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Adaptational Sympathy

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Adaptational Sympathy is when a character who either had no motive in the original work or a more twisted motive is explicitly rewritten so audiences might sympathize with them better. If an author is underwhelmed by the motive of a villain in a story with Black-and-White Morality, they might take the opportunity to change it when adapting the work.

Maybe the villain has a brand-new Freudian Excuse in the adaptation. Maybe they're suddenly a Well-Intentioned Extremist who thinks the end justifies any means or a Tragic Villain acting because they have to, not because they want to. They might be Brainwashed and Crazy. Or maybe the world just kept treating them like crap, so they decided they might as well be the bad guy like everyone expects them to. If the hero was a Flat Character, they might get a new backstory to add dynamism. Or, Values Dissonance might come into play if the character's actions in the past would not fly today, so it was changed in order to avoid making it come across as stereotypical.

In Fan Works, this can often overlap with the Draco in Leather Pants treatment, where fans will make a character more sympathetic than they ever were onscreen. Sometimes this will become Ascended Fanon when a Promoted Fanboy gets the chance to work on the franchise.

Compare Adaptational Heroism, which often overlaps, but makes a villain morally sound rather than simply sympathetic. Contrast Adaptational Villainy (where a character is made far less sympathetic at times, though not always), Adaptational Jerkass (where they're a lot meaner than they are in the original work) and Adaptational Nice Guy (where the character is nicer than they were in the original work). For the Character Development variation of this trope, see Took a Level in Kindness, where a character is made more sympathetic in the franchise itself. See also Perspective Flip and Twice-Told Tale, where this can frequently occur, and Sympathetic P.O.V..

For characters that audiences sympathize with when they aren't supposed to, see Unintentionally Sympathetic. For characters that audiences are supposed to sympathize with, but choose not to do so when their actions come across as otherwise, see Unintentionally Unsympathetic. For characters that audiences feel pity for, see The Woobie for typical examples and Jerkass Woobie for characters with a bit of a mean streak yet still induce pity. For characters that are supposed to be the hero, but audiences see their actions as otherwise, see Designated Hero, or for its opposite, Designated Villain.

No Real Life Examples, Please! This page deals strictly with fictional characters.


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  • Mordred in Fate/Apocrypha. While she is still the Antagonistic Offspring to King Arthur aka Altria Pendragon, she actually admired Altria and was happy when she learned she was her child. However, Altria rejected her as her child, but not as a knight, and rebelled against her. Also, she is still mentally a child since she is an aged-up homunculus created by Morgan.
  • Go to Sleep (A Jeff the Killer Rewrite): Some characters are made more sympathetic than in the original tale:
    • Jeff's apparent reasons for turning insane in the original story are a mix of seeking revenge on the bullies and learning he enjoys inflicting pain on others, and he otherwise kills his family for no reason (although his mother did plan to have him shot). In this rewrite, Jeff's vendetta against Randy is for causing his best friend's death, and after Jeff's accident, he's more reluctant to kill his family, coming to the warped conclusion that killing them is sparing them from a life of misery.
    • Downplayed for the bullies, particularly Randy. While Randy, Keith, and Troy appear equally vile in the original tale, this rewrite has Randy as their leader and the other two as his not-so-willing sidekicks who even reform in the future. There's not much to sympathise for Randy considering that he causes Ben's death, but setting Jeff on fire turns out to be accidental in this take instead of deliberate like the original.
  • A Tale of... does this to many of the Disney Villains (and the Beast) by expounding on their backstories. This includes showing that The Evil Queen was the victim of an abusive father, Mother Gothel's own mother was just as wicked as she was and almost killed her sisters, The Beast had a lot of his own worst traits brought out by Gaston, Maleficent was the victim of bullying due to a birth defect, while Ursula was a target for Fantastic Racism at the hands of both the people of her native village and even her own brother, King Triton.
  • A Frozen Heart: In the Frozen (2013) movie, Prince Hans is implied to have had a bad relationship with his older brothers, but this book expands on his backstory by having most of his family be straight-up abusive. It also makes him more sympathetic by giving him more redeeming qualities and contrasting him with his family, particularly his father, who makes Hans look tame compared to him.
  • Inverted in Robert Southey's Shewing How an Old Woman Rode Double, and Who Rode Before Her. In the episode from the Flores Historiarum chronicle, on which the ballad is based, the Wicked Witch Old Woman of Berkeley is told of the death of one of her sons and his whole family, and the dreadful news is what leads to her breaking down and, soon afterwards, dying without a chance to repent. In the ballad, the son with a family is Adapted Out entirely, and of the Old Woman's children, only "the monk her son, and her daughter the nun", both of whom outlive her, are present; and her death isn't shown to be hastened by any outside factors. Moreover, without her reaction to the first son's horrible death, there is less indication that the Old Woman actually loves her children and not merely views them as a device to get her out of hell.

