Commonalities of Adaptation

We begin with some observations about commonalities between cross-media movements and adaptations. First, many adaptations aim to offer additional backstory, prequel, and deep history. In this they follow a rich history of beloved cinematic sequels that go backward to go forward—think here of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) telling us that Vader is Luke’s father, or of The Godfather II (1974) returning to Vito Corleone’s past. Regardless of whether a story was moving to the movies or to television, many of the adaptations we considered aimed to offer backstory, or even an origin story. For example, television shows Bates Motel and Hannibal give us Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter before they were infamous, while films ranging from The A-Team and GIJoe: The Rise of Cobra to Starsky and Hutch and Inspector Gadget offer origin stories of their heroes’ fame.

Second, across all the adaptations we examined, many engaged in temporal updating and/or commentary. Those adaptations of properties from an earlier decade or moment in history that stayed in that moment frequently relished the opportunity to poke fun at the excesses and oddities of that moment, while those that moved the story to the current day often worked hard to make that story seem fresh and contemporary. Bewitched and Psycho each leave the 1960s, for instance, while Charlie’s Angels and The Exorcist each leave the 1970s, and

Miami Vice and Teen I Volf each leave the 1980s. Meanwhile, Starsky and Hutch stays in the 1970s to make fun of it, and though none of the television shows exist largely to parody the decade of their film original (as will be discussed later), across both media some of the originals’ more problematic identity politics, and active racism and sexism, are “cleaned up” for modern day. Ralph Kramden’s notorious “to the moon, Alice” threat on The Honeymooners, thus becomes an inviting “I’ll take you to the moon, Alice,” in an all-Black remake. Or, moving from film to television, Stargate gains women characters in Stargate SG-1. Following Braudy’s notion of “unfinished business,” surely a key motivation of many adaptations, regardless of medium, is to comment upon and revisit the original’s politics (see, for example, Butter 2015; Hassler-Forest and Nicklas 2015; Nielsen 1994). This is not to say they all “improve” per se— The Last Airbender notoriously whitewashes the story (Lopez 2012), and while The Dukes of Hazzard film tries to distance itself from the embedded racism of the show’s iconic car, the General Lee, sporting a Confederate flag, its Daisy is also even more of an object than she was in the television show. But a general, if light, attempt to “update” scenery, style, and sensibility is evident across many adaptations.

Indeed, and finally, all but the most boring adaptations aim to play somewhat with form, even if only to justify their existence. Daniel Herbert states that adaptations “retell the story or transpose some crucial aspect of an existing text in another medium” (2017, 26), so the challenge for an adaptation’s creative team lies in working out what is or are the “crucial aspect(s)” while engaging in some play with style and details, in order to allow for some form of innovation and novelty for audiences—a play of difference that is at the heart of contemporary franchising imperatives (see Johnson 2013). Thus we approached these adaptations fully expecting to see some movement between versions, and wanting to avoid attributing all movement to the cross-media shift or to discursively constructed notions of what each medium can or can’t do. Rather, our focus lay on patterns of movement that flowed in the same direction without being countered by any such equal and opposite movement.

 
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