There are movies that are essentially vehicles to showcase the star. It’s not a new phenomenon; the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road to … series of movies are a good example. Unless the star is more than a flash in the pan, the films become forgettable. When the star has true talent, the movie can transcend the purpose of cashing in on the star’s popularity. In the Eighties, Michael J. Fox broke out during the run of Family Ties, becoming a favourite of audiences. During the show’s run from 1982 to 1989, he appeared as a guest star in several other TV series and TV movies before making the jump to the silver screen with Back to the Future.
Fox, though, didn’t rest. The Eighties were an odd time, where the usual game of Follow-the-Leader played by studios didn’t work. Popular works begat backlash works which also become popular. Fox, though, was bankable, with a natural charm that appears throughout his career, and he was willing to work. He followed up Back to the Future with Teen Wolf, also released in 1985.
Teen Wolf is, in short, an Eighties teen comedy, covering all the problems a teenaged boy would have in the decade – trying to deal with puberty, trying to date the popular girl, trying to deal with bullies, trying to be the team star. The twist, though, is that Fox’s character, Scott Howard, is a werewolf.
Scott has the usual problems. He has a crush on Pamela, played by Lorie Griffin, the popular girl dating the star of the rival basketball team, Mick (Mark Arnold). Scott is on his school’s basketball team, the Beavers, but they’re not a great team. The 5’4″ or 163cm tall Scott is the second best player on the Beavers, and he has problems sinking foul shots. Said foul came from Mick, who tends to bully those he sees as lessers. Scott is also oblivious, not recognizing the crush his friend Boof (Susan Ursitti) has for him. As for puberty, Scott is going through a change even his health class couldn’t help him with. Scott’s best friend, Stiles (Jerry Levine), is there to help, sort of.
The changes come slowly, bit by bit. Fingernails turn into claws and back. Eyes glow. In a pile trying to retrieve a loose ball, Scott growls, sending everyone on both teams back. The changes aren’t all a pain. Scott’s basketball game improves. But the inevitable happens and he changes at a game. Instead of mass panic and a riotous mob, the home team cheers because Scott in his wolf form gives the Beavers their first win.
The usual reactions in a werewolf movie – fear, panic, mobs rising up to strike the lycanthrope down – are avoided. Scott is popular. He’s the star basketball player. He can stand up to the people trying to keep him down. And he gets the popular girl. Technically, she gets him, but only for what she can get from him.
As Scott embraces his wolf side, he starts getting an ego to go with his popularity. He starts alienating everyone, Boof, his teammates. His father (James Hampton), though, gives him The Talk, the lesson on being himself. Turns out, Scott was never bitten. His lycanthropy is genetic. His father is a werewolf. In the championship basketball game, Scott leaves the wolf out, playing as himself, and using his head. Mick, in trying to get Scott to wolf-out, fouls out, his fourth foul on Scott. The movie ends as it begins, with Scott having to make a foul shot.
Outside the supernatural element, Teen Wolf is a very typical teen comedy from the decade. Lycanthropy stands in for puberty, and the goal is laughs. If it wasn’t for Michael J. Fox, the movie would be forgotten. Fox’s natural charm carries the film, giving it more exposure than it would’ve had. As a result, the movie spawned a cartoon series in 1986 and a sequel, Teen Wolf Too with Jason Bateman, in 1987. That should’ve been it, but almost thirty years after the movie’s release, MTV produced a TV series based on the movie.
The TV series, also called Teen Wolf, first aired in 2011 and ran six seasons, ending in 2017. Given that the series has a total run time that is two magnitudes longer than the original movie, changes are expected, just to fill the time. Let’s just look at season one, which covers about the same amount of time in-film as the original movie, from the start of the sports season to city championships.
Tyler Posey takes over the Scott role, now called Scott McCall. Instead of basketball, he plays lacrosse, and wants to make the first line. Stiles (Dylan O’Brien) is still Scott’s best friend, but instead of being the party loving slacker of the movie, he’s more a geek. The popular girl is Lydia (Holland Roden) instead of Pamela, and while she plays up the mean girl aspect, she hides an intellect as she manipulates the lacrosse team captain, Jackson (Colton Haynes), for social position. Scott doesn’t have a crush on her; instead, Stiles does, and he sees through her facade. Scott’s love interest is the new girl in town, Allison (Crystal Reed).
