fLoyalty is overrated. To be clear – lest I sound like an unfaithful husband in a John Updike novel – I don’t mean in the romantic sense. No, I’m talking about fidelity in the world of film and television: the idea that film adaptations of books should reflect their source material as closely as possible. In the ailing modern age of “identifiable intellectual property” and reboots of reboots, “fidelity” or fidelity to the source material is a common dogma. For example, when it was announced earlier this year that a flamboyant new Harry Potter TV series had been greenlit, the main selling point was that they would remain “more faithful” to the original books. That’s okay, of course: for many readers, the appeal of a film adaptation lies in seeing the world of a book come to life. Why shouldn’t it be as accurate as possible? But it’s also an extremely limiting view of the art of adaptation. Also, what does it mean to be “faithful” anyway?
Actors Blake Lively and Justin Baldoni have their first photos on set this week It ends with us found their way online. The film is an adaptation of a romance novel by American writer Colleen Hoover that chronicles a love affair between college graduate Lily Bloom (Lively) and abusive neurosurgeon Ryle Kincaid (Baldoni). And boy is it popular? It ends with us was a bestseller upon its release in 2016 and experienced a rapid rise in popularity two years ago after becoming a trend in TikTok’s literature-focused sphere called “BookTok” and topping the bestseller list New York Times Bestseller list more than five years after publication. Over a million copies have been sold in the UK alone; Last year, Hoover sold more than the Bible in the US. But the images of Lively and Baldoni in costume didn’t quite pull off the publicity frenzy producers were hoping for. Fans complained about the characters’ wardrobes. They complained about their wigs. They complained about the age difference between the actors and their writing counterparts (Lily is 23, Lively is 35; Ryle is 30, Baldoni is 39). “I think most of us weren’t excited about this casting, but it kind of confirms fears,” one person wrote.
However, I would argue that this is a narrow-minded attitude. The tendency to prejudge a project based on an out-of-context leak is an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of the modern internet ecosystem. But even if the images are representative of the film’s direction, that doesn’t automatically spell its downfall. After all, customization is about both the things an artist wants to change and the things they want to keep. For example, changing the ages of the characters—or how old they “read” on screen—of course changes the story, but doesn’t necessarily make it worse. Also, “loyalty” as a concept (relating to adaptation) seems the more dubious the closer you look at it. After all, these characters only ever exist in the mind’s eye; when a million people read It ends with usthere will be a million “true” versions of Lily and Ryle, each slightly different based on each reader’s subjective understanding of Scripture.
Sometimes an unfaithful cast can lead to great things. For example: in the original Stephen King story, on the The Shawshank Redemption was based on the character of Red being Irish (white); In the film adaptation, he is played by Morgan Freeman. The role became a trademark for Freeman, and his character was a standout character in one of the most beloved dramas of all time. The glow; blade runner; Shrek: Some of the best and most popular films of all time are the result of filmmakers taking tremendous liberties with the source material. In addition, there were cases where the first impression was completely turned upside down. Remember the outcry when Renee Zellweger was picked The Diary of Bridget Jones? “How could an American like her possibly embody Helen Fielding’s contemporary British protagonist?” came the cry. Fast-forward to release, and the question was, “How could anyone else?”
Brought to its logical conclusion, this fixation on “loyalty” also rules out the possibility of age- or race-blind cast. Out of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to James Bond, to what is to come Percy Jackson and the Olympians Adaptation, race-blind casting — or even, in the case of 007, the mere hint of it — still has the potential to evoke audience outrage. When you resolve these problematic (usually downright racist) complaints, you again run into the fallacy of what exactly constitutes a “faithful” implementation. In most cases it is just a form of gatekeeping.
Of course that doesn’t mean any of that It ends with us everything will be fine But films, like all works of art, deserve to be judged on their own merits and experienced on their own terms. No matter how sophisticated the production design, no matter how meticulous the casting, no film can ever truly replicate the experience of reading a novel. We don’t need it either. It’s time people stopped treating adaptations like look-alike contests and started showing a little faith.