Developing into one of the biggest disappointments in the last 15 years, Hollywood has seen a massive backlash in public favor for repeatedly recycling stories and iconic fiction. In this brief period, studios have managed to turn terms like “remake,” “reimagining,” “reboot,” and, their blanket category, “adaptation,” into dirty words. These inspired forms of storytelling rose to prominence after Hollywood began to recognize the benefits of re-committing previous existing intellectual properties to the screen (which proved far easier and cheaper to market compared to completely new IPs which lacked cultural recognition). But, in a frenzied effort to capitalize, these studios have flooded the market with uninspired retreads of tired narratives that exhibit a transparent effort to cash in on popularity. In response to Hollywood’s quest to bleed their cash cows dry, critics have declared the death of cinematic creativity.
The negative connotation bestowed upon the practice of adapting (which is often equated with bastardizing) is truly unfortunate considering Hollywood’s long and successful history altering recognizable stories for the silver screen. Ben-Hur and Wizard of Oz, for example, borrowed heavily from previous iterations produced during the silent era, which themselves were adapted from popular novels. Beloved pictures like Alien and The Thing were remakes of prior films, while works like Jaws, Blade Runner, and Dr. Strangelove expanded on and improved their literary sources with broad strokes of creativity. Despite boasting a proprietary rodent mascot, the Disney Empire was built on the act of adapting. The plays of William Shakespeare (who often dipped into the well of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, among others) have been adapted countless times, occasionally resulting in visionary interpretations like Forbidden Planet, a futuristic version of The Tempest. To be sure, Hollywood cinema, like all of the major arts, has made a habit of adapting liberally from other sources (the only difference being Hollywood generally pays and credits their originators).
Likening adaptation to grand larceny requires a skewed analysis predicated on emphasizing failures and de-emphasizing successes (both commercially and artistically). Although difficult at times, viewers must distance themselves from the horrors that have been wrought on this world in the name of adapting. Doing so will prove that adaptations in general are not good or bad, but are simply iterations of previously existing art forms transmuted into something new.
While the number of bad adaptations likely dwarfs the good, the act itself is incredibly valuable. When done well, adaptations prove a unique and exciting avenue of personal expression for their creators. This is because creating an adapted work establishes a direct dialogue with the original, which can be used for a multitude of purposes. Adaptations can provide insight into our present cultural context by updating and reevaluating the past. Adaptors rejuvenate stagnant or irrelevant works by refining their themes, redefining their characters, and unearthing their potentials. In such a way, they build something completely new yet irreducibly familiar. While often considered facsimiles of their predecessors, adaptations are more appropriately likened to their children, sharing DNA but fundamentally with different perspectives on the world.
Yet, despite the limitless possibilities available to Hollywood, more film adaptations remain beholden to their sources (likely in fear of alienating fans). Paralyzed from taking risks, these adaptations have become mere repackaged classics. This begs the ultimate question: What is the purpose of adapting without divergence?
Clearly, the creative adaptation is a rarity, but one that deserves attention. When done right, these works act as both companions to the original and as distinct entities, like puzzles that produce new images when a few of their pieces are rearranged. They aren’t knock-offs, but are instead variations that exhibit equal parts love and irreverence to their sources.
1. Star Trek (2009)
In a short time, rebooting has become the hottest practice in Hollywood, thanks largely to a few overwhelming successes like Christopher Nolan’s realistic take on the Batman mythology and Marc Webb’s melancholy Amazing Spider-Man. Many reboots prove profitable at the box office for one primary reason—audiences want to see them done right. While publically bemoaned, notable properties like Spider-Man and the Hulk saw blazingly fast turnarounds motivated entirely by consumer demand (with both waiting a mere five years before rebooting).
Regardless of quality and success, the vast majority of these reboots (in an effort to maintain a clean slate) share one commonality: they all act as if their previous iterations never existed by eliminating all traces of their existence. J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek, though, found a way to not just pay homage to its predecessor, but also to weave the continuity of the original 1966 series with its own. Over the course of the film, the audience learns that the battle ensuing between a Federation Starship and a time-displaced Romulan craft in the film’s introductory scene irreparably disrupts the course of history. Simply put, the film retroactively dissolves the Shatner-verse and replaces it with its own alternate reality.
In so doing, the adaptors didn’t just erase the chalkboard left by Gene Roddenberry’s classic program as a way of staking their own claim on the story, but labored with love to both reincorporate it and give it a respectful sendoff into the afterlife.
2. The Killers (1946)
Often considered one of the bases of the Film Noir movement, Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story provided a stirring theme of nihilism that befitted post-WWII America. Resonating with artists of the period, the bleak tale follows two hired guns who enter a small, peaceful town at night in an effort to locate a man known as “the Swede.” Warned of the hitmen’s presence, the Swede, in an arresting moment of existential dread, forgoes escape and allows the titular duo to execute him. Providing little information about his protagonist, Hemmingway left his audience pondering the grand enigma: What would make a running man so weary that he would lose the basic urge of survival?
In building their adaptation, The Killers’ screenwriters dedicated the film’s first 20 minutes to a slavishly loyal reconstruction of the short story. Instead of embracing Hemingway’s mystery, though, the filmmakers used the remaining time to build their enigmatic protagonist a wholly original backstory centering on deception and bamboozlement. Told through a series of flashbacks, this origin tale not only provided greater insight into the Swede’s plight, but also, by seeing the killers ultimately punished for their crime, reoriented the short’s nihilistic message towards one of moralism.
