Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Throughout this series, I’ve focused on comparing adaptations to originals and seeing where the differences were and why they came about.  What I haven’t touched on is how an adaptation or remake can become better known than the original.  There are works where people are unaware of the originals, or prefer the new version over the old.

Last week’s Frankenstein is a perfect example.  Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Monster made the character sympathetic and was the focus of the movie.  Mary Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus, had Frankenstein’s homunculus appear just once, behaving as a fully grown man; the rest of the novel focused on Victor Frankenstein and his travels as he first fled then pursued his creation.  Karloff’s Monster was embraced early because of his child-like behaviour and has become part of the pop culture consciousness to the point where people who have never seen the movie will recognize the character.

Recent works can also have the same effect.  Far more people are aware of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series than the original movie, and those who have seen both tend to prefer the show.  With Buffy, the advantage of a longer format like a TV series gave the adaptation an edge; not only did Buffy and her Watcher get fleshed out to a greater degree, the Slayer also got a supporting cast who also had depth.  The movie focused on Buffy’s mission, not her, and worked as a parody of slasher movies.  The TV series moved the focus to Buffy and her friends and brought in the horror element.

Longer formats don’t necessarily result in being the more popular.  Little Orphan Annie is a good example.  Starting in 1924, Little Orphan Annie was a long running comic strip, ending in 2010.  The strip spawned a radio show in 1930, movies in 1932 and 1938, and a Broadway musical in 1977.  The musical led to the 1982 movie, Annie, which is now the definitive version for audiences.  Since 1982, all movie adaptations have used Annie as the base, including a 1999 Disney TV movie and the 2014 remake with Quvenzhné Wallis and Jamie Foxx.

Audience reception is the key factor.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of sheer numbers, as with Buffy and Annie above.  More people saw the remakes than the original, even with Little Orphan Annie being a syndicated comic strip.  Both also offered a fresh look at the original concepts, with Buffy being what Joss Whedon wanted the movie to be.  The Karloff Frankenstein was one of the top movies of the 1930s and led to a number of sequels and related films to the point where high school English students are confused on reading Shelley’s novel about Frankenstein’s monster.

The Wizard of Oz, from 1939, is a good example.  Again, one of the top grossing films of the 1930s, the movie was loosely based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.  Prior to 1939, Baum’s book was adapted as a Broadway play in 1902, silent films in 1910 and 1925, and an animated short in 1933, plus the sequels resulting from each of those.  The 1910 film was done by Baum through his own production company.  However, the 1939 film, with its creative use of Technicolor and memorable songs, remains the version that later remakes use, including The Wiz with Janet Jackson and Muppets Wizard of Oz.  The audience sees the Judy Garland movie as being the core work; the story from the 1939 work is the best known.

This is the problem that Warner Bros. and DC Comics is having with Superman movie adaptations.  There have been a number of adaptations of the character, from radio to serials to television to movies.  Superman is the best known superhero.  With all the adaptations around, though, the definitive portrayal comes from the 1978 Superman, where Christopher Reeve showed how a pair of glasses could convince people that Clark Kent and Superman were not the same person.  Superman Returns built itself up from the 1978 film, trying to combine a more serious tone with the comic book sensibility of the Reeve movie, to mixed results.  The subsequent movie, Man of Steel, retold Superman’s origin as part of the plot as a means to separate itself from /Superman/, again, to mixed results.  Meanwhile, the TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville had their own approaches to the movie.  Lois & Clark treated it as background, allowing Dean Cain to build up Clark Kent as a character.  Smallville focused on a young Clark as he grew up in Smallville, learning about himself and leading towards being the Reeve character.

Not all works have this effect.  While the 1966 Batman TV series did have lingering effects on audiences, the comic was already heading towards the Dark Knight aspect of the character.  When Tim Burton’s Batman came out in 1989, he mixed both versions together, resulting in Michael Keaton as a darker Batman than the general audience remembered but satisfying comic fans while still having the Joker be whimsical despite being a killer.  With the release of Batman Begins in 2005, audiences were ready for the darker Batman.  Yet, the portrayals by Adam West, Michael Keaton, and Christian Bale are all Batman.  A Batman for all seasons*.

A work doesn’t have to be obscure to be surpassed, as Superman shows.  What an adaptation needs to do is add the little details that will lodge in the audience’s mind.  It can be as simple as a portrayal, like Karloff’s Monster as child-like or Reeve’s physical change from Clark Kent to Superman through posture and confidence.  The adaptation can go into depths that the original didn’t or couldn’t, as seen with the Buffy TV series.  Will an adaptation today ever be considered the definitive version?  Hard to tell, especially with studios using highly popular works, but it is possible.

* To cut a long discussion short, I’m ignoring the impact of Kevin Conroy’s performance in Batman: The Animated Series, which could be the definitive version of the character, and Will Arnett’s portrayal of Batman in The LEGO Movie.  Suffice to say, there’s a Batman for everyone.

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