Over a year ago, I started Lost in Translation to examine the pros and cons of remakes and reboots, to see what worked and what didn’t. With Hollywood becoming more reliant on existing works as sources for blockbusters, knowing what makes for a successful adaptation is becoming critical in how well a project fares at the box office. Just having the rights to a title no longer means that a movie will be successful, if it ever did.
What we’ve seen over the past year is that respect for the original work, the original creators, and the original fans goes a long way towards financial success. Even where there are changes, acknowledging the original work and ensures the fans will come out while still attracting people new to the franchise. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica is a great example. Many changes were made, from characters to tone, but it gained an audience made from fans of the original and complete newcomers.
Helping the new Galactics‘s success was writing quality. The series wasn’t just good science fiction, it was a good drama. Reviews of The Avengers also point to the strong writing of Joss Whedon. So, just having respect isn’t enough. Studios have to act on the respect. Casting, writing, even advertising needs to be there. The lack of advertising was the main reason John Carter was barely seen in theatres. Disney buried the movie, to the point the title didn’t even refer to the original series of books, John Carter of Mars.
However, during the course of writing this column, a thought occurred to me. “Is it possible to have a work that is a poor adaptation but is still a good or even successful movie on its own?” It’s easy to find bad adaptations that are also bad movies. Street Fighter – The Movie was both, not quite a cult classic. The Dungeons & Dragons movie didn’t even come close to being watchable. Finding a movie that was good in its own right but still a poor adaptation took work. Real Steel fit the bill. There was very little in common between the movie and “Steel”, the short story it was based on; but, the movie held together on its own merit. In this case, though, the relative obscurity of the original story helped; there wasn’t an expectation built in.
That’s not to say that respect and support will guarantee a success. A well done, well adapted, well supported movie can still fail. Serenity, the Firefly movie, falls into this category. The fans did their best to get people out, but the film wasn’t as successful as hoped. At the same time, the environment films are released into has changed greatly over the past decade. Movies have to succeed right out of the gate. Gone are the days where a movie would stay in theatres for several months or even a year. Most get six to eight weeks now, less if the opening weekend isn’t as successful as projected.*
What I’ve also learned over the past year is now spilling over into my own works. On top of making sure that the plot stands on its own, that the characters are interesting, and that I have an ending that is exciting and not overblown, I’m making sure that the format I’m using (prose, episodic webcomic, long-form script) fits the story and that the story can be adapted into other formats. It gets interesting when working out character details when the idea of seeing the story on TV or the concept of having an action figure enters my head. Yet, having something that’s easy to adapt will help ensure a proper transition.
Next time, into the black!
*Note that the film doesn’t need to fail outright. A movie could still make up its budget but still be consider underperforming if the actual revenue is less than the projected. Works that need word of mouth no longer stand a chance to be successful.