The image of a young woman lying naked on a bed of red rose petals in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty has become one of the most iconic in 90s cinema. It’s the erotic daydream of a narcissistic, middle-aged man whose chance to escape banal suburban life is wrapped up in thoughts of sex with a teenage girl. If this idea wasn’t troubling enough in 1999, that he’s played with relish by Kevin Spacey only heightens its unease today.
Daydreams can be a useful device for filmmakers, helping to expose the friction between who we are and how we want to appear. They are egocentric, allowing characters to live out their suppressed feelings without empathy. Unsurprisingly then, the erotic male daydream routinely objectifies women, repurposing the female image for an exclusively male fantasy. Used shrewdly this familiar motif can meaningfully lay bare the dissonance between male and female desire. But American Beauty is too busy saying something else about stagnated happiness and unfulfilled ambition.
Angela, the film’s teenage cheerleader is an aspiring model. Seeing this seductive image of herself reflected in the eyes of Spacey’s Lester, she happily resides in, and encourages, his fantasy. But when the chance to have sex with him materializes at the end of the film, the cracks and complications in her desire become clear. Nervously, she tells Lester she’s a virgin. His fantasy crashes into reality and we feel the depth of his inadequacy.
Lester has never considered the perspective of a teenage girl.
Rather ironically, Mendes makes a similar lapse. After waiting so long to unmask the fragility (and passivity) of Angela’s own desires, Mendes turns them into a teachable moment for Lester before dismissing her almost entirely.
In the same year that the male-centric American Beauty took home five Oscars, Sofia Coppola made the harmful consequences of male fantasy the foundation of her feature film debut. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, her The Virgin Suicides reveals the shared experience of adolescent boys who watch, fantasize and lust after five Lisbon sisters living across the street. The tragic suicide pact of these teenage girls shakes the foundations of the community and leaves the boys – now grown men – with a grief they cannot subdue.
They blame themselves.
And with good reason. The boys’ romantic obsession – a mixture of hotblooded adolescent infatuation and anxiety – prevents them from seeing the girls as they are. Using low contrast film stock and vintage lenses from the golden age of Hollywood, the film is infused with a heady glow and nostalgic grain. Daydream sequences are inspired by 70s Playboy fantasies, steeped in romantic cliche and reproduced with dreamy lighting, slow motion, and extreme close-ups. Floaty images of the girls dissolve into each other. It’s an intoxicating illusion. No wonder that, when the girls eventually reach out for help, the boys’ sexual urges override their empathy. “These girls make me crazy, if I could just feel one of them up, just once,” says Chase, before glimpsing Bonnie’s dead body, hanging from the ceiling.
Both The Virgin Suicides and American Beauty depict young women desperate to escape the confines of suburbia, while middle aged men pine for their lost youth. But, twenty years on, American Beauty offers little more than broad gender stereotypes, while The Virgin Suicides actively challenges them. The film’s opening sequence – which contrasts women chatting together with a father and son barbecuing – establishes the gender conventions that detach and distance the characters from each other; that make the retreat into fantasy inevitable.
From behind the titles, Lux Lisbon – the object of the boys’ naive fantasies – appears in the clouds and winks. It’s as if she knows the film will demolish our fetishized perception of young women. And Coppola challenges the lack of empathy underpinning this from the very beginning: “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl,” says Cecilia to the dismissive middle aged man sent to help her following the first suicide attempt. Despite outward appearances, these suffocated young women are desperate to live – eager to explore their own desires and attractions – and Coppola liberates them from the novel’s male perspective. A cookie cutter shot-within-shot reveals a boy’s name inscribed on Lux’s underwear. And events, unseen by the narrators, play out with poignant authenticity. Unlike Lester and the boys, Coppola cannot help seeing the girls as they really are.
The tragic disconnect between the men’s heavy-hearted, past-tense narration and the impulsive romanticism of their boyhood creates a peculiar space in which the Lisbon sisters will always be young and beautiful. But Coppola makes their craving more complicated than sex, reflecting a nostalgic yearning for the mysteries and possibilities of adolescence. As boys, the narrators endlessly fantasize about the Lisbon sisters; as men, they spend decades trying to understand them. Whether they can escape their egocentric fantasies remains uncertain, but this timeless film exists as their imperfect act of catharsis.
What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.
Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.
If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.
When Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation arrived in cinemas in 2005, it competed for the hearts and minds of an audience still attached to the iconic BBC television series from Andrew Davies and Simon Langton ten years earlier. Their’s was a comprehensive six hour adaptation; but Wright had just over two. Here are some of the ways Joe Wright makes his film adaptation stand out.
“The two BBC versions are seminal — the second one was the most successful BBC drama ever – but we were intent on making a big-screen version, one that doesn’t conform to the television drama stereotypes of a perfect clean Regency world.”
Film requires grander visual scale than television and Wright turns this to his advantage by shooting entirely on location. Many of the novel’s key scenes take place inside where the stuffy interiors provide the backdrop to its examination of class and manners. But Wright transfers them outdoors, where story is communicated by light and weather instead.
The film opens at dawn. Mist transforms into golden morning light. A new chapter is about to open in Elizabeth’s life: an idea made flesh as she turns the pages of a book. This lighting choice is echoed in the film’s climactic scene, as Lizzy begins a new life with Darcy.
In contrast to this etherial glow, Darcy’s first, unsuccessful, proposal takes place during a cloudburst that’s symbolic of his emotional outpouring and Elizabeth’s impulsive rejection. Heavy rain intensifies the passionate atmosphere and accelerates the pace – Elizabeth arrives at the encounter already drenched and out of breath, her moment of respite abruptly shattered by Darcy’s unwanted intrusion. His romantic ambition doused in cold water, Darcy makes a swift exit.
By connecting Elizabeth with the natural environment, Joe Wright seems to borrow from the Brontës. Lizzy is Cathy Earnshaw’s kindred spirit, perfectly at one with the elements. In echoes of William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, she soaks up the views, her coat billowing in the wind.
Lizzy’s spirit cannot be contained.
“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”
JANE AUSTEN, Pride & Prejudice
“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.”
JANE AUSTEN, Pride & Prejudice
“My goodness, did you see her hem? Six inches deep in mud. She looked positively medieval.”
JOE WRIGHT’S Pride & Prejudice adaptation
When Lizzy arrives at neighbouring Netherfield manner for the first time, she brings the outside in. Her relaxed appearance makes stark contrast with the formality of the reception offered by Darcy and Caroline Bingley. Joe Wright takes this connection between Lizzie and nature and suffuses it throughout his entire Pride and Prejudice adaptation.
“I wanted a sense of the elements, of mud and rain. It occurred to me that love is an elemental force, and I wanted to set it in the context of the other elements. It seemed to me that if Elizabeth had a very earthbound existence, then her aspiration for romantic love would be all the more heroic. She’s got her feet in the mud, and she’s reaching for the stars. I think it’s a heroic story.”
But some Austen fans thought the film’s muddy aesthetic was excessive. Cows, pigs and chickens populate the grounds of the Bennet’s family home. In the opening moments, the camera moves through their chaotic environment. The physical disarray reflects the messy impropriety of Lizzy’s mother and sisters and brings the stiff, museum-like architecture of the aristocratic classes into sharp relief.
Joe Wright beats down the formality of the novel and its traditional adaptations. The Bennets are warm and relatable, their emotions barely masked.
“”I believe that when people do period films they are reliant on paintings from the period, because there is no photography. But in a painting, everything is formally composed; it’s not real life. Then they do wide shots to show off the period detail of the sets. I think that the detail is in the small things, like crumbs on a table, or flowers in a vase.”
“”We’re proud to say there was absolutely no make-up used on Pride & Prejudice. We would cover any obvious blemishes but otherwise we literally pinched their cheeks and off they went. It was a decision between the director, Joe Wright, and I that make-up should not be seen on camera. I banned hairspray on Pride & Prejudice because it wasn’t invented yet. We got all the girls to grow their eyebrows and nobody wore mascara except for Kelly Reilly, to show the contrast between London’s high society and our country bumpkins.”
“That’s why there are so many closeups. Jane Austen observes people very carefully and closely: so that was the cinematic equivalent of her prose. I like closeups very much indeed. I think studying the human face on that kind of scale is one of the enduring pleasures of film.”
Vulnerability is the film’s modus operandi. There’s a youthful girlishness to Keira Knightely’s performance that connects her with sillier sisters, Lydia and Kitty, and reveals the emotional consequences of her impulsivity. At times, Lizzie hardly seems to know herself and she is evidently rattled by Darcy’s slights.
The film’s soft light is appropriate for an adaptation that smooths away the characters’ hard edges. Darcy’s transformation is less metamorphosis than blossoming: a gradual loosening of a tightly wound disposition. Matthew MacFadyen plays down Darcy’s snobbery and reveals, through softly spoken dialogue, a general unease in his own skin. The relaxation of his nerves, the calming of his social anxiety, is signalled through a loosening of his wardrobe – a literal unbuttoning that’s reminiscent of Colin Firth’s own iconic wet shirt almost twenty-five years ago.
What did you think of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation? Let me know in the comments….
Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is available to rent digitally and to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray. Find out more at Focus Features.
What to read next…
What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.
Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.
If you’re short on time, try these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.
