Posted on by Scott Delahunt

There has been much said about the number of adaptations being made today.  Most of the top grossing movies this decade have been adaptations.  Studios are risk adverse, wanting guaranteed hits instead of unknown quantities.  There’s even talk of a superhero movie bubble, one due for a collapse.  Problem is, adaptations have always been around.  The 1970s and the 1980s are unusual in having the majority of popular films be original.  This series, The History of Adaptations, will look at the box office hits through the history of film, using the compiled list at  There are obvious issues working with a limited list; the main one being missing out on the vast majority of releases.  The goal, though, is to show what was popular.  Follow ups may go into detail of certain years.

Today, the 1930s.  Two major events occured in the Thirties, the Great Depression and World War II.  The Great Depression saw massive unemployment as stock markets crashed.  As a result, Hollywood’s output was pure escapism, alloying people to forget their troubles for the length of a movie.  Studios had to watch their budgets, knowing that the number of people able to afford a night at the movies had dwindled.  Several studios survived solely on the success of one movie; if it had failed, the studio would have folded.  The start of World War II saw the end of the Depression Era as industries switched to a war footing, supplying materiel for the armies in Europe.

Tom Sawyer – adapted from the novel by Mark Twain.  This was not the first film adaptation; Edison Studios made theirs in 1917.
All Quiet on the Western Front – adapted from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, released the previous year.  The film won the Best Picture Oscar for 1930.
Whoopee! – adapted loosely from the stage play by Florenz Ziegfeld, creator of the Ziegfeld Follies.  Zeigfield had to shut down the run on Broadway because he lost everything in the stock market crash and convinced the studio to fund the adaptation.
Ingagi – original, sort of.  The original “found footage” movie, the producers claimed that the film was a documentary.  The controversy around the film, which implied gorillas kidnapping women for sex, drove people to see it.  Turned out, the found footage was found in other movies, and at least one extra was recognized as an actor.  The movie was pulled from distribution and hasn’t been seen since.  Adding to the colourful history, Ingagi was the inspiration for Gorilla City and Gorilla Grodd at DC Comics.
Hell’s Angels – original.  A Howard Hughes film, Hell’s Angels followed the exploits of pilots in the Great War*.

Frankenstein – adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley.  The Universal film classic, it wasn’t the first adaptation, but was the first with sound.  Boris Karloff starred as the monster, becoming the basis for future film versions of Frankenstein’s monster.
City Lights – original.  In an unusual move during the talkie era, Charlie Chaplin made the film as a silent movie.

The Kid from Spain – original.
The Sign of the Cross – adapted from the 1895 play of the same name by Wilson Barrett.  Cecil B. DeMille directed, hiring Charles Laughton in his first Hollywood role, Nero.
Grand Hotel – adapted by William A. Drake from his play, Grand Hotel, which in turn was based on the book Menschem im Hotel by Vicki Baum.
The Most Dangerous Game – adapted from the short story by Richard Connell.  This is the work where men are hunted by man.
Shanghai Express – adapted from a 1931 story by Harry Hervey, which was based on the taking of the Shanghai-Beijing Express by a warlord.

King Kong – original.  While King Kong has been adapted several times, this was the original.
I’m No Angel – original.  Mae West wrote and starred in the film.
Cavalcade – adapted from the Noel Coward play.  The same play would be the inspiration for the British TV series, Upstairs, Downstairs.
She Done Him Wrong – adapted from the play Diamond Lil by Mae West.  West had the starring role in the film.

It Happened One Night – adapted from the story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, first published in the August 1933 issue of Cosmopolitan.
The Merry Widow – adapted from the 1901 operetta by Franz Lehár, which itself was based on the 1861 play L’attaché d’ambassade (The Embassy Attaché) by Henri Meilhac.
Viva Villa! – adapted from the book by Edgecumb Pinchon and Odo B. Stade.  The book was very loosely based on the life of Pancho Villa.

Mutiny on the Bounty – adapted from the book by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, which was based on the historical event.  Liberties were taken from the historical records.
Top Hat – original, but inspired by the plays Scandal in Budapest by Sándor Faragó and A Girl Who Dares by Aladar Laszlo.

San Francisco – original.  The movie is set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – adapted from the fairy tale by Walt Disney.  Disney cartoons will appear in the top grossing movies by decade from the Thirties through to the Sixties.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band – original.  Irving Berlin used the name of his 1911 hit for the title of his movie tracing the history of jazz.
Boys Town – a fictionalized drama based on the life of Father Edward J. Flanagan and the real Boys Town.
Test Pilot – original.
You Can’t Take it With You – adapted from the play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Gone With the Wind – adapted from the novel by Margaret Mitchell.  The movie was the top grossing film of the Thirties and still remains at the top overall after adjusting for inflation, edging out Star Wars and The Sound of Music.
The Wizard of Oz – adapted from the book by L. Frank Baum.  Again, not the first adaptation, but the best known, to the point where other adaptations base themselves off this movie and not the book.

