Remakes and adaptations in the movies, an analysis

Last week, Jami Noguchi posted a brief bit about Cowboys & Aliens, The Smurfs, Captain America and Harry Potter. He brought up an rather frequent complaint from movie fans: That Hollywood prefers to remake old movies or adapt movies from other media formats (novels, tv shows, comic books, etc). And I think pretty much everyone understands why. Generally, it’s easier to adapt something than write something new and good, and something with a proven track record in another medium is probably going to have a better chance at doing well financially.

It’s a common complaint, and one I’ve made myself in the past. But this time it got me curious, so I went to look at just how many of the movies last year were original properties. I started going through the full list of movies originally released in the US, but too many of them never really got major releases, so I decided to just focus on the top 10 worldwide grossing movies originally released in the US (because it’s what Wikipedia charts). This was my conclusion for the decade of 2001-2010:

For the last 10 years, 28 of the 100 highest grossing films were original screenplays. Of the other 72, all but 16 were reboots or sequels or later in film franchise.

I’m going to expand that a bit here, and take it a bit farther back in time if I can. So let me define my categories. First, “Original”. Pretty simple. Original screenplays that aren’t directly adapted from other sources. Second, “Remake”. Again, simple. Screenplays which are revisionings of earlier movies. Third, “Franchise”. These are films which are sequels/prequels or later in a series of movies. Fourth, “Adaptation”. Movies which are adapted from other forms of media.

So, for a bit more clarification, if a movie is the first of a series of books, then it counts as an adaptation, such as the first Harry Potter, Twilight and Lord of the Rings movies. If a movie is a reboot of a franchise, such as Batman Begins, then it counts as a remake. The movies that follow a reboot (The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) are counted as franchise films. A movie that is a loose revisioning of a fairy tale is an adaptation (think Tangled -> Rapunzel), but a movie that plays on cultural memes, like 2012, but isn’t directly adapted from a book (despite there being books about the 2012 prophecy) is an original screenplay.

A few movies have complicated ancestry, so I will document how I counted them here.

  • Sherlock Holmes, 2009 – remake (of the multiple earlier franchises, based on the series of books)
  • Transformers, 2007 – remake (of the cartoon movie, based on the cartoon, based on the toys
  • 300, 2007 – adaptation (of the comic, based on a movie)
  • Casino Royale, 2006 – remake (of the original, based on the book)
  • Troy, 2004 – adaptation (of The Iliad)
  • Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, 2001 – adaptation (of the book, despite the existence of the animated film)
  • A Bug’s Life, 1998 – remake (loosely of Seven Samurai, influenced by one of Aesop’s fables)
  • Speed, 1994 – original (loosely inspired by some Japanese films)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992 – remake (of the earlier movies, based on the book)

Now, onto the data!

I tallied up the numbers for every year 1981-2010, and the results are pretty clear.

As you can see, from 1981-1990, only a single movie of the top 10 yearly grossing movies was a remake of an earlier movie. And from 2001-2010, franchise movies have dominated the top grossing charts. But that doesn’t really clearly indicate any trends.

The numbers of remakes and direct adaptations have slight changes, but have for the most part stayed the same. But franchises have skyrocketed and original movies have taken a nose-dive.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t give the full picture of the movie industry as a whole. Without looking at the full yearly releases, we can’t really draw any solid conclusions. We’d have just as much reason to assume the rest of the top 20 movies are all remakes as we would to assume they are all original screenplays (neither of which is particularly likely). Also, if you split things differently — say counting original screenplays against adaptations (both new and franchised) against remakes — or counted as adaptations the remakes of movies where the original movies were adaptations, you might have a rather different count. At some point I might actually take the time to do all of that and more.

Reader Fail

My primary source for news is my RSS feed. Like a lot of people, I use Google Reader to maintain it. But for a while now, I’ve noticed a glitch where embedded videos occasionally get propagated down through the feed, replacing later videos and other embedded frames. Some of them are occasionally amusing juxtapositions.