    Mythology and Folklore 
  • Morgan le Fay in general gets this treatment a lot in later adaptations of the Arthurian Legend. In the original stories and earlier adaptations she tends to be presented as just a power-hungry sorceress willing to do anything to destroy her half-brother Arthur, sometimes including tricking him into sleeping with her to conceive Mordred and raising him to be Arthur's downfall. Interestingly, in the earliest versions of the Arthurian Legend Morgan wasn't a villain, but she tends to be made a Composite Character with her and Arthur's other sister, the treacherous Morgause, so it could be argued the more sympathetic portrayals are Truer to the Text.
    • One of the earliest examples is the 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon. Here, Morgaine is presented sympathetically despite doing increasingly manipulative and questionable things, and is more of an Anti-Hero than a villain. She genuinely loves Arthur and only turns against him because he backs the Christian Church, who are persecuting her own pagan religion and destroying her culture (Morgaine is a priestess of Avalon, so it's kind of her duty to protect her people as well). Morgaine is also tricked into having sex with Arthur against her will by her scheming aunt and is horrified when she realizes what happened, even giving Mordred up for adoption (unfortunately, her wicked aunt raises him and is not a good influence).
    • In Merlin (2008), Morgana actually starts out as a heroic character before Slowly Slipping Into Evil. She was born with magic but tries to keep it suppressed because her guardian King Uther despises magic and persecutes anyone who practices it, so she lives in fear for years. Her half-sister Morgause manipulates her into turning against her friends; their own actions don't help as Merlin poisons Morgana to force Morgause into calling off an attack and Morgause subsequently whisks her away from Camelot for months, not allowing Merlin to explain. And then Morgana discovers Uther is actually her biological father via an affair with her mother but never told her this, so she's understandably upset and hacked off. She then decides she'd make a much better ruler than either Uther or Arthur, spurred on by Morgause.
    • In Camelot, Morgan was abused and all but disowned by her father Uther; after he murdered her mother to marry Igraine, who did little to intervene in the abuse, Morgan was sent away to a convent. When she returns to reconcile with Uther, he brutally rejects her, so she poisons him to finally claim the throne she believes is hers by right. Then at her moment of triumph she finds out she has a secret half-brother and he's ahead of her in the succession purely because he's a male heir.
  • In Classical Mythology, Medusa was just a monster, one of the three gorgon sisters, and had never been human; it wasn't until the Roman poet Ovid wrote his own version of the Perseus myth 1st century AD that she gained her now famous tragic-backstory as a priestess who had been raped by Poseidon and unjustly cursed by Athena. This was something of a theme in Ovid's works, as Ovid had a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak that he often expressed by depicting the gods as Jerkass Gods.

    Puppet Shows 
  • In Sesame Street, the Three Bears from Goldilocks are main characters, and unlike their portrayal as antagonists in the fairy tale, here they're just a normal family that happens to be comprised of anthropomorphic bears.
  • In the original Horton Hears a Who! and most adaptations, Jane the Sour Kangaroo was a heckling snob who belittled Horton's beliefs in a tiny civiliation inside a clover, and while she does relent when he proves it, she doesn't seem particularly remorseful about the hell she put him or the Whos through beforehand. The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss meanwhile still portrays Jane as a snobby meddler, but most of her worst actions are more down to her pomposity or lack of foresight snowballing disasters, with her usually repenting and trying to fix her mistakes when she realises she has hurt someone (especially if that someone is her beloved son, Junior).

