We prove that an adiabatic theorem generally holds for slow tapers in photonic crystals and other strongly grated waveguides with arbitrary index modulation, exactly as in conventional waveguides. This provides a guaranteed pathway to efficient and broad-bandwidth couplers with, e.g., uniform waveguides. We show that adiabatic transmission can only occur, however, if the operating mode is propagating (nonevanescent) and guided at every point in the taper. Moreover, we demonstrate how straightforward taper designs in photonic crystals can violate these conditions, but that adiabaticity is restored by simple design principles involving only the independent band structures of the intermediate gratings. For these and other analyses, we develop a generalization of the standard coupled-mode theory to handle arbitrary nonuniform gratings via an instantaneous Bloch-mode basis, yielding a continuous set of differential equations for the basis coefficients. We show how one can thereby compute semianalytical reflection and transmission through crystal tapers of almost any length, using only a single pair of modes in the unit cells of uniform gratings. Unlike other numerical methods, our technique becomes more accurate as the taper becomes more gradual, with no significant increase in the computation time or memory. We also include numerical examples comparing to a well-established scattering-matrix method in two dimensions.