Everything you wanted to know about film adaptation. This series of posts investigates how filmmakers translate literary stories into cinematic ones, exploring their choices and breaking down important ideas and concepts.
Laying claim to more film adaptations than any other book in the English language – 26 and counting – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol rightly earns its place in our A-Z of adaptations. What’s more, the explosion of animated versions since the early 1980s means that, for many of us, our first contact with Dickens is made through the visual arts. No wonder that scholar and English professor, Thomas Leitch describes A Christmas Carol and its adaptations as “entry level Dickens,” – something that makes the latest film version from Jacqui and David Morris particularly fitting. Theirs is set within a toy theatre; A Christmas Carol as seen through the eyes of a child.
But even Leitch concedes that, “for many viewers, film adaptations are likely to substitute for Dickens, to become Dickens, rather than serving merely as the lowest rung on the Dickens ladder”. Today, adaptations of the Carol have eclipsed the popularity of the book itself. And while some Dickens purists may lament the changes made to Dickens’ text on screen, what its pervasiveness reveals is how such changes play out in the public consciousness.
When Dickens wrote the Carol in 1843, he gave shape to the classic Victorian Christmas in which family and festivities became just as important as religion. In Film Adaptation and its Discontents Leitch writes that, “Although commentators generally agree that in works like The Pickwick Papers and the five Christmas books, Dickens essentially invented Christmas as a family celebration, it is easy to forget what a radical step it was to characterise the holiday not as a religious observance… But as a family gathering already secularised in its piety”. It’s perhaps unsurprising then, that as our interest in religion has waned, adapters have increasingly focussed on this aspect of the Carol, while grafting on visual tropes from a swelling Christmas sub-genre that early Carol adaptations helped to create. Today, it’s hard to imagine an adaptation of A Christmas Carol without snow. Yet Dickens’ novella takes place during the freezing fog far more characteristic of Dickens’ industrial London: “The fog came came pouring in at every chink and keyhole , and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms”.
As a physical manifestation of the cold, snow cannot be beaten on screen but it has also provided “a picturesque scene blanketing the city’s ugliness and creating a pastoral sense of preindustrial innocence,” since the MGM version in 1938 writes Leitch. Not until 2019, did Steven Knight (Locke, Peaky Blinders) reject this scenic interpretation of the novella, opting instead for a dark blue-grey palette and a cruel, icy snow that cuts though bonnets and heavy coats. As if sending up the tropes of modern Carol adapters, Knight’s Scrooge (Guy Pearce) rails against re-imaginings of the Bible that set the nativity scene in snow: “As for those images I see on church walls of three wise men on camels walking in the snow, there is no record of it being winter and no record of their ever being snow in Palestine. Indeed, riding camels in the snow is the very embodiment of the absurdity and the lies which have continued to beget more lies down the centuries during the days now marked 24 and 25.”
Nevertheless, the moral lessons of Dickens’ work continue to speak to us 177 years later. Earlier this year, the UK government’s reaction to Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign drew comparisons to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. And in the era of austerity and individualism, Scrooge’s answer to charity collectors – “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [prisons, workhouses, poor laws] – they cost enough and those who are badly off must go there” – remains frustratingly relevant. The novella’s themes of social responsibility and wealth inequality ricochet through modern American cinema too, from the recent Hillbilly Elegy to Nomadland. Little wonder filmmakers feel compelled to re-make the Carol.
This, the first of Dickens’ five Christmas stories, has proved surprisingly flexible in critiquing contemporary habits. And the unprecedented number of Carol adaptations reveals the sheer variety of stylistic approaches filmmakers can use to deliver its moral lessons: from reverential re-tellings, to the anti-commercialism satire Scrooged, and the self-referential The Muppet Christmas Carol. But if the Carol shows just how broadly any work may be interpreted by its adapters, it also reveals how certain elements of a text can develop into ‘essential’ components. Take the appearance of Marley’s face on the knocker, or Scrooge’s transformation on Christmas morning, these parts of the novella are almost always included on screen. But a story’s essential components need not derive from the original text itself.
In 1938, “the tableau of Scrooge wearing a pointed white nightcap seated at screen right below the eye level of Marley and all three Christmas spirits,” is drawn not from Dickens’ prose but from the novella’s illustrations by John Leech, right down to the “costuming and blocking,” writes Leitch. Another illustration of the “Spirit of Christmas Present appearing to a shrunken, white capped, timidly smiling Scrooge perched gamely in the lower right-hand corner of the image, provides blocking and costuming cues for virtually all adapters of this scene”. Speaking to Indie London about his 3D animated A Christmas Carol, Robert Zemeckis said he “started” with Leech’s illustrations: “I think the one that’s closest is Fezziwig, where we drew his round body and huge backside. We figured that was the place to start. We wanted to be as true to those as we could without copying them exactly”.