As such, I decided to create a tumblr to document those video and headline mismatches. It’s called Reader Fail. You should check it out. But here’s a sample:

Reader Fail example

Swing is alive

Most people today are aware that there was a swing music and dancing revival during the late 90s, at least to the extent that they remember a GAP commercial with khaki-clad dancers, one or two of the bands that enjoyed brief pop chart success, and maybe a few of the movies that featured music and dancers as well. The scene’s time in the spotlight is gone, but there is a dedicated population of dancers and musicians who remain.

Last weekend was the 10th annual DC Lindy Exchange — in the scene’s parlance, DCLX. A lindy exchange, is traditionally a weekend where the local scene hosts a series of dances and invites folks from outside of the area to come and “exchange” their knowledge and style of dance with the locals, often featuring local bands. DCLX this year featured two bands which are set up so that they have both a big band ensemble and a smaller group, allowing the bands to perform at different style and size venues. The core of both bands are musicians from LA and Seattle, but also included local musicians. And the DCLX organizer’s planned something special. Jonathan Stout’s Campus Five and full Orchestra and Glenn Crytzer’s Syncopaters would share a stage for two nights, with alternating sets, and would participate in a Battle of the Bands of sorts, in which the two bands would trade two songs, transitioning back and forth mid-song.

At most dances, you’re lucky to have a live band. People are generally pretty happy to dance to a DJ, but most will admit that they much prefer a live band, even if their reasoning isn’t much more explanatory than, “It just has a better feel.” And you shouldn’t expect much more than that; most dancers aren’t musicians. There are definitely dancers who really appreciate a quality live performance for the musicality, but I think they are still a small portion of the scene. But, at a dance with a live band, if you’re lucky, the crowd will be feeling the music enough that you’ll get a spontaneous jam circle or two. A few people might hang out near the front of the stage, clapping and cheering the band on. But for the most part, everyone is still just dancing.

So, having two bands on one stage, and having them involved in a bit of a competition, driving themselves to try to outperform each other is a pretty phenomenal event. Friday night, the bands set up their small groups and played one long set each. The crowd at the Glen Echo Bumper Car Pavilion was ridiculous, with a solid group of people cheering each band on during their set while taking a break from dancing. I could see members of each band hanging out in the wings and cheering the other band on as well. The atmosphere was definitely one of the best I’ve experienced since I started dancing.

Little did I know what was waiting for me on Saturday. There was a great jam circle during Jonathan Stout’s second set, which really got the dancers ready for the battle. And as the battle began, a pretty solid crowd was forming at the front of the stage. Not long after the two bands started playing together on Jumpin’ At The Woodside and Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose I looked at the crowd behind me, I realized that I couldn’t see anyone who was dancing. That. Doesn’t. Happen.

Russ Reinberg, a clarinetist in Stout’s orchestra wrote about the weekend, and it’s hard to trump his words about it:

At that point the music took on an intensity I never have experienced at a dance festival. All the musicians played harder and the vocalists sang better and the dancers began to notice. About fifty had stopped dancing during Jonathan’s second set and crowded up to the stage. As the music swung on, more and more couples stopped dancing and moved toward the bandstand. Soon hundreds, all but a couple of dozen people at the very back of the hall, had stopped dancing and began to cheer for the soloists. That was unprecedented. Today’s Swing dancers go to dance, not listen. Music is merely fuel for their feet.

The music pounded on. Glenn had found a young blond guy from Wisconsin who played tenor and baritone sax. His solos on both instruments knocked me out and, on that final tune, Honeysuckle, he really belted out a winner on tenor. I doubt more than a few people realized it.

But Glenn’s secret weapon was his bass player because he doubled on Sousaphone. So, in the middle of Honeysuckle, Glenn traded his guitar for a banjo and the bass player picked up the Sousaphone. The crowd went nuts. They always are suckers for unusual instruments like tubas, washboards, bones, and spoons; it’s a cheap old trick from Vaudeville dog acts. But then half of Glenn’s band dropped out and the rest slid into a Dixieland chorus: Trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and rhythm section. Now that was showmanship!

Jonathan roared back with an unrehearsed sax section riff and the section played it slightly wrong. Somewhere along the line he tossed me a second solo. Then the drummers went head to head and our drummer, Paul Lines, played a final volley that took down the house. Glenn’s band answered with a great riff from Benny Goodman’s Fletcher Henderson arrangement they had practiced that afternoon. Jonathan shot back with a riff from Count Basie’s The King and, at the bridge, I threw in Benny’s short 1938 solo. Both bands together blasted out a final chorus and the place broke out into hysteria.

