The Brotherhood Problem, AKA "Does the Source Material Matter?"


Yeah, we’re going there! (Courtesy of Glass Reflection.)

I’ve been delaying this for some time. I knew I’d have to touch on it eventually, but I was hoping it’d be at some other point. You know, I’d first build a résumé, find a nice girl, settle down and-okay, I’m being overdramatic. Basically, I never thought I’d have to say this, but the above video gives me no choice:

I don’t think Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is anything special.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s awful either. It has its moments and emotional resonances. It also looks beautiful, something complimented by its amazingly-choreographed fight scenes. But direction-wise its ugly, its soundtrack is repetitive for the wrong reasons, its cast is overstuffed, its ending is really sappy, its story drags, its villain is lame and BY GOD, its first 13 episodes are painful. And I’m aware it’s more faithful to the Manga, but I don’t care because that shouldn’t be a factor in why I like something.

Assuming you’re not ready to kill me by this point, I’ll admit that a good chunk of that has to do with loving Fullmetal Alchemist; heck, it’s my second-favourite anime series! But that’s because, despite dealing with a then-incomplete Manga, the 2003 show did something I’ve never seen before in a Shonen series past or present: subtlety. And part of that is because, aside from deadlines, the show also recognized something crucial about adapting something to another medium: do what works. It didn’t “pull stuff out of thin air,” it didn’t “disrespect its source” (that doesn’t even make sense since Hiromu Arakawa gave it her blessing) and it most-certainly isn’t bad because it didn’t follow the Manga faithfully. Because it knew that adaptation and faithful don’t always work hand-in-hand.

I might as well explain why it’s important that I say this. It’s common practice in anime fandom to knock on anything that isn’t true to its source material. That mindset’s, sadly, not exclusive to anime. It also pops up in Western media, namely TV shows and film. Simply put, if it’s not "like the book", then it’s “not worth watching”. Which begs the question: does the source material matter?

Perhaps the only way to tackle this issue is to start big and work my way in. Adaptations are tricky, they require a certain finesse to work. On one hand, you’re taking something beloved by many and reworking it for a different medium. On the other hand, you’re also adapting something from a medium with one set of rules to a medium with another set of rules. The balance of faithfulness-to-competence is tough, and I’ve seen adaptations that were both successful and unsuccessful.

I’ll use my favourite examples for comparison: JRR Tolkien’s work. Tolkien’s most famous movie adaptations are the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The former’s an epic trilogy of incredibly dense and long books, while the latter, though still dense, is smaller and simpler. One is adult fiction, the other children’s fiction. And they share the same universe. Both works had well-known films from director Peter Jackson, and yet I think The Hobbit has yet to have had a good adaptation. Why?

Well, I liked the Lord of the Rings films for a simple reason: I’ve read the books. They’re good, don’t mistake me, but they’re daunting. Each book is divided into two parts, and while that’s not necessarily bad, the reason is content. JRR Tolkien loved to hear himself speak, enough so that his writing was cumbersome on more than one occasion. Frequently throughout, Tolkien would halt the narrative to either describe a backdrop, or insert a song that did the same. This happened so frequently that it drew me out of an already-lengthy story, hence spending two years reading all three books.

This is where the movies were an improvement. For one, most of the songs were axed, allowing room to focus on the content and characters. Additionally, the descriptions that took pages to get through were summed up in a few seconds via camera shots. And they were equally effective at conveying scope. Jackson understood that film is a visual medium, and, hence, used that to his advantage. Therefore, I think the movies, while still long, won out.

And The Hobbit? It also benefitted from the film format, but I can’t stand it. For one, the book, which I love, was a simple story (by Tolkien standards) for kids. It was dense and wordy, but there was a narrative simplicity that made it easier to read than its counterparts. I’ve read it three times over the years, and I’m hoping to eventually read it a fourth.

The problem, however, isn’t so much the source material. Would The Hobbit have worked as a movie? Absolutely, but that’s the key: a movie. It’s not three books, but one. Plus, it’s a whopping 340 pages. There’s enough material there for a single movie, nothing more.

