4 Movie Adaptations Hollywood Keeps Screwing Up
No movie is gonna be 100% faithful to the book it is based on. That's just the nature of going from one storytelling medium to another. J.R.R. Tolkien didn't expect anyone to be able to fully absorb all 1,178 pages of The Lord of the Rings in eleven hours. On the other hand, he probably wouldn't have thought it'd take nine hours and three movies to cover the 310 pages of The Hobbit, but that's just how Peter Jackson rolls, baby!
But with all of the remakes, reboots, and reimaginings we see today, it's clear that established intellectual properties have surpassed cocaine as Hollywood's drug of choice. Film studios have become America's strung-out cousin: begging us for money, promising it'll be different this time, and more often than not, they are more focused on getting the quick payday than getting it right ...
Doctor Dolittle (1967, 1998/2001 & 2020)
Hugh Lofting's series of Doctor Dolittle children's books told the story of a gifted physician whose love of animals far outweighed his respect for other human beings. After his pet parrot Polynesia (try saying that five times real fast) teaches Dolittle the ability to speak to all animals in their own language, he abandons his human practice, becomes a veterinarian, and sets off on a series of adventures that help him better understand nature and the world. Later editions of the books would be edited to remove a ton of racial slurs, but hey … Dr. Dolittle was all about standing up for the animals, not basic human dignity.
The first movie version of Doctor Dolittle came in 1967, with Rex Harrison taking the titular role. The movie's plot borrowed a few elements from the first, second, and fourth books in the series, but the majority of the story came straight from the filmmakers. They also made the film a musical comedy, which gave the film some really creepy vibes at times. Showing Dolittle treating the humans around him like crap, then showing his eyes light up when he'd sing to his pets, really blurred the lines on whether he loved the animals … or loved them.
The film bombed at the box office, barely earning half the film's bloated budget, and it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox in the process. Fox had also spent $12 million just on promoting the film, only to see the film get trounced at the box office by Disney's The Jungle Book. At least The Jungle Book showed the animals actually talking instead of having one weirdo speaking on their behalf.
In 1998, Fox decided to give Dr. Dolittle another shot, this time with Eddie Murphy testing out a more family-friendly role in-between fat suit movies. In this modern-day version, Dolittle wasn't taught how to speak to the animals; instead, he had that natural ability at a young age and repressed it to live a normal life. He later becomes a successful doctor, and one day the animals start speaking to him again and begin to wreak havoc on his life. Hilarity ensues. The film is actually not that bad, despite being written entirely by focus groups.
Unlike the 1967 version, this Dr. Dolittle was a box office hit. Murphy returned for a sequel in 2001, which earned a little more than half of its predecessor, but it was successful enough for Fox to put out three more Murphy-less direct-to-video sequels that focused on his character's daughter talking to the animals instead.
In January 2020, Universal brought us the latest (and possibly last) attempt to bring Dolittle to the big screen. It wasn't an attempt to revitalize a long-dormant property as much as it was a chance for Robert Downey, Jr. to make his first post-Marvel film appearance be as far removed from Iron Man as humanly possible. Viewing the film from that perspective alone is the only way it could be considered a success. Everything else about it was an abject failure.
The film was "loosely inspired" by The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, the second book in the series, but only in the sense that Doctor Dolittle goes on a voyage. The original cut of the film might have been a little closer to the source material, but after the test audiences absolutely hated it, studio execs called in everyone they could think of to help polish this turd.
The cast and crew went back for three weeks of reshoots to try to make the film funnier, more family-friendly, and relatable to a modern audience. They changed entire subplots, fixed special effects, inserted every gag they could possibly think of, tried to make it hip, and then tried to weave those new elements into the parts that the focus groups didn't hate. How bad did it end up being? Well, between Queen Victoria's pet octopus saying, "Snitches get stitches, man" and Dolittle pulling a set of bagpipes out of a dragon's ass, you can judge for yourself.
Post-Marvel, RDJ could do anything. He chose to do this.