“What do you think are the most crucial ingredients for a successful film adaptation?”
“And how much allegiance do you think an adaptation owes to its source material?”
“What’s the boldest or most off the wall adaptation you’ve seen and do you think they pulled it off?”
I’ve been interviewed by the wonderful screenwriter and copywriter, Sarah Thomas. You can find all of my answers to these questions (and more) on her website Sarah Thomas Storyteller. And don’t forget to drop your answers in the comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
How did simple film adaptions balloon into vast multi-platform franchise adaptations? And how are studios and filmmakers using transmedia storytelling to build both vast fictional worlds and brands? Why do young adult novels make great franchise source material? And are mega franchises – like Marvel, Star Wars and Harry Potter – changing film criticism? In my A-Z of Adaptations, B is for Blockbusters.
“If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and film alone, you’re wrong,”
Linda Hutcheon, A Theory Of Adaptation
In the last two decades, evolving digital media has changed the way we create, consume and interact with fiction. James Bond, Jason Bourne and Harry Potter are no longer simply book characters but brands. Audiences are global. Fans are thirsty for participation. And media conglomerates are designing elaborate strategies, across multiple platforms to fuel their fandom and cultivate new enthusiasts. The language around franchise adaptations is relatively new and erratic but it is clear that we have entered into a “convergence culture” in which books, films, television, video games and social media are intersecting to create superabundant universes whose narratives resolve only briefly and with little finality. Marvel, in particular, has a reputation for bringing its characters back from the dead.
The concept of ‘transmedia’ has emerged from this din, not yet fully formed but capable of articulating the shift in adaptation away from relatively simple one-off translations (from book-to-screen, for example, or stage-to-screen) to more complex, multi-directional, multi-platform storytelling. Put simply, transmedia storytelling describes the process of telling one complete story through multiple platforms, each of which contributes new information. Henry Jenkins, the originator of the concept, explains in his book Convergence Culture: “a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction”.
Transmedia is also used to describe the simultaneous, multi-platform marketing productions that support major film releases today – campaigns that go beyond traditional licensing efforts to engage fans in a wide-reaching story world. In the video below, interactive designer Alvin Groen explains how his team created “an immersive, multi-channel narrative” to promote and grow audiences in advance of the first Hunger Games movie. The campaign on Facebook, Tumblr and Youtube, “allowed fans to become citizens of Panem and advance the campaign’s narrative through their own actions”. This is not adaptation in the time-honoured sense, where ‘original’ (book) and ‘adaptation’ (film) exist fairly independently of each other and their merchandising. Instead, adaptation has become multi-textual, the separate fictions coming together to form a complete narrative unit – a sort of atom in which the multi-platform backstories and sub-plots are electrons whirling around the film’s nucleus.
Transmedia campaigns offer multiple points of access to the story world – multiple points of discovery – engaging and drawing in the widest possible audience. They provide opportunities for video gamers, readers and social media users to cross-pollinate, transfer and converge. “Everything about the structure of the modern entertainment industry was designed with this single idea in mind – the construction and enhancement of entertainment franchises,” writes Jenkins. Economics and entertainment are in constant tension.
1. CHASING THE BIG BUCKS
The opportunities of the digital age arrived at a period of intense commodification in the film industry. “Movie spectaculars have existed since the silent films and have always had a close relationship with literary works,” writes adaptation theorist Timothy Corrigan in his book Film and Literature, but it wasn’t until the mid 70s that both art forms became “enmeshed in the commercial shapes that determined their artistic possibilities”. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, Corrigan argues that “the restructuring of the film industry through conglomerates and media giants has major consequences for film and literature,” the “cultural and aesthetic values” of these art forms becoming “overshadowed” by their financial worth.
It was during this time that the sequel (an adaptation by expansion or extension of the fictional world) became a Hollywood staple. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (itself adapted from the novel by Peter Benchley) kicked off the summer blockbuster phenomenon in 1975, swiftly followed by Jaws 2 in 1978. And with the unexpected success of Star Wars: Episode IV in 1977, came a realisation that movie concepts could be adapted into mass-market merchandise (what theorists today call ‘tie-intertextuality’). Kenner bought the rights to Star Wars toys for $100,000 and children around the globe began adapting Star Wars through play. When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, “they made it very clear… that they were spending $4 billion for two things — No. 1, the intellectual property rights to make more Star Wars movies, and No. 2, to increase the amount of merchandise,” said Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm’s former director of specialty marketing. Franchise adaptations – a series of different stories within the same universe, evolving organically through expansions and extensions, sequels, prequels and spin-offs – were here to stay.
The twenty-first century has seen blockbusters bloat and swell into huge ‘tent-pole’ films, so called because their high earnings prop up the rest of their studio’s slate. In the 20 years between 1999 and 2018, big film budgets – those greater than $100 million – increased as a proportion of all US releases from 4% to 12%, while mid-budget films declined by a similar proportion. When tent-poles work the rewards are great, but these obscene financial investments also present huge risks and this creates an environment in which studios seek to “capitalise on clearly pre-established properties… or establish new ones in an endlessly renewable series,” says Kyle Meikle, author of Adaptations in the Franchise Era.
We need look no further back than 2019 for evidence of adaptation paying off. On its whopping $400 million production budget, Avengers: Endgame made $2.8 billion at the worldwide box office, while The Lion King made $1.6 billion on its $260 million investment. The remaining eight films in the 2019 worldwide box office top ten were all sequels, remakes or parts of wider film universes: Frozen II, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel, Joker, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, Toy Story 4,Aladdin and Jumanji: The Next Level. Only three of these franchises – The Lion King, Star Wars and Toy Story – began their life as original films. The rest are adaptations of fairy tales, comics and children’s books.
At its worst, the economic imperative leads to unmitigated content creation. The last five years of cinema has been defined by unnecessary shot-for-shot remakes. Since Kenneth Branagh’s box office hit Cinderella in 2015, Disney has been rampantly remaking its animated classics as live action films. And, in the wake of their acquisition of 21st Century Fox in 2019, came Disney’s decision to reboot Home Alone, Night At The Museum and Planet of the Apes. This trend for re-making is the least ambitious form of adaptation. It requires only changes in context and occasionally technique (from animation to live action, for instance, or vice versa).
Elephantine franchises – like Star Wars, Marvel and Harry Potter – on the other hand, involve intricately co-ordinated, multi-textual, multi-platform adaptations. Marvel even has its own self-titled ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ or MCU. Its slate is so abundant – connecting the independent story strands of its numerous superheroes (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) in its wider Avengers universe – that it is organised in phases. Each phase offers a number of tent-pole films or ‘instalments’ – some telling different, relatively separate stories, others tied together more tightly in the telling of the same story – and each surrounded by their own bubble of transmedia campaigning.
If that wasn’t enough, film studios are now expanding their story worlds between tent-pole releases through further adaptation in other platforms. Marvel have developed storylines in tie-in comics and connected television series. Indeed, the very structure of modern media conglomerates who “hold interests across a range of what were once distinct media industries” operates as “an incentive to spread its brand or expand its franchises across as many different media platforms as possible,” writes Jenkins. Over time, the references and interconnections become labyrinthine, the franchises distended and amorphous.
2. LOCKING DOWN INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Meikle uses Harry Potter to demonstrate the length and breadth of multi-textual adaptations in the franchise model. The first novel, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, was released in 1997 and adapted into film in 2001. It spawned a further six books and seven films. In 2016 the franchise was expanded in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. It was the first of a new five film series and “a somewhat surprising commitment, given that the source material was little more than a tie-in textbook sold (along with the equally slim invented history Quidditch Through The Ages) to benefit the UK charity Comic Relief,” writes Meikle.
In the same year, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – a two part stage play about Potter’s son and now rumoured for film adaptation – opened in London. Meanwhile, the Harry Potter universe was expanding laterally with the 2012 release of the interactive online experience Pottermore. Interactivity has been a staple part of the franchise since the release of the first LEGO sets in 2001. The first LEGO Harry Potter video game arrived in 2010. And, since the opening of the London Studio Tour in 2012 fans have been able walk through the film’s sets. Today, Orlando theme park, Wizarding Worlds, also offers fans the chance to ride through the Harry Potter universe. For Meikle, the adaptation of Harry Potter suggests adaptation is no longer simply book-to-film but “a process of endless intertextual citation”.
But Harry Potter isn’t the first literary character to exist in an ever-expanding universe. Sherlock Holmes stepped from the page to the stage in 1899. He appeared in an early Mutoscope film in 1900 and a series of silent films in the 1920s. The concept was rebooted for film audiences in the early 1930s and again in 1939, with Holmes played by Basil Rathbone in a series of 14 films. Holmes arrived on television sets in 1965, again in the 1980s and 2010s, this time with the characters also interacting on social media. In the last eleven years, Holmes has been revived in the action genre (played by Robert Downey Jr), the comedy genre (Will Ferrell) and the grey pound drama (Ian McKellan). He was animated in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective and again in Miyazaki’s Sherlock Hound. In 2007 Holmes became a playable character in a series of video games.
