5 Types of Movie Adaptations That Must Be Stopped
Audiences love familiar stories. When we're deciding what movie to see, we have a tendency to breeze past original plots in favor of watching Peter Parker discover his puberty superpowers for the 18th time. The people who make our movies have grasped this, and that's why cinemas are crammed with adaptations of books, comics, television shows, foreign movies, old movies, new movies, movies that came out in 2010, breakfast cereals, and so on. These adaptations aren't always bad: After all, how else could we bring the timeless story of Peter Parker's wrist splooge to people who are threatened by reading comic books? But the rush to cannibalize and recannibalize the creative output of humanity has led to some unfortunate trends. For example ...
Public Domain Monster Mashups
Examples: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Cowboys & Aliens, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I, Frankenstein
Here's a quick formula for a successful movie. Step one: Take a historical figure or a fictional character whose creator died long enough ago for their work to be in the public domain. Step two: Add a randomly selected creature or monster from the urban fantasy shelf in the nearest bookstore. Step three: Make a movie in which these two things either team up or fight each other to the death. Congratulations! You have just printed yourself a lot of money.
It's almost impossible to make a movie with this premise sound unappealing. Abraham Lincoln vs. Cats. Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table vs. a Really Big Bear. Achilles vs. MechaHector. Who among us would not pay to see all of these films?
Like you've never wanted to see Betsy Ross fight werewolves with that sewing needle.
Why It Doesn't Work:
We all want to see these movies. Hell, we will start lining up to buy tickets as soon as you mention the title. And that's the exact problem. If you own a monkey that can do a perfect William Shatner impression, you're not going to bother to also train that monkey not to fling poop at people. People will be so eager to see the Original Kirk Monkey that they'll show up even if there's poop everywhere. Likewise, the premise of the Public Domain Monster Mashup is so inherently attractive that studios have realized there's no need to put in any effort beyond creating or buying the rights to the concept. You've already got a guaranteed audience who will show up to watch Joan of Arc punch zombies or whatever, so why bother with story or plot or character development or monsters that don't look like they fell out of a computer in 1992? So inevitably, audiences show up to see these great-sounding concepts, only to walk out feeling dirty and used, like we've just had a bunch of poop thrown at us.
This didn't stop us from catching that other summer blockbuster, Movie Audiences vs. Poop Monkeys.
We viewers must accept some of the blame for this. For years, we've been hurling ticket money at anything with an awesome-sounding concept, forgetting that the addition of one or more awesome plot elements does not make a movie awesome. Rather, it provides a good jumping-off point for awesomeness. It's up to us to demand better from movies and ask for a real character-driven reason that George Washington feels he needs to fight all those dragons.
Americanized Japanese Horror
Examples: Pulse, The Grudge, Dark Water, One Missed Call
American reboots of Japanese horror have been clogging up Netflix accounts since the success of The Ring back in 2002. Recently the genre seemed to be dying off, but now that Sam Raimi has announced a second reboot of The Grudge, the trend has returned like a terrible direct-to-DVD sequel. Given the state of Western horror these days, we should be happy to see more adapted Japanese stuff. Right?
Why It Doesn't Work:
In general, Japanese audiences seem to be happy to accept a level of ambiguity in their horror. Japanese horror movies are often just 90 minutes of monsters doing a bunch of scary shit, with no real explanation or even resolution. The reasons for this are probably partly cultural: Japan has a long tradition of ghosts and monsters that are simply annoying or mischievous, rather than falling into the more clearly defined "good" and "evil" categories you find in the West. This means that, for Western audiences, J-horror can fill an important niche for viewers who are sick of horror that is 10 percent actual scary shit and 90 percent scenes of good-looking characters researching the ghost's motives.
"It seems to want to say 'BOO' a lot."
But apparently movie producers think that this kind of ambiguity is too much for American audiences, because this aspect of J-horror almost never makes it into the adapted versions. In the remakes of The Ring and Dark Water, the ghostly antagonists were changed from confused, chaotic Japanese spirits into pure evil clones of the girl in The Exorcist. The American version of The Grudge replaced the freaky, dreamlike atmosphere of the original with long expository sequences in which white people gravely explained the ghosts' motives to other white people. Occasionally, this cultural adaptation can produce films that are good in their own right: The Ring, despite all the plot changes, ended up working just fine as a Western horror movie. Far more often, though, it just removes everything that made the original movie succeed. It's like American movie execs deciding to adapt a kaiju movie, but cutting out all of that "giant monster" stuff because local audiences just aren't ready for it yet.
"Can we replace the giant chain sword with the abstract concept of freedom?"
Dark, Gritty Fairy Tales
Examples: Red Riding Hood, Snow White: A Tale of Terror, Sleepy Hollow, Winter's Knight
For the better part of a century, Hollywood has been taking fairy tales and other traditional stories, removing all the weird and controversial bits, and replacing them with feisty talking animals. Frozen, for example, was supposedly based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," but it didn't feature a single person getting stabbed in the eye with a mirror. Maybe as a reaction to this movie sanitization, the last few decades have seen an upsurge in dark, gritty fairy tale movies that promise to take audiences back to these stories' fucked-up roots.
Why It Doesn't Work:
These movies never stop at un-Disneyfying the stories and putting all the darker parts back in. Instead, they shoot right past the un-Disneyfying station and keep riding the dark, gritty train all the way to Goth Central.
You can see the emo leaking right out of it.
