Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Charles “Chas” Addams had a macabre sense of humour. His one-panel cartoons were mainly around the theme of the mundane meeting the bizarre. From this mind came the Addams Family, first depicted in 1938. The Addamses were a typical American family, just one that enjoyed the darker things in life. Today, the mere mention of the name can trigger the TV show’s theme song as an earworm.

The first adaptation came in 1964, when The Addams Family¬†appeared on ABC as a sitcom, lasting for two seasons and sixty-five episodes. The TV show required Chas Addams to give his characters names for the first time. The series continued to show the family as being macabre, but not dysfunctional. Sure, they were bizarre and creepy, but Gomez and Morticia loved each other, in their own way. The portrayal of the family mirrored Chas Addams’ cartoons, with minor changes: Grandmama was originally Morticia’s mother, not Gomez’s; and Pugsley was more like Bart Simpson in the original one-panel cartoons.

Fast forward to 1991. By this point, most people were more familiar with the television series than the original cartoon, thanks to the magic of TV syndication. The TV series reached the magic number of sixty-five, which would allow a station to re-broadcast the series five days a week for thirteen weeks. However, adapting an adaptation can be troublesome; each iteration introduces interpretation gaps, where the portrayal of a character or even of the tone of the new work is slightly off. Part of the issue is that getting two people to agree perfectly on an interpretation is rare; everyone involved has different experiences filtering and colouring what is being seen. Yet, the original work was available.

Fortunately, the movie makers had read some of the one-panel cartoons. The cast included Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, and a young Christina Ricci in her third movie role ever. Julia took John Astin’s manic portrayal of Gomez Addams and replaced the mania with intensity while still being Gomez. Ricci portrayed an older Wednesday, one that’s more devious and darker than her television counterpart. Meanwhile, Pugsley, originally played by Ken Weatherwax and portrayed by Jimmy Workman in the movie, lost his intelligence and deviousness and becamse the younger sibling. However, the sibling relationship between Wednesday and Pugsley remained intact – Wednesday would try injure Pugsley who would somehow survive and possibly enjoy what was happening.

The plot of the movie followed a scam to take advantage of Gomez and his search for his long lost brother, Fester. Hoping to cash in with a look-alike to pay off a loan shark, Gomez’s lawyer uses the loan shark’s son to pose as Fester. Through machinations, the Addamses are forced to leave their home and deal with the real world. The major problem with the movie was having the Addamses try to adjust to the mundane world, when, in the TV series and the cartoons, it was the mundane that had to make the adjustment. However, when Morticia is taken prisoner and is tortured to give up the AddamsFamily fortune, the classic macabre returns with Morticia complimenting techniques, again, coming from elements in both TV series and cartoon. The end scene, with Morticia knitting a misshapen baby’s outfit comes directly from one Chas Addams’ own cartoons. The name of the new child, Pubert, is reused from the TV series, where it was discarded because it sounded to close to “puberty” and “pubic”, words that were considered unfit for broadcast.

As an adaptation, the movie stumbled a bit by forcing the Addamses to adjust to the rest of the world, a problem corrected in the sequel Addams Family Values, where the cheerful could not stand in the way of the sardonic. However, The Addams Family movie managed to blend the style of the original cartoons with the TV series and kept the feel of both.

The movie and its sequel weren’t the only adaptations. There have been two animated series, a direct-to-video pilot, a rebooted TV series. video games, and even a stage musical. The core has always been a family who, despite their macabre ways, love each other.

Next week, heading back for a classic adaptation, The Guns of Navarone.

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  • I agree it was a great adaption even if the plot was basically fluff. I think what worked is people who “got” a lot of the ideas of the TV show, and a cast that was clearly up for the job and enjoying it. I also get the impression it was FUN to make.

    As a note, the original TV show is worth watching for the cast and the stuff they got away with for the time. I once heard someone remark that Gomez and Morticia, at the time, were the only TV couple obviously having a LOT of sex.

    • Scott Delahunt

      That’s the most important thing, that the people working on the movie *got* the ideas of the TV show and the original one-panel cartoons. And that holds up for the other incarnations, too. Even the video “Addams Family Groove”, you can see the cast having fun.

      The show subverted a lot of morals at the time. Gomez and Morticia not only were having a lot of sex, they were engaged in foreplay on screen, while still clothed. I’d point to them as an example of a happily married couple who kept their marriage fresh.

      One other thing I noticed during the research – John Astin managed to look like the creepy, mischievous boy down the block. Marvelous portrayal, really.

      • I’d also note John Astin established the idea of Gomez as charismatic and attractive. Yes he was weird, but the ladies all fell for him and found him charming. it was another bit of subversion – the raw sexuality combined with the creepy weirdness at the same time.

        And yes, Morticia and Gomez were basically happily married and madly in love. In a way, they were reminiscent of the Cunninghams of “Happy Days” in a sort of inversion.

        • Scott Delahunt

          And it worked, thanks to Astin’s skill as an actor.

          And predated Howard and Marion, too. The Addams were a functional family, just one that had their own way of doing things that didn’t require anyone else’s approval.

  • Michele Savage

    One of my favorite parts of the movie was the twist of the Addamses having to try to survive in the mundane. It lasted long enough to take them out of their element, the ‘fish out of water’ effect, (That is one of my very favorite tropes) to illuminate that the problem is not with them, but with the mundane.

    It showed that people who are not entirely normal (in the mundane sense of the word) are just as normal as anyone else and that it is OK to be different. Really, it’s better than OK to be different because the mundane is boring and who wants that?

    • Scott Delahunt

      Hmmm… The Addams family as a metaphor for geekdom. Considered odd by the average person, still living a life and enjoying it.

      And, yes, the Addams are a force of nature that way. You cannot contain a storm system into a small box; you lose control and the box that way.

      • I can see that actually. They’re perky goths!

        Oh my gods. They’re perky goths. This isn’t leaving my head.

        Side note, for reason I can imagine a sucessful anime style adaption, as long as the people behind Oh! Edo Rocket do it.

        • Scott Delahunt

          They were perky goths long before goths were a thing. And they’d laugh at the goths, too.

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