Better take some notes.
I think it goes without saying that adaptations can be good without following the original manga (or light-novel) to the letter – in fact, to follow the source material exactly would, in most cases, be tedious, given the little details that the literary form can go into without being boring, but which do not lend themselves to animated form. However, even those which deviate greatly from the original material can come out as great in their own right – the popular Full Metal Alchemist is one which comes to mind (although a few people were dissatisfied with the TV series versus the manga).
But, if staying true to the source material isn’t always a guarantee of success, what is?
To make a blanket statement would be to answer the question incorrectly. There are a few things that can be done to ensure a good chance of having a good adaptation, but adapting a story isn’t like baking a cake from a mix – there is no definite way to do it. But there are some ways to increase the chances of doing a good job.
In my mind, one of the first things I can think of pertains to fanservice. While I would hardly call for getting rid of all fanservice, for those manga which feature good storylines that are cluttered by fanservice, it generally helps to reduce the fanservice. Soul Eater is a manga that, while it possessed a good storyline and had fun characters, was not a very good read – there really was too much fanservice to be able to enjoy the plot itself. The anime adaptation has reduced a LOT of the fanservice, although it certainly leaves some intact (most notably, as concerns Blair), and the result is a seriously fun anime that strikes one as being cool. The excessive fanservice has been cleared away in favor of the storyline and the characters.
However, it should be noted that a manga which lacked a real storyline and in which the focus was fanservice does not benefit from this approach. ToLOVE-ru would have been awful had the fanservice been excised, since that is the point of the series in the first place. Same goes for shows like Girls Bravo or DearS. While I do not personally like these shows, I also recognize that to take away the fanservice would be to really reduce these shows to absolutely nothing, and would therefore make for a bad adaptation.
Filler is generally regarded as a necessary evil by anime fans, but there are better ways to handle it than others, and the way in which it is handled often determines how good of an adaptation you get in the end. While filler episodes are a bit annoying, a filler episode is far preferable to a regular episode with filler thrown in. One of the things that was bad about the early part of Vampire Knight was that there would be an episode which followed the manga about 80% of the way… before segwaying into additional scenes not from the manga (which, invariably, added nothing to the story and were just flat-out bad) (this was also nonsensical since Vampire Knight is getting a second season in the autumn, which will give the manga-ka a bit of time to write a bunch more chapters). The Bleach filler, by comparison, while not that great, was easy to avoid – simply stop watching until they pick up the manga’s storyline. Last time I checked, the same applies to the Shugo Chara filler. This approach provides a much smoother viewing for the fan than does the ‘little bit of filler, little bit of manga’ approach that some shows have taken, which is choppy and somewhat disorienting to the manga-reader.
However, one must be careful to not let the show they’re overseeing get completely bogged down by filler, ruining the entire show. While Naruto certainly suffered from the endless fillers toward the end of its run, a Naruto fan isn’t going to say that the whole adaptation was rotten – just that the fillers were. On the other hand, a show like Kami-chama Karin was ruined by filler (among other things); this is almost certainly due to the fact that Kami-chama Karin was only twenty-six episodes long, while Naruto numbered in the hundreds.
Actually, bringing up Kami-chama Karin brings me to another point – chronological order. This was another place where Kami-chama Karin failed, as it started off in the first episode with a scene from the manga sequel (Kami-chama Karin Chu), and then went back in time, killing any suspense the show could’ve had from its villains. There was a lot of other mucking about with the original timeline in this show, besides that, though. It was utterly disjointed and a horrible adaptation overall, which is really too bad since at the time I had been eager to watch some mahou shoujo fun. Chronological order need not be absolutely adhered to, but it must be followed fairly true to the manga (or light-novel) in general – to move around small scenes but retain a sense of order is permissible, but to do whole-sale movement of important scenes (see: final two minutes of Vampire Knight) is to deal a blow to an adaptation. Only the most skillful of directors can perhaps pull this sort of thing off, but I have yet to see it done properly (to give a sense of my perspective, I have seen probably in the area of four-hundred different anime TV series, OVA’s, and movies).
