To Adapt or not To Adapt: Dystopian Fiction

The dystopian genre has, for a long time, been very popular in books, successfully taking us into worlds of terrifying realism whilst highlighting the societal consequences of our actions. Recently, filmmakers and producers have capitalised on these novels, adapting them for both the big and small screen. However, such endeavours are not easy and there are often difficulties adapting the dystopian genre, evident in the plethora of both brilliant and disastrous remakes over the years.

One aspect of dystopian fiction that adaptations do particularly well, is the production design, for example, in Blade Runner. Visually, this film is stunning, which coupled with the score, it’s impossible not to become instantly mesmerised. This is also the case with The Hunger Games trilogy. The rustic squalor of District 12 and the visuals of the games drive home the regressive nature of Katniss’s world, an integral aspect of the novel. However, this focus on production design does have its drawbacks, primarily evident in the CGI mutts in The Hunger Games. It’s almost too painful to watch these glaringly-obviously fake dogs attack Katniss and Peeta and sadly, this removes the escapism dystopian fiction offers.

In addition, the commitment to production design often limits the effort put into world-building, neglecting to explain the context of dystopian worlds. This is particularly evident in the Divergent series and The Maze Runner series where the books do an excellent job of exploring why the world is the way that it is, providing the necessary background information for the reader to get invested. The films, however, focus more on character and unnecessary love stories. This disregard of the all-important whys and hows ultimately leads to the films’ failure to add depth where the books succeed.

It is also incredibly difficult to succinctly translate a complicated dystopian narrative onto the screen in a way that is both faithful and entertaining. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, for example, is an intricate narrative, thriving as a novel primarily because of Wells’s linguistic expertise. While Guy Pearce is brilliant in the 2002 film adaptation, the plot falls flat, becoming another generic sci-fi/action blockbuster, the antithesis of the nuanced and complex novel. With only a limited framework to work with as dystopian films tend to span from a 90 to 120 minute run time, adaptations often struggle to fully explore the content of a novel without rushing plot points and losing coherency.

Yet, despite these difficulties, there are successful dystopian adaptations, namely Kubrick’s satirical black comedy A Clockwork Orange, a novel by Anthony Burgess. Respecting the structure of the book and taking all the crucial elements including the disturbing and provocative material, the film is a unique and faithful adaptation. Kubrick’s take on the novel is a rare case of a film that stands independent of its source material but stays true to Burgess’s narrative of cultural violence. In some instances, the adaptations even go beyond the source material. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale successfully adapts Atwood’s oppressive totalitarian society whilst also adding new characters and plot twists, making it an original and innovative show. The inclusion of the voiceover also perfectly adds what other films miss: the individual, subconscious perspective of dystopia. Giving us the intimacy that the novel provides, The Handmaid’s Tale is the perfect example of an adaptation done well.

Literature provides the perfect inspiration for filmmakers, with the dystopian genre being one of the most exciting sources of creativity. However, if producers are not careful, they can easily fall into creating just another generic film that will be subject to the usual phrase: ‘the book is better’.

By Lucy Lillystone.

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