It’s occasionally said that Hollywood is out of ideas. The truth of the matter is that Hollywood has been cheerfully purloining ideas from other media for as long as Hollywood has been around. Novels, cartoons, live-action television shows, comic books, video games, and even the occasional board game have yielded their characters, concepts, and storylines to films. Some of these have been successful, commercially and critically; there’s a reason why the Academy Awards have an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Some of them, however, are successful on no meaningful level. And sometimes even when the adaptation is successful among some of the general public, the fans of the original remain displeased.
There are several reasons why this can happen, with the most basic and obvious being “they just didn’t make a good movie”. But when making an adaptation — especially of a well-loved property — there are additional pitfalls to be avoided beyond the normal concerns of making a good movie. (Of course, if the source material is terrible to begin with, or just has no story whatsoever, your battleship may be sunk from the get-go.) In my eyes, there is a certain basic rule that all adaptations should try to follow: Respect the source material. There are several different factors that go into that, but they’re all important, and while a film can sometimes get away with bending one or two, if it goes too far astray, it will probably get a severe backlash from the fans.
So what does it mean to respect the source material?
Use the Source Material: This one should be obvious. It should, in fact, be tautological. If you are adapting a film from some source material, that source material should have an impact on your adaptation. It’s the single most basic part of an adaptation you can get. And yet, somehow, some films manage to fail right out of the gate. Catwoman threw away the entire personality, back story, and essential nature of its title character to build a new one from scratch. Instead of Selina Kyle, clever cat burglar who frequently crosses paths with Batman, the film shows us Patience Price, crazy cat lady who winds up with feline superpowers. It’s not what the fans were looking for in a Catwoman film. It’s far from the only problem with that movie, but it was the problem that laid the foundation for all the rest.
Underdog took a cartoon about an anthropomorphic canine superhero in a world populated with anthropomorphic canines, and turned it into a story of a boy and his super-powered beagle. A few names may be getting used, but there’s nothing of substance to connect it to the source material. I’ve seen the film defended on the grounds that it’s for kids, but I’m not taking aim at the quality of the film here; I’m taking aim at its status as an adaptation. It was not called Underdog to attract the kids; the kids don’t know Underdog from Adam, and would have been just as happy seeing Superpooch or Battle Beagle. The film was called Underdog in order to attract the parents and other audience members old enough to know the original Underdog — and then completely failed to deliver on the promise inherent in its name. It’s not Underdog, except in name.
What films get this right? Virtually all of them. Sure, there are plenty of other “in name only” adaptations out there, but there are many more that manage to do at least the minimum required to be a true adaptation, and use the source material. Michael Bay’s Transformers may not be a critical darling, and fan reaction is mixed at best, but it most definitely has transforming robots from Cybertron in it. There have been several Batman films, ranging from the abysmal (Batman and Robin) to the fantastic (The Dark Knight), but even the worst of them feature Bruce Wayne donning a cape and pointy-eared cowl and fighting evil-doers. It’s not hard to get this step right, so it’s more than a little perplexing why there are films that get it wrong.
Take the Source Material at Face Value: The source material is what it is. Assume it’s being truthful. Do not turn your adaptation into a perversion of the reality of the source material. Films that are (mostly) live-action adaptations of cartoons are especially prone to violating this basic assumption. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle had its main characters and main villains leave the explicitly-fictional world they inhabited when a Rocky and Bullwinkle movie was green-lit and enter the real world, where they spent the remainder of the movie until the plot was resolved. Fat Albert had the title teenager come through a television into the real world to help a depressed girl (or something; I admit I didn’t watch past the trailer, but that showed enough for this article.) I was surprised to find that Bill Cosby himself wrote the Fat Albert script, because there’s something inherently disrespectful about the premise.
The key thing is… just because the show was a cartoon doesn’t mean it wasn’t meant to be every bit as “real” as a live-action show. Fat Albert and his friends didn’t live in a fictional world as far as the show was concerned. It was a real world (so to speak), that was portrayed via cartoon. It doesn’t make any more sense to have them come into the real world through a television than it would to have the X-Files movie revolve around Mulder and Scully exiting the TV to help some lonely science student win the girl of his dreams while investigating an alien escaped from fiction-land.
This doesn’t just apply to the cartoon/reality barrier, either. There are other ways where you can reject the “reality” of the source material; just imagine a movie based on the internet joke about Murder She Wrote‘s killings all being committed by Jessica Fletcher. It’s a fun joke, but if you were to make a movie on the concept, it wouldn’t really be Murder She Wrote any more. Similarly, you can also derail an adaptation by taking an unrealistic genre and shifting it into being realistic. The 2004 movie King Arthur did away with all of the fantastic elements of the Arthurian mythos, leaving it with… a bunch of Celtic warriors who could have been given any names the director wanted. It doesn’t even follow the basic plot of the Arthurian legend, and really, how could it? The classic version has a heavy reliance on magic to move the plot; without magic, it isn’t the Arthurian legend. The producers were purporting to tell “the real story” of King Arthur… but when you strip away critical elements, you’re left with a story that could just as easily be King Roger. When you purport to tell “the real story” by removing the validity of the elements of a story, you’re saying the source material is a lie in the universe you’re building… but it’s still the source material. You’re building your “real story” on a foundation that you are claiming is false, and the result cannot help but be shaky.
