Sorry for the overlong break in my articles but I’ve been moving house and dealing with that has robbed me of much of my free time but now I’m back by popular -read no- demand.
The topic I want to discuss in this article is the concept of adaptations. To say it’s currently a hot button issue would be a massive understatement. I fail at finding the precise statistics but a really high number of released films these days are adaptations of some sort. The source material can vary from novels, cartoons, old TV series, comics or graphic novels, short stories, autobiographies, real life events and so on but they all share the factor in common that they are adapted from other works. Are there too many films being based on something else? Maybe but that’s another article for another time.
What I want to touch on here is the faithfulness of these adaptations. One thing that usually happens when adapting something is that changes are made. These changes can be relatively minor like setting a story -originally written and set in the 60s- in the present day or altering events so that they fit a more modern context.
In many cases the changes are so significant that it fundamentally alters the framework of what is being adapted to the point where it is unrecognisable. A recent example of this is the new Fantastic Four film (or Fant4stic if the title card is to be believed) directed by Josh Trank. There was a trailer released recently that I haven’t watched because I’m trying this new thing where I don’t see half the film before release but by all accounts it’s divisive. I’ve been keeping away from most of the chat about it for the reason I stated above but not one thing I’ve read or heard about it in the past year or so has encouraged me at all.
For those of you who don’t know. The Fantastic Four are 4 characters who go into outer space and are bombarded by cosmic rays. These rays alter their DNA and give them super powers. Reed Richards is able to stretch, Sue Storm can turn invisible and later project invisible force fields that can do pretty much what she wants them to do. Her brother Johnny is able to safely set himself on fire and do cool things like fly where Ben Grimm is transformed into a giant super strong rock monster called The Thing. For laughs here’s a song that sums it up better than I did. Good luck getting that out of your head.
Often referred to as “Marvel’s first family” the characters were popular because they acted like a dysfunctional family would act. Reed and Sue were the parents while Johnny and Ben were the kids who were always bickering and fighting over something or other. This worked for people because it was relatable and helped to make the super powers a bit easier to accept.
These characters have been brought to the big screen three times before, sort of. in 1994 there was a film made because the rights were due to lapse and needed to be held onto but never actually saw a theatrical release (you can read more about it here). In 2005 and 2007 two Fantastic Four films did see a theatrical release and were met with mixed reviews. Personally I think they’re fine, they aren’t masterpieces or anything but they had a good cast and managed to retain the spirit of the original comics.
It’s the spirit that is the most important thing here as without that the whole thing falls apart for me. The recent Marvel Studios adaptations have changed a lot of things here and there from the comics. For instance Tony Stark admitted his identity as Iron Man almost right away where in the comics he kept it hidden for years before the secret was out. I didn’t have an issue with this as the films were true to the spirit of the character and kept him recognisable in the eyes of viewers. The other changes Marvel Studios have made haven’t sat right with me in some cases but in general it’s all working.
Through the development of this Fantastic Four film there have been lots of words thrown around that fill me with trepidation. Words like “dark”, “gritty” and “grounded” appear frequently in interviews and seem to follow a trend that I thought was over with by now. Ever since Christopher Nolan’s darker and more realistic take on Batman film makers have been trying to ape that success from trying to darken other characters in the same way. From characters like James Bond to Spider-Man we have seen lots of films where the main character has been made unnecessarily dark to make for a more compelling story.
My major issue with this is that it often makes no sense for that character to be dark, James Bond I can understand because the character seems to exist to be reinvented but doing that to characters like Spider-Man or Superman makes no sense. Those characters can be in a dark story but they themselves shouldn’t be dark. The same applies to Fantastic Four. In general these characters have always been light hearted and fun to read, even when a planet eating alien came to threaten them so to darken them up for this new film makes no real sense to me. I’m really not sure I want to sit through a modern retelling of characters I like where the thing I like the most about them has been removed.
Now, it’s possible that the director Josh Trank has an idea for a superhero film that explores the terrifying consequences of having your body changed in such a fundamental way. It would be an extension of what he did in Chronicle and definitely fits his style but why do these characters have to be changed to fit that idea? It would be better to do an original film with new characters and explore it that way. It wouldn’t bear the stigma of being an unfaithful adaptation of something else and might give us a new franchise completely unburdened by expectation. Unfortunately instead we get this.
With the tonal and character changes it seems like a long time until I get my perfect version of the Fantastic Four on the big screen. I can hope that the film doesn’t do well and some kind of rights sharing happens between Fox and Marvel now that Spider-Man has opened up the floodgates on that one. It kind of feels mean to hope that a film bombs but in this case it really doesn’t sound like what I want to see from these characters.
I must confess that my rant isn’t as rounded as it could be because this film is reportedly based on the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic. I haven’t read these specifically beyond appearances in Ultimate Spider-Man so I can’t say whether it’s any good or not. Based on the rest of the Ultimate Universe outside of Spider-Man I’m going to guess that it isn’t because of my experience with other characters as depicted in that universe.
Based on their appearances in Ultimate Spider-Man the Fantastic Four seem pretty close to the original incarnations albeit quite a bit younger. They’re certainly not dark, gritty or grounded that’s for sure. As said above I really feel that this film should have been called something else then I might be looking forward to it.
To balance this slightly there are other examples of unfaithful adaptations that have come into existence. One major adaptation was the Disney movie loosely based on a Marvel comic, Big Hero 6. By all accounts there appears to be so much change here that it’s practically an original idea. So why isn’t it? My lack of familiarity with the source material meant that this wasn’t really an issue for me but if I was a fan then I’d probably be annoyed at the fact it was rebuilt pretty much from the ground up and had the name Big Hero 6 slapped on it.
Another such example is the 12 Monkeys TV series. Apparently this started life as an original idea but was retooled to fit into the mold of 12 Monkeys. This was likely a compromise on the part of the showrunner to see this thing brought to life but given that the time travel rules have changed from the film -the film itself was an adaptation- and only the character names in most cases are the same then it’s not really 12 Monkeys. There’s some evidence for this change here.
To close this long diatribe with some kind of connecting point I’d say that adaptations are something that people need to be very careful of. In many cases people that set out to make these things are adapting something with a pre-established fan base who have their own expectations for how they want the thing to appear on the big or small screen. I used the Fantastic Four as an example because it’s something that’s coming out relatively soon and seems to so far be falling under the banner of bad adaptations. In some cases it seems like people go into it with the mindset of improving the source material.
I don’t agree that any source material could use improvement when making an adaptation. I do feel that it deserves something faithful and true to the spirit. I may not like Fifty Shades of Grey in concept but from what I can see the adaptation is faithful to the book for better or for worse so it will be loved by those that love the book. In the case of superhero stories there is such a rich character history in almost all cases that there is no need to “improve” upon it. There are endless possibilities by playing around with what’s already there. If you want to come up with something new then by all means do so but don’t tack on the name of stuff that people like in an attempt to get it seen.
By all means adapt everything you can get your hands on but please, just respect the material. Also, I acknowledge that I’m basing my opinion of Fantastic Four on available information that I read a while ago without having seen the trailer so I am fully aware that the film could blow me away with how great it is and how faithfully it approaches the characters but for now I can’t see it happening.
You can read more opinions from Craig at his blog at: kneelbeforeblog.co.uk