A while back, Lost in Translation mentioned the term “replicative fading” during the review of the remake of The Green Hornet. I meant to expand on the idea sooner than this, but now is as good a time as any.
I took the term “replicative fading” from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Up the Long Ladder“, where it was used to describe what was happening to a society of clones. The idea works better with the concept of photocopying; there will be some loss of resolution in a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. The result is, that after few iterations, the last photocopy will look like a smudged, blurred version of the original. Modern scanning and printing technology will increase the number of iterations, and the smudging and blurring won’t be as bad as it would in 1990, but some degradation will be found.
When it comes to adaptations, especially ones where the remake/adaptation is better known, the risk is that a further remake is based on an earlier adaptation instead of going back to the original. The Wizard of Oz is a good example here. The original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published by L. Frank Baum in 1900, was turned into a stage play in 1902 and the iconic film, The Wizard of Oz, in 1939. Baum turned Oz into a series after the success of the first book and the Broadway adaptation. Today, though, most people are more aware of the 1939 film than the books, with the movies – The Wiz, the 1978 all-black remake starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, Richard Pryor as the Wizard, and Michael Jackson as Scarecrow, and the 2004 made-for-TV movie Muppets Wizard of Oz with Ashanti as Dorothy and Muppets in most of the other roles – having been derived from there.
Frankenstein is another work that has seen replicative fading over the years. Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was adapted into a number of plays, some of which were authorized. Through the plays, Peggy Webling’s 1927 version in particular, the movie Frankenstein has several changes and additions to the original story, changing the work about a man trying to run away from his creation to one about a man playing God and being delivered hubris. The Monster turns from being a crafty, intelligent, malevolent being to a child-like innocent afraid of fire. This gets called out in the TV series, The Librarians, in the episode “… And the Broken Staff”, where Ezekiel, who has only seen the film adaptation, tries to stop the Monster using a lighter and is surprised when it gets smacked out of his hands. The Monster wasn’t so much stopped as redirected by the protagonists; modern amenities such as plastic surgery and professional sports gave the Monster what he wanted. However, in Young Frankenstein, the film goes back and corrects problems in the film and the original story by pointing out that Frankenstein is a very poor father. Young Frankenstein, though, demonstrates that replicative fading doesn’t mean a bad movie.
Typically, replicative fading happens when an adaptor isn’t aware of an older work, either due to obscurity or lack of availability compared to the remade work. The Magnificent Seven could be an example. The 1960 version of the film was based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. The works that were adapted from the The Magnificent Seven, excluding direct sequels, include the 1980 Roger Corman film, Battle Beyond the Stars, a 1998 TV series, and the 2016 remake. All kept to the ideas of the Western; Battle Beyond the Stars only moved the setting to space.
Replicative fading can be avoided. The simplest way is to go back to the original work. Andrew Lloyd Webber did this with The Phantom of the Opera, going back to Gaston Leroux’s original novel. This is in contrast to the 1943 movie, Phantom of the Opera, where the focus shifted off the Phantom. Going back to the original can provide a new perspective on the story, one that other adaptations may not have picked up on.
The catch, though, is that some works are better known through an adaptation. The Wizard of Oz is a good example, as is Frankenstein. Being too different from the better known work may throw audiences off. Referring to the original in some way, such as including the original author in the title as Bram Stoker’s Dracula did, will flag the work as not an adaptation of an adaptation. Ultimately, word of mouth will make or break a release.
Today’s audiences are more savvy than before, thanks to the near-ubiquitous means of finding original works. An in-name-only adaptation won’t fly. There is a good reason for studios to avoid replicative fading, if only to stand out. Replicative fading may disappear, especially for more recent works that are easily found on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming, and through e-books. It is easier to get to the original, and if one is spending the money to get a license, might as well spend the money to make a good adaptation.