SF/F Adaptations – The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

My wife and I went to see Avatar the week that it came out, and we both enjoyed it tremendously. It was big and beautiful and exciting and fun. And if the plot was a little predictable, and if the characters were a little flat, there are worse things. I was excited just to see some big space opera happening on a movie screen again. Full of color and aliens and emotions besides scowls.

But as we were walking out of the theater, there was one thing which had caught and held my attention, and it was something specific which was missing from the ending credits.

Avatar, of course, wasn’t adapted from anything. It came out of James Cameron’s head.

(We can argue, of course, that it was adapted from Pocahontas, perhaps, and fair enough, but you get my point).

The reason this interested me is, nearly everything that hits the theaters is adapted from something.

“Based on the comic book series by Alan Moore”, “based on the television series created by Gene Roddenberry”, “based on the series of words-put-in-rows by Stephanie Meyer”… And we can go further afield than that: “based on the newspaper strip by Jim Davis”, “based on the action figure G.I. Joe”, for haven’s sakes.

The only thing we haven’t yet seen adapted are breakfast cereal mascots. Get Michael Bay to produce a Cap’n Crunch movie. Give it a techno soundtrack and you’ve got a summer blockbuster.

We know that the vast majority of things Hollywood produces are adaptations, because people comment on it fairly regularly, both on the street and in interviews. “Hollywood just rehashes everything, they’ve run out of original ideas,” is neck-in-neck with the other common grumble, “MTV doesn’t play any damn music videos now.”

Adaptations are such a fact of life, something like Avatar – or, another sterling example, any of the perfect pieces of cinematic artwork created by Pixar – catches our attention for sheer fact that it isn’t based off anything at all.

So with that in mind, let’s examine adaptations a little further.

Why Adapt?

So why are all the major Hollywood films based on something? Why are so few of them original works? Even though clearly, when you look at films like Avatar or Star Wars, the original works can be huge money-makers? Why does it seem like Hollywood’s run out of original ideas and is just content to cannibalize the rest of the artistic world? You probably don’t need me to explain this to you, but I’ll spell it out anyway, for the sake of completion if nothing else.

One of the main reasons is time. If you had to wait for every director’s dream project to grow and be built and gestate, Hollywood would turn out amazing love-filled films, true, but it wouldn’t be able to turn thirty of them out in the summer. And it wouldn’t be able to afford them, which is the second reason.

Money is sunk into Harry Potter films, not because the idea requires the artistic fulfillment that only cinema can provide (the movies are terrific, but the books were fine all by themselves), but because they know there’s already a fan base sitting there, eager to pay money to see films. That’s money in the bank. Likewise, Mission Impossible 3, or yet another The Fast & The Furious sequel. These put away money which is occasionally used (by accident, the cynical might say) to fund smaller, more artistic, more-loved projects which aren’t going to be massive summer tent-poles. It goes for the directors and filmmakers as well. Yes, you’re waiting to make your amazing artistic piece of cinema, but in the meantime, you’re going to make The Da Vinci Code 2: Code Harder because it puts money in your bank account, and makes the studio more inclined to let you make your own film.

The third reason, of course, is a combination of the previous two: Hollywood is a corporate landscape, not a place full of artistic people being creative. It’s companies with bottom lines, trying to churn out as much product as they possibly can. That’s what they’re interested. And if you can mulch the whole rest of the artistic world and make it product, then you’re going to do it.

The final reason is, of course, that this stuff is popular, so they keep doing it. Like novels, and albums, publishers and film companies produce the work and advertise it as hard as they can and hope like hell that this thing becomes the runaway phenomenon of the summer, of the year, of the decade. But you don’t really know. If you could aim bestsellers, then you’d have three or four writers churning them out, aiming them precisely, and nothing much else.

