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At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
    by Chris Bellamy

All's fair in adaptation

In a culture of reboots and remakes, why do so few of them actually reinvent themselves?

First, a confession: I love to hear people complain about a movie on the logic that it's different from the book/comic/TV series/imagined notion upon which it's based, because it gives me a clear indication - an invitation, even - that I can stop taking that particular opinion seriously.

It has always baffled me, this line of thought - that the choices made by one set of creators had anything whatsoever to do with the choices made by another, particularly where those contrasts involve such radically different media as (for example) prose and cinema, and regardless of whether or not the two incarnations happened to come from the same basic place. Or have the same title. Or feature the same set of characters. The fact has always remained, they are different beasts, and shouldn't be judged against one another. (That's to say nothing of simply comparing one with the other, which can be valuable and interesting in its own right.)

I used to think of this as a purely a matter of logic - indeed, it is always so easy to bend the book-vs.-movie logic back on itself; arguments based on fidelity to source material invariably wrap themselves in circles - but eventually it became something else entirely. For me, it's the rejection of the idea that there is, or should be, one definitive interpretation of ... well, anything. Be it a specific story, an iconic character, a religious text, anything. There's nothing* that makes me cringe more than hearing someone say that an adaptation "got it wrong." Preconceived notions are never a reliable frame of reference.

* OK, there's one other thing, and that's when someone informs me that one can't "get" why the movie doesn't work unless one has read the book. As if one were contingent upon the other.

Yet that kind of reaction persists - especially in movies, which we seem to judge in a lot of ways that most of us would never dream of judging different art forms. (Would anyone wait to judge, say, a landscape painting before first asking to see a photograph of the landscape that served as its inspiration?) Every deviation is met with skepticism in one circle or another - whether it's changing a character's race (see the critical reactions to Michael B. Jordan's casting as the new Johnny Storm), altering or removing entire plot points (which would make, among others, Jaws and The Godfather drastic failures of adaptation), or, in the case of Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, changing the geographic location of one character's house. (Gasp!)

But in fairness, the nitpicks are just that. The major uproars come from wholesale changes - altering the entire nature of particular characters, dramatically diverging from the plot or setting, writing a new ending, or changing any element of a property so completely that it's virtually unrecognizable from its original source. At that point, the conventional wisdom goes, you've ruined it. Bastardized it. Me, I say have at it, for better or worse. Everything is fair game. If you want to change Batman's origin story and transplant him from Gotham City to somewhere else, go for it. To hell with canon.

Seems to me, not being beholden to predetermined ideas about what you're adapting fosters the kind of creativity and experimentation that so much of the best storytelling comes from. Not to mention, literature, theatre and film have been recycling, reinterpreting, overhauling, editing and transplanting their own (and each other's) ideas forever. The notion that there should be a slavish fidelity to source material seems childishly retrograde.

This is particularly relevant now in the midst of the film industry's reboot culture, where the modus operandi is to expand existing franchises or rebuild old ones. I've made peace with the fact that this will be the norm for a while, but it's only solidified my assertion that there should be as much freedom to deviate as possible. Instead, there's been a commitment not necessarily to pure faithfulness, but certainly to familiarity and uniformity. While I argue against the need for grand unifying mythologies governing specifically what each character and idea must be, expanded mythologies are exactly what we're getting. I suppose this is one - but just one - reason why I feel a certain disconnect from, and frustration with, the current model. The endeavors are becoming so large and so connected that authorship has been increasingly devalued in the service of a pre-established status quo. The litany of complaints (from myself included) about the sameness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even among fans of the films, persist for a reason.

This is not to say that there aren't differences and idiosyncrasies distinguishing the films, or the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Or, coming soon, the Agent Carter series. Or, also coming soon, the Daredevil series, the Luke Cage series, the Jessica Jones series and the Iron Fist series. There are, and will continue to be, different flavors.

