The problem with copying a copy is image degradation – finer details are lost thanks to the resolution of the copier. When the image is simple, such as words in a sans-serif font or stick figures with thick lines, the losses are minimal and the details are easily seen. With an intricate painting with precise colours, the loss of detail hurts the copy. This tends to hold with adaptations.
It’s not that the adaptations of adaptations are bad. Many are acclaimed, including shows like M*A*S*H, which was based on the movie of the book, and the 1959 Ben Hur, a remake of the 1925 silent film adaptation Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ which itself was based on the novel of the same name. However, each step away from the original brought on changes. Robert Hooker’s MASH: A Novel of Three Army Doctors focused on the hijinks of the surgeons and nurses of the 4077. The movie built on it but added an anti-war angle, which was continued into the TV series, which then added more serious elements. The TV series may have had hijinks, but some of the practical jokes were done to keep sanity and the humour was kept out of the operating room.
What happens is that, unless the crew making the new adaptation takes a look at the original, they won’t know what needed to be removed to for the new format. If the crew is only familiar with the first adaptation of a work, there may be a wealth of detail they are unaware of. For example, if a studio decided to make a Harry Potter TV series based on the movies instead of JK Rowling’s books, key details will be lost, such as the importance of Neville Longbottom, who will lead the resistance at Hogwart’s in Year 7. Neville was critically ignored in the early movies because the studio wasn’t aware of what he would do later in the novels.
Yet, as mentioned above, adaptations of adaptations can stand on their own. The 1931 Frankenstein may be the definitive version with Karloff’s childlike monster, but the film owed more to the various plays that were written based on the original work than on Mary Shelley’s story. The M*A*S*H TV series won numerous awards over its eleven seasons. The 1959 Ben Hur was the most popular movie in its year of release. Just as adaptations aren’t necessarily bad, adaptations of adaptations aren’t necessarily bad. Comparing them to the original means following through the generations to see what went missing and why.
Part of the problem is that there are times that an adaptation becomes the definitive version of a work, despite the presence of the original. Movies like 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stargate SG-1 have surplassed their original works. With The Wizard of Oz, adaptations including The Wiz, with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and Muppets Wizard of Oz build off the movie, not L. Frank Baum’s original novel. The popularity of Buffy and SG-1 means that a remake of either, which has been suggested for both, needs to take into account the events in the TV series.
Despite the the loss of details from original works, adaptations of adaptations appear to be able to fill in the blanks, adding instead of removing. What helps is the original fading into the background. A more obscure original work leave both the adaptation and the adaptation of the adaptation wriggle room to make changes. The hypothetical Harry Potter TV series doesn’t have that wriggle room, while the M*A*S*H TV series needed that space to allow the characters to develop. The Harry Potter novels are still too popular to ignore outright.
Adaptations of adaptations will happen. Movies get remade. TV series get rebooted. It’s the nature of the beast. Details can get lost. Yet, it is possible for the second generation adaptation to surpass its precursors. It takes work, but the results are worth it.