great examples of how to do an adaptation. With the case of Death Note film, yeah, it was bad. Perhaps they should have taken less liberties to be americanized? Hmm..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But if the point was to make an Americanised Death Note than Americanisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is different, butn ot necessarily bad. There are certainly other parts of the movie that weren’t great (some of the acting for one), but just moving it to America and changing things to fit that setting doesn’t necessarily devalue the story being told.

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      1. A point worth emphasizing – though it can be badly done, from the point of view of the *story* Americanization is not necessarily of itself a flaw.

        You can quickly run into problems when the story relies inescapably on cultural elements (onsen, or tea time, or siesta) that aren’t present or don’t map well onto American culture though.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. We just watched the Death Note movie today on a whim. Your point about how it might be better if it was altered a lot more is interesting because we were talking about how if the Notebook and Ryuk were taken out, the entire thing would feel a lot more like one of those slightly gory teen horror films. In such a case, Light’s whole romantic subplot and his realizations about how the book changed people would be a lot more appropriate too.

    But then, just as you pointed out with your example, it isn’t Death Note. There was some discussion about anime fans and their aversion to adaptations but I don’t think all the blame is on their end either. When you decide to adapt something and use its name as part of the initial appeal you are knowingly setting up an expectations for fans of the original work. Should you then be blamed for deviating? How much room is there really for creative control? Yes, anime fans are especially harsh, but if the key aspects are missing then fans have every reason to be a little miffed that they didn’t get what it said on the tin.

    But in Death Note’s case, what are the key aspects? Is it the notebook and Light’s transformation into Kira? Or is it the cat and mouse detective game and all the “just as planned” moments? You could make a case for both which is where I think it gets tricky for this movie. Amid the overacting and shoddy character arcs they couldn’t focus on one or the other and ended up satisfying neither.

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    1. I agree that finding the key aspect of Death Note is hard because there are a few things the original did well or at least could be considered a central theme and any one of those could be a focal point for an adaptation and would still satisfy being an adaptation of the material. Unfortunately, fans are a little bit unforgiving when the directors focus isn’t theirs.
      Still, your point is well made that in borrowing the name you kind of set yourself up for fan criticism and maybe it would be better not to start down that path in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I actually thought about the superheroes too while reading this, but I have to say, deviating from the source material isn’t welcomed by all the fans. Outstanding examples: Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. When they had Superman actually take a life, it was a huge deal and drew a lot of criticism. And then they gave as a Superman who didn’t smile, at all, and felt guilty about whatever, and, even more, a Batman who torments and kills people A LOT. That is something so utterly counter to everything about Batman, the foundation of his character and what separates him from his enemies, I couldn’t help but be upset about it for awhile. The DCEU has been rather flagrant in changing their characters like that. The Joker, for instance, was never a crime lord, and never gave a crap about Harley, no way he’d actually search for and rescue her like he does in Suicide Squad.

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    1. On the other hand deviating from the source can lead to wonderful things. Batman Beyond starts with the implication that Batman used a gun to kill – but the resulting self enforced retirement lead to Terry McGinnis donning the Bat Suit.

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      1. Hm, I wouldn’t really call that a deviation, though. Yes, it features Batman killing one person, using a gun one time, but that is far different from the DCEU version of him, most especially with that self-retirement. He took one life, one time, and that was it for him. “Never again.”

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        1. To me, comparing the canonical Batman rather than the much later DCEU, taking that one life is like Oswald missing – it changes everything subsequent to that. That’s what I was getting at in calling it deviation. Maybe point of departure would have been a better way to phrase that.

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    2. Definitely some hard core super hero fans will get annoyed by changes to the characters, but people still keep going to these movies despite the changes to these characters and most of them are comercially successful (even if not always critically so).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, going to see the first one or two, that is be one thing. Going to the next several, that is something else. If DC had bungled Wonder Woman, oh boy, would there have been Hell to pay! It just *might* have spelled he end of the DCEU. Instead, now people are psyched up for the Justice League movie, which I am still hesitant over but will go and see. If this one doesn’t deliver, then DC’s back in trouble again.

