Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Adapt or Die: Why Adaptations are Taking Over Cinema

Adaptations are everywhere. Cinema over the last few years has relied heavily on books, plays, comics and often previously released films for their source material. Some claim that cinema today lacks originality, that filmmakers have run out of new ideas…and with the resurgence in comic book films, English-language remakes and book to film adaptations, is it any wonder? But people are still flocking to the cinema in droves to see these adapted films. So why the appeal?

Think back to your favourite film from the last few years – was it a new idea? In just a few years, we’ve had adaptations made from the books for Anna Karenina, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Lucky One and the massive blockbuster hit, The Hunger Games. On the side of comics, there’s been Avengers Assemble (The Avengers in the USA) and The Dark Knight Rises – two of this year’s biggest films. In the last few weeks alone, adaptations of The Silver Linings Handbook, Breaking Dawn and Argo have hit, with a new take on Great Expectations arriving in cinemas this weekend. The play Carnage was adapted into a hilarious film with big names including Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet.

So why do filmmakers keep taking these ideas, instead of coming up with their own? Well, for one there is an audience already out there to tap into. The popularity of The Hunger Games book trilogy, written by Suzanne Collins, meant that fans of the books were already going to see any film adaptation that was made – no matter how good it may have been. Just look at the staggering box-office success of Twilight!

The other factor, I imagine, is the opportunity to bring something old and tired back into the limelight. The number of times Batman has re-imagined himself would put even Doctor Who to shame. He is a fascinating and beloved character and fans will always want to see new guises for him. Classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre are always getting new adaptations because, after all these years, people are still enjoying the stories over and over – be they in book, TV or film form.

It’s worth considering that the dominance of adaptations at the cinema does not mean there is no room for something new. Two of the greatest films of 2012 so far – The Raid and The Cabin in the Woods – took old, tired ideas and injected new life into them. Cabin took every cliché in the horror genre and flipped them on their head to make something brilliantly clever and original – but it was done by lovingly taking everything that had been done before and making something new with it. The Raid had a fundamental plot similar to that of Judge Dredd but by using a new martial arts star (the insanely talented Iko Uwais) and showcasing the martial art style of silat, writer/director Gareth Evans managed to redefine the action genre.

More solemn and incredibly well-acted adaptations like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy did tremendously well with critics and audiences alike, winning numerous awards and worldwide acclaim. Sadly though, for every We Need to Talk About Kevin, there is a My Sister’s Keeper – a debacle of an adaptation which can be seen to take a strong, powerful idea and turn it into overly sentimental drivel. Film adaptations like these have no need for adapting a source text when all they want to do is change it into something that has been done already – and often done better.

This tendency to adapt shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. Still to come in the next few months are adaptations for Life of Pi, Les Misérables, Gangster Squad, Cloud Atlas and The Great Gatsby.

The old phrase goes that you need to adapt or die. Well it seems filmmakers are finally learning to adapt to new ideas – even if they sometimes need to use old ones to get there.

Which adaptations have you enjoyed so far this year and which ones are you really looking forward to in 2013...?


  1. I love your argument that filmmakers can use old ideas to create new ones. That's why I'm so excited to see Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina. It seems like a perfect example of experimental filmmaking while still telling a story that's nearly 150 years old.

    The best adaptation I've seen this year is probably The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Next year I'll be looking forward to the second Hunger Games movie.

    1. Thanks Jessica. Yeah, it's silly to say that even original ground-breaking films aren't an adaptation of some kind. It's all about what influences the filmmaker and where they get their ideas. The challenge is to make something new with it, not just repeat exactly what's been done before! LE x

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