But it doesn’t work like that. So you make a Transformers movie, and it does well, and you think “okay…” and make another one. That one does well too, well enough. Right. Time to head down the toy aisle at Toys R Us and see what else we can do. Stretch Armstrong: The Film! Polly Pocket X! Probably a Play-Doh movie, starring a Baldwin brother. And you throw as many of these out there as you can until they start slipping in sales, and then you find the next thing. (Whether or not they slip in quality, or ever had any quality to slip out of, is not of concern.)

Finally, is it true that Hollywood has “run out of ideas?” Well, I guess, except I don’t think they ever had many ideas in the first place. Individual filmmakers have ideas and eventually make them. But Hollywood itself doesn’t tend to. It just says “More of that, right now!” over and over. Moreover, Hollywood’s been adapting things since time out of mind. I can go all the way back to black and white silent films and find adaptations of Frankenstein, or Dracula, for example.

(An aside: if you want, you can go pre-cinema and find people adapting novels to the theater stage. It was a huge problem in the late 1800s. Charles Dickens would release a play, or a novel, and it would be adapted in pirated version over in the United States extremely quickly. He came over and fought for copyright laws just to prevent that sort of piracy. You could probably have a lengthy and fascinating discussion on why we need to take any great piece of art we love and adapt it into other mediums, but that would make this an awful long parenthetical.)

So are adaptations and based-upons good things or bad? Both, naturally. And I want to look at both sides of the argument.

Point: Why Adaptations Are a Good Thing

The first good evidence I’d offer up are comic book movies. Specifically, super-hero films. And actually, I can build quite a lot of my argument just from those sort of films, although we won’t stay there.

I don’t know how many times I’ve come out of a super-hero film with friends, be it Batman Begins or Iron Man or Hellboy or whatever else you can think of, and the first question someone asks me (the token comic-book-reading-guy) is “so was that a lot like the comic book?”

And my answer is usually “well, yes and no,” and I go no further. We’d wind up in a huge discussion about the changes made, the ways it was faithful or not, and so on, and I’d bore everyone out of the room and mysteriously find myself going to future films all on my own.

The best thing about super-hero films made out of continuing series is, it’s the perfect entry point for someone who hasn’t been reading and following comics all their lives. It’s even a good point for someone who hasn’t been following that character all that closely. How easy is it, these days, to follow the X-Men? There’s A huge number of issues of X-Men going back decades. And there’s also Astonishing X-Men and X-Factor and New X-Men and Young X-Men and Wolverine and X-Men: First Class and I bet there’s a few others I’ve forgotten. The point is, they all frequently weave together, except when they don’t, or when they’re unrelated, or when they’ve gotten relaunched, or when they’re doing one-off annual special stories, or….

It’s one of the chief delights of comics, the huge interwoven fabric of these decades-long stories. But it’s also one of the major hurdles to bringing people into the comic book fandom. With the films, what you get is a two hour story, and all you need to know is what it tells you. It will wrap up more or less. And when a sequel comes along, all you need to know to enjoy that is the first film, if that. Sometimes, the plot of the film will have some relationship to the comic, but not always exactly. And even if it does, it’s just one storyline out of a myriad.

Another wonderful thing about adaptations is when you get a filmmaker who really loves the source material. Someone who is a definite fan. Examples of this one hardly seem necessary, but it’s irresistible to offer up a few. Peter Jackson, with the Lord of the Rings films. Sam Raimi with the Spider-Man films. Guillermo del Toro with the Hellboy films.

They can be wonderful. The Spider-Man films (the first two; I see no reason to acknowledge that a third one was made) weren’t spot-on faithful to the comic books, but they were full of love, and full of the same playful attitude that made the comic books such a pleasure to read. Likewise, the Lord of the Rings films took wide pleasure in altering the stories, but they were done with care and love and produced films you could be happy with. In cases like these, the joy of the films is getting to watch someone who cares as much about these pieces of art as you do, playing with them and showing you.

My favorite instances, though, are movies like Batman Begins/The Dark Knight or Hellboy 1 and 2. I think these are slightly different than the others, in that they aren’t building off of any particular existing storyline. “Hellboy 1″ sort of did. Mostly, the films are talented directors taking the notion of these characters and seeing what they can do with them.