Sherlock Holmes is a part of our cultural consciousness but his various appearances are disparate, disconnected and often inconsistent. Like Potter, Holmes’ universe has multiple points of entry but the independent instalments are not bound by the rules of fidelity; new storytellers are free to ignore, overwrite or reshape what has come before. Franchising, by comparison, offers codification; consistency, conformity, stability. Through “twenty-first franchising,” says Meikle, studios are able to organise their intellectual properties into “official constellations, affiliated, incorporated, and copyrighted through the business of horizontal and vertical integration”. Brand-building through “legality,” writes Meikle, is “a major way that franchise adaptations gained meaning,” in the twenty-first century.
Only last year, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep (and sequel to The Shining) faced the intractable challenge of remaining faithful to both Stephen King’s novels and Stanley Kubrick’s very different take on the material in his 1980s classic film. It’s this kind of conflict that franchising aims to prevent. And, in order for franchise adaptations to be sustainable over an extended period of time, it is vital that their creators think carefully about how the various narrative elements, across all platforms and phases, cohere and connect.
Jenkins has argued that franchises are most coherent when heralded from start to finish by a single creator or group of creators (although this idea has been called into question by critics of Star Wars episodes I, II and III and theFantastic Beasts series). But, when expanding their story worlds across unfamiliar platforms, even the most imaginative and talented creatives must embrace the experience of others. Writing in 2006, Jenkins highlighted the growing importance of co-creation – a shift away from simplistic licensing arrangements which typically produce work that is “redundant,” “watered down,” or “riddled with sloppy contradictions,” to a scenario in which “the companies collaborate from the beginning to create content they know plays well in each of their sectors”.
He points to The Matrix and the Wachowskis’ awareness of, “co-creation as a vehicle for expanding their potential global market, bringing in collaborators whose very presence evoked distinct forms of popular culture from other parts of the world”. Their use of Asian animators, for instance, and their Hong Kong fight choreographer, Woo-ping Yuen; their multiracial cast and Australian costume designer. As we might expect, Disney (whose acquisition, not only of the intellectual properties of 21st Century Fox but also Star Wars and Marvel, make them the biggest franchise operator in the business) are acutely alert to the benefits of co-creation too. In 2019 they employed “a popular in-house writer for China Literature” – an online platform with 217 million monthly active users – to author their first Chinese Star Wars novel.
3. GOOD TRANSMEDIA STORYTELLING
The economic imperative to keep expanding content is strong and Jenkins is not alone in arguing that typically, “franchise products are governed too much by economic logic and not enough by artistic vision”. “In reality,” he writes, “audiences want the new work to offer new insights and new experiences.” Transmedia products are often viewed as secondary to the tent-pole film release. But to perceive them as a marketing strategy is to overlook and undervalue their entertainment potential. Theorist, Siobhan O’Flynn notes that despite the huge market share of video games, those adapted from films are largely perceived as film merchandising. This “does a marked disservice to the fan interest in console games,” she writes, especially given the success of titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which reached sales of $1 billion faster than James Cameron’s Avatar.
In good transmedia franchises “reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption,” says Jenkins. But, in order for this to happen, the works must have “enough depth that they can justify such large scale efforts”. This means becoming more than just a ploy to “monetize new content” or funnel audiences into the multiplex. Instead good transmedia storytelling satisfies the demand for audience interaction emerging from a digital information society that’s increasingly dependent on “collective intelligence”.
“In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling,” says Jenkins, “each medium does what it does best,” and each “entry needs to be self contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa”. “The Wachowskis played the transmedia game very well,” he writes, “putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fans’ hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the computer game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to a conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, and then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game.”
When the volume of transmedia products is so high, it becomes impossible for consumers to engage with everything and the experience becomes highly individualistic. The selected texts come together in different ways for different consumers – accessed in different sequences and combinations. And each new text changes the possible meanings of those before it. In order to fully understand these immense fictional universes, consumers must pool their resources. Often this results in vast online communities where the subjectivity of the experience fuels debate.
Crucially, the Wachowskis didn’t just seek to expand their audience, but “used these inter-texts to create a much more emotionally nuanced and complicated story,” says Jenkins. He explains how a “major turning point” in the franchise occurs “not on screen for a mass audience but in a game for a niche public” and that the experience of playing as a character in the game creates “an intense bond” that illuminates choices in the film.
The challenge for transmedia creators is finding how to “trigger a search for meaning” – how to spark consumer desire for a deep-dive into their fictional worlds. “Increasingly,” writes Jenkins, “elements are dropped into the films to create openings that will only be fully exploited through other media”. Good transmedia stories are encyclopaedic, not only immersive but extractable; eminently quotable and replete with ‘things’ ripe for merchandising. The Wachowskis succeeded by creating a world pregnant with mythology and philosophy, scattering the transmedia landscape with gaps and references, and by refusing to give fans definitive answers, pushing them even closer together online.
4. WE BECOME PROSUMERS
“Younger consumers have become informational hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise,” writes Jenkins. Transmedia storytelling has made this information gathering an increasingly social activity and “viewers get even more out of the experience if they compare notes and share resources than if they try to go it alone”. But this fictional landscape – in which multiple access points and labyrinthine intertextuality stimulates diverse interpretations and vast online communities – is changing the way we think about the ownership of ideas. By inviting audiences to participate in the creation of story through puzzle solving, transmedia creatives have inadvertently devolved ownership of the story’s meaning. For media conglomerates eager to lock down their intellectual properties, it’s one hell of an unintended consequence.
“What was once a one-way conversation controlled by authorised producers of content is now a multi-channel networked exchange between communities of fans and content producers where the expectation is that producers will respond to and accommodate fans,” writes O’Flynn. In March 2020 social media erupted in disproval of the latest Artemis Fowl trailer, with film critic Ben Child leaping in to declare: “What’s surprising here is not that Hollywood appears to have got Artemis Fowl (or at least its marketing) so wrong, but that studios still haven’t woken up to the importance of fan service in 2020.” The fans criticised the main character who conflicted with their own impression of the novels. As they reinforced the flawed idea that film adaptations should remain faithful to the original novel, they were also asserting the value of their own interpretation of that original, busting the myth that stories are owned by their original creators (in this case author, Eoin Colfer). Their yearning for fidelity and consistency might, on the face of it, appear to suit the franchise model, but vocal and vehement fans are not stopping there.
In the fourteen years since Jenkins’ study, the growth of social media has only fuelled our “hypersociability” and desire for participation. If franchising and transmedia storytelling emerged, in part, from the desire of studios to expand and cement their brands, it has also had an unintended side effect in evolving fans from consumers to ‘prosumers’ who produce and customise their own content through participatory transmedia, including “fan vids, fan fiction, fan art, mash-ups, remixes, sweding and cosplay,” says Meikle. “Fans expect to be able to play with and adapt content and arguably, in the digital era, being a fan is demonstrated by the extent to which one adapts and generates” content, writes O’Flynn. “The reach and connectivity of the Internet have given fans today leverage as collaborators” and “unwillingly positioned” intellectual property owners “as reactive to the ebb and flow of changing social phenomena”.
How studios deal with fan produced content – essentially breaches of their stringent copyright – has come to define them. O’Flynn suggests they have two principal options: “the economics of scarcity and plentitude. In the first the corporation retains complete control… believing value and revenue depend on the scarcity of content, and in the second, corporations realise they “have a right to retain copyright but they have an interest in releasing it.”” Indeed, given that fan involvement has become such a strong element in franchise development and longevity, O’Flynn asks, “If your production has not generated fan adaptations, what are you doing wrong?”.
In the franchise age, corporate capitalism constantly conflicts with the democratisation of stories through fan interaction and prosumerism. And, while fans fuel the corporate flame with an intense desire for more franchise products, our natural preference for the original often leaves those sequels coming up short. O’Flynn notes that even in “the phenomenon of fan remakes… paradoxically, fidelity is desired and simultaneously unimportant,” with the official story prevailing over unofficial fan offerings. Her analysis of the negative reactions to the edits, made by George Lucas, to the original Star Wars films in 1997 and 2011, “reveal the depth of fan loyalty to the original releases and the perceived value of fidelity to that original content.” Even George Lucas cannot re-write the canon.
5. HOW TO BUILD WORLDS
Sustaining an enormous number of transmedia products and providing the space for an interactive, subjective, ‘prosumer’ fan experience requires the creation of a vast fictional world. “More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted in single work or even a single medium,” says Jenkins. But the explosion of franchise adaptations in the last two decades is linked to the advances in special effects that make this world-building possible. Today, CGI offers filmmakers more storytelling opportunities, enabling “detailed realizations of the fantastic beasts and expensive environments at the centre of most fictional series like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games,” writes Meikle. Cinema is finally capable of indulging us in a fantastic vision of the immense story worlds in The Lord Of The Rings, Marvel and DC Comics.
Indeed, a staggering number of transmedia franchise adaptations are based on stories for children and young adults prompting Meikle to ask, “why did adaptations – so often associated with lofty literary ambition – regress as such in the franchise era?” The answer might lie in their appeal to our innate playfulness and imagination. “Perhaps,” speculates Meikle, this material “emphasizes interactivity in a way that grown-up content does not”.