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      2. As a long time (40+ years) Marvel Fanboy, I enjoyed the movies even though I was often incensed at the changes… It took several years for me to grasp that the small number of comics nerds *wasn’t their target audience*. For every one of me, there was ten thousand people who only wanted to see a half decent action story with decent characterization. The MCU has delivered that in spades, and reaped the rewards.

        Anime fandom haven’t yet grasped this.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. admittedly, i havent seen the death note movie. i gave it a shot, but only watched about 10 minutes before i realized that it was pretty much a completely different kind of story. but to your point, all of our opinions are based on preconceptions. i would say there’s more of a psychological anchoring effect when something has the same label. plus if we liked the original and the adaptation is going for something else, we might not necessarily be inclined towards that new thing. i wouldnt be surprised if it’s the same effect we see when people tend to place extra weight on the anime they see earlier as they determine favorites.

    also, ive seen honest trailers describe ant man as basically the same story as ironman and describe guardians of the galaxy as the space avengers. given that it’s the same studio, i wouldnt be surprised if those accusations had merit. but we really dont have a problem with that because the two arent associated in any strong way.

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    1. I agree with your point that the anime we see first definitely tends to skew our choices when we pick our ‘favourites’. Most of the anime in my list o favourites would be anime I watched early on and unfortunately everything that has come after does get compared against it whether I want to or not. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some more recent ‘favourites’ but the majority of shows I claim to love were ones I watched in the first few years of becoming an adult anime viewer.
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yeah, it doesnt necessarily hit every case, but you can think of it this way. generally, we’d watch something considered to be good when we’re being introduced to a medium. if you latch on to the medium, it would presumably be because you found that introduction appealing. so you’re effectively entering with an elevated opinion because otherwise you’d probably move your interests elsewhere. past that, every new thing is going to naturally be compared with the stuff that preceded it.

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  6. Love this post! Originals are not always better, but anybody doing adaptations should keep the spirit of the original and perhaps patch the source material’s weak spots. I believe the authors of 101 Dalmatians and The Hunger Games have said they were impressed at how their story was improved in the movie versions, and the Rurouni Kenshin author stole a scene from the opening to use in the manga.

    Since someone brought it up, yes, Crystal does make parts of the original manga worse. But on the other hand, the manga also tends to be looked upon with rose-colored glasses. A good portion of the characterization comes from readers’ experiences with the anime, not what’s in the manga itself. But the perfect edition coming out next year in English with the pretty color inserts and a (hopefully) not-so-terrible translation will give you a good excuse to check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually did not know 101 Dalmatians was a book. Now I have to track that down because I’m wondering how it works in books form.
      I’ll think about checking out Sailor Moon but for me it is always going to be the 90’s anime that I fell in love with. It may not have been the original, but it was my first experience with those characters and it is how I always remember them.

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  7. I love what you suggested about using L as a background character. If they had done that, the movie could’ve been so much better. My biggest problem with the movie were the dialogues. They were particularly cringy, especially the part where L and Light meet in a cafe.
    There’s this Hindi movie “Drishyam” which was based on the “Devotion of Suspect X”. They changed a lot of thing with the movie, made it fit an Indian setting and they even changed some key points of the storyline. If you haven’t read the book, you wouldn’t even be able to tell the movie was based on it. Now, the small population who were aware of the book never felt outraged. In this case, it’s safer to say it was inspired by the book rather than an adaptation.
    So, what I’m saying is maybe, when they decided to adapt Death note, they should’ve thought of it as an inspiration rather than trying to appeal to appeal to both fan and general audience.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I know this post is about Death Note but since I’ve never seen the anime or movie and don’t plan to I’d liek th address Sailor Moon and Crystal.

