Many people say that adaption is the bane of Hollywood in our current times. The most successful movies are no longer original ideas, movie executives seem to hate taking that leap and putting their faith and belief into an original idea. Instead studios these days always seem to play it safe and put their faith on someone else who took that leap and created something original. Whether it be books, comics or even simply older movies that have just about become cold enough in their graves to “reboot”, the art of adaption in film is here to stay. Whilst original movies are undoubtedly undervalued in our society, adaption is an age-old phenomenon which should be respected, as long as it is executed right and for the right reasons. Without adaption classic movies such as The Dark Knight and Mad Max: Fury Road would never have been made. At the same time however we have adaptions of classic stories and media which has done disservice to the original, so instead I ask: what makes a great adaption?
To begin my argument, I wish to go back to Ancient Greek times and look at the Greek Tragedy. When someone mentions the names Medea or Oedipus we think of two things: the screwed-up family complexes their names have come to represent and the classic literature written by Sophocles and Euripides which has gone on to shape the entirety of the fiction which followed them. You need only look as far as Shakespeare’s work to see the effect of these stories, but the tales of Medea and Oedipus were not ones original to Sophocles and Euripides. Instead, they were stories which almost every playwright of their time had attempted to try and recreate. The version of Medea done by Euripides and Oedipus Rex by Sophocles have stood the test of time not because of their originality but because of how well written they were and luck in their pieces standing the test of time when many others were lost. Going into the theater, Greek audiences knew more or less what was going to happen: Medea gets pissed at Jason (the one from the Argonauts) and kills their kids, and Oedipus shags his mum, kills his Dad and stabs out his eyes. They didn’t go in to see “how it ended” or what the “plot twists” were, the anticipation and curiosity at how things played out to reach that point is what interested them. The general idea was there, only it was different because of what the story was used to explore. Medea is an exploration of women’s role within Athenian society and the importance of family (or as it was referred to then, the “Oikos”). Oedipus examines the battle between fate and free-will however the core values of the story remain. This is something I feel that adaptions nowadays can learn so much from. In cinema today there has become, I feel, an almost obsession with having the best plot twist, the best ending, and at times this can cause the watcher to lose sight of what the movie is trying to say over the course of its runtime. As cheesy as it is to say, the important part should be the journey, not the destination. As a result, it is my belief that a movie is best adapted when it has a clear message of what it wants to say, and themes to explore. Take Arrival as an example, a film based on a brilliant book, where Denis Villenueve uses the movie to explore the ideas in our current society of immigration and the divide created by nations and even challenging the ideas of linear storytelling. Compare this to say Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Books beloved by many with a compelling and interesting world, created into an especially average movie with little to make it stand out from the crowd and even less to say. It is a pleasant enough watch but is aimless and makes changes, not to benefit the adaption as a film, but simply for the sake of doing so.
Percy Jackson is a great example of an adaption just done totally wrong. The first movie is totally serviceable, the second less so, but is based on one of the most popular and engaging book series of all time. This is a book series so popular it not only spawned 5 novels in the original series but three different spin-offs that continue to this day. The movie didn’t exactly lack a cast: Logan Lerman starred and has shown in a brilliant book adaption, Perks of Being a Wallflower, that he is the more than capable of starring and carrying a movie. Anthony Head is a legendary actor, Alexandria Daddario is perfectly fine in other roles and there is a supporting cast more than capable. So where did it go wrong? To explore this I feel the need to once again make a comparison, this time to two different series: the Lord of the Rings franchise and the 8 Harry Potter movies. Both are beloved and iconic books with faithful adaptations onto the screen capturing the magic and wonder of the worlds Tolkien and Rowling created. Both were, as I previously stated, incredibly faithful to the books. Apart from cutting small bits of lore and background which, realistically, wouldn’t have worked, they are in essence the same stories as the books. Now I do not believe this is a necessity in adaption. I am perfectly happy to give creative license to filmmakers, to see on screen a vision different from “my view” of how the story should be. Changes however should be for some artistic reason, or in order to try and streamline a story from page to screen. Even when doing so it is a very delicate art, achievable only by the highest caliber of director given total creative license.