The film lost somewhere between $50-$100 million dollars. We're guessing figuring out the exact amount was too depressing for the studio. In Dolittle's defense, it did end up being the seventh highest-grossing film of 2020. Granted, that's because theaters were closed for most of the year due to the pandemic, and nearly all of the movies that were supposed to make money were pushed back to 2021 … but seventh still counts!
The Stand (1994 & 2020)
When it comes to any Stephen King film adaptation, it can either be faithful to the source material, a box office success, a reasonable length, or good … but it can never be all four at once. Even the best ones only manage to get three. On the page, King can really suck you in and paint one hell of a mental image, but in the film version, something always gets lost in translation.
For years, fans had been clamoring for a film version of King's magnum opus The Stand, a sprawling epic that included dozens of characters traveling cross-country, with interweaving storylines, an ultimate battle of good versus evil, and all of this happens after a horrific virus wipes out 99.4% of the world's population. The 823-page original 1978 version of the novel was already considered unfilmable, but the 1,153-page Complete and Uncut Edition released in 1990 all but guaranteed it.
In 1994, ABC produced a six-hour miniseries based on the novel, and they … tried their best. The first problem was King himself wrote the screenplay, which has proven to be the kiss of death for many of his film adaptations. Then there were the limitations that come with a network TV budget, primetime TV content restrictions, and trying to weave this massive tale while also allowing for commercial breaks. It wasn't necessarily bad; it was just insanely neutered.
Over the past 20 years, there were several attempts to bring The Stand to the big screen, but it lingered in development hell because the project kept going from a proposed trilogy of films to two films to one, and back again. As soon as a big-name star or director became attached to the project, they would end up leaving the project before anyone got their hopes up.
In 2020, CBS All Access (now Paramount Plus) brought us a new 8.5-hour version of The Stand. This time around, the filmmakers were free from a lot of the restraints of the previous version. (Yay, blood and cursing!) They also had a great cast of actors. The trouble was the showrunners gave them absolute shit to work with.
The biggest problem the 2020 version faced was trying to tell the story of a plague that wipes out nearly all of humanity in the middle of a real-life global pandemic. It's understandable that the filmmakers felt an obligation to have the story's plague take place off-screen as much as possible. The trouble was the trauma of that worldwide event in the book was where most of the character development took place. So, everyone in this new TV version went from "What the hell is happening?" to "Well, that happened." pretty damn quick.
The worst part of the latest miniseries was their decision to take most of King's linear narrative and shuffle it around in the first six episodes, flashing back and forth in the timeline to showcase each main character's emotional journey. This structure worked great for shows like Lost because there were layers of mystery to that story. The Stand was about a bunch of people going on a road trip because someone in their dreams promised to explain everything once they got there. They really should've let those events play out in order because the life-or-death situations they faced along the way had zero dramatic tension when we've seen those characters alive and well (and completely over it) in a flash-forward.
The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1932, 1977 & 1996)
H.G. Wells is one of the founding fathers of science fiction. He imagined incredible, fantastical technology that was grounded in a believable reality and frequently combined that with a strong focus on ethical quandaries. Throw in a pinch of social commentary and satire for good measure, and pretty much every sci-fi story written in the past century where a mad scientist screws around and finds out owes a huge debt to H.G. Wells.
Wells' third novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, is told from the point of view of Edward Prendick, a shipwreck survivor who finds himself on the private island of an infamous physiologist whose gruesome secret vivisection experiments forced him to flee England in disgrace. Prendick discovers the island is populated with human/animal hybrids created (and ruled over) by Dr. Moreau, and Prendick desperately tries to escape the island, thinking he might become Moreau's next test subject.
There were a couple of silent film adaptations of the novel that were mostly ignored, but in 1932, the first sound film adaptation hit the big screen in the form of Island of Lost Souls. While widely regarded as the most faithful adaptation of the source material, Island of Lost Souls did take some substantial liberties. Most notably, they added the sexy female love interest (and the main focus of the film's poster) Lota, the panther woman, who was mostly human but beginning to revert back to her panther origin. Lota was the only female on the island, while in the book, there was a swine woman, some wolf women, and a still-in-progress puma woman … none of whom had much sex appeal. Unless you're into that sort of thing.
