Every once in a while, there will be a film adaptation that perfectly highlights a key point at Lost in Translation. For the perfect adaptation that still fails at the box office, there’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. For the by-the-checklist approach, Battleship. And for adaptations that miss audience expectations, there’s Jem and the Holograms.
Jem, though, wasn’t a bad movie nor a bad adaptation. The movie just wasn’t what audiences wanted to see. Audiences wanted the cartoon adapted, not just the dolls. While the movie did pull characters from the animated adaptation, the direction it took went against the nostalgia the older audience had for the cartoon, and the older audience would be the group taking the target audience to the theatre.
The nostalgia factor is one of the draws for adaptations, especially for older works. It’s easy enough to take a currently popular work and adapt it; the Harry Potter films were successful because they drew from the books’ readers while they waited for the next book in the series to be written. Adaptations of older works don’t normally have an obvious audience that current works do. There are exceptions; episodes of every Star Trek series are easily found and Star Wars has expanded its fandom by expanding its universe. Word of mouth, the way Trek fandom spread in the early days and how Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew, is hard to measure. DVD sales and tracking online streaming might work, but with all the different ways to watch old shows today, TV ratings don’t always reflect the audience numbers. Likewise, an older work that was popular in its time might not bring in the audience it once did. Tastes change, and what was once popular may have faded away.
In-name-only adaptations are a problem. These adaptations happen when a studio understands that a work is popular without understanding why. The 1998 Godzilla demonstrates the problem. Godzilla has a long cinematic history, and the draw is the kaiju himself. Iterative changes to his appearance isn’t a problem; a massive makeover is. The 1998 film could easily have been its own monster movie, but needed the draw of the Godzilla name. Not helping matters is that movies featuring giant monsters are in a small niche. An original monster movie, once the staple of B-movies, has a limited audience. Studios either have to build on an existing name or franchise, or create an original while keeping special effects costs down*. Both are risky at a time when studios are notoriously risk adverse.
Studios can take advantage of the nostalgia factor. Curiosity will draw in fans of the original, provided that the adaptation doesn’t drift too far away from the concept. The Jem film adaptation is a good example of what happens when the adaptation drifts too far from the work fans are most familiar with, resulting in a two week run in theatres. At the same time, it is possible to have an adaptation that does break from the original and still do well at the box office; 21 Jump Street being a good example. The key to using nostalgia as a draw is making sure either that fans of the original won’t feel like they are being made fun of or that the new builds on the old.
However, relying on nostalgia alone to draw an audience is risky. The original’s name isn’t enough. Thanks to the success of the film adaptation of the Harry Potter series and, to a lesser degree, The Hunger Games, audiences are more demanding about faithfulness to the original. The worst thing a studio can do today is to use the name of an older, serious work and turn it into a comedy. That move will alienate fans of the original, the fate of such adaptations as The Land of the Lost and CHiPs. The former adaptation was turned into a comedy vehicle for Will Farrell, losing the core of what drew audiences to the original. The latter took a police procedural along the lines of Dragnet, Adam-12 and Emergency** showing a work day for a pair of California Highway Patrolmen and, again, turned it into a comedy with almost no resemblance to the original except for names.
Name recognition is a key reason why studios are adaptation prone. An original work will require effort from the studio to raise interest in an audience. A known name, whether a popular actor or a popular original work, gets attention. That’s not enough, though; the new adaptation now has to stand out in the crowd of adaptations. Audiences are less accepting of changes for the sake of change. They want the characters they know and love.
There are workarounds for the studio. The first is to take a work with name recognition but not well known. While contradictory, the idea is to find an original work with a core concept that is known but not the details. The studio has more leeway in how the work is adapted as a result. The 21 Jump Street film adaptation went this route. The TV series was known in the Eighties, but because it was on the then-fledgling Fox network, the series wasn’t well known to audiences, and is best known for having a young Johnny Depp in the cast. The core concept – police officers undercover in a high school – is broad enough to make the jump from television to silver screen. In contrast, CHiPs was on NBC, one of the three networks available and ran in syndicated reruns even while still airing new episodes, bringing in a larger audience. The approach wouldn’t work with The X-Files; the series found an audience in the science fiction fandom and had a more dedicated following.
Second, the studio could take a popular older original and update it for a more modern take. Society and technology are always changing. What was once ground-breaking has turned quaint or has led to new issues that weren’t even on the horizon when the original first appeared. The classic “woman trying to make her way in a man’s world” sitcom from the Sixties and Seventies, such as That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show looked at issues important at the time. Today, while many of those issues are moot, new ones have taken their place, allowing for an update of the sitcom. The catch here is that many of those sitcoms are tightly tied to the main actors. Workcoms, sitcoms set at a workplace, fare better here. Dynamics have changed, but interpersonal relationships still exist. Taking an older workcom and bringing it to today isn’t difficult and allows for several of the original actors to return. The original WKRP in Cincinnati was set at a low-rated radio station with an unusual group of personalities; the remake, The New WKRP in Cincinnati kept the station, brought back several characters, and introduced new ones, all perfectly plausible in the industry. The main problem The New WKRP had was quality; the original set too high a bar and was in syndicated reruns when the new series aired through first-run syndication.
Finally, the studio could go back to an original’s core concept and present a new take that still works with the idea. The Battlestar Galactica reboot series is a prime example. Both the original and the rebooted Galactica featured the last of humanity escaping the destruction of their home on a ragtag fleet. The original, though, was a family drama as the fleet was shepherded by Commander Adama to find Earth; while the Cylons were bent on destroying the Galactica, the series maintained a hopeful tone for the survivors. The reboot, however, took a harsher look and didn’t focus on just the Adamas; the show put in doubt humanity’s survival and demonstrated how the different aspects of society clashed in the crisis. Both series were popular, but the reboot garnered more attention and is now the one audiences will remember.
Audience expectation has to be managed. The studio needs to know what the audience expects from an adaptation. Just taking an original and adapting it because it’s popular or it’s a comic book isn’t enough. Adapting is popular with studios because of the built-in audience, but ignoring why that audience followed the original will lead to disaster.
* The low budget approach is how the SyFy monster movies work, including Sharktopus, the Sharknado series, and Lavalantula. They typically feature a known name and cheesy special effects that are part of the charm of the movies.
** Technically, Emergency was more a paramedic procedural, but it did show how the Los Angeles Fire Department’s program worked.