The result can be amazing. Frankly, the Christopher Nolan Batman films have been the most interesting thing done with Batman in a number of years, in either comic or film. Taking the character and trying to build him logically, and then putting him in a Gotham city which had crime, and poor people, and slums…it was magic. It made Batman interesting. It meant we could logically explore the character of Bruce Wayne, and later, logically explore the creation of the Joker.

The Hellboy films are a particular treat, in that Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola (who created the Hellboy comics) seem to exist on the same creative wavelength. One has only to watch Pan’s Labyrinth, that amazing and brutal and perfect fairy tale by Guillermo del Toro, to realize that he comes at fantasy the same way as Mignola. In the first Hellboy film, you get a loose adaptation of a comic storyline. But in the second film, you get him and Mignola coming together and creating something original, which contains the flavor of both creators (and half the calories? No, that’s not right…).

I mentioned above the changes they made in making the Lord of the Rings films, which segues me nicely into my next point: People complain, or compliment, or at least discuss the changes made in beloved story lines when they make the transition to film. It’s another common argument I not only hear all the time, but I also argue myself. It can be a good thing, though. It can be the thing that makes the film work, where the comic might not have, or the book.

For an example of this, I again return to comic books. Specifically, the X-Men movies. In the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand, we visit the Phoenix storyline, the famous story from the Chris Claremont run on the X-Men comics. To explain it here would actually take the rest of the day, because it’s a very long, rather complicated story. It wanders into outer space and back, we have the Shi’ar and galactic empires and rebels and crystals and…it’s a huge story. It was a great story when I was a kid.

But putting it into a film? Well, it wouldn’t work even a little. You’d be trying to combine the previous X-Men films with Star Wars, and you’d produce this hilarious mash-up that satisfied no one. So instead, they re-wrote the thing. The Phoenix was a hyper-powerful repressed aspect of Jean Grey, buried away by Charles Xavier, and now it’s surfacing and, well, dissolving people. (A lot of people hated the third X-Men film. I may as well state here, it was my favorite of the trilogy. It was big and silly and over-the-top in its action and excessively melodramatic…and therefore, felt exactly like some of my old favorite X-Men comics). We combine this new Phoenix story with some Magneto stuff, put all of that within the context of a Joss Whedon Astonishing X-Men storyline, and we’ve got a film that has completely re-written lots of stuff. If you ask me, it works really well.

The Lord of the Rings is another good example. The movies are hugely streamlined from the books. They’d have to be, or it would be an hour into the film before fifty-year-old Frodo even gets around to leaving the Shire, and another two hours before he left Tom Bombadil’s company.

A really small example was how much better the ending of the Watchmen movie functioned, once you removed the space squid. (I’m hesitant to use this as an example, since in this author’s opinion, nothing else of that film was of any use except the opening credit sequence).

So in other words, a good adaptation can take elements of the original piece of artwork and change them into something which works better. Sometimes, they feel like a second draft of the original work. It can be disappointing if what you’re after is a slavish adaptation of the original piece, but I find that with some thought, I’m usually happier with the change. If the filmmaker cared, and understood the art.

Sometimes, I’m not happier, and that’s when we get into the bad news side of adaptations.

Counterpoint: Why Adaptations Are a Bad Thing

The first evidence I offer up that adaptations are bad things are comic book films. They can be truly appalling. They haven’t all been “Iron Man,” unfortunately. We’ve also had Catwoman, and Elektra. Depending on what you thought of them, we have the Fantastic 4 films and the Daredevil film. (I find them camp, but enjoy the Fantastic 4 films. I enjoyed Daredevil when it came out, but tried to revisit it last year and found it to be unwatchable). These films are, at the very best, a nuisance. A cheap cash-in. There’s no one in love with them making really interesting films. They mostly exist to be sold in bundle packs for about seven dollars, come Christmas time.

