If adaptations ruled the silver screen last year, they dominated this year. The number of popular original movies fell from last year, and there weren’t many to begin with then. Let’s take a look at the top ten from Box Office Mojo’s domestic grosses list for 2017:
1) Star Wars: The Last Jedi – sequel to Star Wars. The Last Jedi has only been out for a little over two weeks.
2) Beauty and the Beast (2017) – live action remake of an animated adaptation of a fairy tale. Disney is having great success with live action remakes of their animated films.
3) Wonder Woman – adaptation of the DC Comics character.
4) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – sequel of the adaptation of the Marvel comic.
5) Spider-Man: Homecoming – reboot of the film franchise adapted from the Marvel comics.
6) It – adaptation of the Stephen King novel.
7) Thor: Ragnarok – sequel of the adaptation of the Marvel character.
8) Despicable Me 3 – sequel of an original animated feature.
9) Logan – adaptation of the Marvel character and sequel in the X-Men film franchise.
10) Justice League – adaptation of the DC comic.
The first thing that jumps out is that there is no original work in that list. The movies are sequels, adaptations, or sequels of adaptations. The second thing is source of the adaptations; superheroes feature in six of the top ten films. Marvel’s characters are well represented, though spread through three different studios, Marvel, Fox, and Sony. Justice League squeaked into the top ten in the last week of the year, edging out The Fate of the Furious, itself a sequel to 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, an original work sharing its name with a 1955 Roger Corman movie. The first non-sequel, non-adaptation film on Box Office Mojo’s list is number twelve, Dunkirk, which is based on the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France in 1940. To find something completely original, not based on even historical events, one must go to number fourteen, Pixar’s Coco.
Breaking the list down a bit more, there are two sequels, five adaptations, and three sequels of adaptations. One adaptation, Beauty and the Beast, is an adaptation of an adaptation. A second, It, comes from a literary source. The rest of the adaptations and all of the sequels to adaptations ultimately come from comic books. Complaints about adaptations tend to be prompted by what is being adapted. Unlike the Fifties, where the bulk of the popular films were adapted from literary sources, this past year saw more popular forms of entertainment adapted. Even Stephen King gets derided for being popular and, thus, not Literature. Studios, though, won’t adapt something unpopular, though they may take a chance on the unknown.
A quick look at the bottom ten of the films in wide release shows that there were seven original films, one sequel, one biopic, and one adaptation. Of the originals, two, Collide and The Comedian were outright bombs unpopular with critics and audiences; two, Good Time and Free Fire had favourable reactions from critics and audiences but didn’t have the market penetration that the top ten did; one, Spirited Away, was in very limited release for one day; and two, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone and The Stray were aimed at religious audiences, limiting their appeal. The latter is the case for the sequel, Kirk Cameron Revive Us 2, which was also in theatres for two days. The biopic, Professor Moulton and the Wonder Women, was also of limited interest, though with the success of Wonder Woman, should have done better. The adaptation, Casablanca, was a re-release for five days to celebrate the film’s 75th anniversary. Calling /Casablanca/ an adaptation is pushing the definition; it was based on a stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, that was never produced.
People are still going out to see adaptations, despite the complaints about the lack of original works. There are original movies being made. Until one makes the same as The Last Jedi, no one will notice. The time isn’t right yet for such a breakout hit. Risk aversion in Hollywood is still running strong. Studios won’t throw an advertising budget behind an unknown film, not when they can back a sure thing. However, quality is still important. Badly done adaptations aren’t going to break even the top twenty.
Another year has come to an end. Adaptations show no sign of slowing down. What did we learn from 2013?
The cracks are starting to show in the big blockbuster adaptation. Several fizzled on release, including the high-profile The Lone Ranger, followed by R.I.P.D. At the same time, Pacific Rim underperformed and Marvel’s Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World drew in crowds both domestic and international. Hunger Games: Catching Fire broke records, but City of Bones and The Host both floundered. The Host wasn’t a big budget film, made for only* US$40 million, but it barely made a profit and only because of international audiences.
The difference suceeding and failing is the international market. Domestic returns might cover the cost of making the film, but international audiences will make or break the budget. The Chinese market is as critical to a movie’s success as the American. Producers now have to factor in the tastes of Chinese audiences, and, so far, this has led to lowest common denominator. Adding to the complexity is that the Chinese movie-going public isn’t interested in original characters; they want to see established properties. Marvel and DC have a huge advantage, and Marvel has been cashing in on it. Both comic companies have numerous iconic characters.
Over at DC, it appears that the company and its parent, Warner, are trying to cash in as well. Man of Steel, while it didn’t bring in Iron Man 3 numbers, was successful. The main problem with the movie was being a shades of grey movie featuring a four-colour character. Warner appears to not be able to do anything that isn’t Batman, a shades of grey character who has done well in numerous shades of grey movies. But the big problem at Warner seems to be a lack of communication both internal and external.
Meanwhile, The Lone Ranger is outside the pop culture memory. The last two appearances of the Lone Ranger were the 1981 The Legend of the Lone Ranger and the 2003 TV pilot, The Lone Ranger, on the WB network. Both movies were not well received, with Legend having issues beyond just the film itself**. R.I.P.D. was based on a comic book published by Dark Horse, something the general audience most likely didn’t realize.
The trend of turning Young Adult books into movie series may be waning. City of Bones, as mentioned above, barely turned a profit, resulting in the release date of the next part of The Mortal Instruments, City of Ashes, to be pushed back to 2015. The problem that both City of Bones and The Host have is that neither are household words like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Twilight, all of which were bestsellers long before a studio thought about adapting them. The Host was relying on name recognition. Adapted from a book by Stephanie Meyer, who wrote the Twilight series, the studio was hoping that fans of Twilight would flock to The Host. Numbers show otherwise. Twilight hit a chord with its audience, who enjoyed the romance between a shell of a girl and a sparkly vampire. The Host didn’t reach the same level of intense fandom. Internationally, name recognition of an author depends on whether the body of work has been translated. The quality of writing can also change during translation.
Over on the small screen, several adaptations keep going. A Game of Thrones is still a draw for HBO, and AMC has The Walking Dead filling that role. The now-ended Breaking Bad will have Better Call Saul spun off and will be remade in Columbia as Metástasis. MTV will produce a Swords of Shannara series, further turning the “M” into an artifact. ABC’s Agents of SHIELD started strong, but ran into early problems. Joss Whedon returning to help plus the tie-in to Thor: The Dark World may be helping it. ABC, being owned by Disney, may have the patience to keep the show going for the full season, in part to help the Marvel movies. Television may be in a good position to pick up the pieces when the blockbuster bubble bursts.
The international market was key in the success or failure of movie adaptations. Adaptations featuring a character recognized globally succeeded. Those that didn’t either squeaked by or outright bombed.
Next week, looking forward to 2014.
* The numbers get weird in Hollywood. The benchmark for a blockbuster in 2013 seems to be at least US$150 million, with the bigger ones starting at US$200 million. Keep in mind that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was made for $100 million.
** What may not have helped the box office is the public battle between the studio and Clayton Moore, who played the first Lone Ranger on TV, over his right to wear the Lone Ranger’s costume in personal appearances.