But adaptations can serve to create new ‘essential’ components too. While ice skating gets a brief mention in Dickens’ novel, an invented skating scene in the 1938 version fastened it in the public consciousness. Since then, skating has appeared in numerous adaptations including The Muppet Christmas Carol and Steven Knight’s gritty three part TV version. Meanwhile, the invented ending in which Scrooge dines with the Cratchits on Christmas Day has become “irresistible” to adapters, writes Leitch. It’s a scene brimming with dramatic potential, but is perhaps evermore enticing given the place of the Cratchits in popular consciousness today. The Cratchits have come to obscure all other supporting characters, including Scrooge’s nephew, with whom Dickens has him dine on Christmas day. As each new screen version seeks to adapt not only the novella but previous adaptations too, the story’s ‘essential’ components shift and transform.
As each new adaptation confers more cultural significance on the Carol, so the pressure increases for potential adapters. “Even the ones that announce themselves as resolutely Dickensian have to deal with the contradictions of remaining faithful to a classic while insisting on its classic status,” writes Leitch, “an insistence Dickens never registers and one that separates their text ever more completely the more stridently they register it”. The Muppets prove most successful in overcoming this dilemma, inviting Charles Dickens into the drama itself where he narrates its events with sarcastic flair:
Gonzo: My name is Charles Dickens.
Rizzo the Rat: And my name is Rizzo the Rat… wait a second! You’re not Charles Dickens!
Gonzo: I am too!
Rizzo the Rat: No! A blue furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat?
Rizzo the Rat: Charles Dickens was a 19th Century novelist! A genius!
Gonzo: Oh, you are too kind!
And so it goes that these “entry level” versions teach audiences, “the value of literary classics,” says Leitch. “Even if” that “is remote from whatever Dickens, or the cultural custodians of Dickens’ reputation, had in mind.”
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.”
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.
Ever wondered if readers and film audiences are really so different? Does the film industry’s profit motive mean pandering to mass audiences? And does the need to make big bucks affect the type of film adaptations that are made? Or even influence their content? In the first instalment of a two part feature I look at the demographics of readers and film audiences and explore how the mass-market influences the type of adaptations in production.
PART ONE: THE PROFIT MOTIVE
In the early 1970s George Bluestone’s seminal book Novels Into Film effectively kicked off film adaptation theory. ‘Big business has always treated the film as a commodity,’ he declared, ‘While a novel can sell 20,000 volumes and make substantial profit, the film must reach millions’.
Novel sales are not guaranteed, but authors’ advances are the result of carefully calculated projections and manufacturing costs are relatively predictable. By comparison, movie making continues to be an expensive business. In 2017 the average (median) budget for co-production films in the UK was £3.5 million. For inward investment features (ie. those features funded by international sources such as the US), this figure rises to £11 million. Even adaptations that appear relatively low-key – like Can You Ever Forgive Me and If Beale Street Could Talk – come with sizeable production budgets.
Exacerbating the film industry’s profit motive is the relatively short window in which movies can make back their costs. In 2017, research by the BFI revealed that while ‘television remained the most popular platform in the UK for watching film’, it is cinema-going that remains ‘the largest single revenue source for the film industry’. Novels can gain traction over a number of weeks and months, but a film’s financial success is largely determined by its opening weekend. Films that perform badly are quickly removed from multiplex timetables.
‘It is hard to conceive a more risky business than trying to produce a profitable film,’ says Dean Keith Simonton in his book Great Flicks. ‘It is telling,’ he says, ‘that Donald Trump… had originally planned to become a movie producer but eventually switched to the real estate business when he realised that it would be much more reliably profitable’.
Now a 2018 report for the Publishers Association claims that basing films on novels can help to reduce this risk in three main ways: by demonstrating the story has potential mass-market appeal; by helping to attract quality talent; and by providing a positive contribution to the marketing campaign. ‘Adapted material is concentrated among high-grossing films,’ claims the report, receiving ‘on average, higher critical acclaim’. But how is the profit motive driving the industry’s choice of projects?
