What a novel thought: On adaptations – An Analysis

So recently, I’ve been watching a couple of different anime that were adapted from novels, Seirei no Moribito and Legend of the Galactic Heroes. On the surface of things both of these shows are pretty different. SnM (if I can shorten it that way) is a classic coming of age story and LoGH is a war epic.

But I’ve noticed something about them that they avoid one of anime’s largest failings. They’re paced well. They start out with a good hook: in SnM it’s the opening hunt for Balsa and Chagum, in LoGH, they start out in the middle of a battle. They add onto that hook. SnM is a little weaker on this point, but it still manages to build on it’s foundation. And they both work out the relationships between the characters and the fundamental plot threads start to emerge.

The funny thing is that I also saw that in Twelve Kingdoms, another novel adaptation. I’m starting to wonder why all of these shows are honestly paced so well where so many other shows fall flat. It certainly isn’t the length. While Twelve Kingdoms does have 39 episodes, the main stories are divided into three different arcs which gives each section between 10 to 20 episodes.

So all of this begs the question, why? Why do novel adaptations seem to work where manga adaptations fail? Why would they work better than original works, where the creative team can control the pacing without any constraints.

On the nature of novel adaptations

Now, I’m going to propose that there are two factors that make pacing successful: a prior knowledge of the story arc and knowledge of the length of the series. Basically the creators need to know where the story’s going and how long it’s going to take them to get there.

With a novel adaptation, this is pretty simple. They have a pre-set story laid out for them. Now they may take some liberties with it. For example, the Yoko’s two companions at the beginning of Twelve Kingdoms were later additions because just having her wander around would have made for some pretty boring television. But in general, they at least have an outline of events that will occur.

And to be fair, they have 12 hours to tell the story (in a 24 episode series). It also seems, at least to the lay person, that they have more freedom to tell the story. While there may be fans of the original source material, those fans aren’t necessarily the same fans they’re trying to attract with the anime.

In general, this means that there’s less room for failure. Now granted there’s been some pretty spectacular failures (Kiddy Grade comes to mind), but general I would blame that more on a lack of planning and foresight, then on anything else.

On the nature of original and manga-based series

Again, this begs the question why does a novel adaptation work consistently, where these other types fail, just as consistently. With a original story, I’ve found the pacing issue to be really hit or miss. As other people have pointed out on previous blog entries, it’s largely a question of how good the creative team is.

Now a strong creative team can usually put out a generally well-paced show, but more often than not there seems to be a strong tendency for series that shoot off really quickly, fade off and never really restart. Or even worse, shows that just don’t start at all. Mostly I blame this on a lack of planning. Essentially they don’t know where the story’s going and once they run out of story they’re left with a bunch of space to fill. Nadia: The Secret of the Blue Water comes to mind as a really atrocious example of this. But I do cut Gainax a little slack for it because they had a bunch of space to fill that they weren’t intending to fill.

But why manga-based series? They really should suceed just as well as novel-based series. Honestly I blame it on two things. First is a failure of the source material itself. Manga simply doesn’t have to be structured like a television series. The reason for this is the length of time between books allows the manga-ka the luxury of having self-contained stories that don’t build on each other. Hellsing is the perfect example of this. Among it’s other problems, the series introduces what would seem like the beginning of an arc, just to have that arc stop and then go onto something else.

Now Kouta Hirano doesn’t have to worry about people going “Hey wait, why didn’t you do X.” because it’s a year between books. (And I could go into the whole nature of Hellsing, but I’m saving it for a later post.) I find this frenetic, almost disjointed, pacing to be a tried and true staple of manga.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule. First Nobuhiro Watsuki is the man. Kenshin is so well paced that even without reading the manga, I could tell where the creators had added on to the series. The second is Beserk, which suceeds simply because it doesn’t try to squash the entire series into a 24 episode series. (I’ve also heard good things about Fruits Basket, but I haven’t seen it.)

The second problem in adapting a manga to anime is the nature of adaptations themselves. Where a novel adaptation doesn’t have to worry as much about the fans of the book, a manga adaptation is largely judged by the manga. It’s an inevitable and often sad fact, that people are going to say, “Wait that didn’t happen like that.”

And to be honest, adaptations that move away from the source material, or at least don’t cling to it, are by and large better. Both Fullmetal Alchemist and Trigun come to mind. Now you could argue that in both of these cases the manga-ka worked closely with the studio. But I read the manga for Trigun. If they’d tried to make that into a show, it would have sucked. A lot and often.

In fact for a manga adaptation to work, the animators need to have some level of creative control and they have to realize that television is a completely different medium then comics. That the disjointed pacing that a manga can get away with won’t work for a television show that is aired every week.

Otherwise, the manga will get them everytime.

4 thoughts on “What a novel thought: On adaptations – An Analysis

  1. I agree with that final statement. Manga-adaptations often fail because the anime-staff is just lazy and thinks that all they have to do is do stuff like what happened in the manga.

    Still, there are enough novel-adaptations that failed horribly (Goshushou-sama Ninomiya-kun, Shakugan no Shana, Romeo x Juliet). Probably because of lazy staff as well.

    Though with totally original adaptations, I’ve noticed a significantly smaller amount of failures. It’s probably because the creators are less lazy because they have more scriptwriting to do to make up for the lack of source-material.

  2. I disagree with this simply because while there are fewer novel adaptation that sucked, it still happens. When you compare that with original works (which at this point there are more of) the ratio probably comes pretty close.

    A bad production team (Polyphonica anybody?) can easily screw up any of the three above.

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