The short version, adaptations continued to dominate the silver screen. With studios risk adverse, they want to maximize audiences. It’s still not a guarantee of success, but adapting a popular work is one way to draw in a crowd. Couple adapting with popular actors, and studios see a sure thing. The New Teens are looking a lot like the Fifties, where popular adaptations far outnumbered popular adaptations. Let’s break down the top ten films by box office, using the numbers compiled by Box Office Mojo. Remember that popularity isn’t necessarily a sign of quality, just of what is popular.
1) Finding Dory – sequel to the Disney/Pixar original work, Finding Nemo. A surprising entry, given the strength of what follows.
2) Captain America: Civil War – second sequel to Captain America: First Avenger, an adaptation.
3) The Secret Life of Pets – original.
4) The Jungle Book – Disney’s live action remake of its animated adaptation of the story by Rudyard Kipling.
5) Deadpool – adapted from the Marvel character and the most comic book movie ever made*.
6) Zootopia – An original Disney animated movie.
7) Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice – adapted from characters and situations seen in DC Comics.
8) Suicide Squad – another DC Comics adaptation.
9) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – an original movie in the Star Wars franchise.
10) Doctor Strange – adapted from the Marvel comic.
Note that Rogue One and Doctor Strange are still in theatres. The Star Wars prequel could finish 2016 higher in the list and also dominate the 2017 list.
For all the complaints people have about adaptations, audiences went out to see them more than original works. The breakdown has two completely original works, two sequels/prequels to original works, and six adaptations or sequels to adaptations. It’s telling that most of the original works are animated, especially from Disney, who used to plumb animated features from fairy tales. Studios just aren’t going to give up the potential income from popular adaptations, no matter the outcry. At this point, original works will need top talent just to get a budget from studios. Depending on the work, an original may need to go to television just to get noticed. For balance, let’s look at the bottom ten.
10) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – fictionalized adaptation of the memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker
9) Assassin’s Creed – adaptation of the video game.
8) Snowden – a biopic of Edward Snowden.
7) Mechanic: Resurrection – sequel to the remake, The Mechanic.
6) Manchester by the Sea – original.
5) Free State of Jones – loosely based on a historical event.
4) Blair Witch – remake of The Blair Witch Project.
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – sequel to a movie based on Rice Broocks’ God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in An Age of Uncertainty.
2) Keanu – original.
1) Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life – adapted from Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts.
Note that Assassin’s Creed is still in theatres after being released on December 21. Manchester by the Sea opened in limited release November 18 and had a full release December 16 and is still in theatres.
The bottom ten has four adaptations, two sequels to adaptations, one original work, and two movies based on real events, including the Snowden biopic. Being at the bottom isn’t necessarily a sign of quality. Manchester by the Sea has been nominated for a number of awards, including Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay, and has been listed on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of the Year. What the bottom ten show is that adaptations run the gamut of popularity and that we’re still in an era where adaptations outnumber original works. However, with two exceptions, every decade in the history of movies shows that trend. The exceptions were the Eighties and Nineties.
Adaptations aren’t going away any time soon. People are still getting out to see them in theatres. At this point, quality is important; repeat audiences are driving the numbers for several films. For now, expect more original works in unexpected media, like animation or television.
* I’d say “shamelessly the most comic book movie,” but the movie lives in audacity, contributing to its popularity.
The one thing that 2016 is guaranteed to have is more adaptations. The current cycle may be reaching a peak, but there are a number of adaptations in the pipelines still to be released. But if the peak is near, the two things that will mark getting past the apex is quality and audience reception.
Quality is tough to quantify, but, overall, adaptations today are far more faithful now than ever before. Studios have learned that the in-name-only adaptation is doomed to failure from the outset. Word of mouth is far faster today thanks to social media. Audiences can warn others about a movie’s flaws during a screening. At the same time, a movie that hits the heart of a work will also get audiences telling others about it. Social media is a double-edged sword for studios.
Audience reception is easier to measure. Box office returns, while not the best method, is still what studios look at as a measure of a film’s success. The dollar amount isn’t the only part looked at; the amount brought in compared to a film’s budget is key. An expensive film that brings in over a billion dollars, such as Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, isn’t the only success; a lower budget movie that still brings in ten times what it was made is also successful. As long as audiences keep going to adaptations, they will be made. One flop isn’t going to kill the current trend. It will take a number of failures over a short period to convince a studio to try something different. Thus, Universal’s failure with Jem and the Holograms isn’t going to dissuade the studio from continuing with the Fifty Shades of Grey series*.
Adaptations have always been a part of Hollywood. The coming year is will be no different. A backlash against the number of adaptations may be beginning, but it’ll take a few years before it gets felt. Studios have adaptations in various stages of production; cancelling will cost money, and there’s no indication now that audiences will stay away in droves in the hope for something original. Even then, the superhero movie is becoming a mainstay. Where the Western and the rogue cop films have far too much baggage to them to be regular features, the superhero can take the appeal of the other two genres without their drawbacks.
Even television isn’t immune to adaptations. Many series, including The Librarians, The Expanse, Dark Matter, and The Last Ship, are all adapted from other works. Expect more works to be adapted as television series; the format allows for a greater depth at the expense of the fickleness of ratings. Even the fickleness can be avoided; the 500-channel universe means that a work will find its audience. A Game of Thrones has proven to be a hit for HBO, bringing in subscribers tuning in for that one series.
As mentioned above, quality is the key. If the adaptation makes an effort to be faithful to the original work, audiences will watch. Studios are learning this; the failure of Jem and the Holograms is noteworthy because it failed to meet fan expectations. Fifty Shades of Grey met fan expectations, despite the casting choices. The lesson is there to be learned.
* Issues between director and author might cause delays, though.