Sci-Fi Fridays, Episode 18: My Problem with “Adaptation Phobia”

Batman: "I'm not fat, I'm just illustrated that way."

cersei and jaime

FOREWARNING: There will be MAJOR spoiler talk in this article with regards to several high profile franchises, so be wary of this fact before continuing on to read.

So guys and gals, I have a problem. It seems everywhere I look, popular franchises are either being rebooted, star super-sized, or used as platforms to boost “so and so’s” career. What I’m not seeing is respect for the source material, its limitless universe or its complex characters at the heart of these stories. Such films that attempt to tie themselves closely to the source material are instantly reprimanded (Watchmen, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), while those that stroke the egos of Hollywood and feature sexy stars in sexy poses, pulling off sexy action moves forged by their maybe not-so-sexy choreographers, are praised with the most saccharine, hyperbolic language imaginable (The Winter Soldier). Give. Me. A. Break. It seems that critics and general audiences have jumped aboard this superficially, creatively inert pattern of franchise movie-going. Everyone cares about the fleeting thrills, yet couldn’t care less about world-building, character growth, or radical narrative shifts that push a beloved fictional universe in directions we couldn’t have imagined it heading. No, instead we cheer when Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury lives after a misleading (potentially bold game-changer) death via assassination. We don’t cheer because Nick Fury survived; we cheer because Samuel L. Jackson lives another day to deliver a bad-ass quote that can be plastered on billboards in every major city across the globe. *Sigh,* did I really sign up for this when I invested money in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and other franchise properties with the same “celebrity-before-character” goals in mind? I think I just might have. Dammit.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this behavior from critics. After all, wasn’t it just last year that the New York Film Critics Circle anointed American Hustle the “Best Picture of 2013” for doing absolutely nothing except letting its stars “live it up” for two hours? I’m actually more disappointed in general audiences for falling prey to such tactics. What infuriates me more than anything is how Hollywood is able to gloss over their surface-level handling of culturally beloved material by claiming such work as “original storytelling.” The term “original” makes us think: “innovation,” “progress,” “evolution,” “unique,” “non-conforming.” This is why when Hollywood slams source material and adaptation approaches, we aggressively nod our heads in approval, fearing our franchises will forever be stuck in the past, unable to move forward and touch upon real-world issues of the present. We want to believe these moguls have our franchises’ best interests at heart. When Lucasfilm issues a statement saying, “In order to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers and also preserve an element of surprise and discovery for the audience, Star Wars Episodes VII-IX will not tell the same story told in the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe,” I can’t help but think: Gee, do these Hollywood honchos not know we live in a spoiler culture world? If we took this mentality and applied it to every book-to-film, stage-to-film, or graphic novel-to-film adaptation project there ever was, why, we’d never get anything off the ground!

Batman: "I'm not fat, I'm just illustrated that way."
Batman: “I’m not fat, I’m just illustrated that way.”

Game of Thrones pulls in record ratings for HBO on a weekly basis, and anyone – AT ANYTIME – could type in a few keystrokes and ruin the entire saga for themselves by reading book spoilers (the series is adapted from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novel saga) online. But viewers don’t. Why? Because they are given a choice; they’re not forced to be a marionette guided by the strings of “original” Hollywood. The one time Game of Thrones made a serious change from the novels for the sake of shock value, the fans rightfully went berserk. The critics? They couldn’t care less about a rape scene that derailed the morally progressive arc one character was making. Just look at Metacritic for proof of such complacency if you don’t believe me (critics are given the first three episodes of a season to view before submitting a review – this particular episode was the final one critics had access to). This laudable “Hey…WAIT JUST A MINUTE!” response from the fandom is exactly the kind of thing I love to see play out. Such responses hold these bigwigs accountable for making pointless, problematic (and highly offensive, in this case) “original moves” that have nothing to do with the characters themselves or the mythological universe they’re tied to.

And here is where the “adaptation phobia” lies – Hollywood isn’t concerned about critics bringing them down; they are more concerned with fans calling them out for disgracing the integrity of their beloved franchise. There is a definite fear of rejection involved whenever someone adapts source material, but I actually think such an artistic endeavor is braver and more commendable than any “original” undertaking will ever be, especially when creating content for a franchise. A great adaptation doesn’t just cut-and-paste; it heightens the familiarity of the material; it unleashes the author’s intent within the framework of cinema, and yet there is still room for an original, distinct voice to be heard. It’s not what is said, but rather the way in which it is said that matters to fans. Look at Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoners of Azkaban, most any Game of Thrones episode (aside from the aforementioned “Breaker of Chains” one), and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as examples of a group of committed artists successfully enhancing an already terrific creation for the enjoyment of its audience. No studio, director, or star should be selling themselves with these franchise projects. They should be selling the richness of the content they’re directly involved with. How I wish this was the case today.

HOW DARE THEY DEVELOP A BELIEVABLE ROMANCE. More web-slinging! Or a Robert Downey, Jr. cameo!
HOW DARE THESE WRITERS DEVELOP A BELIEVABLE ROMANCE. More web-slinging! Or a Robert Downey, Jr. cameo!

The reason why audiences care about a franchise’s “canon” is because it is specific, focused, and ensures the fictitious universe has everlasting meaning. This is why it’s heartbreaking when one puts the kibosh on a well-established canon in order to make room for a new one (*cough* Lucasfilm/Disney *cough*). It’s a bit different in the comic book world since there are so many alternate universes and storylines that the character of focus comprises. But still, the core essence of these characters and the world they interact in should maintain some level of consistency. Otherwise they cease to be themselves. When I hear about projects like The Flash landing on a image-obsessive channel like The CW, I know full well that “adaptation phobia” has set in rather deeply. Instead of directly adhering to the content, the channel’s fan base is prioritized. That means all common tropes and superficialities associated with The CW will make-up the bulk of the new series, and The Flash will exist in name only but will be totally foreign in all other areas. You can call this “original storytelling,” but I call it superhero brand exploitation. Drumming up the popularity of a low rated network by featuring a mega-popular superhero in a brand new series lets me know right away that demographics are placed on a higher pedestal than DC world-building. I’m sure there will be nods to fans; I’m sure there will be cameos that will salivate at the mouth for many; but in the end, “original storytelling” always strays further and further away from the aspects, storylines, and themes we loved best about these superheroes to begin with. So before you jump on Zack Snyder for putting Ben Affleck in a “Fat Batsuit,” go and read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel and then share with me your gripes about why such a design amidst such a compelling narrative is a recipe for disaster. To cower in fear or flippantly dismiss source material that’s proven to be a success is not only foolish (it’s like striking gold, ignoring your discovery, and then trying to turn asparagus into gold) but borderline lazy.

Smile while you can, Barry. Before you know it, you'll be taking shots at a frat house.
Smile while you can, Barry. Before you know it, you’ll be downing shots at a frat house.

You know what I find truly hilarious? Non-fans griping about superhero films being adapted from comic books. You’d think that the comic book fans would be more annoyed since they already know what’s going to happen, but the opposite is in fact true. Critics, non-fans and the general moviegoing audience don’t want world-building, or risk-taking, or even character development – most just want a slice of eye-popping chaos with an anchoring of scintillating star power. Substance and depth to most mean “ripped from the headlines” issues or “similar historical events people can relate to.” There’s no applause for character depth, for nailing the design of the world or the characterization of the titular hero, or for killing off major characters whose deaths leave a giant pile of emotional rubble that may take a while to clean up. We live in an age when “adaptation phobia” is at an all-time high, and the most critically acclaimed comic book films are the most risk-averse…or rather the most comic book-averse.