Sunday, January 28, 2018

If It Ain't Broke, It's Probably Boring

Though the franchise has never been as centrally situated in the entertainment landscape until now, valuable intellectual property has been exploited across media since the advent of modernity. Little Women spawned theatrical adaptations and character dolls within less than a decade of its release; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein were major stage hits; A Christmas Carol all but invented the capitalist bonanza that we celebrate today. It's understandable that producers and publishers, not to mention toy manufacturers, make use of popular stories, characters, and concepts to produce more content, and therefore more money, but it also means that the same works get adapted over, and over, and over, and even over again. This is a shame because it often means that less famous works get forgotten and passed over. 

Do we really need two more adaptations of Anne of Green Gables? L.M. Montgomery wrote twenty novels and dozens of short stories. A miniseries of A Tangled Web, for instance, a novel with well over two hundred characters, or the Emily series, with its ambitious, sensitive heroine, would offer many of the same pleasures without simply retreading the same ground. In fact, given the current predominant taste for dark, gritty stories of trauma, Emily - with her strange 'flashes' that could be indications of supernatural power, or the residual effects of the trauma of her father's death and her own desperate feelings of abandonment - is a far more apropos protagonist than Anne, preternaturally sunny, a believer that "Tomorrow is always a new day, with no mistakes in it." 

Jane Eyre, too, has been adapted dozens of times (and with decidedly varying success), but Charlotte Brontë's other novels have been neglected: Shirley, with its radical, land-owning, gender norm-flouting heroine, was adapted, in 1922, while Villette, an intense and rich story of a repressed teacher, was adapted in 1970 for television, but neither adaptation is available online (the former may even be a lost film). And, while no one can complain that Charles Dickens's works are under-adapted, my favorite, Dombey and Son, has suffered from the low-budget constraints of old-style BBC filmmaking. It would be a treat to see Mr. Carker, Captain Cuttle, and the formidable Edith Dombey onscreen, instead of the next in an endless line of Ebeneezer Scrooges, Pips, and Oliver Twists. 

One could cite oodles more examples: we are forever getting a new Peter Pan, while J.M. Barrie's other (better) work, such as The Little Minister and My Lady Nicotine, is ignored; another Anna Karenina, while the more politically invested Resurrection hasn't been adapted for the silver screen since 1934; another Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, with nary a Boy who Left Home to Find Out about the Shivers in sight; another Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, instead of a Prince Otto or Catriona; an endless string of Austen adaptations, while her forebear Fanny Burney's novels have never once seen a screen adaptation. There are two more Little Women adaptations on their way, after two silent and three sound films, plus a number of miniseries, while none of Alcott's other novels have received a single decent adaptation. And I haven't even mentioned Shakespeare.

While in the scheme of things, repetitive adaptation is hardly a pressing problem, it indicates a lack of creative imagination and an excess of conservative calculation in filmmaking that prevents the production of films that insist on forging new paths forward, following wild and strange new directions, and thus - in fact, rather than rhetorically - increasing the diversity of cinematic vision. There are occasional flashes of the frisson of adaptation, the fruitful merging of the literary and cinematic at its most successful, but they are rare. One thinks of Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden, which transplanted Sarah Waters's Fingersmith from Victorian London to Korea under Japanese Occupation, or Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, based on the blissfully hitherto un-adapted Austen novella, Lady Susan. It's remarkable that in an age that claims to value the new, original, and innovative, that our entertainment conforms so strictly to a focus on the most popular, most adapted works out there. We're spinning the wheels, but don't seem to be going anywhere. With literal millennia of literature to choose from, what a pity that we can't see the astonishing treasure trove we have in even a small neighborhood library.

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