Who’s Watching? Film Adaptation Audiences
Let’s get technical for a moment. Statistics relating specifically to audiences of film adaptations are sparse, largely because these films cross-cut so many different genres and target groups. What we do know is that cinema-going audiences as a whole are skewed towards the younger, male population. In 2017, 28% of UK cinema audiences were aged 15-24 and 54% of these were male. Although this group continues to ‘outweigh those aged 55 or over by a factor of almost 3 to 1,’ says the British Film Institute in its 2018 Yearbook, cinema attendance amongst older audiences is growing. The over 45s now make up more than 20% of cinema audiences. And, in this group, women are much more evenly represented.
‘It is hard to pinpoint the reasons for this’ growth, says the report. But ‘we might have expected the audience profile in 2017 to have shown an increase in the proportion of 55+ cinema-goers… given the growth in both accessible and ‘silver’ screenings and the number of films released during the year with appeal to this demographic’. Indeed, the ‘silver screen’ or ‘grey pound’ genre began to gain serious traction at the turn of 2011/2012 with the release of Jane Eyre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel claims the BFI. All are adaptions of novels. Could film adaptations actually be fuelling growth in this market? If so, demand for adaptations that reflect their particular preferences (for historical novels and dramatic features) is likely to increase as the ‘baby boomer’ generation reaches retirement.
The Relationship Between Reading & Watching
Indeed, when we look at the 2018 films where the audience contained a higher than average proportion of people aged over 55, almost half were based on novels (see the results by clicking on the image below). A further three were based on non-fiction books. This shouldn’t surprise us. Statistics from Kantar Media found that those describing themselves as heavy readers (reading more than ten books a year) were 26% more likely to be over 65. By comparison, those aged 15-24 were 32% less likely to identify themselves in this way.
It follows that just one of the top ten 2017 films with a higher than average proportion of 15-24’s in their audience was based on a novel: Stephen King’s It. King is amongst a number of ‘go-to’ authors whose work comes with a near guarantee of box-office success.
As readers, 15-24s are almost twice as likely to choose fantasy and adventure novels and 59% more likely to choose sci-fi. The film industry recognises the preferences of its primary market and this is reflected in its spending. In 2018, while 46% of film adaptations (of novels or short stories) were dramas, only two – Fifty Shades Freed and 12 Strong – ranked in the top twenty for production budgets. They cost significantly less (at $55 million and $35 million respectively) than action adaptations of The Meg ($178 million), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($170 million) and adventure Ready Player One ($150 million). It comes as no surprise then, that these genres brought home a bigger share of the worldwide box office (34% and 31% respectively) than the 11% share of drama.
The action, adventure and thriller genres play to cinema’s strengths; to the unique selling point of cinema as an experience. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that it was blockbuster films with big budget special effects and a star cast that 49% of participants in the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes survey stated that they watched ‘most often’. ‘The spectacular visual and audio experience’ was an important factor in deciding whether to watch a film at the cinema for 39% of people, a preference that was strongest among younger audiences.
This no doubt contributes to the reimagining of classic literary characters in genres favoured by the youth market. In the last ten years, Sherlock Holmes, for instance, has respawned in an action franchise starring Robert Downey Jr and a comedy starring Will Ferrell. Adaptations that can be sold as 3D, 4DX or IMAX present studios with another opportunity to entice young audiences into the multiplex. Why wait for a film to become available online if this means missing out on one of its key draws?
The Importance of Story
Readers and cinema-goers are a diverse bunch, but there is much correlation between what individuals read and what they watch. Perhaps most importantly, readers and film-goers share a common interest in the arts. ‘A strong interest in film correlates with a stronger than average interest in many other forms of leisure and cultural pursuit,’ says the Opening Our Eyes report, ‘This seems to place film enthusiasts amongst the group in society most culturally and socially engaged’.
Story, of course, is the lifeblood of both film and literature. Indeed, it is cinema’s biggest attraction. 56% of the survey’s participants said ‘story’ played an important part in their decision to visit. This makes film adaptations of the novel an extremely attractive proposition for producers. The Publishing Association uses academic research to claim that ‘films adapted from books tend to have a richer more fully-developed story to draw on, thus increasing the probability that the plot of the film is captivating for audiences’.
Whether or not you agree with their conclusions, the ability to capitalise on an existing fan-base can only be a boon for the film industry. In Part Two we explore both how the novel is used in film marketing to ‘bait’ audiences and how the desire for mass-market appeal can impact upon the content of adaptations themselves.