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.”
“Folklore is as different from literature as can be: there’s no author,” writes Susan Scarf Merrell in her novel, Shirley, “the form is meant to change, whether slowly over time or in a moment as a singer or a storyteller perceives a new angle.” At this year’s London Film Festival the new angle is undeniably feminist and I was struck by just how many films in the selection drew their inspiration from mythology, lore and fable: from Josephine Decker’s adaptation of Shirley to Jennifer Sheridan’s minimal horror, Rose: A Love Story.
Decker, the inspired writer-director behind Madeline’s Madeline (2018), reshapes Scarf Merrell’s fictional tale about American horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) into a murky, claustrophobic and increasingly erotic drama. It has the kind of heady, clandestine femininity that’s reminiscent of Carol Morley’s The Falling or Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. Touted as an “anti-biopic”, the film provides a snapshot of Shirley’s life as she writes her novel Hangsaman in the company of two fictional houseguests, aspiring folklore lecturer Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young). A viscous atmosphere of intellectualism pervades the dishevelled home Shirley shares with husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), but as the men make a daily escape to the university, Shirley and Rose are confined to the house.
Stanley’s casual manner as he invites Rose to quit studying and “chip in” with cooking and cleaning sets the tone for the film’s gendered relationships and Rose soon becomes a plaything for the tortured Shirley; both a confidant and a victim of Shirley’s cruelest games. In the face of creeping domesticity and no short supply of small minded gossip, the women embrace rumours of witchcraft and paganism as a source of unity and empowerment. For Decker, folklore is a feminist instrument. By calling herself a witch, Shirley elevates herself above the judgemental community that’s clearly threatened by her peculiar genius. She appears to relish her status as an ‘outsider’ even as it destroys her from within.
Decker’s rich visuals fuse womanhood with nature and the occult – from the moist greenery of the forest floor to the smoky orange glow of bonfires – never failing to suggest the contradictory ways society perceives its women. In her mind’s eye, Rose sees a group of college girls dancing provocatively around a tree, the nubile temptresses suggesting the very real danger of her husband’s infidelity. But as the camera pans further along the tree lined avenue, it lands on the poster for a missing girl; the inspiration for Shirley’s Hangsaman and a symbol of all the girls “lost” to the patriarchal society that makes women invisible, erasing them from history.
While Decker uses gendered folklore to examine the position of women in society, in Undine writer-director Christian Petzold re-writes the myth of the water nymph through the lens of female desire. It’s fabled that when a man calls her name three times, the water nymph, Undine, will emerge and agree to become his lover. But if he is ever unfaithful, Undine must kill him, return to the pool and wait for the next man. In the film’s Q&A, Petzold explains finding his “position,” on this traditional story in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel, Undine is Leaving, in which the nymph is “fighting against the idea that her identity is just built on the desire of men”. At the opening of Petzold’s film, Undine (Paula Beer) chooses her own lover.
The entire film unfolds with the slow-burn intensity we’ve come to expect from the writer-director of Phoenix and Transit (both are screening on MUBI and well worth a look). And plays out alongside a detailed and fascinating history of Berlin via Undine’s job as a museum guide. Just like Undine, “Berlin doesn’t know who it is,” says Petzold, “it needs story and history”. Undine’s verbal lectures echo her origins within the oral traditions of myth and folklore, which have their own synergy with cinema itself. “Cinema is not literature, it is more [like the] oral tradition,” says Petzold. Indeed, he connects the myth of Undine to film history and the way cinema has historically treated its female stars: “And so all the women in [early] cinema are the creation of men… It’s a bit like the man at the pond who’s crying for Undine. And Rita Hayworth is coming out.”
It’s a system female filmmakers like Argentinian writer-director Natalia Meta are seeking to change. Meta’s genre-bending horror, The Intruder, about a woman experiencing possession, is a powerhouse of female talent with women serving in the roles of cinematographer, editor and producer. Working with women was “even more” important “in this film where women are so in touch with vision and mystery,” explains Meta in the Q&A. The film ripples with folklorish spirits as Inés, a dub artist played by Wild Tales’ Erica Rivas, discovers unexplained interference on her audio tracks. With a similar attraction to the “relationship between dreams and reality, between fantasy and reality” as Decker expresses in Shirley, Meta manages to subvert a classic horror interpretation (of the novel by C.E. Feiling) to explore love and desire.
Rose: A Love Story shares this disruptive character, turning vampire folklore on its head to offer a surprisingly delicate and tender take on marriage and compassion. Writer Matt Stokoe eschews the desire and seduction of the female vampire myth, introducing us instead to a married couple grappling with the wife’s mysterious illness. The lived-in chemistry of film’s stars – Sophie Rundle and Stokoe himself – is its lifeblood. Its scares derive, not from any supernatural force, but from Stokoe’s volatile masculinity: a man worn down with the burden of caring and now susceptible to violent fracture.
If these offerings sound a little too dark, enter Wolfwalkers, the beautifully conceived animation from Cartoon Saloon’s Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, and the third instalment in the Celtic trilogy that includes Secret Of The Kells and Song Of The Sea. The story takes us to Kilkeny in 1650, during its occupation by English invaders. Here, the expansion of the densely populated city brings people into conflict with wolves who are controlled, according to local folklore, by mysterious wolfwalkers. The subtext is pertinent, fusing the damaging effects of habitat loss with the consequences of colonialism and the cultural ignorance displayed by occupying forces. “The healing,” explains Stewart, comes from the film’s two lead characters, English girl Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and wolfwalker, Mebh (Eva Whittaker). The film only “clicked into place” when the duo began re-writing the children as girls,” explains Stewart, “we had gotten the gender wrong for a while.” The finished result has fierce mother earth vibes that place women at the centre of regeneration and renewal; the harbingers of an optimistic future.
Shirley and Wolfwalkers are released in UK cinemas Friday 30th November 2020
“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.”