If you’ve ever read any of my reviews, you may know that I don’t like anime adaptations, especially those that come from light novels. Light novels, in my opinion, are the anime equivalent of a movie reboot or poorly written sequel: the world would be better off without them. Or at least, I used to think so.
I’ve been forced to concede that not all light novel adapations are bad. I mean, some of the most successful, most popular anime of recent years were light novel adaptations. The prototypical example would be The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. This franchise has spawned what can only be described as a short-lived cult and even now after the trolling that was Endless Eight, people will still praise it. It’s become the jumping in point for many people into the hobby. There are, of course, other examples like Spice & Wolf, Kamisama no Memo-chou, Bakemonogatari, and the currently running Sword Art Online, all of which are enjoyable in their own right.
So no, not all light novel adapations are bad. Which got me thinking, what makes or breaks an anime adapation?
I’ve started to notice that no matter what studio, no matter what genre, light novel anime make the same directional choices. Sometimes it works for them. Most of the time it doesn’t. These are just a few of the problems I see in these potentially great anime.
First would have to be story. Medium, and to a lesser extent, pacing are probably the biggest problems with light novel anime. A story on paper requires timing and pacing that a visual one does not. A book just has a slower inherent pace; things take more time to convey in text than in drawings and moving pictures. And yet, for whatever reason, directors and production companies don’t seem to grasp this concept. Or maybe they do and simply ignore it? Either way, working a light novel premise into an anime will make the show better IF it’s actually worked on. So many of these shows choose to translate as directly as possible from the source, only to leave some viewers unsatisfied.
Second really has to be the incessant need for explanation. Let’s take a couple of anime with roots in light novels: Spice & Wolf and Accel World. Both were good anime in their own right, with Accel World being a very solid action story and Spice & Wolf being an almalgom of different genres, from fantasy to adventure. Both had a lot of explanation and exposition involved in the story. So why did one do well, and the other get mixed reactions? Simply put, since Spice & Wolf needs constant explaining to explain some of the economic concepts, we don’t need Haru to tell us why he’s fighting someone or for what cause he’s fighting. Sometimes it’ll be hard not to explain and I understand that. My point is that exposition should be part of the show, not an add-on. The reason why Spice & Wolf has a generally higher opinion is because it lends itself to the verbose long-winded explanations that come from the medium. Accel World, with its action-oriented premise, doesn’t.
Finally, there’s the matter of perspective. From what I’ve experienced first hand, most light novels are narrated in the first person while most anime are in the third person. Sure a show will follow the same protagonist, but we don’t really hear what the character is thinking. We can only go by their immediate reaction, which compared to listening in on their thoughts, is pretty limiting. This problem is probably the most deliberate and probably the hardest to navigate well. Not every anime will have an internal monologue, but then not everything will be easily communicable though facial expression either. This one, I can’t really critique constructively because I don’t have an answer for it. All I know is that the third person narrative has major flaws when the source is written in the first. It’s something that directors need to take notice of and properly address. Otherwise, the novel that sold 100,000 copies will become an anime flop.
At the end of the day, this is all opinion. Mine is always evolving, but I am convinced that a good light novel adapation will happen only once in a blue moon. Adaptation is a tricky thing with unknowable results. Maybe someday what I’ve critiqued will be what’s celebrated about light novels and their anime adaptations. But until that day comes, anytime I sit down to watch an anime based on a light novel, I’ll continue to have low expectations.