Meikle concludes Adaptations in the Franchise Era, by exploring the video game LEGO Dimensions. It draws together LEGO’s vast catalogue of licences from Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings to Mission Impossible. It’s a self titled “multiverse,” a huge, amorphous web of intertextuality; a gratifying bubble of pop culture that delivers a barrage of in-jokes that play with and reward our fandom. It’s little wonder that a generation raised on a diet of Star Wars action figures, movie merchandise and information technologies, seeks as adults to participate in story universes that provide space for fan content, social interactions and knowledge building. “The world is bigger than the film, bigger even than the franchise – since fan speculations and elaborations expand the world in a variety of ways,” writes Jenkins.
“World-making creates its own market logic, at a time when filmmakers are as much in the business of creating licensed goods as they are in telling stories,” he writes, “Each truly interesting element can potentially yield its own product lines.” But the shift away from an emphasis on plots and characters in franchise adaptions to ‘worlds’ or ‘universes’, reveals a delicate symbiosis at work. Digital effects make their immense fictional worlds finally filmable, presenting new (if expensive) possibilities. Yet the “pre-awareness” that adaptation brings also reduces the risks associated with this financial investment. And so, in the 2000s, writes Meikle, “the steady advancement of special effects both spurred the creation of franchise adaptations and ensured their survival.” Now, in the age of streaming services, epic, visual worlds also make the best use of the advances in technology – from 3D to IMAX and 4DX – that entice audiences into theatres. As an added bonus, these “premium formats,” writes Meikle, allow “studios to charge higher prices.”
6. ARE FRANCHISE ADAPTATIONS SUSTAINABLE?
Some franchise worlds, like Marvel or X-Men, are now so immense that it can be hard for audiences to keep up with the bare minimum of their transmedia products (see the abundance of characters in the Avengers: Endgame poster below). These franchises go beyond encouraging their audiences to pool knowledge in fan communities and now require audiences to do ‘homework’ – watching every tent-pole movie, even re-watching and revising. “The old Hollywood system depended on redundancy to ensure that viewers could follow the plot at all times, even if they were distracted or went out to the lobby for a popcorn refill during a crucial scene,” writes Jenkins, “The new Hollywood demands that we keep our eyes on the road at all times, and that we do research before we arrive at the theatre”.
In his Transmedia Storytelling 101, Jenkins explains that “this is a very different pleasure than we associate with the closure found in most classically constructed narratives, where we expect to leave the theatre knowing everything that is required to make sense of a particular story”. These vast fictional worlds actually encourage our “encyclopaedic impulse… we are drawn to master what cannot be known about a world which always expands beyond our grasp”. But this approach may only succeed for a niche audience.
The more intricate transmedia storytelling becomes the more difficult it is to balance the desire of dedicated fans with casual movie-goers. “Could any film have matched the fan community’s escalating expectations and expanding interpretations and still have remained accessible to a mass audience?” asks Jenkins about the divisive final film in The Matrix trilogy. In 2019, The Hollywood Reporter claimed Chinese audiences were baffled by the “referential storytelling” and “complicated backstories” of the latest phase of Star Wars films, prompting Disney to undertake even more adaptation. They announced the translation of 40 authorised Star Wars novels for the Chinese market and one brand-new book featuring an original Chinese hero. This was a relatively low cost way of working up a fanbase, argued Forbes, in a market where the Star Wars franchise was relatively new and audiences had shown muted interest in the films. Adaptation became part of the ‘long-game’ in global franchise domination.
But Jenkins raises concerns about the potential narrowing of audiences when “too many demands” are placed on them. “There has to be a breaking point beyond which franchises cannot be stretched, subplots can’t be added, secondary characters can’t be identified and references can’t be fully realised,” he writes, “We just don’t know where it is yet”. In the 14 years since Jenkins wrote Convergence Culture, studios like Disney have tested these limits. In 2019, Marvel chief creative officer Kevin Feige revealed, “If you want to understand everything in future Marvel movies… you’ll probably need a Disney+ subscription, because events from the new shows will factor into forthcoming films.” His announcement prompted some fans to call time on the franchise. With Disney+ subscriptions costing $6.99 a month in the US and £5.99 in the UK, the franchise is asking a significant financial investment from its fans.
At first glance, the “narrative worlds” explored by Corrigan and Jenkins, that “become too large to be contained within a single medium,” suggest franchise landscapes are fuelled by hyper-creativity. But the reverse may actually be true. By producing too much content, studios may inadvertently close off the imaginative avenues open to fans and so crucial to the sustainability of their online communities. By the same token, locking down well-loved characters in legal arrangements arguably limits their potential, with tone changes available only at crucial ‘reboot’ phases. In the last decade, the action, comedy and drama ‘versions’ of the unincorporated Sherlock Holmes are more creatively diverse than those of Harry Potter or James Bond in the same period. Meanwhile, the organic, infinite evolution of franchises ensures that no character ever really dies and narratives never fully conclude. This environment creates a peculiar mindset in which it becomes hard to evoke jeopardy or a sense of lasting consequences. As Film Crit Hulk puts it in his article Avengers: Infinity War and Marvel’s Endless Endgame:
“After 10 years of unparalleled success [Marvel have] managed to inherit the same exact problems of critical mass that plague [the comic book] industry. Endless cycles. Confusing timelines. Continuity issues. Basic bloat. Feints of death. This isn’t the infinity war; this is the infinity loop. And the MCU had the opportunity to avoid all that. But thanks to its unparalleled success, they took on the same exact problems of comics instead. But that’s how fear tends to work. You cannot rock with the idea of making billions and billions in profit.”
7. IS FRANCHISE CULTURE CHANGING OUR PERCEPTION OF ADAPTATION AND FILM CRITICISM?
The history of blockbusters has always been intertwined with adaptation but, for Meikle, something changed in the early 2000s when adaptation began to lend “film franchises some of the respectability that they had lacked in the decades prior.” Today, it stretches beyond ‘book’ and ‘film’. The very process of adaptation – the changing of existing story material to fit new art forms, platforms or products – underpins the franchise model. Books become tent-pole films, tent-pole films inspire tent-pole sequels, prequels, spin-offs and reboots. Story material – perhaps just a character or a place – is further adapted into books, comics, fan-fiction, video-games or social media products. Sometimes this tells one complete story and is carefully co-ordinated at the outset – it is truly transmedia. At others it evolves organically over a long period of time, telling many stories within a vast universe of franchise adaptations.
“In franchise adaptations, books are always both books and movies, both toys and television, both television and movies, both movies and shows, both shows and rides,” writes Meikle, “the franchise adaptation is more like a house of mirrors: enjoyable in its distortions, disorientations, and unreliability.” The process of adaptation has made global franchise possible – facilitating and fuelling the saturation of the fictional world across all artistic platforms. Adaptation is the life-force of franchising.
“Not every story will go in this direction,” concedes Jenkins. But texts with an established fanbase, the potential for creative and spectacular visual world-building, encyclopaedic environments and back-stories, and an aura of literary value, are the golden ticket. This trend may have lasting consequences for film critics whose professional landscape is fundamentally transforming. “Most film critics are taught to think in terms of very traditional story structures,” wrote Jenkins in 2006, “If you look at [transmedia stories] by old criteria, these movies may seem more fragmented, but the fragments exist so that consumers can make the connections on their own time and in their own ways.” If the ‘best’ experience of the story is obtained through engaging with multiple platforms, should critics now go beyond the confines of films in order to review them? Can franchise movies ever really stand alone?
Increasingly, critics who give unfavourable reviews to franchise films are denigrated by the deeply engaged fan-base whose pooled knowledge it is becoming difficult for critics to ignore. As it turns out, Jenkins’ words in 2006 were staggeringly prescient: “Criticism may once have been the meeting of two minds – the critic and the author – but now there are multiple authors and multiple critics.”
The rise of transmedia franchises is changing the way we see adaptation too. Meikle notes how the fifteen years between 2001 and 2016, saw “the foundational binaries of adaptation criticism (original versus copy, book versus film, fidelity versus infidelity) shaken and stirred by the kinetic intertextuality of massive franchises.” For a field often caught in the crossfire between ‘literature’ and ‘film’ this is particularly liberating. Through the “intrinsic multiplicity” of franchises, adaptation is being restored from the damaging effects of a cultural hierarchy that has historically treated literature as most valuable and has seen film adaptation as a poor imitation. Debates about authorship are becoming more nuanced too, as fans take ownership of the fictional worlds they inhabit. “It may now be more appropriate,” writes Timothy Corrigan in Film and Literature, “to think of the relations between film and literature as less about texts and screens or about readers and viewers than about creative and interactive players.”
As teenage gangs and knife crime become familiar news stories, two exciting filmmakers expose the frenetic energy and naivety of youth by putting weapons in the hands of their fresh-faced casts. From Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) comes Monos, an extraordinary and atmospheric drama about the disintegration of a team of child soldiers.Monos took home the Official Competition prize for Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas today. Piranhas, works in the opposite direction focussing on the rise of a child gang or ‘paranza’. Piranhas also received its UK premier at LFF where I spoke to writer-director, Claudio Giovannesi (Alì Blue Eyes, Fiore) about his depiction of adolescence in the film. In this feature I explore how Monos and Piranhas portray this complicated transition and what they might tell us about teenage life today.
The teenagers in Monos use their semi-automatic rifles to guard an adult hostage on a remote Columbian mountainside. They are unpredictable, excitable, impulsive. Rarely visited by their military commanders, they revel in love, games and magic mushrooms, jubilantly firing their AK-47s in euphoric, hot-headed celebration. Knife-edge tension accompanies their volatility seen through the eyes of their mature hostage ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson) at the mercy of their every whim.
