A Movie Entry – Adapt or Die

Or, my rambling thoughts on when movie adaptations of other media are good, bad, ugly, or even necessary.

First, I would like to mention my novel, Necromancy for the Greater Good.  If you haven’t read it (and you should), the characters attend a comic book/gaming convention called AwesomeCon.  When I wrote that story (in 2012), I thought I made up that name.  I used my Google Fu skills and did not find any official convention with that name because I wanted to make up a convention.  Soooo, one my friend’s comics he is not subscribed to (fourth since cancellation; no kidding) has an advertisement for AwesomeCon.  After further Google Fu, I have determined I did make up the name, as the Facebook page for the Con wasn’t created until nearly July 2012, and I published my book Halloween 2012, which means there was not much advertising (and I probably didn’t look to see if the name had been taken between the time I actually wrote the story and the time I published).  So, in short, it’s a small world after all.

Wait, wasn’t I writing about movie adaptations?  Oh, right, here you go…

Generally speaking, I think a movie adaptation is only a good idea if the big-screen visuals will add another dimension or even improve the original media.  This also applies to whether or not a movie should be shot in 3-D, but that’s a bit of a side argument.  Note that improving the media may not be the goal of an adaptation.  Many media have been adapted to movies and generally I don’t think that’s a great improvement, but I do think sometimes the visual spectacle is worth it.  Obviously I can’t go into every adaptation ever, but I’ll present a few examples of what worked, what didn’t work, what could have worked, and why I hold these opinions.

1) Television – in general, I don’t think this works very well.  TV shows are serial, and movies tend to be discrete plots.  That means that a screenplay must either significantly condense the plot of the TV show, or leave out a lot of information.  Also, TV shows are written for a small screen and short run-time, thus there tends to be emphasis on character interaction rather than visual spectacle.

a) Scooby Doo – this was a cheaply animated, formulaic cartoon show.  Obviously, I hated the movie adaptation (although the sequel was marginally better) for reasons documented elsewhere.  But was this even a good idea in the first place?  That is, had the movie been better, would this have met my criteria of improving the media or at least qualifying as a visual spectacle?  The answer is – no.  Nothing in the show really cried out for a big-screen visual spectacle, and trying to expand a 22-minute plot (or 43-minute for the “movies”) to 90 minutes is a really difficult task.  The show was so forumulaic there were no other plot points or dimensions to work with.

b) Transformers – this was a cheaply animated cartoon show designed to sell toys to children.  My opinion of the first movie is documented, and I haven’t seen the other two (or is it three?  I don’t care).  Was this even a good idea in the first place?  Actually, I would say yes, just for the visual spectacle of watching giant, transforming robots fighting.  Was it going to be a good movie?  No.  It was only ever going to be disposable media.  And this is why the movie really failed.  I wanted to see giant robots fighting.  What I saw was a whiny, stuttering, unlikeable kid somehow end up the hero (I liked the soldier much better) and such shaky camerawork that when the robots were on-screen I couldn’t tell who the hell was fighting.  So this could have worked, but really didn’t.

c) G.I. Joe – also a cheaply animated cartoon show designed to sell toys to children (and a comic book [I don’t remember which came first]).  I didn’t like the first one, and what I saw of second one doesn’t make me want to see it either (the Joes are the worst heroes ever).  Was this a good idea?  Well, this one isn’t as clear cut as the other two.  The idea of super-secret soldiers fighting super-secret terrorists could be a great visual spectacle.  On the other hand, this is the kind of movie that has been done over and over again.  And the movie I saw was a pretty generic take on that kind of movie.  The distinct looks from the cartoon weren’t even present in the movie.  So, overall, this probably wasn’t worth adapting.

d) Avatar: The Last Airbender – a beautifully animated cartoon show that actually told a well-written story.  Given the amount of story in the show, I’m not sure an adaptation could have improved the media.  It’s pretty damn good.  But as a visual spectacle it could have been very good.  Alas, no, that didn’t happen.  But it wasn’t a terrible idea to start with anyway.

e) Dark Shadows – a low-budget supernatural soap opera.  Was this a good idea?  I really don’t think so.  Again, the nature of the show was serial so lots of characters came and went during its run.  Condensing a plot was a difficult task.  There wasn’t a lot of visual spectacle even though Barnabas was a vampire as he tended to keep that a secret.  The result was a convoluted mess that crammed in a lot of characters (going so far as to make two distinct characters the same person) that varied so dramatically in tone from “fish-out-of-water comedy” to “dark, brooding tragedy” I almost got whiplash.

