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.
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. With the New Teens completed up to now, it’s time to figure out what all this means.
First, though, my methodology. I needed a start point, thus my use of the list at Filmsite.org. The list provided me with a base to work from. I chose the popular films, as according to box office, because the films should be memorable enough and have lasting impact on films even today. Even Ingagi, released in 1930 and pulled when it was discovered that the found footage was found in other movies, still has ripples in the form of Gorilla Grodd, who has appeared in the current TV series, The Flash. While box office takes reflect how much money a movie made at the theatres, it does ignore the effects of television airings and the sale and rental of home videos, both video tape and DVD/Blu-Ray. Some classic films, including Casablanca and Psycho, gain an audience long after leaving theatres. Popular films also may not be representative of the films released. There aren’t many Westerns on the list, yet the genre was a staple for several decades.
Going through every film released, though, would be a huge undertaking. The goal of the project was to discover whether movie adaptations were a recent approach or if it was something happening throughout the history of film. The Filmsite.org list starts with 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. One hundred years of film history to examine. I needed a way to get a sample of what was released. Again, the popular films may not be representative. Statistically, I haven’t run the numbers. In the more recent decades, studios have shown a tendency to follow the leader; if one studio has a breakthrough hit featuring an alien invasion/romantic comedy, every studio will make a similar film to get a piece of the action. Whether that holds true for the earlier years of Hollywood remains to be researched.
Throughout the project, I broke down the films into original and adaptations, making note of where a film didn’t quite fit into either. I placed sequels under original unless the sequel itself was based on another work. Movies like Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are both sequels and adaptations, both being based on books in a series. The categories aren’t perfect, though breaking the movies into finer categories would dilute the numbers to the point of uselessness. The most films in one decade was 29, in 1915-1929 and 1930-1939. The fewest, 13, came in 2000-2009, which was also the decade with the fewest original works on the Filmsite.org list. The graph below shows the number of original movies versus the number of adaptations by decade. On the left, in blue, is the number of original works. The right, in orange, is the number of adaptations.
As the above shows, only two decades had the number of original movies outnumbering the adaptations. With all the complaints about the number of adaptations, the Eighties and Nineties, still fresh in people’s minds, were the exception. My expectation when I started was that the early years would have a large number of adaptations as scripts for stage were repurposed for film, but the Fifties showed otherwise. The Fifties were the first decade to have a huge number of remakes, too.
If the Eighties and Nineties were the exception, then why the complaints? The next few graphs might shed some light. I chose three separate decades, the Early Years, the Fifties, and the Aughts, to show what sources were used for adaptations.
Novels and plays are the bulk of the adaptations. Neither take over half, but the literary tradition is there. The other three sources, poems, myths and legends, and the Bible, aren’t that much different. The era is literary.
In the Fifties, novels and plays are major sources in adaptations, but other works are appearing. The number of remakes equal the number of movies using plays as a source. Myths and legends have a larger piece of the pie than in the Early Years. Children’s literature is a new source, thanks to Disney, but poems are still being used.
With the Aughts, the literary sources drop. Novels and plays combined equal the number of movies based on children’s literature. Comic books are a bigger source. The Aughts also had movies based on sources not seen in the previous decades – toy lines and theme park rides.
The Aughts may be showing why there is a complaint about the number of adaptations. The source work is far better known today. A movie based on one of Shakespeare’s plays passes the acceptance test. A movie based on a line of action figures is being made because either the toy line is selling well or the toy company wants to sell more of the toys, and thus can irk people. The same holds with using children’s literature and Young Adult works; there’s a feeling of catering to a younger audience that alienates older viewers.
Adaptations aren’t a new phenomenon. They’ve been around since the beginning of the film industry and will be around until the industry collapses. Film making is expensive. Studios need to pull in an audience, and, if done well, adaptations of popular works will draw in the crowd.
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. Last time, the Aughts had fewer original movies than the Fifties, which had three, including the two Cinerama demo films.
The decade isn’t over yet, but the general trend has been for big budget adaptations based on comic books and Young Adult novels, or so it feels. Does this feeling hold out when looking at the popular movies so far this decade? Both Marvel and DC have a number of movies scheduled over the next few years, with Valiant getting in on the action. Movies adapted from Young Adult novels soared with the later Harry Potter films and the Twilight adaptations. Sustainability is in doubt, but the studios are making too much money to ignore the cash cow.
The top movies of the decade, by year, up to 2015:
Toy Story 3 – sequel. Pixar’s approach to storytelling means that they won’t create a sequel unless there is a proper story to be told.
Alice in Wonderland – adapted from the 1872 Lewis Carroll story, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
Iron Man 2 – sequel of an adaptation and part of the lead up to Marvel’s The Avengers.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – both an adaptation and a sequel. The movie covers the latter half of the last book of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon – sequel of an adaptation of the Hasbro toy line.
