Adaptation Rage: Or The Result of the Inevitable Failure of Hollywood to Make Fans Happy

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 So, this weekend I, of course, made the trek down to my local move theater to indulge in the gratuitous violence and smart-assiness that is the latest Iron Man movie. As I sat through the 20-30 minutes of commercials and previews before the movie, I was treated to a “behind-the-scenes” story about Leonardo DiCaprio to promote The Great Gatsby and trailers for Catching Fire (the new Hunger Games move), The WolverineThor: The Dark World, and Man of Steel. I’ve also been, as I’m sure most who watch any form of TV or online streaming content have, bombarded with ads and tie-ins with the new Star Trek: Into Darkness movie. If I had no other indication of the time year than these previews, I would still be pretty sure Summer was coming. If the last few years are any indication, Summer is the season for adaptions of popular properties to break box office records and sell products in Hot Topic or on ThinkGeek.com.

Clearly, movie adaptions of other media must have some sort of magical powers, because they are pretty much running the movie industry these days. I mean, why else would I, while sitting in a theater waiting to watch one movie based on a Marvel superhero, be watching previews for two other Marvel superhero movies? Adaptions clearly get buts in the seats and bucks in the executive’s coffers.

So, why are adaptions so often met with disdain and rage from the very people who most love the source material? 

I doubt I’m the first person to use the term “adaption rage” but I’ll pretend I have and define it.

Adaption Rage: A specific form of nerd rage, adaption rage is the often intense anger expressed by fans of an original work  who feel personally offended by either an adaption as a whole or an aspect of an adaption of that work. Adaption Rage is known to cause extended rants on message boards, You Tube, Twitter, and Facebook and other similar Internet media outlets.

My Head That Just Made Up This Definition

I have yet to encounter a geek who has not experienced adaption rage on some level in their careers as obsessive fanboys/girls. Sometimes it’s a little ridiculous as some fans can’t abide by any changes in their beloved books, shows, and games. However, other times I feel the rage is, if not justified, easily understandable. I’ve personally experienced my most intense adaption rage over  M. Night Shyamalan disaster that was The Last Airbender, an adaption of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The Last Airbender did not just anger fans of the original Nickelodeon cartoon created by Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko that not only developed a sky-rocketing fan base in the years it was on the air, but also won a Peabody award. According to animationinsider.net:

Awarding a Peabody for the animated series’ dynamic storytelling and extraordinary character development, the Board offered the following, pithy analysis of Avatar: the Last Airbender: Unusually complex characters and healthy respect for the consequences of warfare enhanced this American-made, anime-influenced martial-arts adventure.

This was as close to an objectively good show as I think can be expected from much of media today. It appealed to girls and boy both young and old, and is one of the most successful American cartoons out there. M. Night Shyamalan’s version, on the other hand, is as close to objectively terrible as a movie can be. The move netted an embarrassing 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the late Roger Ebert had this to say:

The Last Airbender” is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here. It puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3D, but it will need a lot more coffins than that.

This was a horrible movie. It was boring; the “3D” was muddy and needless; the effects were not as good as they should have been (though some people thought they were good); the writing was terrible; the mood was grim; and the acting was terrible.

However, fans of the original cartoon don’t just hate the movie because it’s bad. There’s an extra layer of offense that fans took toward this film that cannot be appreciated by the casual movie-goer. For fans, the movie wasn’t just bad. It was wrong.

Being right, as childish as it may seem, is highly prized within many fandom communities. The degree to which one knows the facts and details of their fandom tends to be the measure by which other members of the fandom measure your authenticity and dedication. This is why, whenever you read yet another comic message board discussing whether Batman would beat Superman in a fight, someone will inevitably bring up the idea of “canon” as part of the argument. Canon, in the context of fandoms, is closer to the canon of the Bible than that of literature, as it deals with authoritative fact in fandoms rather than what’s most important. Many fans care a great deal for what the established “facts” are for the various universes of which they are fans. You’ll see this a lot in the geek practice of quizzing each other on the minute details of Star Wars or Spiderman. Other fans are more invested in knowing the characters and the ideals of a work than the basic facts. These fans (and I count myself among them) feel almost as though they/we personally know the characters we read about or watch on TV. I feel like I know Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender. I feel as though I know how she would act in certain situations or how she would feel about others.

That M. Night Shyamalan, in my opinion, got this character, and the other characters so incredibly “wrong” is what most offends me about the movie. He created his own characters and passed them off as these people I’ve come to know. He has misrepresented a show and characters I loved. In a way, it’s as though he committed fandom identity theft. He stole what the identity of what the  A:TLA fandom loved and cared about and used it for his own ends and his own vision.