    My main complaint about the Crystal adaptation is, the manga isn’t like that at all! The girls are all interesting in the manga, and sure the chapters are shorter like the anime had but the manga is amazing as opposed to the blandness that Crystal became. What I wanted form SMC was the manga themes and characterizations expanded upon with a few more episodes, but there were a lot of ideas that Naoko Takeuchi had in the manga that were thrown into Crystal but not expanded upon and the missed potential of SMC was dissapointing. So to the end, I think that’s a good example of how to not verbatim adapt something if it really can’t hold it’s own.

    I think a lot more on book adaptations as opposed to anime to manga adaptations. First thing that comes to mind is the Eragon book vs the movie – the movie really shouldn’t be compaired to the book, considering how drastically different both are. When, you can look at the Harry Potter movies, and read the Harry Potter books and even though they left some stuff out of the HP movies you can look at it and the books and say “Yes, this is Harry Potter adapted for a mainstream audience”.

    Self awareness is number 1 what peopel should think of when adapting something I think. If you have a crew that knows the source material well enough to be able to make something their own while paying homages to the original (looking at you Voltron) then I think that’s the best balance of pandering to fans while bringing in a new audience for the material. But I never think anyone wins when they try to 100 percent make something new, or 100 percent pander to fans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. See, I’d disagree about the Harry Potter books and movies. Without reading the books, by about the third movie there is no plausible way for the audience to actually follow the story in the movies because so much has been left out and yet the movies still try to get to the same conclusion. While fans fo the books might enjoy the movies, they aren’t doing a particularly good job standing on their own (the first one is an exception but even then there are some things in the end that don’t make sense because the explanations were part of what they cut).
      Interesting thoughts on Sailor Moon though. I’ve never read the manga but was told Crystal was a truer adaptation than the original, but to be honest have never really felt inclined to read the original manga to find out.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these.

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  9. It seems like a lot of the people who watched the Death Note movie were comparing it to the anime from the outset. Like you were saying I don’t think this is a great approach for almost any adaption. There are so many novels that have been adapted into tv shows which bare little resemblance to the source material. Yet some of these are incredibly popular. It is harder as a fan of something to want to see a live action film just for it to be completely different from your expectations. However this shouldn’t deter filmmakers from making drastic changes such as you suggested. I can’t help but think about how classics have been adapted over time, Jane Austen’s works have been adapted into almost every type of movie genre you can think of. While it is fun to recognise the names and characteristics of some characters, we don’t freak out when there is some inconsistency as we are so used to seeing the source material integrated into different things.

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    1. Yes, if we look at how a lot of classic books have been adapted over the years we’ve certainly seen some interesting liberties taken with the stories. Dracula and Frankenstein have been changed into so many different kinds of stories it is almost impossible for some people to identify what the original forms of these stories was. Jane Austen’s works, as you said, have also been borrowed and used in an incredibly diverse range of stories now and some are good, some aren’t, but people don’t seem to get up in arms about every minor change when these works are adapted.

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  10. Yeah, I tried my best to review it as a movie instead of an adaptation, but I don’t think I was successful in that manner. Even then without the source material, I don’t think it was a great movie at all either.

    Oh yeah, I love the idea of L only being a shadow presence and maybe making a big “muahaha” ending with him and then having him be more of a competitor in the second movie. That build up would have been amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely did have some comparison points in my review too. It is very hard to separate the viewing when you go in expecting something. Though that is also why I waited a couple of days and did a rewatch before finalising my review. The first watch made me really angry and then I had to take some time to step back and think about what the film was trying to do rather than what I wanted the film to do.

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  11. “…no space gun.” Lol it did look like that XD

    Any way, I think if you make a licensed movie you have to at least understand what made the source material appealing in the first place. Things don’t need to follow beat-for-beat but respecting the source is often a good idea on that front. Otherwise, why even make the licensed film?