Monos has been interpreted as a meditation on the use of child soldiers and an examination of cult dynamics; a power struggle in the vein of Lord Of The Flies. Beneath this lies a much simpler story about the over-confidence of youth; about foolish mistakes with lasting consequences. Recklessness with their guns sets in motion a cataclysmic series of events that the young people cannot escape.
The same kind of frenetic energy bubbles through Claudio Giovannesi’s coming of age drama about teen gangs in Naples, Piranhas. On the roof of an apartment block this group of triumphant teenagers fire their own AK-47s at satellite dishes. This gleeful target practice, aided by Youtube videos, is masked by the ecstatic sound of fireworks. Based on Roberto Saviano’s novel, Piranhas took home a Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year.
Just as Monos builds tension from the conflict between the teenagers’ youthful exuberance and the seriousness of their task, Giovannesi suggests the irony of a drug dealing ‘paranza’ who still live at home with their parents. His attraction to the project lay in the “possibility to portray a series of teenagers who are constantly in a precarious balance, somewhere in between war and game, innocence and fierceness, unawareness, the lack of thoughtfulness and tragedy,” explained Giovannesi in conversation at the London Film Festival, “I found this kind of contradiction very poetic”. The poetry is echoed in the haunting portraiture of Monos, the camera closing in on fierce yet ambiguous shots of the characters’ faces imbued with Shakespearean intensity.
The sensual photography of Monos deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. But it’s the sound design – a hallucinogenic score from Mica Levi that’s fused into the film’s sound architecture with birdsong – that most effectively reveals the teenagers’ connection with their environment.
Landscape is vital to the depiction of adolescence in both films. The young people strut just as boldly through the narrow streets of Naples as the exposed hillsides of South America. The teenagers’ habitats not only reveal their confidence and resourcefulness, but also the edges of their comfort zones. Their experiences are intense but, ultimately, limited. For Giovannesi:
“The area in which the film is set is one of the protagonists because the whole struggle of the film, the whole conflict of the film, has to do with who has power over it. So it really is like a fairy tale with a kingdom that has to be conquered or retaken from the invaders. So of course what was very important was that the film was actually set in the areas where these stories happened and where the novel is set. And it is very important because you get a sense of the identities that the characters or the actors had in relation to the areas that they come from.”
His film is spoken entirely in Naples’ unique dialect. “In Italy when it came out in cinemas,” Giovannesi explains, “you needed to have Italian subtitles because no Italian would be able to follow the dialogue otherwise”. The way the characters move through the urban landscape evokes their chaotic, unpredictable energy. Giovannesi oscillates between a static frame crammed with the paranza and a moving camera that traces their motion. “If you think about their essence,” says Giovannesi, “it really has to do with movement and the lack of stasis or the lack of stillness.”
While Landes might suggest the impressionable nature of young minds to radical ideology, Giovannesi reveals their susceptibility to the everyday pressures of a consumerist society. His young men covet designer clothes and watches. Their jaws drop at the ostentatious homes of the local bosses. They too want to be seen; to have their own table at the best club in town. Once on top, the teenagers pour all their money into designer gear. They might be dealing drugs, shooting guns and committing murder, but their purchases reveal the wide-eyed immaturity of youth. Gifting the ageing Don Vittorio a widescreen TV and a Playstation, they entertain him with games while he’s under house arrest.
Self-appointed leader, Agostino, hankers after a t-shirt emblazoned with a set of wings. It’s rich with symbolism, suggesting both Agostino’s ‘coming of age’ and the rise of his paranza. As he explains in Saviano’s novel:
‘“It’s like taking someone else powers: it’s as if we’d captured an archangel, which is sort of like saying the boss of the angels, cut its throat, and taken its wings. It’s not the kind of thing that just happens along, it’s something we sweated for, that we fought hard for and won, and now it’s as if we were Archangel from the X-Men got it? It’s sort of like… something we achieved, got it?”’
Pop culture and social media is ever present, feeding and communicating the teenagers’ lifestyle. Don Vittorio asks why Agostino doesn’t try to become a footballer – ‘they’re rich’ – driving home the idea that the teenagers are looking for a shortcut. They are overconfident, lack experience and yet seek to fill a power vacuum left by outgoing mobsters two or three times their age. The story feels acutely relevant, symptomatic of a youth raised on X-Factor and Got Talent, conditioned to easy routes to fame.
Giovannesi explains his desire to “portray them as any other adolescents… with their whole world of social media, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, selfies”. Mobster movies inform their behaviour, shaping not only their aspirations but their very identities. Their naivety is charming, often funny, but it’s overlaid with a tragic sense that behaviour in youth defines adult futures.
Saviano, whose novel homes in on dialect and language, explores this through the teenagers’ nicknames or monikers. Don Vittorio explains that:
‘“It’s important what people call you. Your moniker is more important than your real name… If you want to command, you have to have a name that commands. It can be ugly, it can mean nothing, but it can’t be foolish.”’
The pressures faced by young people in establishing and defining their identities also runs through Monos. Indeed, Landes’ characters are known only by their nicknames: Wolf, Bigfoot, Lady, Rambo, Boom Boom, Dog, and Swede. Writing for Roger Ebert, Sheila O’Malley asks whether the sensitive Rambo’s “nom de guerre” might be “a mean-spirited tease imposed on her by the squadron”. “This is how “peer pressure” works in its most sinister state,” she explains, “If it’s hard for adults to stay their own course, then imagine how hard it is for teenagers.”
In both films, the young people negotiate subtle forms of intimidation, identity crises and shifting morality in their attempt to claim a piece of the adult world; taking chances and seizing the opportunities placed before them. The child soldiers in Monos declare “Doctora is ours now”; a power grab that smacks of a yearning for adulthood. Relocated from the thin air of the mountains to the intense, sticky claustrophobia of the jungle, the young people begin to lose command of their landscape, tipping towards chaos: a choice that’s earned the film comparisons to Apocalypse Now. Landes’ depiction of group mentality and dynamics stings with the anxieties of adolescence; the desire to fit in; the significance placed on bonds of friendship.
Blood and friendship lie at the centre of Saviano’s Piranhas novel too. Agostino seeks to build his paranza out of camaraderie and fellowship, the antithesis of mob families bound in blood: ‘the enemy of your enemy is your friend, aside from any issues of blood or relationships’ he thinks. By the end of the novel and Giovannesi’s film adaptation, Agostino will have learned the limitations of this thinking and experienced the pure, instinctive tug of family.
“Unlike the novel,” says Giovannesi, “what the film does is it focuses on the feelings and this huge sensitivity of the characters and that helps us see them not as criminals but as normal people that can be very close to us – our children, our brothers, our friends.” Tonally distinct, Piranhas and Monos close with shots that drive home their characters’ vulnerability and depth of feeling. For Landes, the film’s external conflict is a metaphor for the internal one beneath. “The conflict of adolescence and the actual conflict of war mirror each other,” he told Deadline.
What these films reveal is the perilous mixture of confidence and naivety that typify adolescence. By putting weapons in the hands of their young characters, Landes and Giovannesi amplify their chaotic energy; their ebullience; their impulsiveness. Crucially, the teenagers’ heedlessness and immaturity conflicts with the worldliness of the audience: will someone lose control? will there be an accident? The effect is near unbearable tension that reverberates longer and harder because it echoes a very real problem: that of youth knife crime.
The young characters remain green and raw at the end of both films; they are not yet ‘adults’ but have instead ‘come of age’ by way of their actions. “When you make a choice of that sort,” to take up arms and enter a paranza, explains Giovannesi, “there is no way out.” The weapons in Monos and Piranhas are a dangerous and tragic extension of ordinary youth.
More first look film reviews from this year’s BFI London Film Festival #LFF
Writer-director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) adapts Susanna Jones’ lightweight crime novel about a female translator accused of murder in Japan. Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) has lived in Tokyo for five years. She’s composed, capable and taciturn. The victim is a hopeless newcomer, a flirty, wide-eyed American blonde (Riley Keough). Their uneasy friendship, complicated by Lucy’s mysterious boyfriend Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), is the source of the film’s rising tension. It plays out in flashback from the police interrogation room.
Westmoreland borrows this difficult structure from the novel. Yet, while Lucy’s memories feel like interruptions on the page (the desire to return to the interrogation always pressing) Westmoreland’s immersive storytelling drags us deep into the past. He neatly swerves the novel’s half-remembered, dreamy sexual encounters to provide a more grounded depiction of sexual obsession and jealousy.
Alicia Vikander serves the material well with a performance that’s tantalisingly remote. She smoothes out Lucy’s hard edges – only occasionally is she piercing and indelicate – which opens up a chasm of ambiguity and doubt. Reserved, awkward body language reveals her vulnerability in sharp contrast with the physical ease and confidence of Keough’s Lily.
With a few structural tweaks, Westmoreland shifts the film towards a meditation on guilt and culpability. The classic ‘confession’ scene is used to land, not on who killed Lily, but on the genesis of Lucy’s current state of mind.