Sadly, it received three. And that meant chopping the book into three parts, which’d be fine…if the individual parts were roughly an hour. But this is Peter Jackson, so each movie had plenty of padding to fill their run-times. This included adding some of the songs, a pointless love-triangle, an unneeded tie-in to the other films that ruins a key thread, a final battle that drags on and, of course, lots of crappy action scenes ripped straight from a video game. It’s obnoxious, and while the Lord of the Rings films were guilty of nonsense too, it’s so bad here that it actively ruins the experience. In short, The Hobbit deserved better, even outside of the whole “poor adaptation” context.

This idea of “source versus adaptation” can be applied to anything. I love the Harry Potter films, but I find they pale to the books because they’re too streamlined. Coraline the film eclipses Coraline the book because I found Coraline as a character more compelling. And while I haven’t read the books, the common consensus is that The Hunger Games series is better on film. But even outside of that, those adaptations should be judged separate from their source.

Here’s one in particular that I like pointing to: Howl’s Moving Castle. People always claim that Diana Wynne Jones’s book series far eclipses the 2004 film by Hayao Miyazaki, but I don’t care. Because, as I've said before, it’s problematic on its own merits. The film is too busy and crammed to work effectively, source material be damned! Saying that the books are better means nothing to me, as that’s not what I’m concerned about.

The issue of “is the source better than the adaptation?” is also one of context. Sometimes, the adaptation might add to, change or remove information from the source material to make it flow better. Remember, books are a medium of textual information, shows and movies visual information. The key to a good novel is “explain effectively”, the key to a good show or movie is “show, don’t tell”. Anything from the former that doesn’t work in the latter needs to be dropped.

Which leads back to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Like I said, it wasn’t bad, but it suffered, at least for me, from all the previously stated issues. I don’t care if it followed the Manga, that’s not a justification of quality. What if parts of the Manga weren’t all that great? I don’t know for sure, but if the show is to be believed, then there are many parts, such as Greeling's eventual goodbye, that may not have been so great to begin with. I’m not purposely trying to hate on it, I simply didn’t connect with it.

Ultimately, the answer to whether or not the source material matters is "yes and no". It matters as a base template, not a be-all-end-all. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay true to what works, but if you can go a separate, competent direction and work, something I believe Fullmetal Alchemist did, then go for it! Art isn’t static, and there are no defined rules for adapting, something die-hard fans need to understand.

As always, you may now proceed to yell at me for being wrong, even if I don’t care…


  1. I thought the villain in brotherhood was much more of a threat than the one in FMA, I think the story seems to drag on because it has some padding and more backstory for character development

    1. I'm not one to argue with personal preference, even though I don't agree. Regardless, my point was more about adaptation than anything else, my thoughts on the show are merely a springboard for that...

  2. I was leaning towards watching the 2003 version of "Fullmetal Alchemist" already, but this piece has confirmed for me that that's what I'll do. In this particular instance, as someone who has not read the manga, I'm simply looking for a well-executed story. If the 2003 series does the better job of that, then that's what I'll watch whenever I finally get around to doing so.

    Regarding adaptations in general: I agree that they're a tricky thing to pull off. There's no set in stone methodology to making them work- only guidelines. One thing I do myself when evaluating any adaptation of something from another medium is to give it two distinct grades: one for how well it succeeds as an adaptation and how well it succeeds purely on its own merits. I think its dangerous to conflate these two aspect of adaptations, as doing so can lead to highly distorted views of their merits, both positive *and* negative. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is actually a perfect example of this, in that its quality as an adaptation of Tolkien's work has been both overestimated *and* underestimated.

    I'll forever have a love/hate relationship with Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies. As cinema, they are indisputably classics, not least in that they demonstrated that fantasy movies don't have to be crummy. As adaptations of their source material, however, they are very firmly in "mixed bag" territory.

