In my opinion, most Hollywood adaptations suck. I mean there are some amazing things that come out of Hollywood – on occasion, geesh – but when it comes to adaptations, there’s almost always a serious flaw with the product. Why? For years I thought it was because the writers and producers didn’t really care about the source material, and I think this is still true in many cases. I’ve also thought that the writers and producers were victims of their own hubris, and again, I think this is still true in many cases. I’ve also ventured a few times into the “the writers or producers don’t care about the source material but would rather preach about their politics and will use whatever vehicle they can to do exactly that” camp. Here I’m willing to admit that maybe that’s my own biases at play, yet I still think that probably happens at least on occasion if not every time I see it. But after passing by a new fast food joint here in San Antonio, I think I stumbled upon a major reason, if not the major reason, why Hollywood adaptations often suck.
First let me define “suck”. Here I am using the word to indicate that the end product has little to no appeal to the vast majority of its target audience.
Next, let me define “adaptation”. Here I am using “adaptation” as not just building something new off a license, but taking known works within that license and trying to turn that story or set of stories into (in the case with Hollywood) a movie or television show. I can only imagine, but I believe using established, successful works to create movies is appealing because the work is already proven. The benefit to the movie makers is that there is a pre-established fandom with stories and worldbuilding that has shown itself to be popular. A page-to-page transition from book to screen simply isn’t possible – ever. The mediums are simply too different, so changes inevitably need to happen. This is where things start to go off the rails.
The Problem with Mass Appeal
So we come back to the fast food joint and my epiphany. Corporations, particularly those in the restaurant business, typically all want a few things that are important to my argument here. First, every restaurant experience should be the same regardless of location. So if you walk into a Mr. X’s restaurant in London, it should look and feel very much like a Mr. X’s restaurant in San Francisco. The food you have in a Mr. X’s in London might be slightly different than the food you have in San Francisco, but the food you have in each location will appeal to the largest group of people in those areas with flavors and spice levels similar to the level enjoyed by peoples in question. A Mr. X Burger is a Mr. X Burger, but in London it might have Worcestershire Sauce on it, in New York it might have salt and pepper, and in San Francisco it might have no spice at all – flippin’ health junky hippies. (Chain eateries often have commissaries that provide the bulk of their food stuffs, so variations might be more regional than local if variations exist at all, but I think my general point stands). Ideally, each business entity has a long life, and local/regional stores can adjust within the corporate framework to maximize its general appeal.
Media franchises are short lived however, and media productions are often “one and done”. So movie makers rarely have an adjustment period to get things right. Television series have more leeway, but not much. If a media product gets something wrong, even naysayers will often poo-poo any changes to pre-established lore made after the fact, an act called retconning. It becomes vital, therefore, for media makers to get things right the first time.
I don’t know if enough people in Hollywood understand this fact. I mean, surely they do, but maybe, and I feel like I might be a little generous here, but maybe the stress and excitement surrounding being a part of a big project gets in the way of remembering that “getting it right” is vitally important. Honestly though, this is just another of many tangents I could go on here. So let me proceed to the point.
(FINALLY!) The Reason
Writers and producers have to take an existing work of art that (in my restaurant parallel) has strong flavors and potentially a lot of spice. They are tasked with changing the recipe – the story – in ways to appeal to the masses. I feel like these writers and producers have no idea what the mainstream really wants. They assume that they themselves are mainstream when they are not. In an attempt to reach the largest audience (the mainstream they think they are a part of), they rewrite things they don’t like or understand to something new to the story that appeals to them. The new and different flavors and spices of the original work are stripped and replaced with those the writers enjoy. The new product isn’t anything new; it’s the same old, same old with a different Instagram picture and name. The original fans are insulted. Adventurous folk looking for something new might be tempted by a new image and name but are going to find themselves wildly disappointed by the end result which they’ve seen hundreds of times already. The attempt to create something new that appeals to both established and mainstream consumers fails. Sales plummet, and there’s no chance to change (assuming the chefs in my apparent food metaphor even think themselves at fault).
Introspective folk would ask themselves what they did wrong, how it could have been better, or who do they really want to appeal to? But even if those people do exist, the nature of the writers’ room may not allow for such introspection. Do any Hollywood production companies have post-mortems to try to figure this stuff out? Or do they simply blame the source material, the director, the fans, or whomever is bottom of the totem pole and move on? I cannot say.
© 2023, Joseph K Little. All rights reserved.