Marvel’s The Avengers – adaptation of the Marvel superhero team.
The Dark Knight Rises – sequel of the adaptation, The Dark Knight.
The Hunger Games – adaptation of the novel, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – sequel and adaptations of the second book in the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire.
Iron Man 3 – sequel of an adaptation.
Frozen – adaptation of the fairy tale, “The Snow Queen”, by Hans Christian Andersen.
Despicable Me 2 – sequel. The first movie, Despicable Me was an original work.
American Sniper – adaptation of American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Pyle
Guardians of the Galaxy – adaptation of the characters and team as seen in Marvel comics.
Jurassic World – adaptation. While intended as a sequel to the first three Jurassic Park movies, there are only two returning characters, including the island.
Avengers: Age of Ultron – sequel to the adaptations, Marvel’s The Avengers.
Inside Out – original but inspired by the daughter of the director
Furious 7 – sequel and part of the Fast and Furious franchise.
Of the eighteen movies listed above, four are original, including the sequels Toy Story 3, Despicable Me 2, and Furious 7. There are nine adaptations, including both Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which are also sequels. The remaining five films are sequels of earlier adaptations. Naturally, the divisions weren’t easy to define. Jurassic World could be seen as a sequel of the previous Jurassic Park movies. I placed it as an adaptation because of how little it shared with the previous films. While Universal Studios counts the film as part of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World only has one character returning, and he was a minor one in the original movie. Thus, I’m placing Jurassic World into the adaptation category.
The source of the adaptations isn’t as diverse as the Aughts. Six movies were adaptations of comic books. Three were based on Young Adult novels. One came from a Michael Crichton work. Disney was the only studio to reach into the literature of the past for adaptations, using works by Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen. While comics haven’t had this strong a showing in previous decades, they aren’t a new medium. The Avengers #1 was published in 1963, bringing together characters from other titles, including Iron Man, who first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 in
19591963*. Jurassic Park, published in 1990, is more recent.
Along with the above breakdown, there were ten sequels in the popular list. While Lost in Translation treats sequels as original works, continuing a story started in a previous film, the general movie audience may not agree with the assessment. The number of sequels, adaptations, and the combination of the two leads to the complaints that there are fewer original works. Yet, the Aughts had fewer popular original movies than this decade.
Next week, wrapping up the series.
* I misread the information at the link. Iron Man’s debut was in 1963; Tales of Suspense started in 1959.
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. Last time, the Nineties saw a slight slippage of the originality of the Eighties, but original works still outnumbered adaptations.
If the early days of AOL and the creation of the World Wide Web* allowed people to discuss films indepth, the normalization of the Internet meant that word of mouth could make or break a movie. A movie featuring two hot actors – Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, linked via tabloids as “Bennifer” – should have had a good opening weekend. Instead, Gigli bombed at the box office as word of mouth sent warnings to avoid the film. Gigli set a record in 2003 for the biggest drop between opening and second weekend box office totals.**
I used “Weird Al” Yankovic as a barometer of popularity in the Eighties and Nineties. In the Aughts, he only had one song, “Ode to a Superhero“, released on the first album after Spider-Man hit theatres. His focus turned to the Internet, where popular memes now start. That change of focus is emblematic of how far into daily lives the Internet has become. Movies aren’t the trendsetters as they were in early days of Technicolor.
The top movies of the decade, by year:
How the Grinch Stole Christmas – live-action adaptation of the Christmas story by Dr. Seuss.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – adaptation of the popular children’s novel by JK Rowling. Harry Potter was a huge phenomenon, with people lining up outside bookstores when the new installments were released, something seen in the past for concert tickets for the biggest of the big name rock stars and with geek-friendly movies.
Spider-Man – adaptation of the Marvel character seen in Spectacular Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – adaptation of the third book of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King. Also counts as a sequel.
Shrek 2 – sequel of an adaptation. The first Shrek movies was based on the 1990 children’s book, Shrek!, by William Steig.
Spider-Man 2 – sequel to the 2002 adaptation, Spider-Man, above.
The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s controversial Biblical adaptation of the last days of Christ.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith – the last of the Star Wars prequel movies.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – adapted from the Disneyland ride, “Pirates of the Caribbean”.
Spider-Man 3 – like Spider-Man 2, a sequel of an adaptation.
The Dark Knight – adaptation of the DC Comics character, Batman, as seen in a number of titles, including Legends of the Dark Knight and Detective Comics
Avatar – original. James Cameron created an immersive world using 3D filming techniques, reviving the film process.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – sequel of an adaptation of the Hasbro toy line, Transformers.