From the above, of twenty-nine films, only ten are original works, that is, films that were created as films.  Of the remaining nineteen, five are adaptations of adaptations; Viva Villa!, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Shanghai Express, all based on a story based on historical events, Grand Hotel, ultimately from a book via the stage, and The Merry Widow, based on an operetta that itself was based on another play.  Eleven, including the adaptations of adaptations, were based on novels or short stories.  Gone With the Wind had record sales as a novel, leading it to be adapted for film, much the same way as the Harry Potter books.  All Quiet on the Western Front was originally published as a serial in a German newspaper in 1928, then as a book in 1929, being translated into other languages and selling over 1.5 million copies before being adapted to film.  The Wizard of Oz is better known as a movie instead of a book to the point where later adaptations, including The Wiz and Wicked, use the film as a starting point.

Stage plays are the next biggest source of adaptations.  Seven stage productions, including Grand Hotel, were adapted for the silver screen.  The transition from stage to screen seems natural; the script is already made and just needs to be tweaked to take advantage of how cameras replaced the audience seating.  Grand Hotel is a good example; the screenwriter turned his own stage play into a screen play.  The advantage of film over stage is that all costs are paid up front instead of over time.  Florenz Ziegfeld took advantage of this after losing everything in the stock market crash of 1929 when making Whoopee!.  The age of the play didn’t appear to matter.  The Sign of the Cross was based on a play written in 1895, The Merry Widow can trace itself back to 1861; at the other end, Whoopee!‘s original play was produced in 1928, and the original Cavalcade was produced in 1931.  Today, the adaptation path has reversed.  Several movies, notably The Lion King, have been turned into Broadway stage plays and musicals.  There are exceptions – Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera in particular – but the attention to stage plays as dropped a long way since the early years of Hollywood.

Four of the adaptations, including three adaptations of adaptations mentioned above, were based on historical events.  For the purposes of the analysis, I did not include any work that was set during an historical event.  San Francisco is about the people whose lives are affected by the 1906 earthquake and not about the quake itself, much like James Cameron’s Titanic was about how the sinking affected two people on the ship and not about how the ship sank.  The events are the backdrop for the story and not the story in and of itself.  With that out of the way, Boys Town is the easiest to examine.  It was based on the work of Father Edward J. Flanagan, who set up Boys Town to help turn around the lives of boys who were in trouble.  The movie is fiction, but relies heavily on the work done by the real Father Flanagan.  At the other end of the scale, Viva Villa! is almost an original work of fiction, having very little accuracy to the life of Pancho Villa.  The movie’s intent was to be a biographical work, even if facts weren’t of importance.

Two movies of special note.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first Disney animated film and the first to adapt a fairy tale, but would not be the last.  The movie set up a pattern that works for the studio even today.  Top Hat, while original, was at least inspired by two stage plays.  The film may have been intended as an adaptation of either play but turned into its own work during production.

The Thirties were a decade similar to now.  An economic crash that caused massive unemployment sent people looking for escapism.  The difference between the sources then and now is the lack of superhero movies.  The superhero, as we now know it, started in the Thirties with the introduction of Superman in Action Comics #1.  Prior to that, most comic characters were masked mystery men along the lines of Zorro.  That’s not to say that these characters weren’t adapted or weren’t popular.  They were more likely to show up in a serial, something not covered by the list.  Serials and newsreels were part of the theatre-going experience, but weren’t considered the main draw.  A future series of posts may cover them.

Instead, the bulk of adaptations in the Thirties came from written works – novels and short stories – and stage plays.  Novels, short stories, and stage plays have a long history in the role of entertainment; going to that well for adaptations is a natural inclination.  Comics, from newspaper strips or comic books, were relatively new, much like film.  The nature of comics leads them to a serial nature.  However, some strips were turned into films.  Blondie was adapted as a movie in 1938.  It just didn’t rate high enough on box office numbers to be included in the list.  The use of the top ten movies by decade cuts out many films and is an acknowledged limitation.

In summary, adaptations aren’t a new phenomenon.  They’ve been around since the dawn of Hollywood.  The sources may change, as this feature of Lost in Translation will explore, but adaptations have always been with us.

Next week, back to the reviews.

* The Great War, aka World War I before a numbering system was needed.

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