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.  So far, the number of popular adaptations has outnumbered the original films in each decade, with the Fifties having just three original works, two of those being demos.  The Seventies, however, had a drastic shift; not quite parity, but the number of popular original works grew compared to the number of adaptations.

The Eighties saw the introduction of Reaganomics, Thatcher, and the escalation of the War on Drugs.  The Vietnam War stopped being a taboo subject in the US, leading to characters who were veterans trying to deal with what happened, characters such as John Rambo and Sonny Crockett.  The economy was in flux, with a recession in the mid- to late-80s that was followed by a jobless recovery.  The video cassette recorder, or VCR, became affordable for home use, leading to dire predictions from studios about the death of the movie industry*.

With the Sixties and Seventies, soundtracks came into their own, with unique sounds for different movies.  The Eighties saw a new twist become popular – the music video.  MTV first broadcast** on August 1, 1981, with The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” gave artists an outlet to have their music played on television.  Michael Jackson’s 1983 video for his hit, “Thriller“, showed how the music video could be used for story telling.  The popularity of music videos led to the creation of Miami Vice in 1984, with popular music being used to set the tone, much as soundtracks were used for in the previous decades.  The music video became a way for studios to advertise movies, much like soundtracks were in the Seventies, and helped many a film at the box office.

Related to the music video is the emergence of a performer who has his thumb on the pulse of pop culture, “Weird Al” Yankovic.  While his earlier work was more focused on just music parodies, in the Eighties, he included movies in his works.  Making the music scene with “Eat It“, a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, Weird Al had fun with the decade’s “sequelitis” with 1982’s “Theme from Rocky XIII“, a parody of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III.  “Nature Trail to Hell (in 3D)“, one of Weird Al’s original works, parodied the nature of the slasher flick.  In 1985, Weird Al released “Yoda”, a parody of both “Lola” by the Kinks and the character introduced in The Empire Strikes Back.  He hasn’t reached being the barometer of what’s popular yet, but the groundwork is there.

The popular films of the decade, by year:
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back – the sequel to the 1977 blockbuster, Star Wars.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – original, but inspired by pulp stories of the Forties.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – original.
Tootsie – original.  The core of the movie came from a screenplay called Would I Lie to You by Don McGuire, but underwent changes during the production of the film.  What makes the movie original is that the screenplay was shopped around instead of being produced elsewhere.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi – sequel.  The (then) end of the Star Wars saga, though numerous tie-ins would go on to expand the Galaxy Far Far Away before the 1999 prequel film was released.

Ghostbusters – original.  Ghostbusters had a slow start in theatres, but the release of the music video for the main theme song turned the movie into a success.
Beverly Hills Cop – original.  Again, the music video for “Axel F“, named for Eddie Murphy’s character, helped at the box office.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – sequel.  Temple of Doom was one of the major factors into splitting the existing PG (Parental Guidance recommended) rating into PG and PG-13, which had barred admittance of children under 13 years old without a parent.

Back to the Future – original.  Another movie that had a music video, “The Power of Love” released.

Top Gun – original.  The movie was inspired by the article, “Top Guns”, by Ehud Yonay in the May 1983 issue of California magazine.  The film also had a music video, “Danger Zone” released.
Crocodile Dundee – original but inspired by the life of Rodney Ansell, an Australian bushman.  Crocodile Dundee is unusual in that it is the first foreign film, being from Australia, on the popular lists since 1966’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

Three Men and a Baby – adapted from the French movie, Trois hommes et un couffin (Three Men and a Cradle).
Fatal Attraction – adaptation, based on the short film Diversion. airing on British television.

Rain Man – original.

Batman – adapted from the various titles from DC Comics, including Detective Comics.  This is the second movie based on a comic book character to appear on the lists.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – sequel.

The Eighties were known for sequelitis for a very good reason.  Just from the above, there are five sequels.  Ghostbusters would have a sequel in 1989, as would Back to the Future, which would have a third movie in 1990.  Beverly Hills Cop had a sequel in 1987.  Crocodile Dundee had one in 1988.  The sequels, though, all continued the stories of the characters, much like a murder mystery book series continues with the same detective or detectives through its run.

Counting the sequels as original works, as done in previous decades, there are thirteen original movies and three adaptations.  That makes the Eighties the first decade where popular original movies outnumbered adaptations.  Separating out the sequels still leaves eight original works, still more than the adaptations.  The trend started in the Seventies, but the complete flipping of numbers happened here.  The Eighties are why I’m looking at just the popular works.  These are the movies everyone remembers, since the films pulled in a large audience.  Few people will remember **Batteries Not Included; but Ghostbusters?  “Who you gonna call?”  With older works, the popular films are more likely to be remembered by name.  There are exceptions.  Ingagi, from 1930, is unheard of today, mainly because of what happened to the film, as detailed in the Thirties.

The three adaptations, Batman, Three Men and a Baby, and Fatal Attraction, come from different source works.  Batman comes from comics, the second comic book movie in the popular lists.  Three Men and a Baby was translated from the French film and adapted for an American audience and setting.  Fatal Attraction came from a British TV movie.  This is the first decade to not have an movie adapted from a written work, such as a novel or stage play, in the popular list.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were busy in the Eighties.  Lucas had the Star Wars sequels while Spielberg had E.T., but they worked together on the three Indiana Jones movies.  All told, they are responsible for six of the movies listed above, all original works.  Science fiction is still going strong, continuing from the success of their movies in the Seventies, Lucas’ Star Wars and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Eighties reversed the ratio of original movies to adaptations seen in the Fifties, where only three films weren’t based on another work, but the sequel movie was in full force.  Audiences enjoyed seeing further works with beloved characters, though the success of sequels varied.  It is this remembrance of the Eighties that is behind the complaints of the number of adaptations being made today.

* Same death of the industry was predicted with the advent of television and with the introduction of the DVD.  The music industry had similar predictions of death with the creation of radio, the audio cassette, the Sony Walkman, the compact disc, and MP3s.  So far, the success rate on these predictions has been 0%.
** Not quite the word for a cable channel, but it’s the best around.

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