That makes a grand total of one original movie, Avatar. Of the remain films, there were six adaptations, five sequels to adaptations, and one movie, Return of the King, that counts as both sequel and adaptation. The obvious question, “What is the difference between a “sequel of an adaptation” and “a sequel and an adaptation”? The answer – source material. Return of the King was still based on an existing work, in this case, Tolkien’s novel. The movie relied heavily on the original work, which itself was a continuation of a story started in a previous novel. With the Spider-Man sequels and Shrek 2, the movies built on the previous movie but wasn’t necessarily based on the original work. The distinction is academic, but it does exist and will come up again.
The sources of the adaptations is another difference from previous decades. Literature and plays were the prime sources up to the Eighties. In the Aughts, three movies were based on children’s literature, with only one being animated. In the past, it was typically an animated Disney film that covered children’s books. Four movies were based on comic book characters, though three of those films featured Spider-Man. The Bible returned as a source, the first time since 1966’s The Bible: In the Beginning. Rounding out the literary sources is The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s fantasy epic.
What makes the Aughts unique is the use of unusual original sources, a toy line and a park ride. In the Eighties, Hasbro took advantage of a relaxing in regulations governing children’s programming, allowing them to work with Marvel and Sunbow to produce cartoons for several lines of toys, including Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Jem and the Holograms. Of those three mentioned, Transformers kept returning to television in one form or another, with little continuity between series***. With the animated series being a near constant, a live-action movie version wasn’t a surprise. The park ride, on the other hand, is Disney leveraging one of their existing properties in another field. The Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t the only ride turned into a feature film. The Country Bears, The Haunted Mansion, and the recent Tomorrowland all began as Disney rides.
With just one more decade to go, it’s easy to see where complaints about Hollywood’s lack of originality comes from. After two decades where original works were in the majority, even taking into account sequels, the sudden turn around back to the level last seen in the Fifties makes the Aughts seem abnormal. As seen in this series, The Aughts and, as shall be seen, the New Teens arent’t unusual. The Eighties and Nineties were the exceptions, but since they are within recent collective memory while the earlier years are outside the pop consciousness, it’s difficult to realize how unique those decades are in the history of film. The Aughts also pull from sources not previously used as extensively. Prior to the Eighties, only animated films meant for children used children’s novels as a source. The Harry Potter phenomenon changed how people see children’s literature and opened the doors for movies based on Young Adult novels.
* Best cat photo distribution method ever created.
** The record has since been broken, first in 2005 by Undiscovered and then in 2007 by Slow Burn.
*** I’m simplifying this a lot. Transformers continuity is flexible and depends on the writer. Oddly, Beast Wars/Beasties is in continuity with the original Transformers cartoon despite the differences in time and in animation styles.
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. Last time, the Eighties turned out to be a complete reversal of the Fifties, with only three movies adapted from other works. Granted, the Eighties were known for sequelitis, but the continuing stories came from an original work.
The Nineties saw the introduction of the the biggest game changer to date, access of Internet to the masses. Prior, only government sites and universities provided email and access to Usenet newsgroups with their accounts. Companies like AOL, CompuServe, and GEnie brought the Internet to the home user. The Eternal September began the day AOL provided access to Usenet in September 1993. Compared to today, Internet access was slow and not very user friendly. Speeds were measured in bits. Downloads took days. Usenet, however, allowed people to talk about a wide variety of topics*.
Sequelitis continued, with varying qualities. Disney animation returned in force, having gone through lean years in the Seventies and Eighties. The disaster film made a brief comeback, though the genre succumbed to weak blockbusters that were more effect than story Computer generated graphics became affordable and reliable enough for regular use, allowing for shots that would be impossible to film using a practical effect. The advent of CGI effects allowed the disaster movie to return, with natural disasters replacing airplane disasters**.
As mentioned with the Eighties, there is a barometer of popularity. “Weird Al” Yankovic is still writing songs parodying movies. The different now is that the songs are coming out far closer to the movie than before. “Jurassic Park” and “Gump” both were released after the titular movies were. The cover of the 1993 album, Alapalooza, parodied the posters for Jurassic Park. “The Saga Begins“, though, was written before the release of The Phantom Menace and came shortly afterwards. Weird Al used Internet rumour, trailers, and other information to write the song in time for the movie’s release.
The top movies of the decade, by year:
Home Alone – original. The antics of Macauley Culkins’ Kevin had people returning to see the movie multiple times during the Christmas movie season.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day – a sequel to 1984’s The Terminator. Terminator 2 continued the story of the future war between man and machine, with humanity on the losing side.
Aladdin – adaptation of the Arabian tale. Aladdin was Disney’s comeback movie but almost lost a nomination for best screenplay due to the improv of Robin Williams as the genie.
