Since the launch of the narrative feature film, industry adaptations have ruled the motion picture landscape. In fact, the first film to get audiences to perch in seats in a theatrical setting for longer than 3 hours was adapted from Shelby, NC’s Thomas Dixon’s book “The Clansman.” The racially charged film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) offered many controversies, and it inspired membership in both the NAACP and the KKK. This film has had many detractors throughout history because of the subject matter (and rightfully so), yet it did open the door to a new art form – feature narrative filmmaking… and that in turn ignited massive film adaptations.
After the success of “Birth of a Nation” audiences were begging for long-form film story, and production companies were eagerly seeking ideas to bring to the big screen. One easy place to find these narratives was in the form of stage plays, short stories, or novels. Because these stories already existed with fully-formed settings, story-lines, characters, and snapshot scenes; adapting from these original source materials seemed like a perfect solution to meeting the growing audience demand. Another benefit for film production companies during these early years was that they didn’t have to pay any film rights to the authors of the original literary texts because copyright laws didn’t cover filmmaking at the time.
Filmmakers also looked at adaptations as a way to bring literary culture to the working class. 71% of New York’s population in 1911 was composed of blue-collar workers according to Desmond and Hawkes in the book Adaptation: Studying film and Literature (2006).
Filming adaptations also became a marketing device for studios hoping to introduce audiences to literary classics; which in essence was all about the mighty dollar – it was then, and it still is. Here’s some evidence to support that – so far in 2016, only four of the
top 20 domestic (US & Canada) films were original to the screen. The other 16 films were prequels, sequels, remakes, or adaptations (boxofficemojo.com).
- 61% of films produced for theatrical releases are remakes, adaptations or franchise films (sequels, prequels or spinoffs) according to Stephen Follows of the Film Data and Education Foundation (2015).
- Adaptations are films that are based on some previous work (books, comics, songs, stage plays, paintings, video games, TV shows, etc.). Adaptations are not original to the screen itself.
- Adaptations typically differ from “Based on True Story films or Biopics” because adaptations are usually based on fiction.
5 Types of Film Adaptations
- Classic – anything written, performed or conceived over 100 years ago (example:
Robin Hood, Around the World in 80 Days, War of Worlds, The Time Machine, Frankenstein, a Christmas Carol).
- Modern Adaptation – usually anything written, performed or conceived of within the last 20 years (Road to Perdition, Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent, Serena, Eragon, Big Fish).
- True or Close Adaptation – Staying true to the original idea or concept of the source material (Heart of Darkness, The Godfather, No Country for Old Men, Charlotte’s Web, Silence of the Lambs, The Life of Pi).
- Loose Adaptation (or “invisible adaptation”)– Sometimes in these films you may not even recognize the original story or idea (The Lion King –Hamlet, Westside Story –Romeo and Juliet, Resident
Evil, O Brother Where Art Thou, Clueless –Jane Austen, Memento, The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons).
- Revisionist Adaptation – A unique reinterpretation of any previous work. These films may stay true to the original idea but take the screenwriter’s or the director’s artistic vision (or revision). (Examples: Dark Knight, 10 Things I Hate About You =Shakespeare, Treasure Planet=Treasure Island, James Bond = Daniel Craig series, The Great Gatsby, Cat in the Hat).
Reviewing and Interpreting Adaptations
So, how does one review and evaluate adaptations without giving in to the cultural prejudice associate with the original source material? How does one even begin to separate
the baggage associated with a literary classic when it is translated into a big screen adaptation? How does one compare one to the other?
The answers to those questions are not always simple, but the bottom line is – the original source material and the film-inspired translation are two separate mediums, they’re different by the very nature of what they are. You can’t judge them equally against one another; it just doesn’t work that way. While the Wizard of Oz (1939) was successful in both literature and on film, they were different (for one, the written piece wasn’t designed as a musical). Different doesn’t always mean better or worse, it just means … different. The trick for film critics is to judge the film on the basis of the film itself, and not what originally birthed the idea. If you find yourself reviewing a film based on a book you’ve read, a superhero you grew up with, or a song from your youth, try to remember that the film, and the original material are brothers and sisters of the same mother; evaluate each of them on the individual strengths and weaknesses as it relates to their distinct forms. While all brothers and sisters may display similarities, they offer unique aspects as well. So when you examine the two sources (original and adapted) attempt to do so without the bias.
When writing reviews on film adaptations it is however important to always make note of the original source material and author, but try not to let your feelings be governed for one over the other.
2016 Yearly Box Office Results – Box Office Mojo. (2016, September 19). Retrieved from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=2016
Cateridge, J. (2015). Film Studies For Dummies. West Sussex, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Desmond, J. M., & Hawkes, P. (2006). Adaptation: Studying film and literature. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Follows, S. (2015, July 22). Do audiences want original movies? | Den of Geek. Retrieved from http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/original-movies/39393/do-audiences-want-original-movies
Follows, S. (2015, June 8). How original are Hollywood movies?. Retrieved from https://stephenfollows.com/how-original-are-hollywood-movies/
Manning, N. T. (2015, September 9). Originality in film: Where is it? [Lecture].
Sailus, C. (n.d.). Comparing an original story to its film version [Online class]. Chapter 9: Lesson 17. Retrieved from http://study.com/academy/lesson/comparing-an-original-story-to-its-film-version.html