Unfortunately for those who create adaptions of beloved works, this is what all adaption does. When one chooses to adapt an existing work, one is always taking the original work’s identity and using it for one’s own project. This is true even in cases such as the first Harry Potter movie, which, as I understand, was meant to be as exact a duplication of the book as could be made in under three hours. How well this was achieved can be debated, but even if Chris Columbus and the screen writer Steve Kloves had made a shot-for-shot, line-for-line there would be changes based solely on the fact that one version is a book and the other a movie. Even audio books carry their own messages and interpretations based in the nuances and performance of the reader.

And it is this nature of adaptation that dooms any chance of completely satisfying fans. Because, as much as fans prize fact in fandom, there will always be subjectivity involved. Much of what a fan “knows” about the characters or aura of a fictional world is taken from context and relies on the cliche of “reading between the lines.” Fans have only a finite amount of pages in a book or episodes of a TV show to get to know characters and worlds, which means there is a very real possibility that other people will have other interpretations of those characters and worlds. These differences may be subtle matters of dress or speech pattern, bigger issues of morality and complexity, or even more sticky issues of race and gender.

Race and gender in adaptions is always a great way to rile up a fan base. I’d like to think the people who objected to the fan-favorite character Starbuck being turned into a woman for the new Battlestar Galactica (and, yes, I do consider remakes/reboots adaptations) were objecting more to the basic change in the character rather than the idea that a woman could smoke, drink, sleep around, and also be the best fighter pilot on the ship. I also respect the creators of the more recent series for their decisions to make Starbuck a woman as a way to actually keep many of the original character’s traits intact. A smoking, drinking, womanizing man these days is over-done and tedious. Changing that man to a woman allows the character to keep those traits because they suddenly become novel again.

The Last Airbender had its own issues with casting. The original cartoon is a fantasy story heavily influenced by Asian cultures. The characters, thusly, were meant to represent various races and nationalities within those cultures. In the movie, however, Shyamalan decided to make the entire primary cast white. This action actually sparked a movement which still exists called Racebending that asked why Aang, the main character, couldn’t stay Asian and save the world. This scenario, I think, is quite a bit different from the situation in Battlestar. While both adaptions angered fans with the changes to characters, the new Battlestar served to represent an under-represented demographic in sci-fi action and actually served a purpose in the story and plot of the show, casting white actors for the Last Airbender not only denied representation to a severely underrepresented group in Hollywood, but also served no purpose to the plot or message of the new movie. The change is seemingly purely inspired by the Hollywood fear of allowing any non-white protagonist (not played by Will Smith) to lead a major movie.

This is the worst sin of bad adaptations: changing the source material for no reason other than market research. This is not to say movies can’t make changes to appeal to a wider audience, but the tone and intent of the original work shouldn’t be completely sacrificed for the sake of spreadsheets and statistics. Otherwise, what’s the point of making an adaptation?

If Hollywood wants to make its own movies, it should do that. Don’t use an original work as a loose beginning and then act like you’re representing that work. The most egregious version of this, to me, are the countless movie adaptions of books that actually use the authors’ original names in the titles and yet significantly change the original work. One example of this that people consider to be a good movie is Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppala. If Coppala wanted to loosely base an erotic movie that I consider in many ways responsible for Twilight‘s popularity on Bram Stoker’s work, he has that right. But, by evoking Bram Stoker in the title, he is implying that he is following in Stoker’s vision and bringing Stoker’s work to the big screen. He did no such thing.

So, what do we make of adaption rage? I will say, in many cases I think the level of rage is unwarranted. When I real a long diatribe of hate against the Wonder Woman animated movie because it didn’t exactly follow Perez’s origin story, I think that person is overreacting a little because the changes they were upset by were clearly made to better serve the medium of film. There was a reason. However, adaption rage isn’t rage for the sake of getting angry. To be truly involved in a fandom requires a personal connection. So, when things are changed, it gets personal. It is in a way as though you’ve known your best friend for years, and, suddenly, someone comes in  with a different person and expects you to just accept that this is also your best friend.

In the end, however, I think the important thing to remember is that, no matter how offensive you find an adaptation, the original still exists. I don’t have to watch The Last Airbender when I can just watch the animated show instead.

So, I say let the adaption rage out, and then, let it go. Why waste your time hating M. Night Shyamalan when you can love the original cartoon?

Or watch the sequel cartoon, Legend of Korra by the original creators of the animated series. Because that’s awesome.

For more about adaptations, check out this Nostalgia Chick review of The Lorax: http://chezapocalypse.com/episodes/nostalgia-chick-the-lorax/

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Filed under About Fandom, Fandom and Me (or should it be "I")?

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