Jurassic Park – adaptated from the Michael Crichton novel of the same name. Jurassic Park is one of the last movies to remain in theatres for over a year from release. The success of the movie has made it more difficult for other dinosaur films to succeed because of heightened expectations.
Forrest Gump – adaptated from the 1986 novel by Winston Groom of the same name.
The Lion King – original but influenced by both the Biblical Moses and by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While Aladdin was a huge hit for Disney, The Lion King is considered the start of the Disney Renaissance.
Toy Story – original. Pixar didn’t specifically base the story on the toys used.
Batman Forever – sequel to the 1989 adaptation, Batman and its sequel, Batman Returns.
Independence Day – original. Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin came up with the story while promoting Stargate. Independence Day combined the disaster movie with science fiction.
Twister – original. Part of the disaster genre’s resurgence. Twister was the first movie released on DVD.
Titanic – original, using the sinking of the RMS Titanic as the backdrop for a doomed romance.
Men in Black – adaptation, based on the comic, The Men in Black, by Lowell Cunningham and published by Aircel.
Saving Private Ryan – original, based on the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach by American forces.
Armageddon – original. Armageddon is one of two releases dealing with asteroid strikes, with Deep Impact having been released two and half months prior.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace – sequel, well, prequel to the 1977 movie, Star Wars.
The Sixth Sense – original. M. Night Shamalyan made his mark with this film with a then-unexpected twist.
Toy Story 2 – sequel to the 1995 animated film, Toy Story. Pixar’s reputation was cemented with the sequel.
Of the movies above, nine are original, two are sequels to original works, one is a prequel to an original work, four are adaptations, and one is a sequel to an adaptation. I have counted sequels as original works for this series. However, sequels of adaptations add a new problem. This isn’t the first decade to have such a film. Demetrius and the Gladiators from the Fifties was the first and was counted separately. Batman Forever will be counted separately as well.
The Star Wars prequel presents a new conundrum. It has been sixteen years since Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, so is The Phantom Menance a sequel or a reboot? Return of the Jedi was the end of the original story, at least on film. The Phantom Menace introduces new characters and shows one returning character at a much younger age. For purposes of tallying the numbers, The Phantom Menace will be treated as a reboot, thus an adaptation. These decisions will get less and less clear-cut in coming decades.
With those rulings, that makes eleven original, five adaptations, and one sequel to an adaptation. The percentage of original films drops, but the majority of popular movies for the Nineties are still original works, continuing the reversal started in the Eighties. Of the adaptations, there are two based on novels, one reboot of a movie, one adaptation of a legend, and one adaptation of a comic book. There is a variety of original works, which reflects the variety shown in the popular movies. That’s now two decades in a row where the originals finally outnumber the adaptations.
* It is best not to contemplate the variety. The hierarchy was fairly broad, but for those who were into topics that couldn’t get a large base for support, the alt.* hierarchy existed.
** There may never be another airplane disaster film. Airplane! is too well known, to he point where Sharknado 2 opened with an homage to the film. Airplane! has entered the pop culture subconscious to the point where the gags are known even if the source isn’t.
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.
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.
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. Last time, there was an unexpected twist. Turned out, the Fifties had the worst adaptation-to-original ratio so far, with just three movies being original and two of those being Cinerama demos. Prior, the ratio was about 2:1, remaining roughly constant from the dawn of the film industry.
The Sixties were a time of change and upheaval. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, Beatlemania, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the growing role of television, and that’s the short list. New Hollywood got its start during this decade; young filmmakers made their mark on the industry, affecting how studios produced movies. Colour was the default film process unless the director chose black-and-white for artistic purposes.
The popular movies of the era:
Swiss Family Robinson – a Disney live-action adaptation of the 1812 novel, Der Schweizerische Robinson by Johann David Wyss.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians – a Disney animated film adapting the book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith.
Dr. No – adapted from the James Bond novel of the same name by Ian Fleming.
The Longest Day – adapted from the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan about the D-Day landings in 1944.
Cleopatra – adapted from the book, The Life and Times of Cleopatra by CM Franzero. Running over four hours, Cleopatra almost bankrupted 20 Century-Fox due to cost overruns and signalled the end of sprawling epics.
Mary Poppins – adapted from the novel of the same name by PL Travers, Disney used a mix of live action and animation in the production.
My Fair Lady – musical adapted from the play, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw
Goldfinger – the third James Bond novel to be adapted and the one to set the standard for all other 007 movies to follow. The second novel adapted, From Russia With Love was released in 1963.
The Sound of Music – adaptation based on the play of the same name, which itself was adapted from a 1956 film from Germany, Die Trapp-Familie and the autobiography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria von Trapp.
Doctor Zhivago – adapted from the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak.
