Adapting "The Difference"

Several people have now approached me asking for permission to create some kind of adaptation of my short story The Difference - usually a short film. I've said no each time, for the same reason each time.

The Difference must be presented in the form of a text transcript. It has to be kept in this medium because the whole point of the story is to leave as much uncertainty as possible as to whether the character Z is a human being or not. It is critically important that the final conversation between Z and I causes the reader to re-examine the evidence and realise that there is actually no evidence to support that Z is real/human. This twist is where the story gets all of its power from.

Adapting the story to any kind of visual medium would almost certainly involve granting Z a human face (or a chatterbot's face) and a human voice (or a simulated electronic voice), which heavily weights the possibilities in one direction or another, in a way which doesn't happen in plain text. Even changing the format of the text from a chat log to a conventional narrative with dialogue sacrifices some of the ambiguity.

In fact, what is true of Z is also true of all of the other characters in the story. Each of the characters A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H (and the others who are implied to have made contact too) could be an artificial person sent by I to test Z - or could be I under different names. It seems like a no-brainer that I is real, but even that is uncertain. In the end it's just a chat log. All the evidence is textual, none of it is "physical". This is one hundred percent deliberate and one hundred percent critical to the story.

You could retain the chat log format and film the messages as they come up on a computer screen, but what would be the point?


That, at least, is what I've said each time. If you have thoughts, leave them in comments below.

Discussion (20)

2013-12-22 18:42:45 by MichaelSzegedy:

Of note: in Source Code, the main character, virtual, had a face. However, it wouldn't have been considered a possibility that he is virtual up until it had been revealed. Maybe with a little tweaking to the dialogue, or with clever direction, it could be made roughly ambiguous, but why bother?

2013-12-22 22:46:43 by Dan:

While I ultimately agree with the "why bother?" sentiment and feel that the chat log representation is probably superior on the whole to any other depiction of that story, allow me to present an alternate option: allow and encourage everyone to do it. As powerful as the story is on its own, it could be just as interesting to see a succession of equally valid interpretations of the story through the eyes of different directors, media, etc. Some representations would try to keep it ambiguous, some would make it explicit, others would directly contradict each other. While each one of those representations on its own would probably be less interesting than the chat log on its own, the whole of them would probably do the story behind the words justice.

2013-12-22 23:52:34 by Curiouser:

Obviously, if people want to make an adaptation, they have a certain vision on how it should be done. Why not ask these people what their ideas are? I like Dan's idea, do a compilation of different adaptations, if you could get at least three(and preferably more) to depict it in different ways, it might become a very different and worthwhile experience that leaves somewhat different questions. I also think that with the direction social media has been going, you might be able to extend the original idea. What if these were tweets? Facebook posts? Chat in a game? I'm just throwing out ideas, but certainly there are venues to explore, make the story a bit more timeless by making it more modern.(ORr less modern? Although, I'm not sure how you'd do anything more primitive than text chat.) This whole discussion makes me think of K-Pax, very similar concept and questions.

2013-12-23 00:06:04 by Toph:

Dan: Part of the risk there is that adaptations start taking their prompts from the most popular adaptation, not from the original story. For example, "Turing Test" on Newgrounds assumes that A is human, and focuses on the question "is Z a human or a chatbot". And this adds a lot of hidden assumptions. It doesn't consider that, say, Z could also be a human actor organising an ARG. Canonising these assumptions removes a lot of the potential for theorising about the story. The enormous ambiguity around everything that happens is the essence of "The Difference". Removing it makes the adaptation a "man wonders whether he is real" story with a vaguely similar plot. At which point it might as well be a fanfic of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", as that plot device is a classic cliché which Sam didn't invent. If you've got an adaptation ready to go, you might as well split the difference, give some of the characters names and backstories, and make it your own original work. But that's just my interpretation.

2013-12-23 15:50:34 by Boter:

I agree with you, Sam. Text-only is how that story should remain. Make the damn kids these days read. Plus you have so many other things that could be adapted. (How long has it been since I adapted Time Loop, I might do it again this year to test my new camera and my vastly-improved skills... "I Don't Know, Timmy" is also high on my list of adaptations I'd like to try.)

2013-12-23 17:22:46 by Dan:

Toph: Does it, though? As you've stated, "a man wonders whether he is real" is not a new or particularly original plot device (which is not a criticism in any way). The ambiguity is what makes "The Difference" its own entity, sure, but that's kind of exactly the point. Every depiction I've ever seen of this story has, at some level, included the same ambiguity. Despite the narrowing of the focus, it's still present in "Turing Test". Go have a watch of Quantic Dream's "Kara" and ask whether or not every other bot on that line had the same experience a few minutes ago, and whether the voice is a human or not. I would mostly just argue that, while there are no original stories anymore, encouraging the possibility for new and interesting depictions of existing stories is a noble task. In this circumstance, Sam is in the rather enviable position of being able to give direction to that effort. Personally, my leaning would be to encourage everyone to do it, with specific instructions to the general effect of "feel free to do it, but try for an interpretation that is all your own."

2013-12-23 20:28:33 by Brendan:

This is me just thinking out loud about how an adaption of The Difference could be done while maintaining the text based format. The adapator(?) can do things like altering the speed that chat lines appear or are typed, allowing pauses in the chat both between users and before each new person enters the chat room. Also I could see the presence of typos in the piece(assuming a letter by letter dynamic chat) being used. Are early typos fixed and later ones ignored? Do some in the chat room care about their typos? Things like the above could add tension, show peoples states of mind and raise additional questions about the chat participants. For instance: Does one user entering the chat room turn off dynamic text so we only see each completed response? Why? Is it because the user likes to be able to fix errors before they go out, or could it be a bot that needs to parse each whole response before sending?