As he attempts to move into more sophisticated territory, Westmoreland continues to nod to the classic crime genre. Lucy is translating a detective show; song lyrics allude to death and killing. Yet for all his thematic efforts, it is surprising that Westmoreland (who has a track record of female led projects including Still Alice and Colette) allows the novel’s emphasis on female oppression to languish in the background.
With Earthquake Bird Westmoreland offers up a moody and superbly performed crime drama. His reimagining of this urban space is suitably atmospheric and he proves himself more than capable of building to a tension filled, climactic finale. Yet there remains a whiff of unfulfilled potential in the project which lacks the necessary substance to really take flight.
Earthquake Bird is in selected cinemas from 8th November and on Netflix from 15th November 2019.
This slow-burn debut reveals a striking new talent in writer-director Nathalie Biancheri. Her emotional drama, Nocturnal, traces an ambiguous relationship between a 16 year-old girl and an older man, Pete, played with intensity and sensitivity by rising star Cosmo Jarvis.
Jarvis, who appeared in the 2016 film Lady Macbeth opposite a fierce Florence Pugh, has been compared to Matthias Schoenaerts of Rust and Bone and Bullhead. Watching Nocturnal, it’s easy to see why. His bulky, rugged physical presence masks a fragile self-image and a deep undercurrent of feeling that seeps out in practiced conversations and gentle tears.
Before long, teenage Laurie (Lauren Coe) is infatuated but Pete’s motivations remain mysterious. Biancheri’s near square aspect ratio (reminiscent of Andrea Arnold) pushes us into greater intimacy with the characters and Nocturnal quickly becomes a heady, emotionally fraught experience.
Biancheri and co-writer Olivia Waring (Flora & Fauna) offer an interesting and original exploration of youthful indiscretions and their consequences; of love, family and intimacy. Both Laurie and Pete feel trapped in their lacklustre seaside town. In teasing out these threads Biancheri creates a compelling sense of place and a subtext that taps into modern concerns about social mobility and exclusion.
This week, The Film Version is setting up at home at the BFI London Film Festival. I don’t usually focus on reviews here, but I wanted to share some of my first impressions with you. If you’ve been to #LFF, have seen the films elsewhere or are keen to see them soon, drop me a line in the comments.
Two paramedics treat victims of a legal high that has dangerous, supernatural effects in this gloomy, low-key horror from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless, Spring). From its first medical scene, Synchronic sets itself apart from the fast paced emergency rooms of medical dramas. There’s a lethargy to Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) as they arrive at the home of an OD patient; a blasé reaction to a stab victim they find bleeding in the kitchen. Benson and Moorhead create a foggy, slowed-down, almost blurry impression of the scene as it unfolds. It’s an interesting style: one that reflects the film’s wider interest in time as a dimension of our existence.
Lifelong friends Dennis and Steve are both dissatisfied with their lives. Dennis has a teenage daughter he struggles to parent and a wife he no longer appreciates. Steve is still single. Late night drinking and one night stands bring him little joy. A plot twist gives Anthony Mackie something to work with here, but the self-obsessed Dennis provides a thankless role for Dornan. His persistent moaning feels unwarranted even before the film’s neat reality check.
Benson and Moorhead work hard to put modern life expectations in perspective by exploring the agonies of the past. They have ambitious and laudable aims here but the result feels thematically light, scratching the surface of something deeper. Nonetheless, the film is crammed with good ideas. The editing, for instance, is characterised by match and jump cuts that connect and divide time, disturbing our experience of reality. With its paramedics turned investigators, Synchronic reminiscent of The X-Files, a show it lovingly references. And, while the film’s science feels a little hokey, there’s enough going on here to make Synchronic solid, stylish entertainment.
MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND
Cinema is an audio-visual medium but the amount of time and effort spent talking and thinking about sound work pails in comparison to the visual. It’s this imbalance that Midge Costin and Bobette Buster seek to redress in their informative and passionate documentary, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.
The film opens inside a womb with the idea that ‘we emerged into consciousness using only sound’. Sight, by comparison, is the last of our senses to develop. That sound is therefore a crucial and instinctive guide to the world around us, is quickly reinforced by Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler, and master of cinematic storytelling, Steven Spielberg.
Making Waves is brimming with industry talent and sharp examples of the craft illustrate the role of sound in our interpretation of story. The opening to Saving Private Ryan, for instance, is used to illustrate how audio and visual can be used to tell two different stories. While the narrow frame of the image reveals a personal story, the battlefield sounds tell a larger contextual one.
From here Costin and Buster return to the silent film era, charting the development of sound work through mono and stereo to Dolby. Anchored by interviews with sound work innovators, from Ben Burtt (StarWars) to Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), Making Waves makes an excellent case for the power of cinematic sound. Simple graphics ensure this largely hidden field becomes accessible, comparing it to an orchestra with voice, sound effects and music sections.
The film’s dependence on big name talent – from George Lucas to David Lynch and John Lasseter – means film buffs will inevitably have heard some of the film’s anecdotes before. Even so, it’s an enjoyable journey and one that opens up a male dominated industry to female voices too. Interviews with Anna Behlmer (Braveheart) are particularly enlightening about gender stereotyping in the industry.
By the end of Making Waves, Costin and Buster leave audiences in no doubt about the importance of sound work not only to a film’s realism, but to emotion, imagination and plot. Making Waves is a glorious celebration of an under-appreciated art.
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is on general release in the UK from 1 November 2019
Death is a journey in Roger Michell’s Blackbird. Susan Sarandon is Lily, a terminally ill mother who reunites her family for one last weekend before her death. Based on Danish film The Silent Heart (both penned by Christian Torpe) the material attracts a star studded cast. Kate Winlset plays uptight daughter, Jennifer; Mia Wasikowska takes on her erratic, butterfly sister; and Sam Neill is the supporting husband who’s already tired of being treated like a widower. As Lily’s lifelong friend, Lindsay Duncan reunites with Michell following their successful collaboration on of Le Week-End. The performances are predictably top notch.
With an eclectic filmography that includes Notting Hill, Hyde Park On Hudson and My Cousin Rachel, Michell balances the heavy subject matter with finely-tuned comedy. Weepy moments are injected with familial awkwardness and, occasionally, angry outbursts. The family dynamic is compelling and the near chamber piece feel is at times reminiscent of John Wells’ August Osage County.
Of all the tantalising roles here, Wasikowska’s is arguably the most interesting: her internal struggle offers a powerful counterpoint to that of the main protagonist, Lily. Beneath the surface, the film explores the strength needed to live and to die: the resilience needed to make the most difficult life choices. This strength comes, says Blackbird, from love. But it’s here where Michell stumbles, throwing his film slightly off kilter by building to a twist we’ve seen coming all along.
Look out for more #LFF first impressions here at The Film Version this weekend.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale, The Color Out Of Space, a meteor crashes into a remote farm. In the days that follow, the land becomes tainted by a strange colour, taste and smell. The family inhabiting it begin to go mad. Richard Stanley’s vivid and freakish adaptation of this eerie story screens at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.
Lovecraft’s story about the peculiar effects of a meteor crash is bursting with visual description, textures and sounds. At first glance, it’s a rich candidate for film adaptation. You can almost hear the ‘most detestably sticky noise’ infecting the land; almost see and feel the ‘brittleness and hollowness’ of the ‘glossy’ meteor. But Lovecraft’s vivid descriptions offer only comparison and similitudes for disturbing effects that exist entirely outside our frame of reference. ‘The colour which resembled some bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all,’ writes Lovecraft. His stylistic choices highlight the limits of human knowledge and experience; the limits of our senses and language. Try imagining a new, undiscovered colour and you will appreciate the underlying challenges facing the filmmaker: how to physically present what can barely be imagined; how to make us see and hear what we are physically unable to perceive. Can visual reality ever live up to the terrifying ambiguity of Lovecraft’s figurative language? Could adapting his story be a doomed task?
The challenge of turning imagination into reality – of manifesting fear which arises, ‘not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined’ – would dissuade many filmmakers. But writer-director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) seizes the opportunity. Stanley’s Color Out Of Space is Lovecraft on acid: everything is amplified, stretched, exploded.
Lovecraft writes that ‘no sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere were those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of the earth’. Stanley’s inspired response is to suffuse the screen with an intense purple hue and a vibrating, kaleidoscopic iridescence. By the chaotic climax, this pigment pervades everything and, as the visuals blur and warp, the beautiful becomes nightmarish.
One glance at the electric pink opening of Stanley’s debut – the now cult cyberpunk film about a genocidal robot and a post apocalyptic New York, Hardware (1990) – reveals he had the creative vision to take on Lovecraft all along. The saturated colours, atmospheric skies and disquieting, electronic score take the artistry in Hardware to the next level. Colin Stetson, the composer behind Hereditary, echoes the elongated, synthetic sound of Hardware while low, vibrating rumbles also embody the spirit of Lovecraft’s descriptions: ‘Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds’. The film’s sound design is relentlessly unnerving. High pitched noises suggest the screaming of the meteor’s victims. Throaty animal sounds evoke something twisted and malformed.
