Welcome to the history of adaptations. I’ve been looking at the top movies of each decade, analyzing 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 Filmsite.org as a base. So far, the number of popular adaptations has outnumbered the original films in each decade, with the Fifties having just three original works, two of those being demos.
The Seventies was the New Hollywood era of the auteur director. Studios gave the directors a greater leeway in creativity, thanks to the success of the early films of the era in the previous decade like The Graduate. The results often outweighed the risks, though studios did get nervous at times. Elsewhere, American troops were pulled from Vietnam by President Richard Nixon in 1973. The Watergate scandal broke in 1974, showing the dirty tricks Nixon used against opponents culminating in the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. The scandal led to the impeachment of and the resignation of Nixon from the presidency and the arrest and conviction of several highly placed government officials. Adding to the misery, a series of energy crises struck as oil prices spiked, notably in 1973 and in 1979. In 1973, OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, limited oil sales to the US due to the country’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. In 1979, revolutionaries overthrew the Shah of Iran, leading to a lower oil production in the country and causing a panic in oil prices.
A few genres of movies became popular during the Seventies. The disaster film featured an all-star cast trapped in a dangerous situation, such as a plane crash or a burning building. The car chase movie evolved, with the muscle cars of the decade almost built for the roles. While movies like 1968’s Bulitt and James Bond movies after Goldfinger integrated a car chase into the story, films like Smokey and the Bandit elevated the chase as the main plot. Soundtracks are still important, just as the previous decade, providing another means of conveying the mood of the film. The Hong Kong action movie, long a staple in Asia, gained in popularity in North America, with stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung becoming known to a new audience. Blaxploitation took the Hong Kong action flick and Americanized it, with a black cast and music to groove on while mowing down mooks; Shaft may be the quitessential example and Pam Grier the genre’s kickass leading lady.
The popular movies of the decade:
Love Story – original. Erich Sagal would adapt the screenplay into a novel released before the movieès debut.
Airport – adapted from the 1968 novel of the same name written by Arthur Hailey. Airport would have three sequels in the Seventies; Airport 1975, Airport ’77, and The Concorde … Airport ’79. Hailey also wrote the script for the 1956 CBC TV movie, Flight into Danger*, which was remade in 1957 by Paramount as Zero Hour!**, which would then be used as the base of the 1980 parody, Airplane!. Hailey essentially sowed the seeds that would kill the airplane disaster film as a genre.
Billy Jack – sequel. The first film of the series of four was the 1967 movie, The Born Losers. Distribution was a problem for the film in 1971; Warner Bros. picked up the film and re-released it in 1973, where it had a far better run in theatres.
Diamonds Are Forever – a loose adaptation of the Ian Fleming 007 novel of the same name. Sean Connery returned to play Bond one more time after George Lazenby took the role in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The Godfather – adapted from the 1969 novel, also titled The Godfather, by Mario Puzo.
The Exorcist – adapted from the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, who was also the movie’s scriptwriter. The book was based on a case of demonic possession and subsequent exorcism in 1949.
The Sting – original. The plot was inspired by an actual grift known as “The Wire“, which has also appeared in the Leverage episode, “The Bottle Job”. The movie used the ragtime music of Scott Joplin.
American Grafitti – original, based on the events of George Lucas’ youth.
Blazing Saddles – original. Mel Brooks parodied Westerns and their tropes while making statements about racism. Mel Brooks co-wrote the script along with Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, Al Uger, and Richard Pryor. Pryor was Brooks’ choice as Bart, but Warner Bros. overrode him, leading to Cleavon Little in the lead role.
The Towering Inferno – adaptation of two novels, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Irwin Allen produced the star-studded movie.
Jaws – adapted from the 1974 novel by Peter Bentley. Steven Spielberg used what he learned filming the TV movie Duel and applied it here. The movie is celebrating its fortieth anniversary with re-releases to repertory theatres and was the reason many people stayed out of the water at the beach. Jaws briefly enjoyed holding the record for highest grossing film in history.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show – adaptation of the stage musical, The Rocky Horror Show. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been in a limited first run since its release and can still play to packed theatres. The movie is a textbook case of a cult film, with fans participating as they watch.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – adapted from the 1962 Ken Kesey novel of the same name,
Rocky – original. Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in the movie.
