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TODAY

Monday, March 18

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Airbags

The Guardian recently released its list of the 50 best book-to-film adaptations of all time. Notably absent: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Gone with the Wind. The entire point of adapting material for stage or screen (big or small), of course, is to pick and choose the most vital information and emotions and condense them into a viable interpretation that satisfies both those who are familiar with the source material and those who are not. Not an easy task.

But what about double — or even — triple adaptations? Several characters and settings travel from the television to the movie screen to Broadway and back again, crossing the streams and mining the same material over and over and over again.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was originally a 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson, Rutger Howard and heartthrob-of-that-moment Luke Perry. Writer Joss Whedon brought his main character as well as his trademark combination of humor and angst to a struggling WB network five years later. He ended up doing pretty well for himself. The most successful film-to-TV adaptation remains M*A*S*H; based on the 1970 movie of the same name (which was itself adapted from a novel by Richard Hooker), this comedy series ran for 11 seasons, almost three times longer than the actual Korean war that served as the show's backdrop.

It's more difficult to go from small screen to large. Stark Trek was able to do it, with a medium amount of success. The movie box office generated by adventures of the original cast helped pave the way for the Trek TV spin-offs The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. Whedon, who had such success with television, didn't so as well with Serenity, his bigscreen sequel for his short-lived space western, Firefly. And do we even need to discuss the recent debacle that was Dukes of Hazzard? So many bad TV-to-movie adaptations, so little time. Even now, there's a Dallas movie being cast, with John Travolta as J.R. Ewing and Jennifer Lopez as Sue Ellen. Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are all rumored to be vying for the part of Lucy. Try to contain your excitement.

Then there are the there-and-back-agains. Mel Brooks won an Academy Award for best original (not adapted) screenplay for his 1968 film The Producers. The film was not a financial success at the time of its release, but it developed enough of a following for Brooks to turn it into a Broadway musical starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. (You may recall that it previewed in Chicago before heading to New York.) Characters from the original were cut or rewritten, and the musical has a more upbeat ending; The Producers received a record-breaking 12 Tonys. In turn, a movie based on the musical (based on the movie) was released on Christmas Day, 2005, to less than stellar box office. Perhaps it was because people had already seen the first movie or the musical in New York, or perhaps people didn't want to see Nathan Lane's over-the-top stage acting onscreen unless it was in The Birdcage.

Following a similar path is the movie–Broadway musical–movie version of the Broadway musical is John Waters' Hairspray (1988). Set in early 1960s Baltimore, this cult classic focuses on a "pleasantly plump" teen named Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Ricki Lake) who uses the fame she earns on a local dance show to instigate racial integration. Cross-dresser Devine played Tracy's mother. Hairspray moved to the stage in 2002, starring Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur. Both of these actors won Tonys for their portrayals, and the show snagged six other trophies, including Best Musical. And right now John Travolta is slated to wear high heels and dresses in the 2007 film. However, John Waters will not be directing this version of his story, and he didn't direct the Broadway version either.

These two examples are the adaptation version of Victor/Victoria — and in the case of Edna Turnblad, almost literally. Is there such a lack of original material today that writers must return to the same wells, again and again, even if the well's gone dry, been poisoned, or has a dead government official at the bottom? Wait, that's Prison Break. Sorry.

Is the glut of reality TV lulling the nation into a sense of security? Or is it our love of nostalgia and memories of days gone by that fuels our desire to see Travolta first as Edna Turnblad and then as J.R. Ewing? Can't we just remember him as Tony Manero or Danny Zuko? For all I know, there's another version of Grease in the works right now, starring Hilarie Duff and Justin Timberlake.

However, I do have a confession: I am so going to buy tickets to see the off-Broadway production of Xanadu, currently set to bow — or roll; after all, it is a roller-disco — next spring. I guess I'm just as guilty as the rest.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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