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 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 growth of 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 of other written works.
After the theatrical 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, conflicts, 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 – in 2019, only three of the top 25 domestic (US & Canada) films was original to the screen (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, US ). Every other film was either a prequel, sequel, remake, or adaptation (boxofficemojo.com).
Why are Adaptations Different than the Original Source Material?
There are some who view film adaptations after reading, or being fans of, the original source material (especially the written word), and feel cheated when characters are different (or left out) or when elements, themes, or storylines change. These changes occur typically for a few reasons:
1.The screenwriter or director feels the need to further the storyline faster and/or share their own artistic license on the story or characters or film’s message.
2. The original source material (if a written word) may be too long or confusing for a film audiences to interact because of the limitation of screen minutes. Making character and storyline changes may be essential to keep the film’s pace moving.
How Audiences React
Audiences of original source materials have their own ideas and interpretations for characters, settings, storylines, themes, etc. So when audiences view an adaptation, they may be influenced or distracted by their personal baggage.
Key note to remember: One page of script = one minute of screen time. So imagine trying to translate a 544 page book (Like the YA novel, “Before I Fall”) into a film with page by page and scene by scene exactness. You could try, but then you’d have a 3 hour and 44 minute film. By the way, when this book was adapted to film in March, 2017, it did so with a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes (including credits).
- Nearly 93% of the box-office top ten for the past decade are adapted or based on some other source material. Between (Jan.) 2011 – (Dec.) 2020, there were only seven original films listed in the top ten of domestic box office winners (100 total films were examined).
- The trend was better in the early part of the 2000s, but we’re seeing fewer and fewer original films. A study in 2015 of the top 100 films released (annually) between 2005-2014 showed 61% of films produced for theatrical releases were remakes, adaptations or franchise films (sequels, prequels or spinoffs) according to Stephen Follows of the Film Data and Education Foundation (2015).
- Dr Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne, researched the topic as well and found “90 percent of the most popular films have been based on earlier movies, comic books or novels.” (Rosewarne & University of Melbourne, 2021)
- Adaptations are films that are based on some previous work (books, comics, songs, stage plays, paintings, video games, TV shows, etc.). So, simply put, adaptations are not original to the screen itself.
- Adaptations typically differ from “Based on True Story films or Biopics” because when most critics refer to adaptations, they are usually considered to be based on fiction.
5 Types of Film Adaptations
- Classic/traditional – anything written, performed or conceived over 100 years ago (example:
Robin Hood, Around the World in 80 Days, War of Worlds, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, Frankenstein, a Christmas Carol. Man of LaMancha, Mulan).
- Modern Adaptation – usually anything written, performed or conceived of within the last 25 years (Road to Perdition, Ready Player One, 50 Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, Twilight, Annihilation, Hunger Games, Divergent, Forrest Gump, Serena, Eragon, Big Fish, Maze Runner, American Assassin).
- True or Mirrored-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 Giver, The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons, The Quick and the Dead).
- 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, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Sherlock Holmes – Guy Richie version, Ella Enchanted, The Natural, Strangers on a Train, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
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 medium to the other?
The answers to those questions are not always simple, but the bottom line is this – 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 part of the same family; evaluate each of them on the individual strengths and weaknesses as it relates to their distinct forms. While dads, moms, brothers, sisters and cousins may display similarities, they offer unique aspects that are different 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 within your review, but try not to let your feelings be governed for one over the other.
N.T. Manning II – 2.6.21
2018 Yearly Box Office Results – Box Office Mojo. (2018, December 31). Retrieved from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=2018
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. (2020, September 19). Originality in film: Where is it? [Lecture].
Rosewarne, D. L., & University of Melbourne. (2021, January 18). Has Hollywood run out of original ideas? Retrieved from https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/has-hollywood-run-out-of-original-ideas
Rosewarne, L. (2020). Why we remake: The politics, economics and emotions of film and TV remakes. Routledge Advances in Film Studies.
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
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