What films get this right? Any film that assumes that the characters in an alternate world really are existing and getting by in their own world, from Superman to Masters of the Universe, from Star Trek to The Sword in the Stone. The Smurfs, from what I understand, gets a pass because it has the Smurfs in their own world, and though they exist as fictional characters in this world, it’s implied that the real Smurfs inspired legends that led to the creations of those fictions. They’re not being treated as fictional themselves, as I understand the synopses I’ve read. I’ll even give Space Jam a pass here, since the Looney Tunes characters always were treated as having a degree of unreality to them, where being a cartoon is an integral part of their characters. (I just defended Space Jam. I feel vaguely ill.) But perhaps the most triumphant example is The Muppets; it would have been very easy for the screenwriters to treat the Muppet characters as some sort of characters from a fictional world, come to our world to solve some problems or just here to cause mayhem. Instead the movie treated the characters just as the show had always treated them: as a group of living, breathing weirdos inhabiting the same world as ordinary humans, as “real” as anybody else.
Don’t Shift the Focus: I’m not saying you can’t focus on a minor character — I think a lot of Batman fans would have been quite happy to see a movie centered around the actual Catwoman. What I mean is don’t shift the focus from the characters and settings that the source material focused on. Lots of adaptations pull this stunt, often in a desire to make it more “relatable” by taking a show that’s not set on Earth and having the characters come to Earth, or by taking a show that’s about a cartoon animal and focusing on their human owner. What the screenwriters are overlooking here is that the source material was already a success — or they wouldn’t be likely to be interested in it — and therefore the audience already was able to relate to it. Even if it wasn’t set on Earth, or wasn’t about humans. Generations of fans had already fallen in love with the Looney Tunes and would have loved a well-crafted movie based on them; there was no need for Space Jam to center around the story of Michael Jordan’s mid-life crisis. (There we go; I feel better now.)
Similarly, The Smurfs had no particular need to bring them to New York City. Peyo had constructed a fairly large and expansive world for them to interact with already. Why not explore that world? You want human actors, why not use the already-existing characters of Johann and Peewit? Masters of the Universe almost gets a pass here, since Earth had already been established in the cartoon as being part of the same reality as Eternia (Adam’s mother had traveled from Earth via a portal), so it almost works there. Except the film focuses on a couple humans from Earth as much as it does on He-Man himself. None of the kids going to the theatre to watch that film were doing so in order to see Courtney Cox; they were there for He-Man. It’s not a huge problem, since he still holds most of the focus, but there is the question of why the shift was necessary at all.
It’s difficult to think of films that don’t violate this rule in some form or another, at least when the source material is distinctly off-Earth or non-human to begin with. Transformers is Earth-centric, but the franchise always was. There are, in truth, not a lot of franchises which aren’t Earth-centric to begin with — but that just makes it all the more a shame when those franchises are given movies which shift their focus.
Know Why It Has Its Fans: And respect and honor that. The existing fans are your first audience, they’re the ones you don’t have to sell the movie to if you do things right. And they are the first and best advertising you have, and not only do you not have to pay for it, if you do things right they’ll pay you. But if you do things wrong they will, very vociferously, start tearing down the reputation of your movie. You want to appease the fans; they are the reason you’re making the film. You want to take their money. And you won’t be able to if you don’t pay attention to just why they love the source material. I’m not saying you can’t change things now and then. Certainly any novel being adapted requires you to do some trimming, and certain tweaks and embellishments here and there are often appreciated. A tank-like Batmobile may not be the classic take, but it won over the fans. Purists will insist that Spider-Man built his web-shooters, but the organic ones didn’t change the flow of the story much. And if you’re not adapting a specific story (e.g., you’re adapting the character of Batman and not the novel The Hobbit), you’ll probably want to tell a new story. All of those are fine changes to make.
There are plenty of riskier changes. Among these are shifts to the genre, such as taking the TV drama 21 Jump Street and making a comedy out of it, or giving Jonah Hex supernatural elements. Or taking the hero from a TV series and making him the villain of your movie, while you launch a new hero for your new franchise. Removing, adding, or sometimes even just highlighting certain characters can change how the audience perceives the adaptation. None of these guarantee the fans won’t approve, of course; but it’s always something to pay attention to.
The thing to ask, at all stages, is if the audience will love what you’re giving them. If they already love it from the source material, you’ve got your start right there. Do your Transformers have distinct looks and personalities, both good guys and bad? No? Then you’re losing a little bit of love right there. Is your Peter Parker a nerdy lovable loser who realizes that with great power comes great responsibility? Then you’re doing all right. Always check the source material. Know what the fans love. Check against it. Is your Middle Earth beautiful and expansive? Do you make us believe a man can fly? Are your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles teenagers, mutants, ninjas, and turtles? Does your Hulk… smash? (Seriously, how did Ang Lee miss that one?)
And if you must make changes, first ask yourself if what you’re taking away is something the fans love. And if the answer is yes, ask if what you’re replacing it with is something else they’ll love in its stead. And be honest. Don’t just assume the fans will “chill” or that they won’t notice. Because they’ll notice. And they won’t chill unless you’ve delivered something else they can love. And the best way to be able to answer the questions on what the fans love? Love the source material yourself. Be a fan. Want this to be right as much as the other fans want it to be right. Because really, if you don’t, why are you are even involved?