    On the one hand, they do an admirable job of streamlining the overall plot without losing very many important beats. Among the many good decisions made; the absence of Tom Bombadil; the shortening of the first half of "The Fellowship of the Ring"; the shortening of much of the "Shadow of the Past" and "Council of Elrond" segments, and the placement of the most relevant information from these in other portions [most notably, the first movie's prologue]; the decision to intercut between the dual narratives of "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" rather than tell each thread in whole, separately; the decision to show certain key events, such as the assault on Isengard, in real time rather than recount them in retrospect; the decision to expand on Arwen's role using the appendices- these and many other decisions were all very good ones that were necessary to adapt Tolkien's story to the screen. In addition, they manage to capture the tone of the source material in many places- most notably in the truly beautiful "Ride of the Rohirrim" sequence.

    [Continued Below]

  3. On the other hand, many decisions were made that were most definitely *not* necessary to adapt the story to a cinematic medium, all of which do at least one of four things: 1. Serve to make the story as told on screen less compelling and/or believable than the story as told on the page. 2. Waste screen time on contrived conflict that could otherwise have been spent on doing better justice to the parts of the book that were not cut for time. 3. Dilute or contradict Tolkien's intended messages. 4. Make the characters come across as less intelligent and/or complex than they did in the novel. Decisions such as: the initial reluctance of the Ents to help the protagonists; Gollum's attempt to frame Sam for stealing food; the absence of Denethor's palantir; Aragorn going over the cliff; Theoden's initial reluctance to help Gondor when his entire legal right to his throne depends upon his honoring the alliance with Gondor; Aragorn's highly contrived "reluctant hero" shtick; the removal of much of Frodo's personality, as well as the erasure of nearly all of his attempts to be physically brave when faced with the villains; the character changes made to Faramir in "The Two Towers" [this one ties with the "Gollum frames Sam" for the most egregious betrayal of Tolkien in the films]. All these decisions and more hurt the movies as adaptations, and the vast majority of them also hurt them purely as cinema. Not one of them was essential to translating the source material to the screen.

    Honestly, evaluating the Lord of the Rings movies as adaptations of their source, I'd say that the first one is about 75% accurate, while the remaining two are about 65% accurate. For an attempt to translate a story like "The Lord of the Rings" to the big screen, that's actually really impressive. But the fact remains that it lay within the filmmakers' power to do better than that [the studio gave them a lot more free rein on "The Lord of the Rings" than on "The Hobbit"- which should tell you something about the latter project]. And for whatever reason, they did not.

    Firstly, I'm going to be very persnickety and point out that by the author's own explicit admission, "The Lord of the Rings" is not a trilogy- it is one single novel in six parts. The only reason it was split into three volumes for publication is post-WWII paper shortages.

    1. Whoops, forgot to edit that last paragraph. "Firstly" should read "lastly", and that big space shouldn't be there. Sorry!

    2. I knew about the backstory with the books and Tolkien (I own a child-friendly biography of him, strangely enough.) But since they're more-commonly referred to as a "trilogy", that's what I'll call them.

      As for the films themselves, I still kinda prefer them. For what they could've been, it's clear that Peter Jackson had immense respect for the source material, yet recognized that film isn't literature. And besides, as a side-note, the first movie is actually my least-favourite of the trilogy: too much set-up, even if it's good set-up.

      As for the Fullmetal Alchemist/Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood issue, I'll reiterate what GRArkada said about them: watch them both, but start with Fullmetal Alchemist first. Both have their strengths, but if you start with the newer show...the older one will feel obsolete. If anything, consider Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood to be an interesting bit of ancillary material...

    3. I personally prefer to be accurate and call it what it is -a single novel- rather than perpetuate an error. But so long as you're aware of the situation, I shan't nag you about it ;-)

      At the end of the day, whether one prefers the films or the book is going to be a matter of personal preference. For my part, I prefer the novel, yet still enjoy the movies very much, and will break out my copies from time to time; as I've said, they are very good cinema.

      I very much disagree with the idea that the first movie had too much set-up, but I won't harp on that disagreement.

      I suppose I'll watch Brotherhood eventually as well for comparison. But frankly, its going to be a little while before I can blow through just one 30+ episode anime with a continuous plot again, let alone two; I've just finished my first viewing of "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water" [very flawed but quite enjoyable overall, for the record] and I think I'm going to be spending my anime-viewing time on shorter works for a bit. That being said, consider "Full Metal Alchemist" as being on my "to watch" list.


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