Books have the same problem, or worse, because there’s so much more material to try and turn into a couple-hour coherent story. I recently went to see The Lovely Bones with my wife, the new film by Peter Jackson. We both came out of it thinking it had been dreadful, disjointed nonsense. (Just a personal opinion. Perhaps you disagree, and that’s fine by me).

The problem with adapting and streamlining and changing things is that when it doesn’t work, it’s pretty appalling. I found the new ending they did for The Mist, based on the Stephen King story, to be so horrible and insulting to the viewer, it had the aftershock effect of putting me off Stephen King books for months.

I mentioned Alan Moore above, and you could do a lengthy article just on Alan Moore and Hollywood. In fact, it’s been done a number of times. They’re eager to take all of his books — except Lost Girls, and I cannot imagine the reason for that — and turn them into films as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they’ve done a pretty uniformly bad job. If Alan Moore has touched the book, then what you can expect is an amazing book, and an abysmal film.

From Hell, a book designed to not be a “whodunit,” but to be a “whydunit” and explore the London around the Jack the Ripper crimes, the mentality of the killer, the reactions, an exploration of violence, and of many other things. The film was a greasy “whodunit,” following all the tropes that he’d been trying to avoid.

The League of Extraordinary Gentleman was, like Spider-Man 3, non-existent, please.

V for Vendetta, a graphic novel about fascism and anarchy, in which he tried to show that the fascists weren’t cardboard Nazi bad guys, but were human beings, some of them good and some of them bad. In the film, they’re all howling bad guys. But the worst bit there would be the ending bit, if you’ll give me enough rope for just a moment, as I rant. A whole film about the individual standing up in an oppressive system, about anarchy versus a fascist state, and how do we end the film? By having everyone dress exactly the same and be faceless as they march against the fascists. Thus missing the whole entire point of not only the book, but their own film. (There. I’m done.)

Watchmen, in which the director clearly loved the original material, but couldn’t take a comic that was designed to be unfilmable and actually turn it into a coherent, moving film you could get invested in. Instead, you got a pretty film which felt like a greatest hits of scenes from the comic he had liked, animated with actors, none of them quite linking up into a cogent story.

If I seem to be fixating on Alan Moore, it’s because all his works provide such excellent examples of Hollywood doing a terrible job adapting something. They’re the opposite of things like Spider-Man or Iron Man or Hellboy. Made with love or not, they miss the tone and feel and intent of the original work.

The biggest problem I perceive with adaptations, however, is that they overwhelm the original films that are made, sometimes. I think it’s too bad that most people will know Independence Day before they’ll know about The Fountain. some of it’s personal taste, sure: I don’t think the whole world is going to really enjoy The Fountain, nor am I trying to make that argument. It’s just that for every hundred million dollars sunk into something like Transformers, I would be happier to see the money used to make a number of thoughtful, intelligent, original stories. I’d rather see new art being made, art that hadn’t existed before, rather than taking an action figure and turning it into a film. It can be great fun, absolutely…but I’m not convinced it really adds to the world in any meaningful fashion. The equivalent, to my mind, would be if commercial jingles were expected to be up for MTV Awards and get actual radio play time in the setlist.

And Another Thing…

So is it that Hollywood has simply “run out of original ideas?” No, they were never much interested in them in the first place. Individual filmmakers – some of them, thank god – are, and this occasionally leads to original films. The hive-mind which we can call “Hollywood,” though, would like to adapt something which made a lot of money in another form, in the hopes that it will make them a lot of money in movie form. Unfortunately, this has never worked, since no Hollywood film has ever, in the history of cinema, actually made a profit. Avatar and Titanic have probably just about broken even.

What your attitude is toward adaptations and based-upons, I don’t know (but I hope you’ll tell me in the comments). I take a fairly easygoing attitude toward them. Like all films, I go in hoping it will give me something enjoyable. I take what I can, and leave what I can’t. If the film doesn’t give me anything, or actively insults my intelligence, then I tend to dismiss it as tripe. I was never any good at getting irate when a beloved piece of work was adapted and changed. “How dare they leave This Bit I Love out!” was never something I was going to shout.

