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, the Nineties saw a slight slippage of the originality of the Eighties, but original works still outnumbered adaptations.

If the early days of AOL and the creation of the World Wide Web* allowed people to discuss films indepth, the normalization of the Internet meant that word of mouth could make or break a movie.  A movie featuring two hot actors – Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, linked via tabloids as “Bennifer” – should have had a good opening weekend.  Instead, Gigli bombed at the box office as word of mouth sent warnings to avoid the film.  Gigli set a record in 2003 for the biggest drop between opening and second weekend box office totals.**

I used “Weird Al” Yankovic as a barometer of popularity in the Eighties and Nineties.  In the Aughts, he only had one song, “Ode to a Superhero“, released on the first album after Spider-Man hit theatres.  His focus turned to the Internet, where popular memes now start.  That change of focus is emblematic of how far into daily lives the Internet has become.  Movies aren’t the trendsetters as they were in early days of Technicolor.

The top movies of the decade, by year:
How the Grinch Stole Christmas – live-action adaptation of the Christmas story by Dr. Seuss.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – adaptation of the popular children’s novel by JK Rowling.  Harry Potter was a huge phenomenon, with people lining up outside bookstores when the new installments were released, something seen in the past for concert tickets for the biggest of the big name rock stars and with geek-friendly movies.

Spider-Man – adaptation of the Marvel character seen in Spectacular Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – adaptation of the third book of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King.  Also counts as a sequel.

Shrek 2 – sequel of an adaptation.  The first Shrek movies was based on the 1990 children’s book, Shrek!, by William Steig.
Spider-Man 2 – sequel to the 2002 adaptation, Spider-Man, above.
The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s controversial Biblical adaptation of the last days of Christ.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith – the last of the Star Wars prequel movies.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – adapted from the Disneyland ride, “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

Spider-Man 3 – like Spider-Man 2, a sequel of an adaptation.

The Dark Knight – adaptation of the DC Comics character, Batman, as seen in a number of titles, including Legends of the Dark Knight and Detective Comics

Avatar – original.  James Cameron created an immersive world using 3D filming techniques, reviving the film process.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – sequel of an adaptation of the Hasbro toy line, Transformers.

That makes a grand total of one original movie, Avatar.  Of the remain films, there were six adaptations, five sequels to adaptations, and one movie, Return of the King, that counts as both sequel and adaptation.  The obvious question, “What is the difference between a “sequel of an adaptation” and “a sequel and an adaptation”?  The answer – source material.  Return of the King was still based on an existing work, in this case, Tolkien’s novel.  The movie relied heavily on the original work, which itself was a continuation of a story started in a previous novel.  With the Spider-Man sequels and Shrek 2, the movies built on the previous movie but wasn’t necessarily based on the original work.  The distinction is academic, but it does exist and will come up again.

The sources of the adaptations is another difference from previous decades.  Literature and plays were the prime sources up to the Eighties.  In the Aughts, three movies were based on children’s literature, with only one being animated.  In the past, it was typically an animated Disney film that covered children’s books.  Four movies were based on comic book characters, though three of those films featured Spider-Man.  The Bible returned as a source, the first time since 1966’s The Bible: In the Beginning.  Rounding out the literary sources is The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s fantasy epic.

What makes the Aughts unique is the use of unusual original sources, a toy line and a park ride.  In the Eighties, Hasbro took advantage of a relaxing in regulations governing children’s programming, allowing them to work with Marvel and Sunbow to produce cartoons for several lines of toys, including Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Jem and the Holograms.  Of those three mentioned, Transformers kept returning to television in one form or another, with little continuity between series***.  With the animated series being a near constant, a live-action movie version wasn’t a surprise.  The park ride, on the other hand, is Disney leveraging one of their existing properties in another field.  The Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t the only ride turned into a feature film.  The Country Bears, The Haunted Mansion, and the recent Tomorrowland all began as Disney rides.

With just one more decade to go, it’s easy to see where complaints about Hollywood’s lack of originality comes from.  After two decades where original works were in the majority, even taking into account sequels, the sudden turn around back to the level last seen in the Fifties makes the Aughts seem abnormal.  As seen in this series, The Aughts and, as shall be seen, the New Teens arent’t unusual.  The Eighties and Nineties were the exceptions, but since they are within recent collective memory while the earlier years are outside the pop consciousness, it’s difficult to realize how unique those decades are in the history of film.  The Aughts also pull from sources not previously used as extensively.  Prior to the Eighties, only animated films meant for children used children’s novels as a source.  The Harry Potter phenomenon changed how people see children’s literature and opened the doors for movies based on Young Adult novels.

* Best cat photo distribution method ever created.
** The record has since been broken, first in 2005 by Undiscovered and then in 2007 by Slow Burn.
*** I’m simplifying this a lot.  Transformers continuity is flexible and depends on the writer.  Oddly, Beast Wars/Beasties is in continuity with the original Transformers cartoon despite the differences in time and in animation styles.

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