This was originally about the perils of prequels, then I thought about it- surprise!- and realized that many of the struggles writers face in creating prequels also apply to adapting a known work into a different media.
So this is going to bounce around between books, movies, and TV a bit, and I might even treat you to a mild rant, because some of this stuff is elementary, and if I know how to handle Problem X, then a highly paid pro should definitely know how to do it.
The main problem with taking a known IP and doing anything with it is that the audience comes into it with expectations, and they can get really annoyed if you subvert those expectations. Do not meddle with geeks, for they are neither subtle, nor quick to anger, but they are persistent as hell and will protect their fandoms like a cornered cat.
The audience already knows what’s going to happen- or they think they know. They know who’s going to live or die, get married, have a kid, etc. When you’re doing a prequel, all the characters have to survive long enough to get to the main story (or long enough to have descendants who’ll be in the main story, depending on the time scale). If you’re doing a straight-up adaptation and deviate too far from canon, the fans will crucify you. Twenty years later, people are still salty about Peter Jackson’s decision to leave Tom Bombadil out of The Fellowship of the Ring, or the Scouring of the Shire from Return of the King.
Adapting to a visual medium has an additional related pitfall; the fans already have an image of the characters and setting in their head, and the inevitable deviation from that winds people up. Witness the recent kerfuffles over swapping out red-headed white actors for black ones- I’m thinking of the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, though I’m sure there are others- and when the producers of House of the Dragon decided to make the Valyrians black (at least they’re being visually consistent; Rings of Power isn’t, and it’s rather jarring).
Sometimes image-altering is necessary for storytelling in a visual format, because the characters have to be visually differentiable. Doing it just for the laughs- or worse, for political or activist reasons- won’t win you many friends among the audience.
And now that we’re in the internet age, readers and viewers don’t even have to have read or watched the source material to spoil the ending. That’s how House of the Dragon lost me. I went looking for spoilers and realized that most of the characters were psychopathic murderers who came to sticky ends, usually at the hands of other psychopathic murderers. The guy who ends up winning is still a baby; all the adults have to die first. The one truly good character just died, and it was the first time I came away from interacting with the show not thinking I wanted to wash my hands. But it’s hard to get invested in the struggles of people you know are going to die horribly in just a few episodes.
It’s almost as hard to get invested when you know the character’s going to succeed. Feel-good stories can get away with it, and in most romances, the ending is obvious (of course the two main characters are going to get together). But there’s a distinct lack of urgency and tension when you know what’s going to happen, and that doesn’t work for every genre.
Rings of Power has one way of getting out of the ‘can’t kill that one’ dilemma; Elves can be reincarnated. It’s rare for them to return to Middle-Earth afterward, but the precedent exists. Frankly, that’s what they should have done with Galadriel after she was caught in an explosion in a recent episode. Death and reincarnation might have knocked her arrogant butt off her pedestal, and sent her down a path that logically leads to her becoming the wise leader she is in later stories. It would also help set her up with the correct love interest. Apparently, the writers have something else in mind, because that’s not what happened. But reincarnation or some other form of ‘they’re not really dead’ is a way to have your cake and eat it, too.
On the other hand, you have to get rid of characters who are supposed to be dead. House of the Dragon carefully didn’t kill Laenor, even though he died in the source material. This might cause problems. Since he owns a dragon, he can’t exactly hide anonymously; the idea that he could is kind of world-breaking. And since a dead person’s dragon usually gets passed to someone else, and this guy is still very much alive, there’s going to be a character who’s supposed to have that dragon, and doesn’t. I have no idea how the writers are going to handle that.
Your audience is far more likely to forgive deviations from canon if there’s a good, storytelling-related reason for it. Eliminating Tom Bombadil helped to keep the pacing brisk in Fellowship of the Ring; there was a distinct possibility that including that section would make the story drag. Altering a character’s appearance makes it easier to follow the story without confusing Person A for B, and is good for indicating parentage when you’re following a family through the story.
But if modern entertainment is any indication, adaptations and prequels are hard to get right, and easy to get wrong. Of course, no matter what you do, you’re going to annoy some people, but the makers of popular entertainment seem to be shooting themselves in the foot at every turn.
So why do it? Why adapt a known IP at all?
Money, dear boy.
It used to be about love for the source material, and getting the opportunity to see the same story and characters in a different light. Nowadays, there’s still some of that, but it’s more about tapping into audience nostalgia, courting controversy, and of course, making money.
I’m not going to stomp on anyone for making a buck; money is a large part of how we show our approval of a thing; we’re saying, ‘I value Entertainment Item X enough to trade a few hours of my life for it, both in time spent watching or reading it, and in the money I earned from working.’ Entirely reasonable.
But I think there’s room for new stories, too, and the pitfalls of making them are more manageable.
So I’m going to put my butt in the chair, fingers on the keyboard, and write a few new stories.