Another Side, Another Story
The art of adaptation is a task more accurately equated with walking a tightrope than riding a bike. Translating ideas from one medium to another is never easy, though in many cases this process becomes a comedy of errors with corporate meddling and lazy decision making in order to make a quick buck. Changes that may seem minor are not noticed by general audiences, but fans or critical viewers will pick up on the implications being made. With every change comes a consequence, whether it be a large change or a small one. This is not to say change is bad. No two mediums work the same and changes must be made. Some changes, however, can be made in poor taste.
The Kingdom Hearts 1 novelization is an interesting case study in this overarching discussion. The author adapting from screen to page is faced with the challenge of taking a visual medium and putting it into words, a task that can go south very quickly. How does one describe the random battles our heroes encounter or their linguistic forms of speech? How can one capture Donald’s raspy clucking? Another question to consider is if the text is competently translated for audiences outside of Japan? None of these tasks are straight forward or easy, yet that is how these hurdles are approached none-the-less. The Kingdom Hearts 1 novelization is at times quite competent in its execution but falters where it matters the most.. Though it certainly has charm, that charm does not extend to people who aren’t wearing the rose colored glasses of having played the game prior. Thus it works as a companion to those familiar with the game, but much less as a novel independent from its source material.
Not everything is entirely awful here. In actuality, there is a lot of good being done in this novelization. The problem that seems to exist is that this momentum is not carried out. Great details at the beginning of the book are often dropped by the end. In fact, the entire end of the book reads more like a rushed book summary rather than an actual story. This makes the experience fall pretty flat which is unfortunate since the book seems to have a lot of great ideas yet doesn’t know what to do with them.
The book clearly knows that a different sort of context needs to be applied in order to convey what is happening on the screen. The reader is exposed to Sora’s inner dialogue and his thoughts. Here we see Sora reflecting on things far deeper than in the game. For example, when Sora visits Wonderland, he reflects that he has never heard the word “trial” before. His life on Destiny Island was so secluded that he has no concept of such a thing. At another point further into the book, Sora actively thinks about the darkness in his own heart and how this darkness manifests when he is afraid or when he hates something. He even experiences severe trauma after leaving Monstro. The book clearly wants to create a more well rounded character and this comes across.
Characters that lacked motivation or seemed basic in the game are allowed dialogue and some sort of autonomy. For example, the Final Fantasy characters feel much more alive and not as stiff as in the game. On Destiny Island, Wakka is the oldest kid there and is often the teacher of the group. Selphie actively feels left out from the trio’s exploits when they are busy playing off on their own building the raft. When Sora arrives in Traverse Town, Leon is not randomly summoned by the gods of game timing to confront Sora but is warned by Cid who sees Sora first in his shop. Actions that are difficult to portray in a game are now much easier to convey on the page.
The book does not adapt the game one to one. Several scenes are condensed, combined, or greatly altered to read well in a novel. On Destiny Island, Sora has two sunset scenes with his friends. These are combined. In the novelization, the events of Destiny Island take place on the same day. The trio have their scene talking about discovering other worlds before Riku leaves for the day, leaving just Kairi and Sora to have their sunset scene together. It works very well. Another great example of good adaptation comes when Sora meets Donald and Goofy. Rather than pausing the action, the trio introduce themselves while they begin fighting. This achieves a dual purpose; our trio introduces themselves to one another and fight the enemy before them.
Other little details are enjoyable such as Donald’s spells being verbal. When he zaps Goofy he yells, “thunder!” Donald also says “quack” a lot more than you would expect and it is very funny. Gameplay mechanics are contextualized for the page. There are several points where one of the trio will run over to someone to heal them, the equivalent of in game yelling of names before giving the party member a potion. The book goes out of its way to elaborate on things like trinitys and how they come across the Ansem reports. Admittedly the Ansem reports are handled pretty poorly, randomly falling out of a villains pocket after battle, but at least they are made to play a bigger role in the story.
Unfortunately, the good doesn’t go much farther than that. There are several moments of this book that are head scratchers and make you wonder what the purpose of certain changes benefits. The book will insert bits of thought or dialogue to seemingly fill in for conversations in the game and this seems to be a good choice, only to have the same thing be repeated word for word from the game. For example, when Sora arrives in Traverse Town he goes in search of Riku and Kairi, actively reflecting on the fact that he is in another world and that he is upset. Then the book has Sora quote his game self and cry out at the realization that his island is gone as well as his friends. Why add this bit of narration only for Sora to act as if he’d never had the thoughts in the first place. The same thing later happens when Sora meets Donald and Goofy. The three introduce themselves in the book in the heart of battling a heartless. They then go on to repeat this introduction just as it happens in the game. It makes these seemingly smart changes feel pointless.
Other times, the book cuts some scenes that feel very important to the plot while leaving in others that just aren’t needed. We still have the scene with Terk flirting with Donald yet several scenes of Sora seeing Kairi on his journey is left out. Speaking of left out, several worlds are left out of the book. This is not a criticism. It is clear this was done to focus on the story at hand and moving things forward. Worlds such as Halloweentown, Atlantica, and Olympus Coliseum are all cut. Though some may complain about this, it was indeed the smarter choice to tell a more concise story.
It may not come as a surprise that the book is poorly written. Whether this is due to the original text lacking or a poor translation, it is impossible for me to say. Though it is not always too noticeable, other times it is outright clunky and awful. Sentences read like laundry lists: “Sora, Donald, and Goofy waved to Jiminy, who stayed to watch the ship, and look around them, then finally stepped off the ship.” (56). Others are just plain lazy writing: “He let go of the dark Keyblade, and it floated up, shining blackly…” (223). 2
Overall, the experience of reading the Kingdom Hearts 1 novelization was not a bad one. While the book has glaring problems that my literary mind can’t ignore, it does a decent job of adapting from screen to page. It is certainly clunky and some narrative choices are more questionable than others. As it stands, it is a fine companion novel for the avid Kingdom Hearts fan. I can’t see it gaining much traction beyond that.
- Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. Square Enix. PS2/PS3/PS4/XBox One/Windows/Nintendo Switch. 2002.
- Kanemaki, Tomoco. 2015. Kingdom Hearts: The Novel. Translated by Melissa Tanaka. First ed. New York, NY: Yen On.