While it is fairly obvious that good writers are a must for anime adaptations, I think it is worth mentioning, especially in regards to those adaptations done for manga or light-novel series which have yet to reach a conclusion. Not all adaptations truly require a conclusion (Zero no Tsukaima, for instance), but most viewers wish for one in whatever they are watching. Ouran High Host Club had an excellent conclusion, which clearly deviated from the manga, since the manga is still running yet the TV series concluded about two years ago. And it’s all thanks the the writers. Same goes for Tactics – the conclusion actually was possible due to the creation of an anime-original character that was around for the bulk of the series (as opposed to Ouran’s Eclair, who made the conclusion possible but was around for just a few episodes at the end), creating an emotional impact through the revelations about said character. Tactics is still running as a manga, but the anime concluded back in 2005.
On the topic of anime-only characters as a springboard for conclusions to still-running franchises, we again come back to the necessity of good writers. Both Eclair and Suzu (Tactics) are decent characters, unobtrusive and not clearly of anime-only incarnation. Meilin of CardCaptor Sakura, while perhaps a bit annoying, provided further depth to the evolution of Sakura and Syaoran’s relationship, thus legitimizing her inclusion. Anime-only characters must end up serving a greater cause than simply filling up dead air (see: Bleach’s Bount arc characters, D.N.Angel’s Mio Hio), otherwise they will merely frustrate fans of the manga, and in more egregious cases, make themselves obvious as anime-only inclusions to even those who have not read the source material.
Finally, proper adaptations must be given ample time. And by time, I do not mean adapting a 38ish- volume long light novel series into 13 TV episodes and three OVA episodes (yes, Mirage of Blaze, I’m looking at you) (actually, that was a decent adaptation for what if covered… its just that it covered very little). Although the long-running Shounen Jump series tend to necessitate indeterminate TV series runs, it is disappointing when a manga or light-novel series is crammed into too little time, or stretched too thin across a plethora of episodes. The too little time problem seems most prevalent amongst OVA’s of the 90’s, with titles such as Please Save My Earth and Here is Greenwood having their surfaces barely scratched in the scant six episodes each received. On the reverse, many (most?) Shounen Jump shows simply stretch their source material too thin (and thus resort to filler of the eternal variety).
I was going to go into game adaptations of anime, specifically in the visual novel genre, but I think I’m going to have to save that for another time, since it really is its own topic in and of itself. Also, I want to go watch the final two episodes of this season of Vampire Knight to know how annoyed I should be feeling about that adaptation XD
I read an article the other day which was specifically about adapting novels to movies, arguing that often the trick to good adaption is to be unfaithful to the source material – as per your opening paragraph and Full Metal Alchemist. In fact, apparently it’s sometimes helpful to have source material that’s mediocre rather than good, because you won’t offend so many fans (as it won’t have so many) and you won’t feel too bad about messing around with it. (I suppose I’d point to s-CRY-ed as an example: average manga, rather good anime.)
I suspect the difficulty of adapting from one medium to another means that anime adaptions are less likely to be good than originally-written anime, though.
You know, it’s hard to know what makes a good adaptation when you’re not acquainted with what’s being adapted in the first place. So I guess a good adaptation would be one that convinces you to check out the source material? Or maybe that would mean the adaptation was really bad…
Agh. Is there going to be a test on this? I’ve always been in the camp that likes to see adaptations remain faithful to the source material. I can’t do as in-depth as you seeing as I’ve only covered maybe a quarter percent of what you’ve seen. For the most part, an adaptation that deviates from the original manga is only as good as skill of the writers and director.
You talked about FMA and Ouran which deviated from the manga in their anime endings. So what about anime only endings that are really lackluster and ruin the potential for follow-up seasons like Claymore and Fruits Basket?
Concerning filler, sometimes it’s better than what the mangaka can do. I think the Bleach Bount arc blows Hueco Mundo out of the water. I watched the filler arc because it was engaging (for Bleach anyway), and I didn’t drop the show until the suckfest called Hueco Mundo.
@ Yamcha – Well, I have never seen Claymore, and I only got about halfway through Fruits Basket, so I cannot comment on that. As for filler versus non in the case of Bleach, I have to admit that, overall, the Hueco Mundo arc has not translated very well to screen – the fights just go on too long in animated form (although Rukia’s fight was frickin’ awesome to see get animated).
@ The Animanachronism – Man, that took my tired brain a few times to spell. Anyway, I think there’s definitely something in what you say about sub-par original material sometimes being a good thing for adaptations. To use a really, really stupid example, Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch was an utterly awful manga, and while the TV series was pretty dumb, it was a lot more entertaining.
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I miss grade school romances in anime like sakura and syoaran’s from ccs. a shame japan won’t do them anymore because those types of shows will piss off otaku.