After analysing a number of adaptations over the past few years, it’s nigh time to examine how the different sources of material affects how a work is adapted. The History of Adaptations series helped show the different sources that led to popular works, with other works being reviewed expanding the list.
Literary sources cover a wide range, from novels to short stories to plays to poems. Each source has its own challenges for adaptations. Novels, being a longer form, tend to lose details when adapted as films. A series of novels adapted to film can lose critical scenes, especially if the adaptation begins before the last as happened with the Harry Potter series. Television may be the better format for novels; while individual episodes are shorter than a film’s run time, a full season gives more time to delve into the work. With the today’s choices for television going far beyond the three-channel universe, a traditional 22 episode season isn’t needed. Mini-series can take as long as needed. One other means to adapt a novel is to just use the characters and create new situations, such as happened with The Dresden Files. The benefit of novels is that their popularity is easy to track. The New York Times‘ best sellers lists, while flawed still provide studios an idea of how well a title is selling. A novel that makes headlines because of fan enthusiasm makes the choice to adapt it easy.
At the other end of length, short stories may not have enough material to fill a movie’s runtime. Studios would have to extrapolate and expand from the events in the story, sometimes to the point where the film could have been its own work. A television series would not work, unless the idea is to keep the characters in further situations. However, an anthology series could take the story and adapt it. The Twilight Zone did this throughout its run, with episodes like “Steel” and “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” being typical.
Plays don’t have the problem of having too much or too little story when it comes to being adapted as a film. A typical play is performed in about the same time as a film, possibly a little longer. The script is already written; all the director needs to do is remember that the fourth wall is now the camera’s lens instead of the audience. Plays don’t work out as well for television; length is the limiting factor.
Poems and songs do get adapted, though not to the same degree as other literary sources. The poem or song needs to be narrative, providing or at least implying a plot of some sort. “Harper Valley PTA” may be the best example, having been made into a movie that was then adapted as a TV series. The song provided the basis for the plots in both. Popular songs are easy to track, through Top 40 lists and YouTube hits.
Comics are a popular source for adaptations today. The bright costumes, the spectacle of superheroes fighting supervillains, and the almost black-and-white morality of pulp western serials are a lure for filmmakers. Yet, as a serialized means of storytelling, a comics adaptation could easily find a home on television. The plots are already storyboarded, though only Scott Pilgrim vs the World took advantage of that. Right now, the looming problem is audience burnout. At some point, audiences will want something different, but not too different. Yet, comics cover a wide range, something Marvel Studios has been exploiting. Each of the Marvel movies has been superheroes crossed with something else, from technothriller (Iron Man) to heist movie (Ant Man) to romantic comedy (Deadpool). The variety available in comics, not just the superhero titles, makes the medium ripe for the picking. Add in foreign titles, such as manga, and the surface has barely been scratched.
Television looks like it could make the jump to the silver screen. There have been attempts. The problem is the differences in running times. A TV episode today can run either 22 or 45 minutes, with breaks for ads. A full season can each 22 episodes. Neither fit well into a 2 to 2.5 hour film. Expanding an episode is similar to expanding a short story; much more needs to be added. Age of the work is another matter. Some series, like Entourage, have a goal to end with a cinematic release. Other series may have just enough popularity to risk trying a movie, like Firefly and Veronica Mars. The end result may be true to the TV show, but may not get the critical mass needed for an audience. Older series have another issue; while it may have been popular in its day, a TV series may not be well known to today’s audience. The Beverly Hillbillies, while almost note perfect as an adaptation, didn’t have the name recognition needed to get people out to it. Remaking and rebooting a TV series can work, though. Star Trek returned as Star Trek: The Next Generation to a much larger fanbase than the original series had when it first aired. The new Battlestar Galactica lasted longer than the original, providing a different look at the ragtag fleet searching for Earth.
Film remakes are also popular today. There appears to be a roughly thirty to forty year gap between originals and remakes. Take a look at King Kong; ignoring sequels, after the giant ape’s first appearance in 1933, the movie was remade in 1976 and 2005. With home video tape players and, later, DVD and Blu-Ray players along with specialty movie cable channels and streaming services, this gap may need to grow. The availability of older movies in homes grew tremendously in the Eighties. While the 1959 Ben Hur didn’t need to compete with the first adaptation, a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark has the original available and in many home movie libraries. Adapting a movie to a TV series means further exploration of the film. M*A*S*H and Stargate SG-1 are arguably the most successful film-to-TV adaptations, both having run ten years and are both still available in syndication and on DVD. Not every movie can make the jump to television; the film needs to leave room for further stories featuring the characters.
Video games have had a rough time in adaptation. The early video game movies were either poorly done or completely missed the mark; Super Mario Bros illustrates the latter well. Video games turned out to have similar problems as literary sources. Early games, especially arcade games, had just enough plot to lure players before letting them button mash. similar to the problem of adapting a short story. Later video games, especially once home consoles had the ability to save games in progress, provided for a longer story, requiring several hours of game play. Parasite Eve‘s ten to twenty hours for completion is on the short side. What some adaptations have done is provide extra information for players, either what happened prior to the game or what happened after. Animated adaptations, most in the form of a cartoon like Super Mario Bros Super Show, have been more successful. In most cases, the cartoon just takes the characters and some of the game play and create new stories around them.
Other games, such as boardgames and tabletop RPGs, see similar problems to video games with added layers of abstraction. Clue may have been the best adaptation of a boardgame; the game itself is a murder mystery with a cast of investigators and one murderer, ideal for translating to the big screen. Battleship, on the other hand, tried to incorporate elements from the game but there wasn’t much to bring in, resulting in a mess of a movie. With tabletop RPGs, the problem is that, while there may be an idea of what game play looks like, the game itself is social. Players create their own characters and storylines. Studios are competing with the imagination of the players. Tabletop RPGs are also a niche market; very few games get beyond specialty stores and into book stores.
Toys may have had the best success rate of all sources mentioned here. Most adaptations of toys started as a way to market the toy itself. However, to keep the audience watching, story and character development happened. Cartoons like Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic took the idea of the toy and expanded on it, creating settings and introducing characters. Not every adaptation succeeded; the live action Jem and the Holograms was pulled from theatres after two weeks. The problem studios need to watch out for is reaction by parental groups and popularity of the toy. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future ended on a heart wrenching note because while the series had an audience, the toyline did not. Even a mess of a movie, like Michael Bay’s Transformers, can still be a decent adaptation.
On side note, Bay’s Transformers didn’t have continuity issues. The Transformers series already had multiple continuities, with fans well aware that cinematic universes are a thing. Bay may have been well aware of the problems he was going to face and made the one move that brought Transformers fans on board – he brought in Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. A loud movie with explosions featuring Autobots and Decepticons fighting kept the fans happy. Getting key details right can go a long way in making a good adaptation.
Not every adaptation is successful, and not every adaptation is accurate. The goal for studios is to overcome the challenges of the source material. There’s a change coming in how television is seen; once a vast wasteland catering to the lowest common denominator, TV is now exploring new ways its format can tell stories. Film, while still seen as the goal for adaptations, is becoming stale, mainly because of remakes, reboots, and other adaptations. The format of the original work may require a hard look at how it is adapted.