While devotees of Hemingway have declared the film an abomination for providing answers to the author’s deliberately open plot, The Killers remains a unique blueprint for adapting short stories to full length features. Instead of isolating a central concept of a story to construct an entirely different narrative (a common practice with films like There Will Be Blood), The Killers managed to maintain the original in its full glory while also unraveling its mysteries with entirely new content.
3. Beowulf (2007)
Director Robert Zemeckis, with the aid of his signature Motion Capture graphics, managed to do the unthinkable with his adaptation of Beowulf—he turned an anonymous epic poem known best for torturing disinterested high school students into an expansive and breathtaking tale of power and legacy.
Much of this success was due to the admirable work of screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, who brilliantly deconstructed the original text. Interpreting the poem not as the absolute history of the legendary titular monster slayer, but instead as the song that would relay his tale to future generations, the writers used their film to expose the shameful lies perpetuated on Beowulf’s behalf.
Dissecting the myriad of inconsistencies (such as the poem’s conspicuously brief and vague descriptions of the protagonist’s battles with the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon), the writers began weaving a yarn of the “real” Beowulf and the dark secret of lust and greed that lead to his meteoric rise. In so doing, the film uproots the original lofty tale of a heroic man whose adventures earned him perpetual romanticization for all posterity and drags it back to earth by emphasizing his weakness and fallibility, thereby giving us a bleak look into the dark deeds that don’t make it into the history books. The grossly underrated film boasts one of the most intricate, insightful, and unique forms of adaptation, wherein storytelling itself becomes a central theme.
4. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Tasked with adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which famously “beat” auteur Orson Welles), writer John Milius decided to transpose the legendary tale of power and murder onto the modern context of the Vietnam War, thereby commenting on the deteriorating psyche of the modern soldier. But rather than simply follow Milius’ text, director Francis Ford Coppola and crew fully immersed themselves into the madness and inhumanity detailed by Conrad, and as a result, they became lost in a shared obsession with embracing darkness. As life began imitating art, the original vision (and most direct connection to Conrad’s novel) started to deteriorate while Coppola continued to rewrite the script on a daily basis. Becoming a masterpiece largely due to the tangible evidence of desperation and wild passion, Apocalypse Now’s unbelievable journey of adaptation later became the topic of one of the greatest documentaries of all time, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
5. Nosferatu (1922)
The first notable screen adaptation of Dracula didn’t get off to a great start. After Bram Stoker’s estate refused director F.W. Murnau permission to adapt the Irish novelist’s most famous work, the auteur was forced to improvise. In the process, he changed the setting to an idyllic German village and turned the romantic and eloquent count into a spindly fingered, indistinguishable creature (iconically brought to life by Max Schreck). Rather than submit to his limitations, Murnau instead created a unique work overflowing with lyricism and suspense that established its own mythos for Stoker’s vampire (with many aspects, like the fatal reaction to sunlight, being adopted into Dracula’s cultural gestalt). The evocative work ultimately helped usher in the era of German Expressionism, which likely wouldn’t have been possible without Murnau’s ingenious form of adaptation.
6. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Okay, so before you entirely write off this list due to the inclusion of the horrendous third X-Men film, understand that making an interesting or commendable adaptation doesn’t necessarily mean the end result will be a success, only that it’s unique.
The finale to Bryan Singer’s reimagined X-Men saga did something that simply no other superhero film has had the courage to do—depart entirely from the source material. In fear of losing their base, most studios producing comic book movies expend a great deal of energy conforming to the preexisting continuities laid out in the comic’s ongoing narrative, resisting any drastic deviations. However, Brett Ratner, upon taking over the franchise, instantly began severing ties to the beloved Marvel storylines and icons, thereby blazing an entirely distinctive trail.
In short order, the filmmakers killed off fan favorites Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Professor X before having Wolverine emerge as the inheritor of the mutant school (bringing his reluctant transformation from a wild loner to paternal caretaker full circle). Establishing its own self-sustaining continuity with an irrevocably altered dynamic, the film left audiences with a litany of questions regarding the future of Wolverine’s team (an unfathomable development for the comics). Would Wolverine be equipped to care for the children? Would Professor X’s death leave them vulnerable to attack from nemeses? Would the new X-Men begin to adopt the anti-hero characteristics of Wolverine?
7. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)
Faced with the perplexing task of adapting a beloved period drama (and one of TIME’s Top 100 English language novels of all-time), which features two potential endings for its scandalized heroine, screenwriter Harold Pinter came up with an innovative approach. He introduced an element of meta-fiction to the film by interweaving two parallel tales—one following the plot of the original story and the other focusing on fictional actors filming a movie version of the novel, who themselves are enrapt in an illicit affair. In the end, Pinter bestowed the happy ending onto the fictional couple and the tragic ending onto the meta-fictional one, thereby uniting couples of all eras under the shared struggle of love. In addition, Pinter used the original text to remark on the romantic capriciousness of film productions.
8. Adaptation. (2002)
No list of this ilk would be complete without Charlie Kaufman’s introspective and self-reflexive look into the plight of the adaptor. Bearing the grave responsibility of bringing Susan Orlean’s real-life non-fiction book about orchids to life, Kaufman enters a crisis of self, and in the process is forced to address all forms of adapting, including professional, personal, and even evolutionary. Simultaneously serving as the chronicle of Kaufman’s struggle to adapt Orlean’s book and, in a meta-fictional twist, his finished product, the work is likely the most comprehensive look at man’s greatest obstacle, change.