2) Comic books – I understand why comic books have often been adapted to movies, and why this is a difficult task to pull off.  The potential for visual spectacle is pretty vast.  There’s usually years and years of story to mine in order to write a screenplay for a 90-110 minute movie.  The problem is there is so much story sometimes the screenplay gets overly convoluted, and sometimes there’s so much potential for visual spectacle the story gets lost in the CGI-action sequences.  Does this improve the media?  Well, to say one way or the other risks the wrath of rabid fans.  I will say good adaptations of comic book movies manage to express the most accepted amalgam of a character in a tidy plot.

a) The good (as explained above)Iron Man, Spider-man, Spider-man 2, Batman, The Dark Knight, Captain America 2: Winter Soldier, and Superman.
b) The bad (poor plot and/or too much spectacle)Green Lantern (not as bad as Man of Steel, obviously, but it did no favors to Hal Jordan and was definitely lost in CGI), Superman 4, X-Men Origins: Wolverine
c) The ugly (completely missed the mark about the characters)Batman and Robin, Man of Steel
d) The other – too many to list.  Some are good, but not as good as the ones listed, some are bad, but not as bad as the ones listed, and many are just mediocre (such as the Fantastic Four).  Were they worth adapting?  I think so, but execution was lacking.

3) Books – books seem like they should be perfect candidates for adaptation.  The plot is discrete (as opposed to the serial nature of comic books or television shows) and depending on the book there could be great potential for visual spectacle.  Does this work?  Well, part of this depends on how good the book is and part of it depends on how good the adapted screenplay is.

a) Twilight Saga – I hear the books were awful, and the movies certainly were.  But was it a bad idea?  From a money-making perspective, no.  And although it sounds strange, the parts of the movies I most enjoyed (which isn’t saying much), was the panoramic views of Washington State.  In other words, the visual spectacle (such as it was).  The plot was easy to adapt and while not necessarily a improvement on the books (I’ve heard mixed reviews), the movies were successful.  I personally think the adaptations were a bad idea because the books were so terrible to begin with.

b) The Lord of The Rings – a sprawling epic plot and the potential for visual spectacle.  This one was inevitable; it was just a matter of special effects technology catching up to peoples’ imaginations.  For what it’s worth, I think the crew did a good job of adapting a plot that is both epic and incredibly mundane (i.e., Frodo and Sam walking).  The movies were epic in scope, the visual spectacle was appropriate, and the story compacted as well as could be expected.  Did it improve on the books?  In some ways, I would actually say yes.  I was glad to be spared pages and pages of every rock and tree Frodo and Sam passed, and the visual of the Dead Marshes struck me with its creepiness in a way the description in the book did not.

c) The Hobbit – a compact plot of discrete incidents with a potential for visual spectacle.  This book actually should have been a better candidate for a big-screen adaptation.  I know the trilogy isn’t finished, but the 2/3 of it I have already seen make me feel confident in that while this was a good idea, the execution is lacking.  This story was never meant to be sprawling and the unnecessary filler distracts from the story.  Although the dragon is beautiful and I can’t argue with that.  But waiting nearly 5 hours is too damn long!

d) Harry Potter – Yes, I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies.  From a visual spectacle standpoint, how could this not get adapted?  But does it improve on the books?  Actually, in some instances, I would say yes.  For example, in the first book, Harry wrongly attributes his bad feelings to Snape; the deliberate mention of the presence of Quirrell is either obvious enough an astute reader would realize Snape is a red herring, or easy enough for an average reader to dismiss out of hand, thus having the reveal of Quirrell as the bad guy seem a little out of left field.  But in the movie, the presence of Quirrell was both more and less obvious because of the visual medium.  But that said, there were certainly instances where the movies weren’t better, and part of that is the difficulty of adapting a 700-page book.

Summary – most media are adapted to movies for the visual spectacle, and frankly that doesn’t bother me.  Usually the movie adaptation doesn’t improve on the original, but I expect that.  I’m pleasantly surprised when there is some aspect of a movie that I think does improve on the original.  But mostly I think movie adaptations are really only good for, say, seeing the Avengers fight an alien invasion force.  Any improvement is just a bonus.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

3 thoughts on “A Movie Entry – Adapt or Die”

  1. I think this is the first article you’ve written where we’re going to have to agree to disagree on something, specifically on your assessment of “The Transformers” and “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero”…at least to a certain extent.