  • Beauty and the Beast: The Castle Servants have the curse brought on them changed from simply being turned into anthropomorphic objects who are immortal, into slowly being turned into the objects seen in the films that will lose their humanity if they fail to break the curse. Thus, rather than play matchmaker simply to break the spell, they all get more invested to keep themselves from being condemned to a lifeless existence.
  • Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto gives The Borgias' enemy Giuliano della Rovere a sympathetic Anti- Villain Song. History has generally been kinder to Rovere, due to his being the patron that got Michelangelo Buonarroti to do the Sistine Chapel ceiling, despite the fact that he was well known for fits of anger and for beating Michelangelo with a stick. The direct source for the musical, however, shows him with very little sympathy — he's ruthless and scary throughout, so it's quite a contrast for him to get that one scene. On the other hand, if you listen closely, the song is dripping with hypocrisy to the point of Lyrical Dissonance. He claims that only he truly knows of God's salvation, and that the answers lie only in prayer, and that that's how he was saved from poverty — really, he was saved when his uncle became pope. Still, it's a beautiful song, and it ends with projections of those future frescoes.
  • In Duke Bluebeard's Castle, depending on the director, Bluebeard can be seen as a man who, while proud of his wealth, feels extreme guilt at the lengths he went to get it, particularly at the sixth door's lake of tears. Either way, he's a much more rounded character than the wife-murderer of the original tale, with the seven doors reflecting various aspects of his personality.
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which begins where The Deathly Hallows left off: with Albus Severus Potter boarding the Hogwarts Express to begin his first year, does this for Slytherin House. Albus not only winds up in Slytherin, he's someone the Sorting Hat considers a quintessential Slytherin, barely touching his head before placing him in Slytherin in much the same way as Malfoy and Voldemort. Malfoy's kid, Scorpius, turns out to not be a spoiled little shit like his dad and ends up being Albus's best friend at Hogwarts. Meanwhile, the other houses are wary of Slytherin House as a result of the events two decades prior, even when they're legitimately good people like Albus and Scorpius.
  • The Scarlet Sails provides a rare example that results in a character's Adaptational Villainy. In the book, Menners Jr. is a mostly one-dimensional nasty bully who can't stand Assol and is therefore perfectly on board with her hating him in turn and steering clear of him and his inn. In the musical, however, he is a much more complex and conflicted character who is infatuated with Assol and knows her to be the one person different from the cynical, weary villagers... so he tries to push her into a Forced Marriage with him.
  • Sweeney Todd is motivated entirely by greed and cruelty in the original penny dreadful The String of Pearls. The play by Christopher Bond, which was later adapted into the Steven Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, gave him a tragic backstory and a revenge motivation.
  • Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier: Jafar from Aladdin was little more than a power-hungry maniac who sought to overthrow the Sultan so he could rule. This parodical version of the tale shows Ja'far as an outright good guy, trying his hardest to make the kingdom as prosperous as possible so everyone could be happy. It just happens that both Aladdin and The Sultan are the villains this time, and Jafar ends up having to be perceived as the bad guy so he can ensure his dream comes true.
  • Wicked provides an example for one of the most famous villains of film, The Wicked Witch of the West, showing that she spent years struggling as an outcast due to her unnatural skin color, and no matter what she tried, she could never get it quite right. Thus, her descent into villainy occurs after one too many tragedies.

  • Batman: Wayne Family Adventures: The pasts of several Bat family members (and the toll it took on their emotional states) are explored further here. Several episodes (usually the two-parters) focus on traumatic events (i.e. Jason's murder and resurrection) and how they still effect them years later. The episode "Strong Enough" shows that Jason occasionally gets panic attacks when reminded of his death at the hands of the Joker, and later resurrection in the Lazarus pit. Damian also gets a lot of humanizing moments, with many episodes showing how he genuinely appreciates the love and support he gets from his father and foster siblings, but that he simply can't express it like other kids.
  • Gravity Falls fan-comic Deal: Preston Northwest maintains his worst traits from canon, wishing to see an end to the Pines family, raise "the perfect child he never had", and staying as greedy as ever. However, being forced to work with Bill clearly takes a toll on the man, and he at least shows enough care for his daughter to ask Bill not to hurt her anymore.