Another film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau came out in 1977, this time toning down the gore quite a bit by having Moreau give his test subjects serum injections instead of hacking them up and splicing in new body parts. This allowed them to try to focus more on the psychological terror, but the poor special effects of the animal/human hybrids were just too distracting. This iteration also included an exotic love interest and sole woman on the island, this time named Maria. Her animal status is not mentioned throughout the movie, but she is seen sporting cat-like eyes in the closing scene.
Finally, in 1996 came the final and most notorious version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is more famous for its troubled production than for the movie being any good. The original director got fired and stalked the set until the studio paid him his full fee. The main protagonist was recast a total of three times, twice after filming had already begun. Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer competed to be the biggest prima donna. This film wasn't so much released as it was put out of its misery.
Yet again, this film had to shoehorn in another manic pixie dream cat-girl because this wasn't really an adaptation of the original novel; it was a copy of a copy of the first film. Apparently, it's not enough to just drop a guy in the middle of a mysterious island and find himself held prisoner by a madman, surrounded by dog-men, hyena-swine, and goat-priests … you also have to give him a reason to be horny as well.
The Great Gatsby (1926, 1949, 1974 & 2013)
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest and most wildly misinterpreted American novels ever written. One mention of the title, and everyone thinks of lavish parties, jazz music, tuxedos, and flapper dresses, while completely forgetting that those rich people weren't exactly the good guys of that story. People would've had a much different mental image if Fitzgerald had gone with any of his original titles for the book, like Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires (yikes), The High-Bouncing Lover (a little spoiler-ish), or My Wife Will Leave Me Again If No One Buys This Book (the unofficial working title for everything Fitzgerald ever wrote).
Gatsby was first published in 1925, and it only took a little over a year for the first film adaptation to come out. This silent film was adapted from a successful Broadway stage production of the story rather than from the novel itself. No copies of this film have survived, but reviews at the time praised it for being as faithful to the source material as a silent film can be. Fitzgerald hated it, having walked out halfway through. You can kinda see his point, though. Imagine putting in that much work writing a novel, only to see it play out in mouthed dialogue and title cards while organ music is constantly playing.
In 1949, Hollywood gave The Great Gatsby another go. This version was a financial success, but the reviews were very much split. The cast got high marks for their acting, but nearly all of the novel's biting social commentary got pushed aside in order to focus on the sappy, sentimental romance angle. This was four years after the end of WWII after all, and audiences were still stuck in "Ain't America just the best?" mode, so this was no time to remind anyone that the American dream isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Then came the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version, which got almost everything right. The script was faithful to the novel, and the sets, costumes, and soundtrack were perfect … The problem is the actors forgot to give a shit. Nearly every shot in this film is so full of awkward, wooden line delivery that you can practically hear the director off-screen saying, "No, seriously. Action!"
Finally, we have the 2013 version directed by Baz Luhrmann, a director who best answers the question: What would happen if a genie got high on bath salts and granted three wishes to the most insufferable musical theatre major you've ever met? Luhrmann brought his trademark frenetic showmanship to The Great Gatsby, whether anyone asked for it or not. It was a bold choice to make a film that takes place in the Jazz Age and give it a modern pop soundtrack that, at most, acknowledges that jazz once existed.
Not to say that Luhrmann butchered the narrative. He did pretty well when he absolutely had to stick to Fitzgerald's story, but the plot-driven scenes stood in sharp contrast to the mescaline-laced eye candy of the party scenes. As Christopher Orr from The Atlantic described the film, "The problem is that when the movie is entertaining it's not Gatsby, and when it's Gatsby it's not entertaining."
Leonardo DiCaprio did receive high marks for his portrayal of Jay Gatsby, though. Fun fact: DiCaprio was a year older than Robert Redford was when he played the role, and Redford was criticized for being too old for the part. That's not necessarily a slam against Redford's talent, but more of a testament to the advances in moisturizer since 1974.
Top image: Warner Bros. Pictures