    The animation on both shows wasn’t too bad at all early on, but started going downhill in the second season of both (and then pretty much started descending down into the valley at full speed during their third ones, especially once AKOM started doing most of the episodes). However, if they were willing to shell out a bit more cash, the animation could be truly spectacular even if the plots remained mediocre. Check out the movies and especially “Call of the Primitives”, where you can see the higher budget in action:

    Now, as to your other critiques: to be honest, I think Season 1 of “The Transformers” and the comic book version of “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” were the ones that got it “right”.

    In the case of the Transformers, if you go back and watch the first season carefully and then contrast it with the second, you’ll notice a pretty significant shift in tone. While the writing certainly wasn’t on par with Shakespeare, there was very little standalone or filler. Each episode built upon the previous ones, there were several references to earlier events and pretty tight continuity, and even some interesting plot developments that were completely forgotten later…such as humans building anti-Transformer weaponry to fight the Decepticons. While the second season is where the popularity of the show really exploded, even I, a pretty big fan of the show, have no problem removing my rose-tinted nostalgia glasses and admitting that the writing really went downhill. It became less intelligent, more formulaic, and even downright stupid at times.

    The comic book version of G.I. Joe, on the other hand, was written by Larry Hama, who served in the actual military during the Vietnam War and did his best strike a balance by injecting as much verisimilitude ias he could into the series by incorporating his knowledge of the inner workings of the army into both the comics as well as the file cards for the individual characters – all of which I think he wrote himself – while trying to appease to the toymakers as best he could. While I’ve read very little of the series myself, I do know that he did try and keep things grounded and eschewed most of the fantastical or sci-fi elements the cartoons relied on. Most of the assets used to found Cobra in the comics, for example, came from Ponzi schemes and other shady dealings, and one arc even raised the question of whether or not Serpentor’s (comparatively) benevolent monarchy over Cobra Island was preferable to Cobra Commander’s fascist dictatorship.

    The problem with the cartoon version of G.I. Joe, in my opinion, was actually something the writers thought was a brilliant idea: someone involved with the show once said that, they found the balance they wanted for the show when they started writing Cobra Commander less like Adolf Hitler and more like Yosemite Sam. I find that utterly facepalm-worthy.

    Maybe I’m just being overly optimistic, but I think the real decider when it comes to adopting anything successfully to the big screen boils down to 1) respecting the source material, 2) doing your research, and 3) taking your work seriously. If your adaptation is a transparent money grab playing off of people’s nostalgia or the flavor of the month, then of course it’s going to suck ass. You’re not respecting your audience, the property your adopting, or even the source material. Hell, you might even think your project is stupid. All you care about is making a fast buck. I mean, check out the approach of Marvel towards their cinematic universe versus DC. It’s painfully clear that DC’s playing catch up and doing their best to rush things without any grand vision or plan. They want instant gratification rather than taking the time to build up anticipation and appetite in their audience. And that’s exactly the wrong mentality to have.

    1. I can agree with your point of view, but maybe I just have lower standards. I could see a lot of potential for “Transformers,” for example, but even if much of the plot potential was squandered, the movie could still have been worth it if the damn camera would just hold still. I find your criteria to be one of those bonuses for adaptation. I think respect for the source material, doing some research, and taking the work seriously, certainly make for a better movie, but again, as with “Transformers,” I still would have been satisfied with more robot fighting action and less stuttering. But also keep in mind I thoroughly enjoyed “Pacific Rim,” which is a *dumb* movie. Although I suppose if spectacle is the goal, then an adaptation isn’t necessary to create a spectacle (like “Pacific Rim”).

      Hm. I will ponder this further.

  2. No argument from me about “Transformers” the live-action movie whatsoever. It’s a Michael Bay film, after all. All cars, explosions, stereotypes, and crude toilet humor, very little substance. I just wanted to redeem the original cartoons a little. 🙂

    And I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought the camera work during the fight scenes was awful. The last time I saw something that disjointed and impossible to follow was the nightclub/bar fight scene at the beginning of “Daredevil”.

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