Thunderball – the fourth James Bond movie, though not an adaptation. Fleming worked with producer Kevin McClory prior to Dr. No to create Thunderball, which would lead to legal issues that would see elements from the movie be unavailable to United Artists and, later, MGM, including SPECTRE. McClory would remake Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery as Bond in 1983. SPECTRE returned to the main film franchise in 2015 in SPECTRE with Daniel Craig.
The Bible: In the Beginning – adapted from The Book of Genesis in The Bible.
Hawaii – adapted from the novel of the same name by James A. Michener.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – original. The epic spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone with music by Ennio Morricone and considered the third movie in the Dollars trilogy, following A Fist Full of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.
The Jungle Book – adapted from the book by Rudyard Kipling. This will be the last Disney animated movie to appear until the Nineties.
The Graduate – based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Charles Webb.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – original. The movie’s release came six months after the Loving v. Virgina ruling that struck down restrictions on mixed-race marriage in the United States.
Funny Girl – based on the 1964 stage musical of the same name, which itself was based on the life of actor, singer, and comedian Fanny Brice. Barbra Streisand starred in both the musical and the movie as Brice.
2001: A Space Odyssey – original. Arthur C. Clarke worked with Stanley Kubrick on the story for the movie before writing the book. Clarke’s follow-up novel, 2010: Odyssey Two took into account changes made in the movie after Clarke had finished writing his novel.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – original but based loosely on outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, aka the title characters.
Soundtracks became notable in films, and not just for musicals. While music did play a role in films prior to the Sixties, the advent of rock-and-roll meant that a memorable, popular song could be played on the radio as part of the Top 40. 2001: A Space Odyssey married science fiction and classical music, including The Blue Danube Waltz in synchronization with the docking of a Pan-Am space place to an orbital station. Cross-pollination is just beginning in this era, with the fruits to be seen in later decades. Links in the list of popular films above go to songs best remembered from the work.
Of the twenty movies listed above, fifteen are adaptations. It is not until 1965, though, that an original work appears, and even that film, Thunderball, is part of a franchise. Also of note, two movies were made in conjunction with a novelist; Thunderball and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of the adaptations, three – My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Funny Girl – were based on stage works with the remaining dozen adapting literature. Movies have taken over the niche that theatre once held. Broadway is still key, but film and television have filled the gap that was once vaudeville.
The ratio of adaptation-to-original is now 3:1, worse than the early decades but an improvement over the previous. Stage plays are still being adapted, but not to the degree as in the early years. Adaptations remain popular, though, even over fifty years after the film industry began. The rise of the auteur director could change things into the Seventies.
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. Last time, I looked at the early years of Hollywood, which had about two-thirds of the popular films of the era be adaptations. That ratio has held steady through to the Forties. The Fifties, though, has an astonishing twist.
The 1950s were a boom era. With the Great Depression a memory and industrial capacity expanded, people, mainly men, were working and had money to spend. The automobile became central to lives, leading to the heyday of the drive-in theatre. Television made in-roads into homes; the technology became affordable as people worked. Colour in film became the draw; the typical television was black and white, with a limited choice of what was on. Bigger cities may have as many as six channels available. However, the economic boom allowed people to own both a television and go out to the movies. In movie theatres and at drive-ins, epics had a resurgence. Without a war to pay for, money could be used to create a spectacle.
The popular movies of the era:
Cinderella – an animated Disney film adapted from the folk tale.
King Solomon’s Mines – adapted from the 1885 novel of the same name by H. Rider Haggard 1885 novel. This is the second film of five to adapt the novel, featuring Allan Quatermain.
Quo Vadis – adapted from the 1895 novel of the same name by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
This is Cinerama – original. The film was a demo of the Cinerama widescreen process, a new way of presenting movies. Cinerama presentations required three synchronized 35mm projectors. Seeing a Cinerama film was similar to seeing a play, where the audience would need to purchase tickets in advance.
The Greatest Show on Earth – original. Cecil B. De Mille based the movie on the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, both of which also appeared in the movie.
Peter Pan – another Disney animated adaptation, based on the play by JM Barrie.
The Robe – adapted from the book of the same name by Lloyd C. Douglas.
Rear Window – Alfred Hitchcock directed this adaptation of the short story, “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich.
Demetrius and the Gladiators – sequel to an adaptation. This movie was a sequel to The Robe, above.
Lady and the Tramp – the third Disney animated adaptation from the decade, based on Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog by Ward Greene.
The Ten Commandments – both an adaptation and a partial remake. Cecil B. De Mille remade his 1923 epic, The Ten Commandments.
Around the World in 80 Days – adapted from the Jules Verne novel.
Seven Wonders of the World – original. The movie was another demo of Cinerama.
