Each medium has its own codes and conventions. When you take the content (message) from one medium and convey it in another it becomes altered – change the medium, change the message. Trying to carry over the audience from one medium to the next, while acquiring an audience new to the content becomes a difficult balance. In part, this is why adaptations can fail or succeed in attempts to being faithful to the source material. Too faithful, may mean that it is working against the codes and conventions of the new medium, which in turn fails to grow the new audience. Adapting the material to make the most of the medium, while growing the audience, may in turn upset, even alienate, the original built-in audience and undermine the potential growth envisioned in the adaptation of the content. An obvious example of this is when works of print, such as novels, short stories, sequential graphic narratives ( graphic novels and comics ), are adapted to movies or television.
There are are a number of examples that can be used. The current CW television show, Arrow, is such an example. The show, Arrow, began as an adaptation of the DC superhero, The Green Arrow. This comic character has a long history, going back to the 1940s.
The comic superhero is an interesting genre of fictional hero. It has its origins in both the pulp magazines and the newspaper comic strips. It evolved into a sequential narrative that blended the genres of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, with the masked/disguised hero-vigilante . Originally aimed at children and young teens, as time went on the target audience became decidedly male. Over many decades it began to skew to an increasingly older target audience, that has been often stereotypically portrayed as the inept adult male, the Nerds on (CBS) Big Bang Theory being a comical example.
The problem then, in adapting the Green Arrow character to a weekly television series becomes one of how to to portray the character and his world . A recent development in American television broadcasting is that some networks have attempted to create an identifiable house style of entertainment, both in the variety of shows and how they appeal to a specific demographic of the viewing audience. In the case of CW, the emphasis has been on youth and in particular, young women. For Arrow to be accepted by the network and succeed, it would have to adjust its content to appeal to that demographic.
In deciding this, certain elements of the character and his world were placed to the fore front, other elements reduced or jettisoned. Emphasis was placed on how the protagonist, Oliver Queen, would take on a Count of Monte Cristo goal of vengeance-redemption of his father’s failings. His character would be of a modern brooding Bryonic hero.
He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
(Byron’s The Cosair)
He returns after five years to a family full of melodramatic secrets and fractured by the tragic loss of a father and son . He gains in this television adaptation, a younger troubled sister, a step father, and a mother who is the classic matriarch of a rich and powerful. Also added to the mix is a wronged girlfriend, Dinah Laurel Lance ( an adaptation of the comic’s Black Canary– Dinah Lance, the super hero and sometimes romantic interest) and her angry police detective father. In addition, there is a boyhood friend, Tommy Merlyn, to be part the required love triangle and a tie to the big bad, Malcolm Merlyn ( comic villain).
Initially, costumed villains and science fiction/fantasy elements are avoided for more “grounded” political and industrial corruption. A Bight colourful costume and the mask are also avoided. Relationships are tortured, full of torn allegiances, secrets and lies/half-truths. A private security employee, John Diggle, is also introduced to eventually become confidant and “side-kick support”. A need for technical support comes in the form of the character, Felicity Smoak ( the name of a comic character used as a lighthearted fan service). Presented as a plucky techno Girl Friday – she initially was intended to provide the technical backup that a modern 21st century hero would need, as well as comic relief providing asides and commentary on the fantastical events and situations, plus unintended double entendres.
There were some unintended side effects to this adaptation. The action superhero elements generated far more interest than expected. Instead of a soft comic book adventure veneer over top of a evening soap-melodrama, the superhero elements widened the audience. The lighter character of Felicity became an identifiable surrogate for the female audience and a desirable attractive character for many in the audience. On the other hand, this additional character combined with the acceleration of the super-heroics to turn much of the love triangle involving Tommy, Laurel and Oliver into a slow mess. Tommy becomes the season’s sacrificial character to satisfy need for real consequences, and act as a motivational drive for various characters. Laurel’s role in the overall narrative now becomes an issue.
Laurel is portrayed (intended) as destined love of the Oliver’s life. Somewhere, way down the line, she is also destined to become the Black Canary. Unfortunately her narrative role and relationship has been taken away from her, by circumstance. Rather than being a strong assertive character, she becomes the helpless victim – as a consequence many in the audience take a dislike to the character. Rather than growing into the confidant and emotional support of the protagonist, the writers had inadvertently created another female character who ends up filling that role, one with whom the audience identifies. Because of the none fantasy elements ( no super powers), the means of turning Laurel into the Black Canary becomes tortuous and convoluted. How to acquire the skills and motivation ? How to bring her character into the inner circle in a meaningful way ? How to back away from potential the soap opera love triangle that actually engenders hostility amongst the viewing audience ? The codes and conventions of the superhero comic collide with those of a television drama – narrative & character development evolves as the show progresses and responds to a target audience it did not totally anticipate.
Those in the viewing audience who were drawn to the show, hoping to see beloved characters adapted in a manner that was faithful to the spirit of the originals, were demanding that both Oliver and Laurel exhibit those familiar characteristics. Oliver needed to be less dour and guilty. Laurel needed to be more assertive, competent and not so oblivious to the dual identity. The writer response was to use the Felicity-Oliver relationship to very slowly lighten up the protagonist’s character and actions, he smiled and even joked a couple of times in the season. Laurel however, went into an emotional spiral shifting motivation and occupation. Now even more damaged, she was further from the inner circle and becoming an antagonist/obstacle.
In an attempt to create the Black Canary as quickly as the audience demanded, the writers introduced a new character by resurrecting the supposedly dead Sarah Lance, Laurel’s sister. This character served the role so well in bringing a version the Black Canary character to life, that Laurel looked even more inadequate and unnecessary. The character of Laurel was so tied to the CW soap opera format that the writers were incapable of finding a way to transform her into the superhero that she was intended to become.
It is especially ironic that Arrow, a show hoping to draw upon a strong female demographic and the comic-book fans, shifted more and more into a realm of fantastical adventure and individuals with either magical or science fiction based abilities and yet failed so badly to bring an early positive female superhero to life. After further convolutions in plot, Laurel took on the role of Black Canary, acquired technology to produce the Canary sonic cry, and even demonstrated competency as a lawyer, supportive friend, and as a costumed superhero, only now to become this season’s sacrificial character to motivate others and demonstrate serious consequences.
There is already much outcry (pun intended) on the internet by those against her death. Typical show-runner spin on why this was the best move available to them in the narrative thrust. It will take time to see what the outcome will be for the viewership of the show.
A couple of closing observations to consider. There may be a possibility that the actress, Katie Cassidy is still with the show for next season. She will be portraying her Earth Two self, Black Siren, on the companion show, The Flash. She will also voice the Black Canary character on the Vixon online cartoon. Some viewers are interpreting the death as some type of fake-out to fool both the audience and this season’s big bad. This has, so far, been denied by the show-runners. Considering how audience demand has modified the trajectory of the show, it is possible that viewer response may still alter plans. There is another possibility to consider, Warner Bros. attempt to develop a DC superhero universe may be planning on introducing Black Canary in one of its films. There may have been pressure to remove the character from the Arrow TV Universe , as they did with Amanda Waller and the Suicide Squad.