The dominance of adaptations at the box office has created a backlash, people from in the industry and outside observing who keep predicting that adaptations have run their course and will soon be replaced by original works. Yet, the past few years have shown otherwise. In 2018, though, the top ten money making films were adaptations, sequels, or sequels of adaptations. As long as adaptations are making money, there’s no reason for a studio to take a risk on an original work that doesn’t have a built-in fandom. Hollywood is risk adverse right now. But where does the backlash come from?
First, there’s the memory of the time when all the popular movies were original. Let’s examine that time, though. I went through the History of Adaptations series to see when adaptations overtook original works and discovered that there were only two decades, the Eighties and the Nineties where that happened. The rest of film history, adaptations performed better at the box office than original works. While money may not be the best way to judge a film’s impact – see Ingagi from the Thirties – it’s how films are tracked. Consider the age of the people complaining about the lack of original films; there’s a good chance that they grew up in the two decades where original works were more popular. The Eighties, though, were an odd decade. Entertainment was varied. Film, music, television, all were pushing boundaries. In all three media, follow-the-leader acts didn’t works as well as previous or later decades. Audiences weren’t interested in more of the same and had a wide variety to choose from.
Another issue with the memories of popular original movies is that some of the works the “originals'” were based on fell into obscurity. The Ten Commandments is obviously adapted from the Bible, but Cecil B. Demille remade his 1923 version in 1956 using technology not available for the first movie, tech such as sound, colour, and widescreen. Ben Hur, though, wasn’t directly from the Bible. Instead, the film was a remake of a 1925 movie which itself was an adaptation of an 1880 novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Saturday Night Fever, from 1977, was adapted from an article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, publish in 1976 in New York Magazine. Even The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an adaptation of a stage production, The Rocky Horror Show. What might be remembered as original may really be an adaptation.
Next, the sources of today’s adaptations may be off-putting to some parts of the general audience. In the Twenties and the Fifties, adaptations tended to be taken from literary sources, novels and plays. In 2018, though, half the top ten movies were comic book adaptations. High brow versus low brow. And while the adaptations were well done, unlike previous efforts, comics aren’t considered high or serious art by the general populace. If studios could make the money comic book movies get by adapting literary fiction, there wouldn’t be a lit-fic shelf left empty by Hollywood producers. Some producers do try, though. Baz Lurhmann has adapted some staples of high school English reading lists, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. While there is a built-in audience, that audience consists of high school students who don’t even want to deal with Coles Notes/Spark Notes. Low-brow works don’t get respect; they appeal to the common person.
There is adaptation fatigue. Every once in a while, people want to see something different, something outside their usual experience. When the choices are adaptation or adaptation or remake of an adaptation, it’s natural to start wondering if Hollywood can ever make something original. It’s a fair thought, at least for the silver screen. Television, despite a number of successful adaptations like A Game of Thrones and Good Omens, is now the source of original works. The competition for viewers today is strong, between the 5000-channel lineup of cable to streaming services to YouTube channels for the very niche interests. A well done adaptation gets attention, but so does a well done original. Want original? Check your TV listings.
The question isn’t “Can Hollywood make something original?”, it’s, “What would it take for Hollywood to make an original movie?” If an original work can get the same money as a blockbuster adaptation, studios will start to work on their own takes before the groundbreaking film finishes its first week in theatres. Until then, adaptations will rule movie theatres.