Posted on by Scott Delahunt

The History of Adaptations

Welcome to the history of adaptations.  I’ve been looking at the top movies of each decade, analysing them to see which ones were original and which ones were adaptations, and of the adaptations, what the source material was.  I’m using the compiled list at as a base.  Last time, I looked at the early years of Hollywood, which had about two-thirds of the popular films of the era be adaptations.  That ratio has held steady through to the Forties.  The Fifties, though, has an astonishing twist.

The 1950s were a boom era.  With the Great Depression a memory and industrial capacity expanded, people, mainly men, were working and had money to spend.  The automobile became central to lives, leading to the heyday of the drive-in theatre.  Television made in-roads into homes; the technology became affordable as people worked.  Colour in film became the draw; the typical television was black and white, with a limited choice of what was on.  Bigger cities may have as many as six channels available.  However, the economic boom allowed people to own both a television and go out to the movies.  In movie theatres and at drive-ins, epics had a resurgence.  Without a war to pay for, money could be used to create a spectacle.

The popular movies of the era:
Cinderella – an animated Disney film adapted from the folk tale.
King Solomon’s Mines – adapted from the 1885 novel of the same name by H. Rider Haggard 1885 novel.  This is the second film of five to adapt the novel, featuring Allan Quatermain.

Quo Vadis – adapted from the 1895 novel of the same name by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

This is Cinerama – original.  The film was a demo of the Cinerama widescreen process, a new way of presenting movies.  Cinerama presentations required three synchronized 35mm projectors.  Seeing a Cinerama film was similar to seeing a play, where the audience would need to purchase tickets in advance.
The Greatest Show on Earth – original.  Cecil B. De Mille based the movie on the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, both of which also appeared in the movie.

Peter Pan – another Disney animated adaptation, based on the play by JM Barrie.
The Robe – adapted from the book of the same name by Lloyd C. Douglas.

Rear Window – Alfred Hitchcock directed this adaptation of the short story, “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich.
Demetrius and the Gladiators – sequel to an adaptation.  This movie was a sequel to The Robe, above.

Lady and the Tramp – the third Disney animated adaptation from the decade, based on Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog by Ward Greene.

The Ten Commandments – both an adaptation and a partial remake.  Cecil B. De Mille remade his 1923 epic, The Ten Commandments.
Around the World in 80 Days – adapted from the Jules Verne novel.
Seven Wonders of the World – original.  The movie was another demo of Cinerama.

Bridge on the River Kwai – adapted from the novel La pont de la riviere Kwai by Pierre Boulle.  The novel and the movie used the building of the Burma Railway during World War II as the backdrop.  Boulle also wrote the novel La planète des singes, which would get adapted as the movie, Planet of the Apes.

Hercules – adapted from the Greek myth and dubbed from the original Italian.
South Pacific – adapted from the Rodgers & Hammerstein stage musical and from James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

Ben Hur – remake of an adaptation, specifically, the 1925 film Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ which was in turn adapted from the novel of the same name by Lew Wallace.
Sleeping Beauty – adapted from multiple sources.  Sleeping Beauty will be the last time Disney adapts a fairy tale until 1989’s The Little Mermaid.

Of the eighteen films listed above, fourteen are adaptations, with only three original films and one film that necessitated the creation of a new category, the sequel of an adaptation.  Adding to the fun, the three original movies include both Cinerama demos.  After three-plus decades of seeing a two-to-one ratio of adaptations to original, the sudden spike in adaptations was unexpected.  Removing the Cinerama demos, and the Fifties start to look very much like now in terms of the adaptation glut.

The Ten Commandments is an interesting case.  De Mille remade his 1923 silent film with sound, colour, and widescreen, all now available to him.  The same thing happened with Ben Hur; the technology caught up to the scale needed for the film.  Those are the only two remakes to make the list.  The remainder of the adaptations are mostly literary, drawing from novels, short stories, and plays.  Even Disney adapted from a story, with Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan.  The other two Disney animated features, though, come from folk tales.

Demetrius and the Gladiator was the first sequel of an adaptation encountered in this series.  The film draws from The Robe, though did not have a work of its own to be based on.  It’s not original in and of itself, but neither is it an adaptation.  Sequels are tricky when it comes to deciding if it’s a continuation or a reboot; a lot of it depends on context and time.  With Demetrius and the Gladiator, the decision was to call it a continuation, seeing that it came out only a year after The Robe, thus adding to the complexity and leading to the new category.  The category will become useful in later decades.

Once again, the limitations of using just the popular films appears.  Missing from the lists are the Westerns and the B-movies.  Westerns were a staple, but no one Western breaks away from the pack.  B-movies were never meant to be the draw.  They appeared before the main feature, especially at drive-ins, so the movies may not appear on the popular film lists.  The serial disappears during the Fifties; television series took over that role.

The Fifties give a glimpse of today.  Popular films were mostly adaptations, with Disney animated features being a huge draw for audiences.  The decade is acting as foreshadowing of today’s film industry output.

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