At the front of a classroom, a little girl in a red dress with flaming red hair talks about the joy of optimism, and performs a little tap dance. The entire classroom groans.
A dinner party – the guests are discussing possible names for the new superhero in town. One of them suggests Green Arrow. The superhero-in-disguise rolls his eyes.
The party of warriors digs through an armory for weapons. One of them reaches into a box and pulls out a mechanical owl. “Put that back,” someone says, “that’s junk.”
It’s a disturbing pattern that, for many, many years, was the norm in Hollywood adaptations. Someone would get paid a great deal of money to adapt a property to the big screen. This property is usually very popular, with a particular cult following. But once it gets in the hands of People Who Think They Know Better, they decided that aspects of this property that made it popular in the first place are old, cheesy, worn out. These things must not only be replaced, they must be called out. The audience must know that we are way to smart and hip to ever think of seriously putting these things in our film.
It’s a way of distancing yourself from the property that you’re trying to adapt. This might not always be a bad thing – a lot of great tales have been told from brand new takes on things, and there’s nothing wrong from distinguishing your take on a classic. The problem comes when people decide the best way to distinguish themselves is to take shots at the very reason people came out to see their film. Starting your brand new adaptation of Annie by insulting the original is not a good idea. Most of the people in your audience are parents, bringing their kids because they remember watching the original when they were kids. If the first thing they see is you saying, “Hey, remember that thing you liked? It sucks,” you’re going to lose a lot of those parents.
Of course – if you remember back to the dark days of film adaptations, this used to be the norm. Actors would proudly declare they’d never read the book or comic their film was based on. Films like Steel would change literally every last thing about the character they were meant to be based on. It wasn’t until Brian Singer’s X-men was so successful that people really started to look at what would happen if they tried to actually follow the story, characters and trappings of the incredibly popular thing they were adapting into a movie.
Since then, Marvel came in and changed everything. By making faithful adaptations of their characters fantastically successful, they made the other studios wake up and take notice. Starting with Iron Man, they embraced their material instead of being embarassed by it, leading to the first massive comic movie crossover in history. And their gigantic financial success has made the other studios start to take notice. Instead of Godzilla being a random giant lizard who eats fish, he’s a giant near God who protects people with atomic fire breath, and the film is better for it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes the Apes seriously, and the film is better for it. Arrow began by, as noted above, being as embarrassed as possible by what they were making, but the show got significantly better when they began to embrace their comic book roots. And then they spun off into The Flash, which embraced its source material from the start, and that’s been one of the best TV shows in years.
The good news is, the studios that are still stuck in the past are being taught their lesson, quickly. Fantastic Four was a classic example of the old way of doing things. The creators told fans over and over that they weren’t making a film for them, and when plot spoilers started rolling in, they certainly spat all over their fanbase. But instead of being even moderately successful, that film was one of the biggest flops in years. The lesson here is clear. There’s a reason people are coming to your movies, and it’s because they love the work. You can change things, you can make it your own, but don’t spend your time being embarrassed by the reason people even bothered to put their butts in the seats.
Or you might find yourself out in the cold.