I’ve always been interested in the way stories change as they are adapted from one form of media to another. For most of my life, the only examples I had were books to movies. I didn’t follow comics closely enough to really consider how comicbook characters were represented in superhero movies and TV shows, and I knew that most comicbooks had such varied, ever-renewed stories that adaptation was fairly open-ended. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I was given my first real chance to evaluate something I was familiar with as it moved from books to movies. I didn’t have the skills required to do it in a good, critical way when the first movie came out, but the movies remained a part of my life for long enough that I was still thinking about them and the books when I finally had the skills to do a thorough critical analysis.
While a lot of my friends saw my criticism as evidence that I didn’t like the Lord of the Rings movies, I saw it as just a commentary on the choices storytellers make as a story changes from a rather slow, stodgy pace in a print medium to the action-oriented style of the sweeping fantasy narratives in a series of big-budget movies. The movies aren’t necessarily worse than the books, just different, and there are things that bother me in each of them. For instance, I think I’ve only read through the entirety of the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of The Ring twice in my entire life. While I love the world of Middle-Earth, the pacing is so slow, the stories told with so much extraneous detail, that this specific chapter will put me to sleep.
In the movies, I still get frustrated at how much Gandalf the White’s power fluctuates from moment to moment. At some points, he seems nearly omnipotent, and at others he’s rendered helpless by a ring wraith that is killed a little bit later by some mild stabbing and a sick burn. Why shatter Gandalf the White’s staff if it’s not actually going to mean anything in the future? He gets it back almost instantly. I can see why the scene was cut for the theatrical release, but I don’t really understand it’s purpose in being filmed in the first place. All that being said, I still love the books and the movies even if I don’t really have the patience to endlessly go through them like I do with shorter media (it also doesn’t help that my old DVD collections don’t work with all of my currently owned DVD/Blu-ray players because the DVD collection’s format is too old).
This type of analysis formed the foundation of my approach to analyzing other adaptations as stories have started to change from movies to video games, books to video games, podcasts to comics, the ever-maligned video game to movie, and now tabletop streams to cartoons. As the comics for The Adventure Zone: Balance podcast have come out, I’ve thought a lot about how the creators and artist have worked to adapt the frequently meta humor from the podcast to the print medium, and how the way the story is told has changed as it went from being something created from one recording session to another to being a story that can foreshadow later plot points because they’ve been determined. I mean, a D&D game might be able to foreshadow things, but the story isn’t even nearly finished as most of it plays out. Which means you’re hinting about what is going on outside the players’ perception if you foreshadow at all, not how things will turn out as a result of what’s happening right in front of them.
It’s a small but significant difference and it’s been fascinating watching how it plays out as the format changes. So far, the stories are similar and share the same heart, but the story told by the comic has a sense of weight that the podcast didn’t get until the later episodes and was mostly contained within arcs or individual episodes, rather than across the story as a whole. While there are some things I miss and wish the adaptation could have included, I recognize that the creators are doing their best to preserve the story as it changes mediums. And, to be honest, a lot of that stuff wouldn’t land the same in a print medium.
Now, as the Legend of Vox Machina cartoon airs (and seems like it will have enough of a following that the whole story might get told), I’m considering it all over again. The original stream, at an average of four hours per session, moved so incredibly slowly. There was so much time for discussion, interacting, plotting, and struggling to get through doors. Now, as the cartoon works it way through one of the most memorable arcs of the first Critical Role campaign, elements of those lingering moments remain, but they’re so incredibly short. Several hours of struggling with a door get reduced to less than a minute of screen time and some jokes. Deep conversations about character motivations, decisions, and how to reckon with the past are reduced to beats between action scenes.
None of this is bad. It’s the difference between a cartoon that needs to hit certain beats in a short time period and costs a huge amount of money to produce and a TTRPG session that has a much lower cost per minute and the ability to shift in an out of character as the players joke with each other about how the bane of the party’s existence isn’t a world ending threat but a simple door with a fancy lock. I think the adaptation is doing a great job of preserving the nature of the original stream while also telling the story more quickly and evenly than the sort of mixed and random pace of most tabletop games. Since this adaptation is being driven by the original creators, I’m enjoying not just the attempts to preserve the heart of the original streams but also the way they choose to retell the story they originally told. There are a few dozen articles out there about this, as part of the media hype prior to the release, so I’m not going to rehash all of that here.
There are another three (as of this posting) episodes of the show to air yet for this particular story arc, and I’m looking forward to them and all of the analysis I’ll be able to do about how the wild elements of the original stream are represented in the cartoon. A lot more of my friends are familiar with the original story and the cartoon than most other things I’ve enjoyed analyzing as they’re adapted, so I’m excited to be able to engage people in this discussion every week. After all, critical analysis doesn’t mean I don’t like something. You can love something and still talk about what it is doing and what it could do better.