The new series uses today’s expectations of urban fantasy and the supernatural, with Scott being bitten by a werewolf to gain the curse. His transformation happens slowly over the first episode, with him suddenly getting better at lacrosse and making the first line. But with better health and agility comes a few other problems, like anger issues, claws, and fangs. Scott also gains the attention of Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin), a werewolf in town trying to find who killed his sister.
Jackson is suspicious of Scott; no one improves that much at lacrosse over the summer. He suspects steroids at first, but digs too deep over the course of the first season. Scott has to juggle his new love life, his friends, Derek, and, new to the series, werewolf hunters. To make matters worse, the leader of the hunters is his new girlfriend’s father (JR Bourne), making the typical problems look tame.
As the season progresses, Scott learns to control his wolf side, tracks down the alpha werewolf who bit him, and finally opens himself to Allison, but several lives are turned upside down along the way. Allison had no idea of her family’s secret until her Aunt Kate (Jill Wagner) shows her. Jackson and Lydia are injured with potentially fatal consequences.
The main difference from movie to TV series is seriousness. The original was a teen comedy. The TV series is a teen drama, but it takes its beats from the movie. The slow reveal of Scott’s abilities, the sports focus in the early part of season one, even the bowling scene from the movie makes an appearance, though altered for who the new characters are. Scott still has his problems, but his ego isn’t one of them. His problems start with typical ones for teenagers, made worse because of his curse. Nothing goes smooth for him. Like Fox’s Scott, Posey’s problems don’t go away when he’s a werewolf.
Season one of Teen Wolf takes the ideas from the movie and brings them to today, with today’s views on urban fantasy and the supernatural. Werewolves are again something the public fears because of the danger they represent. They’re not superstars on the field of play gaining adoration. The TV series is a product of its own time, not of the Eighties, even if it borrows from that decade. The result is the same story, a teenager trying to cope with life and changes, just told in a different way, more serious, with more depth.
Welcome to the history of adaptations. I’ve been looking at the top movies of each decade, analysing 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, however, had a drastic shift; not quite parity, but the number of popular original works grew compared to the number of adaptations.
The Eighties saw the introduction of Reaganomics, Thatcher, and the escalation of the War on Drugs. The Vietnam War stopped being a taboo subject in the US, leading to characters who were veterans trying to deal with what happened, characters such as John Rambo and Sonny Crockett. The economy was in flux, with a recession in the mid- to late-80s that was followed by a jobless recovery. The video cassette recorder, or VCR, became affordable for home use, leading to dire predictions from studios about the death of the movie industry*.
With the Sixties and Seventies, soundtracks came into their own, with unique sounds for different movies. The Eighties saw a new twist become popular – the music video. MTV first broadcast** on August 1, 1981, with The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” gave artists an outlet to have their music played on television. Michael Jackson’s 1983 video for his hit, “Thriller“, showed how the music video could be used for story telling. The popularity of music videos led to the creation of Miami Vice in 1984, with popular music being used to set the tone, much as soundtracks were used for in the previous decades. The music video became a way for studios to advertise movies, much like soundtracks were in the Seventies, and helped many a film at the box office.
Related to the music video is the emergence of a performer who has his thumb on the pulse of pop culture, “Weird Al” Yankovic. While his earlier work was more focused on just music parodies, in the Eighties, he included movies in his works. Making the music scene with “Eat It“, a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, Weird Al had fun with the decade’s “sequelitis” with 1982’s “Theme from Rocky XIII“, a parody of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III. “Nature Trail to Hell (in 3D)“, one of Weird Al’s original works, parodied the nature of the slasher flick. In 1985, Weird Al released “Yoda”, a parody of both “Lola” by the Kinks and the character introduced in The Empire Strikes Back. He hasn’t reached being the barometer of what’s popular yet, but the groundwork is there.