He goes on to conclude, in words that probably incite a frisson or chills in any swing dancer or musician who is familiar with the history of our musical culture:

My father was at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles that famous night in August 1935 when Benny Goodman made history and launched the Swing era. Our experience in Glen Echo, Maryland came as close to that as is possible today. It was an electrifying night for the musicians and the dancers.

I have played many times on the Johnny Carson Show and several other TV shows. I performed several times at Carnegie Hall. I’ve played jazz festivals. I have worked with genuine jazz stars. My groups usually received standing ovations. But Saturday night in Glen Echo was one of only two occasions where I experienced that surge of electricity you feel when you know your music has impacted an entire venue. It will stand out in my memory as a unique example of the immense power jazz possesses to bring anyone to a level of profound joy.

Jerry Almonte is putting together a longer post where he talks with several people about the battle including Russ and other musicians, and when he gets that up, I’ll definitely update this post with a link to it.

Review: Bug Jack Barron

So I just finished up reading Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, a rather curious novel dating from the New Wave era of science fiction. And dated it definitely is. The plot follows a fascinating pseudo-detective storyline centering on the titular character, Jack Barron. Barron is a civil rights activist turned television talk show host of a show on which every day people call in and “bug” him with their problems which he helps bring to the larger public’s attention. In the course of one of his shows he takes on the issue of a piece of pending legislation which would grant monopoly rights to a company which has perfected cryogenic storage. This leads him into a conflict with that company’s President and Chairman, Benedict Howards, who has secretly developed a process for human immortality, and hopes to use Barron’s influence with the public to manipulate Congress. But because of Barron’s ideological opposition to fat-cat power brokers, Barron attempts to find out the secret behind the process.

That all seems pretty standard and would work well if someone wanted to make it into a movie, but it’s the societal background which Spinrad has created that puts the story into an odd world for the modern reader. The highly racially divided, socially liberalized society is a direct reflection of and a potential future from the late 1960s when the book was written. Barron was the founder of a civil rights-focused political party, the Social Justice Coalition, which is almost completely supported by southern blacks. (Republicans are a second class party, almost entirely beholden to big business, and the Democrats aren’t much better, and are tightly tied to Howards’ influence.) Marijuana use is legalized and sexual relationships are very reflective of the lifestyle of the summer of love. However, the way Spinrad depicts the women makes them all very subservient — both professionally and sexually.

Race is the key mover behind the story though, playing a large part in the conflict between Howards and Barron, and driving associated story arcs which tie in to the primary drama. The associated class differences and social limitations on blacks (unashamedly referred to as niggers, while whites are frequently called ‘shades’) are best shown though Lukas Greene, Barron’s good friend and Governor of Mississippi, a state which is depicted as being almost entirely populated by blacks living in abject poverty, despite the efforts of the SJC to revitalize the economy and population.

The story itself is quite interesting though, despite the moments of realization that this is an alternate future which never came to be and which probably can’t happen in our future which occasionally draw you out of the story (for instance Lukas Greene’s internal monologue in which he says that he knows a black man can’t be president). Stylistically, Spinrad is clearly influenced by the free association and lyrical prose of the beat generation. But that style is also cross-pollinated by the rise of commercialism and television advertising.

In all, it’s definitely an book worthy of reading to see the diversity of New Wave science fiction. I could definitely imagine the story being adapted to the modern era, or an updated future one, and turned into a movie. The conflict between the common man and big money/big business set against a backdrop of social and class divisions is one that is going to have a long life in literature and film.

Review: Wise Man’s Fear

In the land of fantasy literature, fans are pretty much guaranteed of a few things. Rule number one is that if they really, really, really like a series of books, they are going to have to wait longer than they originally expected for the next book in the series to be published. Another good rule of thumb is that it is pretty safe to assume that when a new book comes out, it is going to be a rather oversized tome (gone are the days of the less than 200 page novel).

