Back before I started the Adapting Games, I chatted with Steve on unofficial adaptations; works that don’t share the name and may not even have permission to build on an original. This opened up a wide vista and possibly a can of worms. A good number of such adaptations come from adapting a work that’s long out of copyright protection; the various adaptations and reworks of Shakespeare’s plays are the obvious examples. However, the idea struck me after watching Alien from L.A.*, an adapation of Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which may be reviewed in later installments.
In a manner similar to slightly changing the name of an adaptation**, the use of a completely different title allows some distance between the original and the adaptation. The change allows viewers to know that the new work won’t be faithful in some manner to the original. If the adaptation is unofficial, it also gives some legal maneuvering room. If the original work is famous or infamous, the new name will prevent potential viewers from leaving, either because of preconceived ideas about the original work or because of real issues with the original. The change of title from Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story allowed the movie makers to change the Shakespearean play set in Renaissance Italy to blue-collar 1950s New York City; the change also could bring in people who, thanks to English classes, felt Shakespeare was too high brow for them to understand. Similarly, if Plan 9 from Outer Space were to be remade, it would need a new name; Plan 9 is infamous for being bad, a quality that gets people to watch it. A good or even a “not bad” version of the movie would lose the charm Plan 9 and Ed Wood fans see in the film.
Sometimes the name change comes from translation. Changing the setting of the original work can force a twist. The Western The Magnificent Seven was based on the Japanese movie, The Seven Samurai. The core of feudal honour of the samurai became personal honour for the gunmen; katana were exhanged for revolvers. Yet, The Magnificent Seven still tells the same story as The Seven Samurai. The switch in language, in era, in tone still allows the original story to reach a new audience. This is where many localizations fail. The cast gets “Americanized”, but the background is left as is, creating a jarring dissonance. The live action Akira may be a victim of this, even during pre-production. It is not enough to move the action to New York City; Tokyo is as much a character in Akira as the titular character. If the makers still want to move the story to New York, they’d be better off re-titling the movie after the main character and adjusting the story to reflect the character of New York.
For older works long out of copyright protection, changing the name creates a distance that helps separate the new work from the old. As mentioned, West Side Story places Romeo and Juliet into an at-the-time modern New York***. Romeo Must Die turns the play into an action movie. The animated film Romie-0 and Julie-8 turns the cast into robots; Gnomeo and Juliet turns them into garden gnomes. Each title lets the audience know what the twist is in advance. Shakespeare’s plays tend to receive a disproportial number of adaptations by other names. Disney’s The Lion King is based on Hamlet. The musical Kiss Me, Kate is based on The Taming of the Shrew. Part of the reason for the updating is that the plays are presented as written works in English classes, not as performed works; Shakespeare’s entire library then gets seen as a very high brow form of entertainment for a limited number of people. The adaptations are then seen as being simplified for a larger audience.
In future installments, I’ll take a look at a few adaptions in other names and see how well they stack up to direct adaptations.
Next week, the Addams Family.
* Well, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 take on it.
** For example, Real Steel.
*** West Side Story started on Broadway in 1957 before being adapted as a film in 1961.