Star Wars – original, inspired by pulp films and serials of the Fifties as well as The Dam Busters and the Akira Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress. The top grossing movie of the decade, grossing more than the next three movies below combined, and why Jaws held the record briefly.
Saturday Night Fever – adapted from “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, an article in New York Magazine in 1976. The movie popularized both disco and John Travolta, previously known from the TV series, Welcome Back, Kotter.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – original. Steven Spielberg explored the idea of first contact with aliens through music.
Smokey and the Bandit. The movie was based on events and laws in existence at the time, including the legality, or lack there of, of shipping Coors beer from Texas to Georgia. The would be two sequels and a short-lived TV series.
Grease – adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical, Grease. The movie’s soundtrack finished the year second only to Saturday Night Fever‘s in sales.
National Lampoon’s Animal House – adapted from stories written by Chris Miller in National Lampoon magazine. Miller’s stories were about his experiences at college. Harold Ramis, one of the movie’s scriptwriters, and Ivan Reitman, the producer, added their own experiences to the film.
Superman – adapted from the titles published by DC comics. Superman is the first comic book movie to appear in the list of popular movies and still stands as the movie about the character. Star Christopher Reeve showed how removing a pair of glasses could change Clark Kent into Superman.
Kramer vs. Kramer – adapted from the 1977 novel of the same name by Avery Corman.
Links on the titles in the above list lead to key songs in the movie’s soundtrack. I’ve left out the two musicals on purpose; the soundtrack is the draw, at least initially. American Grafitti used songs popular in the Fifties for its soundtrack. Kramer vs Kramer used music from the Baroque period.
Of the twenty-two movies listed above, thirteen are adaptations. The rest are eight original films and one sequel, which continues the story about the character. About 3/5 of the popular movies of the Seventies are adaptations, a huge shift over the previous decades. Two of the adaptations are from musicals, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease. Two more came from magazine articles, Saturday Night Fever and National Lampoon’s Animal House. The first comic book character appears with Superman. The remainder of the adaptations came from novels.
Superman was the oldest work adapted, with the character appearing in Action Comics #1 in 1938. The next oldest was Diamonds Are Forever, published in 1956. The rest were made in a few years of the publication of the novels or articles and a few years after the stage productions. In the prior decades, it wasn’t unusual to see a work dating from the 19th Century or earlier. Here, though, there is nothing from before the 20th Century, nothing over fifty years old. Biblical epics, popular in the Fifties, faded in the Sixties and are non-existent in the Seventies.
Star Wars deserves some extra mention. The film did far better than the studio, 20th Century-Fox, expected and remained in theatres for over a year. The price of a ticket, especially a matinee, was such that a weekly allowance could be spent seeing the movie a couple of times in a week, three times while foregoing the popcorn and drink. The success of the movie paved the way for more A-list science fiction, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Science fiction was no longer relegated to B-movies and television. Star Wars also represented a huge leap in special effects, especially done on a tight budget.
The soundtrack became a key part of promoting Saturday Night Fever. The movie and the soundtrack promoted each other, allowing the Bee Gees to become a popular band in the Disco Era. Grease took the lessons offered; the movie’s soundtrack was second only to Saturday Night Fever‘s, leading to more cross-promotion. The result of the cross-promotion will appear in the Eighties.
The number of popular adaptations in the Seventies still outnumbers the popular original films, but the ratio has shifted towards parity. The choice of work adapted comes from works popular in the decade; Superman was celebrating his fortieth anniversary and Diamonds Are Forever had a popular actor returning to the role of Bond, while the remainder used popular works. The exception, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, stands out because of its cult status. Overall, the Seventies had the best showing for original films so far and is a great improvement from the Fifties, but adaptations are still popular.
* Starring James Doohan as the shell-shocked Spitfire pilot who has to land a commercial airliner after the pilot and co-pilot suffer from food poisoning.
** Starring Dana Andrews as Ted Stryker, taking on the Doohan role.