    Of course, it is important to view these works as standalone pieces as well. If it requires so much context that you can’t enjoy the film on its own you run into a similar issue. Really it’s a fine line to walk.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Understanding what makes something appealing is probably a good idea, but in the case of Death Note they latched onto a secondary appeal that wasn’t really explored in the anime and gave it a more horrific and faster paced story rather than going with the psychological mind games. It will appeal to a different audience but it is still an appeal and one that was present to a point in the source (and also one that works better for film given the short run time they have to develop it).
      Then again, the words ‘based on’ are probably needed rather than calling the movie the same name as the anime and the manga because it definitely did go a different way.
      Then again, I feel that way about the new Battlestar Galactica. I probably would have actually liked that if they’d said it was based on Battlestar and just given everyone new names.

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      1. It’s definitely a complex issue. I actually think the Death Note movie works as a comedy, just not the action-thriller type thing it decide to go for. If you look up the director, then this opinion seems like a no-brainer.

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  12. Hey there Karandi – Great post – I think You’ve made some really solid points here. We reviewed Death Note the manga in our forum this month, to coincide with the release of the movie, which we also watched. We then held our forum at a convention here in the UK and had some really good discussion from all levels of fans. If you’re interested, we posted the recording on youtube. Some of our discussion was based on adaptations in general and questioning whether it’s a way of introducing people to manga but I don’t necessarily agree – Let me know your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think an adaptation should be about introducing someone to something else. I think adaptations should be made with the idea that they need to hold their own. They should be good not because someone is aware of other stories or ideas that are in other versions of the story, but because the story and characters they have are just well constructed and entertaining.
      I think adaptations definitely suffer when they are used as advertisements for superior sources because it doesn’t give a satisfying story in its own right and as a result, I’m even less likely to ever want to track down the source material.
      Something like Fruits Basket kind of worked because the anime was pretty entertaining but because of its length, certain infomration was removed or just not dealt with. Because I enjoyed the anime though I did eventually seek out and read the manga. Now I like both.

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  13. I don’t think think that I am kidding here, when I say that this post is truly one of the best ones you have written to date. Really enjoyed this feature, and it is a great topic. I have always kept an open mind with pretty much everything that I watch that is based on something I really love. I never dismiss something because it tries to do something else with the source material. As long as somewhere in there, certain key elements do remain the same. I do have a problem when something is so different from the original, that it’s become something completely else. I recently watched the television series The Mist for instance. It was something so completely different than the novel and the movie, that I really felt disappointed by it, even though it wasn’t overly bad. All in all though, I have seen a lot of adaptations that while different, do remain every entertaining, like for instance the live action Ghost in the Shell movie. I hope to see Deathnote on sunday (I have to work tomorrow πŸ˜”), and am actually looking forward to it, despite the mixed reception. Really loved this post in case that wasn’t already clear lol 😊

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  14. Yeah I was thinking about writing on this very topic lmao When it comes to adaptations I have no issue with seeing it as its own separate thing. I actually look forward to whoever is adapting the property to take liberties and have a voice in the story. For me Death Note was just a flawed movie. There are plot inconsistencies in there and overall the screenplay did let them down. That’s not to say the movie is horrible and that it has no merit though. If i’m being honest, I find it to be a much more enjoyable experience than the anime, which I found to be a complete chore to get through.

    This piece is great though. Keep up the good work.

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    1. I definitely wasn’t trying to convince anyone the movie was actually a masterpiece. More that the flaws it has are its own and don’t exist simply because it didn’t follow the source material.
      Thanks for the comment.

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  15. Strictly going by the fire and thunder visible on various forums and social media… It seems that anime fandom doesn’t take to adaptations too well.

    I’ve been lucky I guess, I don’t read much in the way of manga, and both adaptations of manga I’ve read have done a good job.

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    1. I don’t tend to read much manga either so anime adaptations don’t bother me, except when they either don’t end or they end dreadfully because they’ve made something up that doesn’t fit the story so far (if you are going to go original ending, at least make it a good ending).
      However, I do get books to movies because I’ve almost always read the book before the movie and while I almost always end up preferring the book, I’ve never once said the movie was bad because it wasn’t the same as the book. Usually the movie is bad because they don’t think enough about how to tell that story using a visual medium. Jaws worked because they didn’t try to stick to the source material outside of a few obvious comparison points.

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