Bridge on the River Kwai – adapted from the novel La pont de la riviere Kwai by Pierre Boulle. The novel and the movie used the building of the Burma Railway during World War II as the backdrop. Boulle also wrote the novel La planète des singes, which would get adapted as the movie, Planet of the Apes.
Hercules – adapted from the Greek myth and dubbed from the original Italian.
South Pacific – adapted from the Rodgers & Hammerstein stage musical and from James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.
Ben Hur – remake of an adaptation, specifically, the 1925 film Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ which was in turn adapted from the novel of the same name by Lew Wallace.
Sleeping Beauty – adapted from multiple sources. Sleeping Beauty will be the last time Disney adapts a fairy tale until 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
Of the eighteen films listed above, fourteen are adaptations, with only three original films and one film that necessitated the creation of a new category, the sequel of an adaptation. Adding to the fun, the three original movies include both Cinerama demos. After three-plus decades of seeing a two-to-one ratio of adaptations to original, the sudden spike in adaptations was unexpected. Removing the Cinerama demos, and the Fifties start to look very much like now in terms of the adaptation glut.
The Ten Commandments is an interesting case. De Mille remade his 1923 silent film with sound, colour, and widescreen, all now available to him. The same thing happened with Ben Hur; the technology caught up to the scale needed for the film. Those are the only two remakes to make the list. The remainder of the adaptations are mostly literary, drawing from novels, short stories, and plays. Even Disney adapted from a story, with Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan. The other two Disney animated features, though, come from folk tales.
Demetrius and the Gladiator was the first sequel of an adaptation encountered in this series. The film draws from The Robe, though did not have a work of its own to be based on. It’s not original in and of itself, but neither is it an adaptation. Sequels are tricky when it comes to deciding if it’s a continuation or a reboot; a lot of it depends on context and time. With Demetrius and the Gladiator, the decision was to call it a continuation, seeing that it came out only a year after The Robe, thus adding to the complexity and leading to the new category. The category will become useful in later decades.
Once again, the limitations of using just the popular films appears. Missing from the lists are the Westerns and the B-movies. Westerns were a staple, but no one Western breaks away from the pack. B-movies were never meant to be the draw. They appeared before the main feature, especially at drive-ins, so the movies may not appear on the popular film lists. The serial disappears during the Fifties; television series took over that role.
The Fifties give a glimpse of today. Popular films were mostly adaptations, with Disney animated features being a huge draw for audiences. The decade is acting as foreshadowing of today’s film industry output.
It’s time to step back a bit with the history of adaptations. To prepare for what’s coming up during the Fifties, I need to cover the early years of the film industry. I’m still using the compiled list at Filmsite.org as a base. By using what was popular, I hope that the movie titles and the actors are familiar to readers to give an idea of how beloved films came about.
I delayed looking at the early years mainly because of the age of the works. I was expecting the era to be mainly adaptations of works long forgotten. I was also expecting works that were lost to the ages, through neglect, disaster, or other means. Several of the works below have been lost, with only production and marketing stills the only remains. Others, though, have been preserved and enshrined.
The early years of the movie industry didn’t have anything like the MPAA or the Hays Code to limit or even censor content. Censoring was done at the local level, by concerned citizens. Movies could be and were as steamy as they wanted. However, local censors could remove scenes that they felt were offensive to moral standing.
The Great War, as World War I was known prior to 1939, began in 1914. The war began with the armies using tactics from open ground charges as seen even in the American Civil War to trench warfare, due to the weapons used being far more lethal than in previous conflicts. Artillery and the machine gun changed how infantry was used, and the introduction of airplanes further evolved tactics. The War resulted in over 16 million dead and 20 million wounded by the time it ended in 1918.
Prohibition took effect in the United States in January of 1920 with the certification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. The Amendment made illegal the production, transport, and sale of alcohol, though, if one could somehow obtain it without violating the law, private consumption and possession was not prohibited. To assist in enforcing Prohibition, the Volstead Act was also passed, with both the House of Representatives and the Senate overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. The Act prohibited intoxicating beverages, defined as over 0.5% alcohol by volume; regulated the making, selling, and transporting of intoxicating liquor; and ensured there was a supply of alcohol for use in scientific research and for religious rituals. The Twenty-First Amendment, certified in December of 1933, repealed the Eighteenth while still prohibiting the transport of alcohol across state lines when that transport was in violation of state laws.* Moves became a legal form of entertainment, one where audiences didn’t have to worry about money getting into the hands of criminals.
The Nineteenth Amendment fared better. The Nineteenth gave women the right to vote in August of 1920. With the right to vote and the dawning of the Jazz Era, the flapper was born. Women could have a greater influence on their communities, and young women were eager to take the opportunity available. The Roaring Twenties saw an exuberance until it ended with the stock market crash of 1929, heralding the Great Depression of the Thirties.