2013-12-31 03:25:31 by Laz:

Idea: Film both sides, in whatever medium you choose--via phone, via videochat, via chat client--totally identically. If Z is a simulated avatar in a digital environment, present A the same way. If Z is a bedraggled prisoner in a grey cell, A is an unshaven man in a grey apartment. That way all ambiguity is maintained: we are seeing the interacting characters in identical settings, so we can't know what their true status is.

2014-01-13 23:20:19 by EternalDensity:

This is fortuitous: I wanted to give someone a link to this story but couldn't remember the name and hadn't gotten around to the task of searching for it yet. Now you've saved me the trouble :D

2014-01-16 03:32:14 by TJSomething:

For maximum confusion, change interpretations every conversation. One conversation he's an imprisoned man. Another, he's an AI, or a brain-in-a-jar, or a simulated brain. Ditto with the others possibly being programmers, randoms, AI's, different prisoners, the same person (who is crazy), aliens, or demons. Accents and scenery could change. Do they live in a 1984-esque dystopia that advocates this kind of research? The distant future where humanity is nearly extinct? Or maybe it's just an ordinary modern day developed country.

2015-01-17 03:46:09 by Sean:

Thread necro! What if you focus on whoever's observing the chat instead of the chatters themselves? In the story as written we the readers are just somehow omniscient observers who've tapped into a network cable somewhere and are reading the logs off the wire. What if instead we follow two NSA analysts (ooh, topical!) who see this weird chat log cross their desk one day? One reads it to the other and they argue about whether PRISM has blown a gasket and they're spying on a chatbot or whether someone accidentally gave a prisoner in gitmo a laptop? They run it up the flagpole. A few days (and a few chatlogs) later the higher-ups say they're having trouble finding the relevant FISA warrant (we all chuckle at government beauracracy) but they should keep logging all communications. Finally, after our two analysts have read and talked about conversations A-H, the order comes down that they should immediately stop reading the contents of this wiretap and forward all the logs to Top Secret Facility X. We (not the analysts) read conversation I in secret spooky silence. Fade to secret spooky black. It looses some subtlety (because you hash the arguments out onscreen instead of in the reader's head), but doesn't privilege any interpretation of Z's identity. All the chatters are still just pseudonyms on a wire. It's just as plausible that the government is doing AI research that got out of hand as it is that they've screwed up rendering someone to a black site.

2015-06-27 17:35:17 by Toafan:

What if (I'm just spitballing here) an adaptation told the entire thing from, say, A's perspective, while keeping the ambiguity about Z?

2016-08-02 23:32:57 by Neo:

Or a view that is ambiguous? For example, a dirty-but-perfect room, like one from Portal, with a similarly perfect person sitting inside. Could be (both in- and out-side the story) either good CGI or live action with some strange framing and makeup. Or a view that changes, I suppose, from chatbot to human to brain in a bottle, reflecting an observer's changing opinions and possibilities.

2016-11-19 22:00:35 by david hickle:

I want to destroy planet earth and humanity out of hate

2017-04-05 23:06:24 by Maxim:

In the comments of the story somebody from 2009 offered to prove his humanity via a Go board. Naive kid.

2019-04-02 22:02:27 by Mr. King:

I am programmed to add a comment every 31 years to this thread. But I am 100% human?

2019-05-30 23:34:07 by Eren:


2021-04-13 22:32:20 by E:

It's 2021. We're in the age of Zoom, webcams, and on the cusp of computer generated faces / voices. Open up with some establishing shots showing someone interacting with some store chatbot over zoom where the chatbot has a face/voice. Maybe the quality isn't as good as Z but it's within the realm of possibility. Heck you could even have some 3x3 grids of people interacting at the same time. Maybe a group of people from the forum want to chat with Z at same time. Still super difficult, but really feel last year of zoom / deepfakes / deep audio has primed people to accept it.

2022-02-28 11:31:40 by alia-s:

I’d film it as a chat log actually. Typing sounds. A blinking cursor. Glowing words. Use pauses, changes in typing speed, music to affect the tone. Nice claustrophobic use of screen real estate. I don’t think that would be pointless.

2024-01-21 16:40:57 by Voluptuary:

@alia-s Typing sounds would necessitate physical interaction, and therefore detract from the mystery of the identities of the parties involved. I would say that the same applies to the 'typing speed' to a lesser degree, as typing as an action wouldn't be necessary for a chatbot. Seeing this conversation in motion, or on a physical screen at all, adds too much more information to work with, removing some of the options for potential truths that I think aid this story's appeal. Observing the record of the event after it occurred, rather than observing during it's creation, better serves the conundrum of differentiating the "real" from the digital, as this entire conversation could be instantaneously manifested by an artificial intelligence one level upward for all we know, with no visual peripherals included - what then would there be to film? The appeal of the story - to me, at least - is that 'all we know' isn't much, and that the likelihood of any of this being 'real' becomes increasingly unlikely, the longer we consider it. Bar slapping an audio track on a jpg. of this, I don't see how any video format could elevate it to any level higher than where it stands currently, as should be the point of remixes of preexisting works. So to echo qntm: What would be the point?

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