For me the MCU demonstrates this perfectly, in both a hugely positive and terribly negative way. Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron objectively sit at either end of the scale in terms of quality, the Civil War indicative about everything great about Marvel, Age of Ultron everything negative. Both comic storylines are iconic fan-favorites, but ones which present many problems for a director and writing team to bring to the big screen. In both, characters whose movie rights Marvel Studios no longer own feature heavily and are integral to the story. More pivotally however, both feature a huge amount of characters including several who are killed over the course of the movie. Especially in bringing Civil War to life where there are about 10 times more superheroes involved in the storyline than there have ever been introduced to the MCU, this is a huge problem. Most importantly however I feel, Marvel storylines of recent years are presenting characters whose relationships have been built up over decades of comics, bringing far more levity to the situation. With this multitude of problems, both films faced an uphill struggle from the very beginning. Age of Ultron however faced the added challenge of following up Avengers, a critical and commercial success of huge proportions, and failed to adapt the comic. It is believed by many that studio meddling with Joss Whedon’s vision played a huge role in this, the stress of this apparently playing a huge role in the long hiatus from film he took following the completion of the movie. With all these problems, it is little surprise he was unable to coax a good film out of the storyline as he appears to simply have been overpowered by studio heads who wanted a bland generic film which didn’t rock the boat. Unfortunately, that is exactly what they and us, the fans, got. Civil War however took a very different approach. Whereas Age of Ultron’s storyline was bloated and lacked focus, the Russo’s provided what they have with each of their films so far, an incredibly tightly written and focused script. Though we may never know for certain and this is all simply speculation, from what has come out since the movie it appears that following their huge success in Winter Soldier Marvel had the better judgement to give the directors near full creative control. This may perhaps have also been affected in the change of guard between the two films. Ike Perlmutter was still a key figure in Marvel Studio’s at the time of Age of Ultron and is said to have been the meddler in chief, and his well-known tendency for misogyny undoubtedly played a key role in Black Widows dull relegation to romantic foil. By the time Civil War came around, Kevin Feige’s ongoing reign as the sole voice at the top of the Marvel Studio’s ladder was well and truly underway, and he seems to allow far more autonomy to the creatives behind the films. Further, the Russo’s still managed to achieve with far less characters than the comics what was loved about Civil War. Though done differently, at the heart of the story still remained an ethical debate which polarized audiences just as it did readers of Mark Millar’s comic. It still achieved the awe-inspiring epic feeling of a huge fight between our favourite characters in the airport scene which I feel even surpassed that of its comic counterpart. They still achieved the same stakes and consequences to the story that the comic did, and in avoiding using deaths they did so even more skillfully than Mark Millar’s cheap use of deaths as stakes. The Russo’s did a brilliant job bringing the famous comic to life, and unlike Whedon’s attempt with Age of Ultron, arguably surpassed the original.
In short, is a tricky beast and in writing this article I’ve realized one vital fact about them. There is no one way to do it. It is easy to say “stick to the original” but rigidly sticking to an original doesn’t necessarily equate to success. The best comic book film of the last year Logan is based on a cult-classic comic, and whilst the movie shares similar core values and ideals, is an entirely different beast. It is interesting and captivating in the ways it deviates from the original and more should be encouraged to do this. At the same time each story, whether we are talking Medea, Streetcar or Civil War, has at its core several key aspects to it. If I took anything away from this exploration through fiction it is that this is the most important part of bringing an adapted story to life on the big screen. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are books that draw their readers in through the pure awe and joy their worlds create, something which the second failed at, and the first achieved. It is all about identifying what is most important about what you’re adapting and staying true to that. If a filmmaker does that, then their film is already on a definite road to success.
Written by: Michael Slavin – @MichaelSlavin98 on Twitter