While Lovecraft avoids labelling the menacing presence as ‘alien’, always maintaining an air of mystery, Stanley accepts that his audio-visual medium will inevitably show too much and opts for shock value instead. His film is weird in the extreme, overpowering in its sheer strangeness. The loss of Lovecraft’s creepy, past tense storytelling will likely be too much for some viewers, but the trade-off is extraordinary as Stanley sucks us into the rapid, cataclysmic present tense. Eerie recollections are replaced with nutty and repulsive body horror. The film’s slimy, squirming imagery is reminiscent of Eraserhead: mind-bending and introspective. While the plot leans rather too heavily into familiar horror beats, the atmosphere is so baffling it’s almost magnetic.
Stanley adds to Lovecraft’s simple story a kooky sensibility. He updates the nineteenth century setting to the present day where it takes on the quality of a satire, poking fun at the middle classes who seek mindfulness in the rural landscape. How better to dramatise our essential fear of the outside (so prevalent in Lovecraft’s original story), than with affluent, low-key America whose idyllic existence is punctured and assaulted? Nicholas Cage is delightful as the unfulfilled patriarch of this picture-perfect family. His obsession with a herd of alpacas – the ‘animal of the future’ that was acquired at an exorbitant cost – provides a searing comic highlight. And, as the laughs add-up, Color Out Of Space begins to feel frenzied, jerking between tonal extremes.
Stanley’s interpretation of the material might be outlandish but a love of Lovecraft runs deeply through his picture. References to Hardware – ‘no flesh shall be spared’ is pasted on the teenage boy’s bedroom wall’ – go hand in hand with references to Lovecraft’s worlds. One character is seen reading Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows – a major influence on the author – while the book of black magic that appears in so many Lovecraft stories, the ‘Necronomicon’, plays a vital role in the film’s plot. Stanley infuses Color Out Of Space with witchcraft and pagan imagery, muddling it somewhat, but offering a deeply affectionate homage.
Color out of Space is that perfect blend of author and auteur. An unmistakable entry in the Stanley catalogue, it demands to be watched on the big screen. Even in its quietest moments, the film operates on a different wavelength to most in its genre. Those who let go and follow Stanley down his rabbit hole will enjoy Color Out Of Space immensely. The rest will be left asking, what on earth was that?
The 63rd BFI London Film Festival (LFF) features highly anticipated films from Noah Baumbach, Michael Winterbottom, Céline Sciamma, Robert Eggers and Marielle Heller (to name a few). It’s set to be a great year for original screenplays but there are some innovative and surprising adaptations lined up too: from Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield to Václav Marhoul’s 35mm, black and white war drama, The Painted Bird. To help you find your way through this epic programme here’s my guide to the film adaptations screening at the festival between 2nd and 13th October and the novels that inspired them. If you’re waiting in long festival queues or grabbing a coffee between screenings, these are the books you need to have in your bag!
Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immensely detailed novel is LFF’s opening night gala. Famed for his political satires (The Death of Stalin, In The Loop) and writing once again with long-time collaborator Simon Blackwell (Veep, The Thick Of It), Iannucci’s David Copperfield promises to be no ordinary costume drama. Dev Patel is cast as the titular hero in a refreshing move that flouts the conservative traditions of the genre. Speaking to Indiewire last year, Iannucci said:
“I want it to feel real and present, even though it’s set in 1840 in London. I want it to feel immediate and current. And therefore I want the cast to be much more representative of what London looks like now, and I want a lot of the behaviour in the film to feel current and contemporary.”
Worth a watch before the festival is Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens, a one hour documentary made for the BBC in 2012. Here Iannucci explores the relevance of Dickens’ complex world, his humour and his darkness, in modern Britain.
This adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Waiting For The Barbarians has one of the strongest casts at this year’s LFF. Starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, the film explores oppression in a fictional regime. Yet its story is increasingly relevant. Producer Andrea Iervolino told The Observer that Rylance, as The Magistrate, “plays someone who realises that the government was trying to scare the population by saying that ‘the barbarians are coming, bad people are coming, the invasion is coming’. Actually, the government was only instilling fear.”
The screenplay is the first written by Coetzee himself and is directed by Ciro Guerra (Embrace Of The Serpent).
HP. Lovecraft’s short story about a strange meteor crash, The Colour Out of Space, has already been brought to the screen three times: in Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster, Die! (1965), Ivan Zuccon’s Colour From the Dark (2008) and Huan Vu’s German language film Die Farbe (2010). Now, Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) revisits the story in what the LFF programmer Michael Blyth describes as “a thrilling combination of absorbing family drama and outré sci-fi madness”. According to Blyth its a “slick, stylish and suitably perverse interpretation of Lovecraft’s notoriously ‘unfilmable’ cosmic philosophies”.
A trailer is not available yet but screenshots from the film are suffused with a swirling purple mist; a hypnotising, otherworldly, psychedelic glow. If you liked Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation or the 2018 film adaptation from Alex Garland, you should definitely give Color Out Of Space a look.
Eurídice is an unfulfilled housewife in 1940s Rio de Janeiro. When her sister returns after a failed elopement, the women try to escape their mundane lives. The adaptation of this debut novel from Martha Batalha won the Prix Un Certain Regard award at Cannes earlier this year. And the film’s critical acclaim onscreen seems set to eclipse the novel itself. Variety called it “high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess,” while The Hollywood Reporter describes it as “a haunting drama that quietly celebrates the resilience of women even as they endure beaten-down existences”.
Taika Waititi’s controversial comedy-drama Jojo Rabbit has headline billing at the LFF. It’s based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens and follows a boy recruited into Hitler’s Youth. The novel has been celebrated for its emotional complexity but can Waititi, with his unique brand of zany comedy (What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), pull this off? We’ll have to wait and see. What we do know, is that Waititi has added the character of Hitler, who he plays as a figure in the boy’s imagination. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Waititi said:
“To me, this movie feels like a cautionary tale… It’s not about something that happened all these years ago. It’s right on our doorstep now and we’re minutes away from this same [garbage] happening all over again.”
Jojo Rabbit promises to be the kind of radical adaptation that asks even more questions of its audience. Earlier this month it was reported that Disney, who acquired the film through the purchase of Fox Searchlight, could be worried that the film is “too edgy” and might “alienate Disney fans”. They just made it a must see.
Another tale about the Nazi occupation, The Painted Bird sees a young boy abandoned and alone wandering through Eastern Europe. The tonal opposite of Jojo Rabbit, director of festivals for the BFI, Tricia Tuttle describes the film adaptation as:
“rarely an easy watch, with scenes some will find distressing. A terrifying and highly relevant exploration of what humanity looks like when there is only vicious survival, with little space for compassion.”
Written by Jerzy Kosinski in 1965, The Painted Bird was well received on its release but became mired in controversy in the 1980s when it was revealed that the literary account was not autobiographical (as had been believed) but fictional. Kosinski’s novel, Being There, had also been cribbed from another writer. Nevertheless, Kosinski’s work has a strong pedigree on screen. Being There took home an Oscar nomination and a win in 1980. “Shot in starkly beautiful 35mm black and white by Kolya cinematographer Vladimír Smutný,” says Tuttle, “The Painted Bird’s textures recall both the crispness of The Bicycle Thief and squalor of Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God.” The innovative trailer radiates horror, set almost entirely to the sound of heavy, rapid breathing.
This murder mystery thriller starring Alicia Vikander is set to hit Netflix in November. LFF offers a rare opportunity to catch it on the big screen.
Vikander plays Lucy Fly, an English woman in Tokyo accused of murder. In their review of the novel, The Telegraph says, with much relish, that Lucy “displays a self-sufficiency, a disregard for whether or not she is being amiable, which is death by a hundred snubs”. It will be interesting to see how the adaptation handles this strong first person narrator. Festival programmer, Kate Taylor, bills it as “a moody and intriguing update on 1980s psycho-sexual thrillers, shifting the emphasis onto the psychology of the female protagonist”. The film comes from Wash Westmoreland, the writer-director behind the female driven films Still Alice and Colette.
Gomorrah, a startling account of the Neoplitan mafia and the first book from investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, was adapted into an award winning film in 2008 and a television series in 2014. Now The Piranhas, Saviano’s novel about child gangs in Naples, comes to LFF. It’s directed by Claudio Giovannesi (Fiore, Alì Blue Eyes) with a screenplay written in collaboration with Maurizio Braucci (Gomorrah) and Saviano himself.
Piranhas took home the Silver Bear for best screenplay at Berlinale where it also received a best film nomination for the Golden Bear. At LFF, it’s billed as “a teenage Scarface meets Romeo and Juliet”. And if that doesn’t make you want to see it, I don’t know what will.
American writer Jack London is most famous for his novel The Call of the Wild. But Martin Eden, written just three years later in 1909, is said to be his most autobiographical. Martin struggles to rise out of poverty, through the class system, to be recognised as a member of the literary establishment.
This is the first time Martin Eden has been adapted for the big screen and the action is transplanted to Naples in this Italian production (it’s the second film written by Piranhas’ Maurizio Braucci screening at the festival).
Chief executive of Film London, Adam Wootton describes how the adaptation, “mixes drama with archive footage to create a unique fable that demonstrates the imaginative vision and creative skill of director Pietro Marcello”. Marcello’s 2015 film Lost and Beautiful featured in Indiewire’s critic poll of the top ten best undistributed films.
This animation, based on the Italian children’s book The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati, comes from the producers of The Red Turtle (2016). It’s directed by Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti whose bright, clean 2D animation has a trace of nostalgia that befits the 1945 classic book.