Anyway, getting mad about them is a sure-fire way to spike your blood pressure and not accomplish a whole lot else, since they aren’t going away. They do make money, adaptations. And you don’t have to advertise them as mightily, because people already know the initial item. We already knew what Harry Potter was before the films. We know what Transformers are. They’re going to keep turning things out which started life as something else. You may as well be easygoing about it.

Because if you’re not, then when Uwe Boll gets around to making a Cap’n Crunch film, you are going to have no choice but to go on a shooting spree.

Which they’ll probably adapt into a film.

4 thoughts on “SF/F Adaptations – The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”

  1. Great article here.

    I tend to also be pretty easygoing when it comes to adaptations. I typically don’t view the movie thinking/hoping it will be an exact replication of the book, mostly because I view them as two completely separate mediums. What works in the book doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen and vice versa. As long as the movie is good and can stand on its own, I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to altering characters or storylines. Certainly doesn’t excuse crap like Spiderman 3 or Daredevil though. I actually enjoyed Watchmen because I think it can stand on its own and I think it’s about the best anyone could do with adapting that material.

    I think my bigger pet peeve is remakes. It’s one thing to remake something lesser known that could be improved upon, but why on earth remake a film that is already perfect (Halloween, for instance)? And please, if you are going to reboot the Spiderman franchise already, do NOT do another origin story. Just my two cents.

    P.S. I preferred the movie ending to The Mist as opposed to the novella. What did you hate so much about it?

  2. I know a handful of people who prefer the movie ending of “The Mist” to the novella. And normally, I’m a fan of things that change the endings of Stephen King stories, because while the man is a master…he cannot write endings. I always get grumpy at the end of his books. They’re a perfect example of something being reshaped-for-the-better in film.

    The ending of “The Mist” though, just infuriated me. I think it was meant to be tragic (and you know, maybe it was; I’m willing to admit the whole problem may have been in my head). Instead of feeling tragic, it felt like a quick wrap-up and a slap in the viewer’s face. 

    We’re caring a great deal about all of these characters, we’re hoping dearly that they’ll make it out and get to safety, having gotten out of the psychosis that was setting in inside the grocery store. We’re rooting for them.

    (SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT DEPART THEE FROM THIS PARAGRAPH)

    And then in the last five minutes, we shoot everyone, the mist clears, you should have stayed in the store, we’re closed, get out, good night, end credits.

    Even if you don’t agree that the ending didn’t work, if you view it in THAT fashion (how I see it) you can see how it would tick me off, I hope. 

    I REALLY hope we don’t get anymore Spider-Man origin stories. We had a really good one in film already. And I’d really like them to stop re-hashing certain plot points (Uncle Ben is dead & I am sad about it lots and lots, for example) (or the weird movie and current Spidey idea of “I have powers and they are awesome and yet they make me sad” thing). 

    I could have talked about films made from PROPERTIES, like Spider-Man. The problem is, they limit creativity (it seems to me) merely by being products already, by being action figures, pajama pants, the little plastic cup my son is so fond of, video games, and so forth. It means you have absolutely no option of getting Henry Selick to make a stop-motion, quirky, fascinating Spider-Man film. It’s a product. So it has to look Just So.

    The opposite of this was “Hellboy II,” which I already mentioned. That whole scene in the beginning, the story of the Elves and Men, as told with little wooden figures…that was brilliant and sheer artistic playing-around. 

  3. Gotcha. Yeah, I think I loved the ending for the same reasons it infuriated you, haha. But I get what you are saying about Stephen King’s endings (and this is coming from his number one fan). Sometimes it seems like he just ends a story w/o arriving there organically, if that makes any sense.

    Oh, and I love the idea of a Henry Selick Spiderman. That would rock

  4. Quick note on the Watchmen movie:  The director’s cut was really good.  That doesn’t excuse the theatrical cut, but it’s amazing what a little more character development did for the movie (came out to 3 hours–20 minutes more than the theatrical version).  It completely changed my opinion of Zack Snyder as a director.

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