Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the idea of parodies and how they are different from adaptations. This week, a look at the flip side of parodies, the remake that serves as a comedy vehicle.
A comedy vehicle is a work, typically a movie, that highlights the lead’s comic ability. The plot is secondary to the showcase of talent. This tends to hold whether the work is original or an adaptation. Examples include movies starring Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell. Audiences turn out specifically for the star of the movie. They know what to expect from the film. Even with television, the nature of the star influences the direction of a TV series, /Seinfeld/ being a good example.
That isn’t to say that any movie starring a comedian is a comedy vehicle. A comedy, whether in theatres or on television, requires actors who are aware of the timing needed to deliver lines. For television, a rule of thumb is to check the title. If the title and the lead character are named after the star, ie, I Love Lucy and Seinfeld, chances are it’s a vehicle for the star. The rule isn’t perfect; The Bob Newhart Show was named after Bob Newhart with his character sharing his first name, but it was an ensemble series. With movies, it’s not as clear cut, but the advertising will promote the star as much as the film. To clear up the differences, let’s look at two of Robin Williams’ works. Mork and Mindy was created specifically for Williams after his appearances as the character on Happy Days. Hook, though, was created by Steven Spielberg because of his love of Peter Pan and used Williams’ ability to be child-like in the role of Peter.
Adapting a work to become a comedy vehicle has an appeal to studios. The adaptation has two built-in audiences – fans of the original work and fans of the star. Studios use the star power of the leads in other works to draw in audiences. People know what to expect, whether the movie stars Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Julia Roberts, or Jennifer Lawrence. With adaptations, the popularity of the original acts as the draw. The Harry Potter movies were going to draw crowds, whether they had leads with star power in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or not. When a work is a bit more esoteric then attaching a star can help with drawing an audience. In 1982, Philip K. Dick was known to fans of literary science fiction, but relatively unknown outside that circle. Having Harrison Ford, then known for films like American Graffiti, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, play Deckard in Blade Runner could bring in a wider audience.
The problem here is that, with a comedy vehicle, what draws in fans of the original work may get tossed aside. With the Blade Runner example above, Ford was a good fit for the role. With a comedy vehicle, the roles will get changed to suit the actors. Fans of the original may not recognize the new character. In a parody, a change of name to the role isn’t a problem; Captain James B. Pirk is definitely not Captain James T. Kirk, but a mockery. In a comedy remake, that difference gets lost. It’s not too bad when the original is also a comedy, but when it isn’t, audiences start getting mixed reactions.
In general, the change in tone can throw off fans of the original work. Light family fare includes humour to keep the tone light, but the work may not necessarily be a comedy. The work doesn’t have to become a comedy vehicle in order to throw off audiences. Taking family fare and turning it into something dark can result in the same mood whiplash. The difference is that in that case, audiences would be wondering if they and the adapters had seen the same work. When a work becomes a comedy vehicle, it comes across as laughing at not just the original but also the fans. Parodies are up front about their intent and include some space between them and originals. Adaptations that become comedy vehicles lack that separation. It’s the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone.
The result is an audience that is turned off from the adaptation. Few people like being laughed at, whatever the reason. This is on top of having expectations dashed, especially if the marketing doesn’t prepare the audience for what the movie really is. The 2009 movie adaptation of Land of the Lost is the perfect example here. It took a Saturday morning series aimed at children and turned it into an movie featuring adult humour, losing the audience who watched the original show who expected and wanted something closer to what was aired in 1974.
Ultimately, adaptations and comedy vehicles have different goals. An adaptation is bringing a work from one medium to another or remaking in the same medium with an eye on bringing in fans of the original. Comedy vehicles exist for the stars and their fans, and plot is secondary. The two approaches are at odds with each other. Unless the comedy vehicle can make allowances, the adaptation will suffer.