Look at the 1997 movie that kicked off the trend, Snow White: A Tale of Terror. The people who made this movie could have just reinserted the creepy parts of the Grimm version: That story had attempted murder and cannibalism, and you'd think that would be enough. Instead, the movie opens with an injured woman in the woods being given an impromptu cesarean section and then being eaten alive by wolves. The traditional Red Riding Hood story already had creepy themes about child safety and sexual predation, but the "dark" 2011 version didn't stop there: It needed to add corrupt, evil wolf hunters and a mentally handicapped character being deliberately burned to death.
Seeing Gary Oldman acting his way through a sad Twilight knockoff was actually worse, though.
The problem here is that fairy tales endure so well because they already are dark and realistic. They survive and get passed down because they tell readers important truths about human life. Adding a bunch of extra "darkness" to these stories actually makes them seem less realistic, because real life isn't all darkness and wolves and stabbing. There's good stuff there, too. Shoving in a whole bunch of extra "grit" doesn't turn a movie into a cold, hard look at reality; it turns it into what looks like a script written by an eyeliner-wearing 14-year-old.
Anything Based on Lovecraft
Examples: Event Horizon, In the Mouth of Madness, From Beyond, Prometheus
For about 150 years now, Guillermo del Toro has been trying to make a movie version of H.P. Lovecraft's 1931 novella, At the Mountains of Madness. At the risk of getting lynched by a bunch of very pale people in Cthulhu T-shirts, I'll admit that I'm among the few people who wouldn't mind if this story of Antarctic exploration and giant penguins was never brought to the screen. Why? Because any visual medium that tries to imitate Lovecraftian horror usually ends up about as successful as trying to get through a Lovecraft story without finding the words "eldritch abomination."
The man probably used those words to describe cake that tasted funny.
Why It Doesn't Work:
If you're unfamiliar with Lovecraft's horror stories, most of them go like this: man discovers evidence of an ancient monster. Man is too dumb to run away. Man comes face to face with monster and goes insane. Now, you'll probably read the "ancient monster" part and think "Wow! That would make a great del Toro film!" You'd be wrong, though, you wrong person. Even Dan O'Bannon, the co-creator of one of the only successful Lovecraft-themed movies ever, is on record as saying that it would be difficult for anyone to repeat his success.
See, Lovecraft's stories haven't remained popular so long just because his monsters are scary. They endure because his monsters are metaphors for existential alienation. It's not the appearance of the monsters in his stories, it's the reality of them, the fact that they exist. Their existence alone proves that humanity is doomed and that all our hopes and dreams are stupid. Running into one of Lovecraft's Elder Gods is like finding a strange pair of underwear in your bed and realizing that your spouse is cheating on you. It's not the underwear itself that's stabbing you in the heart; it's the betrayal it represents. Lovecraft's monsters are proof to the protagonist that the universe is not benevolent. Finding strange underwear might mean that your spouse never loved you; stumbling upon a Lovecraft creature means that God never loved you.
If you don't want to summon Cthulhu, a similar feeling can be achieved by reading YouTube comments.
But this kind of slow-building existential terror is almost impossible to do in visual form. Most of the movies that have attempted it, like Prometheus and Event Horizon, have ended up with characters who run around yelling about how bleak the universe is and how insane they're feeling, as if we can absorb cosmic terror through actors on screen telling us how scared they are. And that's actually the preferable option in a Lovecraft adaptation: Other films, like 1994's In the Mouth of Madness, simply skip past the cosmic-horror aspect altogether and act as if the whole point of Lovecraft's stories was "Hey, guys! Giant things with tentacles are scary!" Which I guess is technically right, but I don't think it was exactly what H.P. was going for.
Every picture in the Necronomicon is just this, apparently.
Anything That Worked Because of Past Limitations
Examples: Post-1980s Star Wars, Alien vs. Predator, Alien 3, The Hobbit Trilogy, Sherlock, King Kong, Superman Returns
We tend to believe that creativity flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and freedom. More options? More creativity! If a director makes a good movie with $10 million and a set made out of lumberyard scraps, this must mean that if we give him a bigger budget and technological improvements, he'll produce something even better. So many old movies were hampered by low budgets and shoddy special effects, and we have a duty to remake those movies. We have the technology.
Why It Doesn't Work:
Creative works don't always succeed because the person who made them had the most talent. Sometimes they succeed because of sheer, dumb luck. And sometimes that luck consists of a creator not being able to make movies the way he wanted to, whether it's because he was an unproven young artist or because he was born in a time before computer graphics allowed every one of his "genius" creations to come to life.
This is one reason that remakes of '80s monster movies are usually so terrible. It was so much harder to screw up monsters in the pre-CGI era: You didn't want people to laugh at your dumb puppets, so you kept them off the screen, where they stayed mysterious and scary. New versions show them off like they're product placement. Maybe we should paraphrase everyone's childhood mentor, Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, and ask ourselves: Just because technological advances mean we can show a monster, does that mean we should?
This guy was the Yoda of the '90s.
Then there's the censorship issue. Say what you will about restrictions on sex and violence in films, censoring movies did have at least one positive effect: It meant that writers and directors had to work harder to keep the audience's interest. This can be painfully obvious when it comes to female characters. Irene Adler, for example, was a complex, clever antagonist who outsmarted Sherlock Holmes in the 1891 story she appeared in. In the 2012 television adaptation, Irene has morphed into a one-dimensional seductress who first appears on screen in the nude and who flummoxes Sherlock with her boobies. And why not? A good chunk of the viewing audience is going to be satisfied with having a naked lady on the screen, so there's no need to waste energy giving her a personality.
"Your lines? Hell, I don't know. Just make some grunting noises or something."
Am I saying that I think we should fix this by banning all nudity in movies and use Iran's method of digitally editing in large objects to hide women's onscreen cleavage? Well ... yes, actually. That would be hilarious.