Faithful versus deviated adaptations


“The book was better than the movie.”

We have all heard and likely have said this phrase multiple times in our lives, but have we ever thought about as to why this tends to be?

As I was browsing my Netflix account the other day, I had noticed that Netflix’s interpretation of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was now available to be streamed. After watching the entire first season of the show, I could not help but critically analyze what parts of it worked, what parts did not and how its connection to the source material was a big reason as to why.

When I was in fourth grade I gravitated toward Snicket’s books and their grim concepts, darkly witty humor and imaginative plots, which were essential to my critical make-up when it comes to entertainment today. Due to this, I was excited to see what Netflix could do with it. Could they escape the “the book was better than the movie” trap?

It is clear from the beginning that the show accurately depicts Snicket’s original vision that I remember so fondly. However, as I continued to watch, the idea of why books tend to be better than the movies they are based upon became abundantly clear.

Film and literature are two vastly different forms of media. The difference between them can best be summed up like this:

Imagine hearing a joke about a priest and a rabbi walking into a bar. You begin to form a picture of the priest, the rabbi and the bar in your head. No matter how many people hear the joke, each person will have a different picture in his or her head as to what these people and places look like. However, if you watched a short video that played out the exact same joke with the exact same wording and timing, it would no longer be your vision of the priest, rabbi and bar but rather the filmmakers version of the priest, rabbi and bar.

This was a lot of the reason why the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” movie failed. It was far too different from Snicket’s audience’s idea of how the plot unfolded, how the characters acted and completely failed to capture the same essence that made the book series so beloved.

Television is a much longer form of media which has its advantages and disadvantages when compared to film, but because of this, television is much better suited to adapt a longer book or series of books.
However, the Netflix adaptation of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” opens up a similarly important question: can a completely faithful adaptation actually be worse than the source material? The show borrows a ton of elements from the literature it is based on but some of these elements were far better suited for reading as opposed to a more visual medium like television.

For example, the show borrows from the book the running joke that involves a character saying a word children normally would not know and then explaining what that word means in terms that a child would understand. The delivery and timing of it in the books is both witty and informative but when done in the medium of television becomes a little awkward at times.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the show somehow manages to succeed in the areas where it does deviate from the books. It weaves the overarching narrative of the story far better and changes up some of the situations in the books in an attempt to have them make more sense.

Now it must be asked again, is the book better than the show? It is hard to say. What can safely be said is that the Netflix series is a perfect example of how a faithful adaptation, as well as a deviated adaptation can succeed and fail. It truly is a fascinating experience from a critical perspective and I fully recommend those who have a keen eye for entertainment media and have read the books to watch the series and see for yourself.