Back then, Buzzati told a story of starving bears battling with humans before adopting human traits themselves. No surprise then, that it’s been likened to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Retold in 2019 however, it could be the kind of film that sparks fierce debate. For instance, Jay Weissberg for Variety has already argued that: “The revised storyline… about how bears and humans clash, make amends, and then realize they’re too different to live together, can lead to unfortunate and inadvertent interpretations neither Mattotti nor the original author Dino Buzzati intended”.
Adaptations of the graphic novel Days of the Bagnold Summer (starring Rob Brydon and Tamsin Grieg) and the play Luce (starring Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Tim Roth) are also screening at this year’s LFF. Foreign language adaptations of Laurence Olivier’s novelGhost Town Anthology, Colin Niel’s Only The Animals and Anna Woltz’s My Extraordinary Summer With Tessshould be on your radar too. Unfortunately, however, these novels aren’t currently available in English translations. And finally, this year’s closing night gala is Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman adapted from Charles Brandt’s true-crime biography I Heard You Paint Houses. The film has already set Twitter on fire with news of its three-and-a-half hour run time.
How does the target audience change the content of film adaptations? In this post I explore how film marketing is used to ‘bait’ novel readers and how the desire for mass-market appeal influences the style and content of film adaptations through censorship and screen tests.
PART TWO: THE RULE OF THE MOB
‘To leverage book equity and have a successful opening for a book-based movie,’ say Amit Joshi and Huifang Mao in Adapting To Succeed, producers should ‘select recent best-selling books and make films of close adaptation”. But, by their own admission, their research had one conspicuous gap: it did’t differentiate between viewers who had read the book and those who hadn’t.
There is evidence to suggest that some viewers prepare for their film experience by seeking out the novel in advance. Film tie-in copies of My Cousin Rachel, for instance, saw the novel’s sales increase immediately before the film opened. This trend was born out in a short poll I ran recently on Twitter. Yet exit polls for film adaptations of Brick Lane, We Need To Talk About Kevin and even the literary phenomenon The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which hit 2 million UK book sales and 15 million US sales in the year of its film release), revealed that readers make up only a limited portion of the audience (31%, 39% and 43% of viewers respectively). Filmmakers often talk about their desire to remain faithful to the spirit of their source material, but only a small portion of their audience are likely to have a clear idea of this material in the first place.
It is more likely that the financial demands of the industry requires filmmakers to appeal to different markets than that of the novel; in other words, to appeal to mass-markets. And often this means changing the novel’s content. As George Bluestone said in 1973, ‘Movies are simply too expensive to provide the kind of variety that the novel allows’. It seems little has changed.
The Impact of Censorship on Film Adaptations
Most recently, the debate about the impact of ‘catering to the tastes of a mass audience’ has landed on the erosion of sex scenes in cinema. ‘Today, films need only to get bums on seats, not to cater for them once comfy’, says Catherine Shoard, film editor for The Guardian, ‘This means there is studio pressure to sanitise and so secure as low a certification as possible – particularly in the US, where most English-language films sink or swim, and where an NC-17 rating (meaning you have to be 18 or over) is a cold shower for your commercial prospects.’ Last year in the UK, certificate 18 films made up a mere 4.8% of total releases. They took home a disproportionate 2.6% of the total box office.
‘The summer begins with a new crop of sexually explicit, mostly European movies set off from Cannes to the festival circuit and eventually to brief art-house runs, while Hollywood churns out its chief export of gun-happy escapism and wholesome kid stuff,’ says Ann Hornaday for The Washington Post, ‘Between those two channels the classic sex scene – once a staple of high-gloss, adult-oriented, mainstream movies – has been largely forgotten and ignored’.
Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Call Me By Your Name fell into this chasm in 2017. The rich, fevered, sensual novel by André Aciman, on which the film is based, is told in the first person from the perspective of seventeen year old Elio. His frank and vivid descriptions of complicated desire – including his first sexual experience with a man – are the very essence of the novel. Take the complex emotions in this passage:
Two versions of James Ivory’s screenplay (you can read the scenes by downloading the pdf below) reveal a gradual erosion of the love scene’s realism on screen. Even the descriptive language is softened into cliché – ‘make love’ – as Elio’s consent is made clear. In an interview with The Guardian, screenwriter James Ivory was disdainful about the film’s treatment of sex, ‘When people are wandering around before or after making love, and they’re decorously covered with sheets, it’s always seemed phoney to me’.
In the final cut, Guadagnino pans across from the lovers and out of the window. It’s a cheesy device that cheats the viewer of a sincere human connection. ‘The sex scene has been reduced to a shorthand, an instantly recognizable grammar that begins with some jokey or flirtatious foreplay, cuts to some flesh (tasteful enough to honor the actors’ no-nudity clauses), then discreetly cuts away when things get real,’ says Hornaday, ‘You know what happens next, the camera seems to tell us. Do you really want me to spell it out for you?’.
Guadagnino’s treatment of the scene was controversial. Hornaday notes how movies like Milk and Brokeback Mountain, that ‘broke ground in representing gay protagonists’, have often ‘shied away from depicting the most intimate mechanics of men having sex, to the consternation of viewers who wanted to see their sexuality represented and normalized’. Others, like Vox contributor Alex Abad-Santos, were baffled ‘that anyone could adapt a novel whose greatest strength is that it shows the thrill, madness, eroticism, and regret of sex, and decide to minimize those feelings and emotions’. His words reveal how the use of the novel as bait in the film’s marketing can actually lead to disappointment: we have come to expect that the film will be a close approximation of the novel. Both Shoard and Abad-Santos go on to speculate about the role of awards season posturing in the tone of the scene.
The Impact of Screen Tests on Film Adaptations
In 2009, the desire for a PG-13 rating moulded the content of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones (2009). The novel explores the consequences of the rape and murder of a teenage girl but ‘we wanted to make a film that teenagers could watch,’ said Jackson in conversation with SYFI Wire, adding ‘there are a lot of positive aspects of this film… So it was important for us to not go into an R-rated territory at all’. But at the film’s screen test, audiences demanded more violence, not during the girl’s murder but at the film’s resolution: they wanted to see the killer suffer.
The authority of the screen-test has shaped the content of numerous film adaptations. The story behind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is, by now, renowned: production was defined by discord between screenwriter and director, loss of financial backing and micro-management by its new funders. In this environment the screen testers had considerable power. A loose adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film’s voiceover narration and uncharacteristic, happy ending resulted from screen-test feedback. On its release in 1982 it was commercial flop. Even the 1992 Director’s Cut paid ‘lip service to the director’s design’ while actually resulting from ‘commercial imperatives,’ says Sean Redmond in Studying Blade Runner. But what this second release revealed was just how wrong the screen-test audience had got it. This version reinstated Scott’s bleak ending and added further ambiguity: it became a ‘mainstream commercial success’.
Spielberg’s Jaws offers a more positive spin on the screen-test. At its early screenings, Jaws created such a huge response (including one man running to the bathroom to vomit) that the filmmakers ‘set about calibrating the mysterious alchemy that seemed to have sprung up between Jaws and its audience,’ says Tom Shone in his book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. Spielberg was overjoyed that his film had one big scream and set out to create another, much earlier in the movie. But this new surprise altered the film’s dynamic: from this moment on, his audience became ‘defensive’, always ‘looking for something something to pop out’. The second, original, scream arrived once again but, this time, it was ‘only half as intense’. ‘Spielberg had gone for two screams, and got them,’ says Shone, ‘but somehow they didn’t top the one scream he started out with’. In all three of these examples – The Lovely Bones, Blade Runner, Jaws – crucial decisions about content had very little to do with the novel at all.
The Value of Crowd-Pleasing Adaptations
The content of adaptations is shaped, in part, by the particular demands of the film industry and by the desires of audiences who are different from readers – both demographically and in their relationship with the source material. Yet evidence shows that baiting audiences with references to the novel in a film’s marketing does work, particularly in the case of well known classics. More than half of people surveyed after watching Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights said their awareness of Emily Brontë’s novel contributed to their decision to see the film.
It is easy to get frustrated with industry business models that favour 12A certificates and crowd pleasing subject matter, shying away from literary content that is potentially challenging. Yet it is important not to undervalue financially successful, mass-market adaptations. In the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes research just 5% of audiences stated that they watched independent films with smaller budgets ‘most often’, identifying a ‘distinct sub-current of thought that art film was by its very nature serious, avant-garde and hard to understand’. This reputation buys independent filmmakers and their films a certain degree of freedom, their small but loyal fanbases often empowering them to make bold decisions about the treatment of their source material. Arnold, for instance, embraced the cruelest and most violent elements of Brontë’s novel, even depicting Heathcliff’s grief-induced necrophilia.
That there remains a strong desire to make films like this is evident in the sheer number of dramas made from novels and short stories in 2018 (a whopping 46%). Many of these low budget features made a bigger profit, in percentage terms, than their big budget counterparts. Yet they also remain a significant risk, with limited earning potential in real terms. The adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, with rising star Saoirse Ronan, made just $3.4 million at the worldwide box office; the lauded You Were Never Really here just $7.4 million. Clio Barnard’s excellent Dark River made just $200,000. It is the profits made from mass-market, high-grossing films that enable distributors to take these risks. We would not have a film industry without them.