For the average person, this phenomenon is best seen in the Harry Potter series. For the folks who are more invested in the fantasy literature genre, over the last 10-15 years two names have been synonymous with big books and long waits between them: Robert Jordan and George RR Martin. Four years ago, Patrick Rothfuss quietly introduced himself to the fantasy genre with his novel Name of the Wind, and it definitely fulfilled the second of the two characteristics of fantasy lit. And the name of that book was passed through the fan community almost as quickly as the wind itself, propelling it onto the NYT bestseller list. And fans of the book quickly learned (told by the main character of the novel, no less) that it was the first book in a trilogy. And Rothfuss told the world that the rest of the story was already written. More or less.

That’s where rule number one comes into play. Fans were hopeful that book two would be out within a year or two, because it was “already written”. But two years turned into three. And three years turned into four. And a wind rose in the backwoods of Wisconsin, and the wind was a beginning, but it was not the beginning. Er, sorry there, started channeling my inner-Jordan. The name of that wind was the anticipation that mounted and mounted over the publication of Wise Man’s Fear. It is safe to say that the only more anticipated fantasy novel is George RR Martin’s A Dance With Dragons (recently announced to have a July 11, 2011 publication date, 6 years after the previous book in the series), and depending on who you ask, they may argue the point.

Well, let me tell you something folks, Rothfuss delivers. In spades. In buckets and buckets of stew. Released on March 1, I swung by one of the two Barnes & Nobles in DC. I knew that the book was going to be popular, so I skipped trying a local store, because I figured that B&N would have copies in stock. No dice. Sold out in two hours according to the employee I talked to, who called the other store which was also sold out. So I tried one of the local stores. Also sold out. So on the third I called up B&N to reserve a copy and picked it up on my way home.

I got home around 6 and read until 2. I was only about halfway through the book. That tells you 1) the size of the book (there’s that other pesky rule of thumb again), and 2) the density and quality of the writing. (In comparison, I knocked off the last book in the Harry Potter series in 6 hours.) Rothfuss’ writing is complex, but clear; engaging and absorbing. I need to break out a thesaurus to be able to describe his ability to produce quality dialogue (clever and sparkling), descriptions of the world (elaborate and elegant), characters (multidimensional and necessary) and societal behaviors and political intrigues (inventive and detailed) without repeating myself.

And all of this is combined in a narrative that, despite the length of the novel, is so tightly wrapped and bound together that it doesn’t seem that a single word is wasted. The interweaving of the external narrative of Kvothe and Bast and Chronicler and the story which Kvothe is telling are producing a world which, while we, as readers still lack the full story, is extremely well-developed and hints at the story which we don’t yet know. In itself, the anticipation it creates for the resolution of both Kvothe’s story and the larger narrative and how the two are connected is almost maddening.

What really amazes me is the way that Rothfuss is able to take various standard tropes of fantasy literature and adapt them and turn them on their head. Sure, we’ve got the “hyper-competent” boy hero, but we see his doubt, his failures, his innocence. And we see him learn to overcome them and begin to grow from boy to man; it is a true process, not just a sudden “thing” which is so common. And how many of these other things have you seen before? He goes to a school for magic. He searches through an excessively large library. He trains with a special warrior society. He dabbles in palace intrigues. Yet, all of these are turned on their heads. But I’m not telling you how because I don’t want to ruin the story and the surprises.

What Rothfuss did in Name of the Wind was to introduce himself to the fantasy literature world by slapping it upside the head with a sea bass and saying, “I love this genre and a lot of the things about it, but dammit I’m doing it my way.” And he has definitely continued in that vein. A week or two ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha over the state of fantasy literature and it’s supposed degradation from the glorious high fantasy of Tolkien to the blackened, rotting husk of authors such as Joe Abercrombie*. No one can read Wise Man’s Fear and accept that claim as true. As good at Name of the Wind was, Wise Man’s Fear is even better. I don’t like to rank “best” books, so I can’t really tell you where it places, but Wise Man’s Fear is easily one of the best fantasy novels of all time. And if The Doors of Stone (book three’s working title) improves as much on Wise Man’s Fear as Wise Man’s Fear did on Name of the Wind, I will be hard pressed to find a better fantasy novel.

*I love Joe Abercrombie’s work and am reading through his most recent novel now.