Movie technology was in its infancy. Most of the films listed are silent movies, unless otherwise noted. The advent of sound was huge. Early films needed someone in the theatre to play the music. As sound recording developed, the musician was replaced by a separate recording that needed to be synchronized with the film. The Jazz Singer, as discussed below, represents a huge leap in audio. Colour was also slowly coming about. Technicolor**, invented in 1916, used a red-green additive process in the early years, but costs could be prohibitive.
The era had a mix of styles as directors experimented to see what worked and what didn’t. Epics, comedies, dramas, the early years had them all. The list below is lengthy, but covers fifteen years instead of the usual ten. Accounting procedures would have had to account for releases moving from city to city instead of a release across the country on the same day.
The Birth of a Nation – adapted from the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. This was director D.W. Griffith’s movie about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and left controversy in its wake.
Intolerance – original. D.W. Griffith made this movie in response to the reaction to the The Birth of a Nation, showing the dangers of prejudice.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – adapted from the novel by Jules Verne.
Cleopatra – adapted from several sources; H. Rider Haggard’s novel Cleopatra, Émile Moreau’s play Cleopatre, and William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Starred Theda Bara as eponymous ruler and Fritz Leiber, the science fiction author‘s father, as Caesar. Cleopatra has been lost to the ages after two fires destroyed the only full prints in existence, leaving only production stills and fragments of the original film. Bara’s costuming, what there was of it, was considered scandalous at the time and could still be considered risqué today.
Mickey – original. Starred Mabel Normand as the titular tomboy and was produced through her film company.
The Miracle Man – an adaptation of an adaptation, Frank L. Packard’s novel via the 1914 George M. Cohan play, both of the same name. Another lost movie, it starred Lon Chaney.
Way Down East – adapted from the play Way Down East by Lottie Blair Parker. Another D.W. Griffith film, it starred Lillian Gish. The climax has Gish running across an icy river, a scene more famous than the rest of the movie.
Over the Hill to the Poorhouse – adapted from the 1872 poem “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse” by Will Carleton, thus showing that the film industry will adapt other media.
Something to Think About – original. Cecil B. DeMille directed the film that Jeanie Macpherson scripted. The two will combine efforts for several more movies. Gloria Swanson starred.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – adapted from Vicente Blasco Ibañez’s novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Set during the Great War, the film established Rudolf Valentino as the Latin Lover despite being a supporting role.
The Kid – original. Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film. His co-star was Jackie Coogan, better known today as Uncle Fester from the black and white Addams Family TV series.
Robin Hood – adapted from the legend of the roguish outlaw. Douglas Fairbanks starred as Robin with Alan Hale co-starring as Little John. Hale would reprise the role with Errol Flynn in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood and with John Derek in 1950’s Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood was the first movie to have a Hollywood premiere.
Oliver Twist – adapted from the Charles Dickens novel. The movie had Lon Chaney as Fagin and Jackie Coogan as Oliver.
The Ten Commandments – adapted from the Bible. Cecil B. DeMille directed and Jeanie Macpherson wrote the script. DeMille would go on to do a partial remake of the film in 1956.
The Covered Wagon – adapted from Covered Wagon, a novel by Emerson Hough. Alan Hale played Sam Woodhull, the film’s villain. The movie was dedicated to the memory of Theodore Roosevelt.
The Sea Hawk – adapted from the novel of same name by Rafael Sabatini. The 1940 Errol Flynn movie was originally going to be another adaptation of the book, but went a different direction, using Sir Francis Drake as an inspiration.
The Big Parade – adapted from two sources; Joseph Farnham’s play of same name and Laurence Stallings’ autobiography Plumes. The movie was directed by King Vidor and was set in the Great War. It is considered the first realistic war drama.
Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ – adapted from the 1880 novel of same name by Lew Wallace. William Wyler, the assistant director, would remake the movie in 1950, including a shot-for-shot reproduction of the chariot race. The chariot race itself is influential, as can be seen in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace with the pod-race.
The Gold Rush – original. Charlie Chaplin starred as the Tramp, and also was the writer, director, and producer.
Aloma of the South Seas – adapted from the 1925 play of same name by John B. Hymer and LeRoy Clemems. The movie would be remade in 1941 with the same name, starring Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. Once again, the movie is considered to be lost, with no prints known to have survived.
Flesh and the Devil – adapted from Hermann Sudermann’s play The Undying Pass. Greta Garbo stars with John Gilbert.
For Heaven’s Sake – original. A Harold Lloyd action-comedy. Lloyd alternated between character pieces and action/comedy to keep audiences coming out to see his works.