The popular films of the decade, by year:
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back – the sequel to the 1977 blockbuster, Star Wars.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – original, but inspired by pulp stories of the Forties.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – original.
Tootsie – original. The core of the movie came from a screenplay called Would I Lie to You by Don McGuire, but underwent changes during the production of the film. What makes the movie original is that the screenplay was shopped around instead of being produced elsewhere.
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi – sequel. The (then) end of the Star Wars saga, though numerous tie-ins would go on to expand the Galaxy Far Far Away before the 1999 prequel film was released.
Ghostbusters – original. Ghostbusters had a slow start in theatres, but the release of the music video for the main theme song turned the movie into a success.
Beverly Hills Cop – original. Again, the music video for “Axel F“, named for Eddie Murphy’s character, helped at the box office.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – sequel. Temple of Doom was one of the major factors into splitting the existing PG (Parental Guidance recommended) rating into PG and PG-13, which had barred admittance of children under 13 years old without a parent.
Back to the Future – original. Another movie that had a music video, “The Power of Love” released.
Top Gun – original. The movie was inspired by the article, “Top Guns”, by Ehud Yonay in the May 1983 issue of California magazine. The film also had a music video, “Danger Zone” released.
Crocodile Dundee – original but inspired by the life of Rodney Ansell, an Australian bushman. Crocodile Dundee is unusual in that it is the first foreign film, being from Australia, on the popular lists since 1966’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
Three Men and a Baby – adapted from the French movie, Trois hommes et un couffin (Three Men and a Cradle).
Fatal Attraction – adaptation, based on the short film Diversion. airing on British television.
Rain Man – original.
Batman – adapted from the various titles from DC Comics, including Detective Comics. This is the second movie based on a comic book character to appear on the lists.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – sequel.
The Eighties were known for sequelitis for a very good reason. Just from the above, there are five sequels. Ghostbusters would have a sequel in 1989, as would Back to the Future, which would have a third movie in 1990. Beverly Hills Cop had a sequel in 1987. Crocodile Dundee had one in 1988. The sequels, though, all continued the stories of the characters, much like a murder mystery book series continues with the same detective or detectives through its run.
Counting the sequels as original works, as done in previous decades, there are thirteen original movies and three adaptations. That makes the Eighties the first decade where popular original movies outnumbered adaptations. Separating out the sequels still leaves eight original works, still more than the adaptations. The trend started in the Seventies, but the complete flipping of numbers happened here. The Eighties are why I’m looking at just the popular works. These are the movies everyone remembers, since the films pulled in a large audience. Few people will remember **Batteries Not Included; but Ghostbusters? “Who you gonna call?” With older works, the popular films are more likely to be remembered by name. There are exceptions. Ingagi, from 1930, is unheard of today, mainly because of what happened to the film, as detailed in the Thirties.
The three adaptations, Batman, Three Men and a Baby, and Fatal Attraction, come from different source works. Batman comes from comics, the second comic book movie in the popular lists. Three Men and a Baby was translated from the French film and adapted for an American audience and setting. Fatal Attraction came from a British TV movie. This is the first decade to not have an movie adapted from a written work, such as a novel or stage play, in the popular list.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were busy in the Eighties. Lucas had the Star Wars sequels while Spielberg had E.T., but they worked together on the three Indiana Jones movies. All told, they are responsible for six of the movies listed above, all original works. Science fiction is still going strong, continuing from the success of their movies in the Seventies, Lucas’ Star Wars and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The Eighties reversed the ratio of original movies to adaptations seen in the Fifties, where only three films weren’t based on another work, but the sequel movie was in full force. Audiences enjoyed seeing further works with beloved characters, though the success of sequels varied. It is this remembrance of the Eighties that is behind the complaints of the number of adaptations being made today.
* Same death of the industry was predicted with the advent of television and with the introduction of the DVD. The music industry had similar predictions of death with the creation of radio, the audio cassette, the Sony Walkman, the compact disc, and MP3s. So far, the success rate on these predictions has been 0%.
** Not quite the word for a cable channel, but it’s the best around.