But not distinctive enough flavors to identify any of them as wholly individual creations - or anywhere close. The authorship that has defined most of what I find to be great cinema - and that includes various franchise and superhero movies - is conspicuously lacking. I can't help but assume that the films' track records would be stronger if they weren't required to stick within the guidelines of an increasingly large mythology. As much as I enjoy The Avengers, I'd much rather see a collection of singular franchises, each with their own distinct aesthetic. Instead, most entries simply reiterate the status quo - to build and reinforce a corporate brand.

As I touched on in my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I don't think it is any coincidence that the best two Marvel entries - my opinion, of course - are the two Captain America films, which were seemingly allowed the most significant leeway, as both established their own style. The First Avenger was the only legitimate period piece in the MCU library, and The Winter Soldier might as well have been one for as much as it evoked 1970s filmmaking.

But they are the exceptions, rather than the rule. And while I've positively reviewed the majority of the Marvel Universe entries, I'm also not wildly enthusiastic about most of them. There's a reason why I've written often about Christopher Nolan's Batman series; his trilogy was a piece of personal authorship. Ditto Tim Burton's Batman films. And Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy series. Again, it's no coincidence that those seven films - and the two Captain Americas - would all rank pretty high on my personal list of superhero movies.

But I'm not sure we'll see another Nolan situation for a while - not with DC, Sony and 20th Century Fox trying to replicate Marvel's formula. DC answered Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. with the upcoming Gotham, and added The Flash as an offshoot of its existing Arrow series - while answering The Avengers with a Batman/Superman team-up and a Justice League movie. All of which, I gather, will be tied together somehow. Sony, meanwhile, has spent the entirety of its failure of a Spider-Man reboot trying to build up to an expanded mythology. (And in doing so, the stories they've given us have been largely a rehash of the trilogy that preceded it. Some "reboot.") Meanwhile, Fox continues to milk the half-reboot, half-continuation of the X-Men series, along with a new Fantastic Four that, let's face it, will probably merge with the X-Men at some point.

My point is not to criticize the studios' big-picture thinking, but to point out how it can stifle the voices bringing that big picture to life. Wouldn't it be nice to see one of these movies completely break the rules? Completely break from convention? Completely exist within its own universe rather than one that spans across two-dozen other movies? (Fingers crossed for Guardians of the Galaxy.)

Of course, at the risk of talking about something that has already been talked about too much already, the biggest player on this stage is the upcoming continuation of the Star Wars saga. Of all the rumors, gossip and non-news that's come out, one of the few concrete pieces of information to emerge was that the new films would essentially be ignoring the Expanded Universe. I said to forget about canon and, on this one point at least, J.J. Abrams seems to agree. The EU dismissal was one of the most promising things I've heard on the project. Why force Abrams to stick within the guidelines of years' worth of ancillary content?

It was promising in part because, though I like Abrams' Star Trek entries, his (or the studio's) insistence on remaining connected to the existing series was, while charming, also largely unnecessary, and at times felt like pandering. (His only radical departure from Trek's original-cast canon was casting actors who were good at acting.) The alternate-timeline angle in Star Trek that allowed for both series to exist worked well, but both that movie and its sequel would have been close to identical, narrative-wise, without purporting to be tied to past versions of the same stories and characters. Into Darkness was, in effect, a remake that pretended to be a continuation.

The funny thing is, most of these franchises I've mentioned were originally built on crazy risks. The groundbreaking original Star Trek series. George Lucas making something as absurd as Star Wars before anyone knew what it would become. Burton's game-changing 1989 Batman. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, which redefined franchise filmmaking. Or Marvel taking a chance on a pre-A-list Robert Downey Jr. on a non-mainstream character that would eventually launch their entire superhero universe. It would be nice if the same kinds of risks would continue. Instead - and I say this with Guardians of the Galaxy as a notable exception - the thinking is to play it safe.

The next time a particular well runs dry, I'd love to see someone blow things up and start all over, canon, fidelity and fan service be damned.

I look at something like Bryan Fuller's operatic and brilliant NBC series Hannibal and ask myself what it would be like if the owners of that property treated it the way franchises (especially multi-platform ones) are currently built. Would the series have been made to resemble Red Dragon? I repeat: Would the series have been Brett Ratnerized? If that's not a sobering reminder of the need for constant reinvention, I don't know what is.

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