Five Tips for Media Adaptation

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Image: Helioport, the main city in the Nature Mage story. An artist’s (James Ledsham) interpretation in the reader community naturemage.com

Media flows in every direction

Franchises are here to stay. Books are adapted into films, games are turned into toys, which in turn give rise to more books, films, and games – children expect to find their favourite characters across media and platforms. This post, in 2 parts, provides important tips for brand owners and professionals working on adaptations and transmedia storytelling.

Humans have always enjoyed adaptations. From ancient ritual enactments of myths, to the re-telling of fairy tales by medieval itinerant puppet shows, we’ve long loved telling a good story in a different way. And this passion has seemingly never been bigger: we’re not only consuming more media, but watching huge amounts of adaptations. Just looking at the top 20 cinema blockbusters of 2012, at least half are some kind of adaptation (and that is excluding sequels), and ‘where blockbuster films are concerned, the video game release has become the rule rather than the exception’.

Different media industries are converging and influencing each other as never before, with the 21st century also witnessing the emergence of ‘transmedia storytelling’ – a production model where a story is told across different media and platforms, with each part contributing to the story world and narrative.  Think The Matrix (whose ‘complete’ story was told across films, comics, websites and games).

OK, so we love adaptations, and cross-media and transmedia are crucial practices for the media and entertainment industries, especially in the children’s market. But why do (some) adaptations also suffer from a kind of inferiority complex in relation to the originals they’re based on? Why do we say ‘I liked the film, but the book’s better’? Conversely, what makes a good, successful adaptation?

Story Immersion

An explanation involves a mix of Psychology and Anthropology. On the one hand, when children enjoy a story – whether in a book, film, game or toy – they immerse themselves and become emotionally attached, often imagining they are the characters, or at least share some of their qualities. On the other hand, as we become attached to a story, we build a deeper knowledge of it, and a bigger sense of ownership (a little like the teenage feeling of being the number one fan of our favourite band), and also more demanding expectations from any adaptation of our story. We also like to brag about how much we know, and often share our passion with others. This is why fan forums, comic festivals and the Otaku culture of Japan exist.

Audience Expectations

When we look at an adaptation we carry expectations based on our perception of the original. We all make (at least slightly) different readings of a story, but often fan groups also share a set of negotiated core ideas about its essence. If an adaptation is too distant from this essence, we feel disappointed. You just didn’t get the same feelings… The adaptation hasn’t managed to extend or complement the pleasure we had with the original – instead, it has broken away, creating in our head a sort of inconsistent, unsolvable puzzle where the pieces don’t match.

Audience Flows

If you’re a toy maker creating a game based on your toy; or perhaps a book publisher or author that stroke a deal with a TV production firm – whether you’re a licensor or a licensee of an existing brand or IP – you’ll want to make the flow of existing audiences across platforms as seamless and pleasurable as possible. Tapping into an existing audience reduces risk for the ‘adaptor’, and if done properly will reinforce the IP by creating not only a new entry point in a different medium, but also by the possibility of expanding the story universe.

To sum up…

So far, there are three main take-outs from this post: 1) audiences love adaptations; 2) but only if they meet their expectations; and 3) adaptations can creatively diverge but still ought to comply with the essence of a story.

From this, if you’re commissioning an adaptation you have two choices: a) you simply trust your suppliers to do a good job in understanding and ‘translating’ your IP; or b) you also use audience involvement techniques to inform the adaptation process and test the evolving work at key stages.

Audience Involvement Techniques

You can involve your audience using a wide spectrum of techniques, ranging from the more traditional surveys and focus groups, to the more innovative digital ethnography in fan forums, co-creation sessions, studio take-overs, online communities, or perhaps traveling the world interviewing fans about your IP. As they say, ‘horses for courses’.

Whatever you choose, make sure that the people who are in charge of adapting your IP get deeply immersed in it. Discuss the essence of your IP with them, and make sure that the final work achieves a good level of brand consistency with the original.

Essence…

An essential part of the whole process is actually working with a definition of essence. This will guide the adaptation, and clarify how far the translation can go in creatively diverging from the original or source works. Is essence simply using the same settings, characters and visual style? Or does it require a deeper sense of style and tone, effects and feelings in the audience?

The five tips

  1. Immerse the adapting team into the source story / brand – use existing themes as inspiration for mechanics in the adaptation
  2. Understand how your audience sees the source story – this may be different of how you see it, of your view of its essence
  3. Use data to make an informed decision about the media / platforms that you’ll use for the adaptation – and make sure that your audience is using them!
  4. Involve your current and target audiences from day one – co-create with them, test ideas, evolve in an informed way
  5. Innovate. By all means use existing products and genres as inspiration, but don’t just do a re-skinning of a successful format – that will most probably put fans off!

About the Blogger

Claudio is Senior Research Manager at Dubit, where he advises start-ups and global brands on how to travel across media. He holds an MA in Media (adaptation) and is currently doing a PhD as part of the international team working on the UNESCO Chair project ‘Crossing Media Boundaries: New Media Forms of the Book’ – to develop audience involvement and media adaptation models.

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