With announcement after announcement of adaptations being optioned, there`s a fatigue building. Even sequels are starting to suffer. As seen in the History of Adaptations, this decade is shaping up to look like the Fifties, where adaptations reigned supreme. In the Fifties, there were three popular original movies and two were Cinerama demos. In this decade, of the four original movies identified on the Filmsite.org list, three are sequels and just one, Inside Out, is original. The analysis of this decade will have to be redone once it’s over, to take into account films like Deadpool and the Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings. Suffice to say, adaptations are dominating this decade.
Not helping with the fatigue is the source of the adaptations. Unlike decades past, adaptations this decade are coming from what could be considered “low-brow” entertainment – comics, Young Adult novels, and movies of the Eighties and Nineties. As seen in the History wrap up, the sources of adaptations in the Fifties came from literary works, with the only Children’s Lit work adapted becoming a Disney movie, Lady and the Tramp. Today, what is considered works solely for children and adolescents – comics, Young Adult Lit, and Harry Potter – are making up the bulk of the popular movies; but all the sources are popular across age barriers.
Some of the fatigue may stem from perceived snobbery; studios aren’t making “grown-up” films, not like the past. That’s not the only source of fatigue, though. Like the Fifties, this decade is seeing remakes of movies from twenty to forty years ago. Ghostbusters, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even Jem and the Holograms all reach back to a nostalgia for the Seventies*, Eighties, and Nineties. The Eighties were the first decade in movie history where popular original works outnumbered popular adaptations. Indeed, the Eighties saw experimentation in all forms of entertainment – movies, music, television, novels – because no one could predict what would be a hit. Follow-the-Leader maneuverings by studios weren’t guaranteed to be successful, while a low budget movie based on a nightmare, The Terminator, grabbed audiences’ attention. Unlike the Fifties, where the remakes added elements like colour and sound that weren’t possible in the Twenties, the difference between film technology today and in the Eighties is primarily effect based, specifically, CGI. To give a remake its own identity, changes are made elsewhere, such as the flipping of genders in the Ghostbusters remake.
Changes, though, strike at the heart of both the feel of a movie and at nostalgia. With social media allowing voices to echo across the Internet faster today than any previous decade, a film doesn’t have to even be released before critics denounce it. Yet, shot-for-shot remakes lead audiences to wonder why they just didn’t watch the original, something that is easy to do thanks to home video, DVD, and online streaming. Gus van Sant’s remake of Psycho may have had some subtle techniques, but the general audience saw a shot-for-shot remake.
The big problem is the risk aversion seen in Hollywood today, at least on the silver screen. Today’s budgets mean that movies need to pull in as many people as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to adapt what’s popular in other media. Worse, movies like the Harry Potter series, which made an effort to be accurate to the original books, have upped the expectations of audiences. Adaptations that pay lip service to a popular work aren’t going to survive long in theatres, much like Jem. But the adaptations that do pay attention to the source get butts into theatre seats. The record for highest grossing movie keeps getting reset year after year by adaptations this decade; this can’t happen without people going to see the movies. People may be clamouring for original works, but they keep going to adaptations.
If the big screen is becoming dominated with adaptations, where can an original work be found? Television. While there are several adaptations on the air today, including Supergirl, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., A Game of Thrones, and The Shannara Chronicles, the nature of today’s thousand-channel universe means that adaptations can’t fill every time slot. Reality TV, once a dominating genre, doesn’t allow for reruns; once someone wins the season, there’s no point to watching the previous episodes, which means no sales of boxed sets for holiday seasons. Meanwhile, popular series, from those airing on broadcast channels to cable-only offerings, have a secondary market. The competition between stations, even taking into account time-shifting, means that TV shows have to stand out from the crowd. For now, television is where originality will shine.
With movies, though, until there’s a series of massive flops, adaptations are going to be the order of the day. Studios, though, aren`t going to allow a big budget blockbuster to bomb if they can help it, and have checks and balances and Save the Cat to prevent huge losses. A flop these days only comes about when a studio misjudges the audience response to a project, as what happened with both R.I.P.D. and The Lone Ranger. In the former, it was a comic book movie based on a comic that wasn’t known to the general audience. With the latter, the nature of Westerns had changed greatly as audiences’ understanding of history has changed since the last Lone Ranger movie to the point that Johnny Depp wasn’t the instant draw the studio expected.
The only way to get studios to consider original works is for one to become an unexpected hit. Nothing gets Hollywood’s attention more than the surprise hit. Sure, there will be a number of follow-the-leader movies as studios try to figure out why the film was a hit, but that should spur a few original works, avoiding all-adaptation all the time.
* It could be argued that The Rocky Horror Picture Show became the cult hit it is during the Eighties thanks to repertory theatres.