What Price Glory? – adapted from the 1924 play of same name by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings. The movie was remade in 1952 as What Price Glory with James Cagney.
Wings – original. Set during the Great War, it starred Clara Bow and saw Gary Cooper in a role as a doomed cadet. Wings was the first film to win an Academy Award. With The Big Parade and What Price Glory?, both above, showing that audiences wanted to see war movies, Paramount played Follow-the-Leader. The studio hired director William A. Wellman because he had experience in airplane combat in the War.
The Jazz Singer – adapted from the the play The Jazz Singer by Samson Raphaelson, which was based on his short story “The Day of Atonement”. The Jazz Singer was the first feature length talkie, at least partially. There was still some synchronization of film and audio recording, but Al Jolson’s singing was integrated with the playback.
Love – a very loose adaptation of /Anna Karenina/ by Leo Tolstory. The movie took advantage of the film chemistry between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert as seen in Flesh and .the Devil, above.
The Singing Fool – original. This was Al Jolson’s follow up to The Jazz Singer. Still only part-talkie, but that was the music, which audiences were coming out to hear.
The Road to Ruin – original. The movie was an exploitation film that warned against the dangers of alcohol and sex. Helen Foster stars as the unlucky teenaged girl who drinks during Prohibition and sees men. The movie was remade in 1934 with sound with Foster in the same role despite being 27 at the time and six years older than the actor portraying her boyfriend. Since alcohol was legal in 1934, it was replaced by drugs in the remake.
The Broadway Melody – original. It was a musical that took advantage of the new sound technology. Also had a Technicolor sequence, influencing a trend of musicals using colour. The Broadway Melody was the first all-talking musical, unlike Jolson’s movies above which were only partially talkies. The film won the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture (now called Best Picture). Three sequels were made, The Broadway Melody of 1936, The Broadway Melody of 1938, and The Broadway Melody of 1940. The movies was also remade in 1940 as Two Girls on Broadway.
Sunnyside Up – original. Once sound technology became easier to use, musicals, such as Sunnyside Up flourished.
Of the 29 films listed above, 18 are adaptations with the remaining 11 being original works. Of the adaptations, two, The Miracle Man and The Jazz Singer, were second generation adaptations, having adapted material that itself was an adaptation. Two more, Cleopatra and The Big Parade, used multiple sources, with Cleopatra pulling from three different original works and, ultimately, the life of the Egyptian queen herself. Six movies, two of them original works, would get remade; Robin Hood in 1940, The Ten Commandments in 1956, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1959, What Price Glory? in 1952, the The Road to Ruin in 1934, and The Broadway Melody in 1940. The remakes of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ will appear in the discussion for the Fifties; the movies were popular in two eras.
With the advent of sound in 1927, especially after The Jazz Singer, musicals became popular. Three of the four movies listed after 1927 are musicals, and they are all original works. Prior to 1928, nine movies, or half of the adaptations, were based on stage plays. Eleven were based on novels, including the movies with multiple sources, such as Cleopatra, and adaptations of adaptations. The Bible, a short story (itself adapted as a play before becoming a film), and a poem account for the remaining adaptations. Plays were an expected source; they’re already written and have had performances on stage. Novels, especially the older ones like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, have a good chance of being read by a portion of the audience. The unexpected source was the poem. Over the Hill to the Poorhouse may be unique in this series by being based on a poem.
Colour film processes were still being developed in this era. As mentioned above, Technicolor was pioneering an additive colour process, but it required a camera the split the light into a red and a blue-green stream, landing on separate film. Hand colouring was also done, but was time-consuming. Black and white was easier and cheaper; most theatres only had equipment that could only handle silent black and white films. As seen in the Thirties, though, once colour is introduced, black and white fades away, only returning as an artistic choice***.
Popular movies of the early years of film tended to be adaptations. The main reason is that the years were transitional. Everyone involved was still learning the differences between film, where the camera could move around, and stage, where the audience was the fourth wall. There were still people willing to play with the new medium. Charlie Chaplin’s entries above show him in the four key areas, writing, directing, producing, and starring. The ratio of adaptations to originals is similar to those found for the Thirties and Forties. This ratio, roughly 2:1, won’t change for a few decades; the direction it does change in may be surprising.
* Any resemblance between Prohibition and the War on Drugs is from people not learning from history. Prohibition was killing a wasp with a wrecking ball. The result of the War on Booze was a massive influx of cash to organized crime, since they were the ones supplying illegal alcohol, and a loss of respect for the law. Al Capone could make far more in one day than any fine under the Volstead Act, and the agents working for the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition could be easily bribed to look the other way.
** Technically, Technicolor is a trademark for the colour processes pioneered by the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, now a division of owned by Technicolor SA.
*** Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a perfect example of the use of black and white filming as an artistic expression.