IT’S JUST A (TIME, SETTING, GENRE) JUMP TO THE LEFT – ADAPTING A STORY FOR AUDIO (PART 3 and Final)
One of the most interesting things about truly good stories for me is the extent to which they are independent of setting. In the previous two articles of this series I’ve been commenting on some skills that I find helpful with regard to adapting stories for audio (adding sounding-board characters, and telescoping the events in the story). Today I want to talk about one last technique that I rather like: shifting the setting.
Time, Space, and Genre
Archaic language can be difficult for the modern ear to interpret. Shakespeare’s “bare bodkin” is more likely to be understood as a reference to nakedness by modern audiences than the unsheathed dagger that it actually is. As a result, simplifying and updating the language of a classic story is not uncommon when adapting period source material (though some find the notion sacrilegious in the extreme). By updating the language we are, in effect, shifting the story in time (at least linguistically), but there’s no reason we can’t shift a story around even further; in terms of time, place, and genre as well.
Anyone who has seen ‘The Seven Samurai” and “The Magnificent Seven” would be aware that a truly great story doesn’t necessarily have to be kept in its original setting to maintain it’s greatness. The Seven Samurai worked just as well as a western as it did in the setting of Feudal Japan. Likewise “Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story”, “MacBeth” and “Throne of Blood”, “Yojimbo” and “A fist full of dollars” (and “Last Man Standing”), and “Pride and Prejudice” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary”.
Sometimes a story doesn’t work when the setting is shifted (The musical Chess failed terribly when it was updated to remove the cold war elements of the story). But by and large, shifting the context of the story in time and/or space, can add some freshness to it.
Giving Jason and the Argonauts a futuristic space-opera setting, putting MacBeth in a stone-age context, and re-telling the legend of King Arthur as a Noir Mystery are all ways to inject new life into pre-existing source material.
By changing up the story in terms of time, place, and genre, the adapter of the source material can insert some extra creativity into the process of adaptation. This “re-imagining” of much-loved source material can be great fun as well. Personally, and for a very long time, I’ve wanted to adapt MacBeth as a space-opera in which the Birnham Asteroid Belt is brought to the Planet Dunsinane as a form of planetary bombardment at the story’s climax. It’s on my (ever lengthening) to do list.
Deciding When to Shift
What makes it possible to shift the setting of a story? The story has to contain a universal theme or themes. Love, hate, conflict, jealousy, prejudice, self-sacrifice, etc. are all, thematically, independent of time and setting. We will recognize them whether the story is set among the stars, or found in the heart of a magical kingdom at the dawn of time, or presented to us in the microcosm of the day-to-day functioning of a high-school classroom.
What else is needed? Relatable characters – specifically, characters in whom we can see ourselves (with both strengths and flaws). It won’t matter that Romeo is presented to us as a Dragon if his generosity, impulsiveness, gift of the gab, and hot temper are communicated. We can present our characters in any kind of mask (robot, dragon, ghost, captain of industry, teenager, domestic servant etc.) and so long as the character is recognizably “human” and relatable, the superficial elements of the presentation won’t matter.
Further, the plot must contain elements that lend themselves to effective parallels – who would stand in for the Capulets and Montagues in a magician’s guild (alchemists versus enchanters), the civil war (a family from the North versus one from the South), a space-opera (two rival companies mining an asteroid belt), a segregation story (a black family and a white family) etc.?
Lastly, you have to decide what to leave out. Even where strong parallels exist between the elements of the source material and the setting into which you want to transplant it, not everything is going to be a good fit. Don’t be afraid to add to, subtract from, and otherwise modify the source material to make the adaptation work.
In lots of ways adaptation is a form of legitimized creative plagiarism (assuming permission to adapt the source-material has been obtained). As a result we shouldn’t feel too constrained when we seek to modify it – even when we are trying to adapt it faithfully and with due respect. Ultimately we aren’t aiming to produce a copy of the material but a “rendering” of it that tells the story effectively in the format of audio drama.
If you’ve got any other thoughts on adapting original material for audio, then please, add them here. I’d love to hear them.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.