So it seems that Hollywood has entered a period of sequels, remakes, and adaptations unrivaled in its history, and on a relatively short scale, too. While some people would like to think that everything old is new again, and this has already been done before in Tinseltown, this is simply not the case. The much better question is: who should we blame for this rise in sequelization, adaptation, and unoriginality?
My theory: the audience.
If Hollywood is unoriginal, perhaps it's because we the moviegoers like it that way. We like characters we already know, and we just want a visual recalculation of our favorite scenes and dialogues. And of all people Tinseltown is all about giving the people what they want.
Well, maybe. Let's see.
180 movies from 1939-2001 grossed over $200 million when accounting for 2001 inflation (at $5.60 a ticket.) This includes some re-released films - but then again, if a film was worthy of re-release, it is probably not a poor selection for inclusion in this debate. We'll divide the movies up into some categories for easy dissection:
Based on Popular Books (39): Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Forrest Gump, Jaws, Jurassic Park, From Here to Eternity, For Whom The Bell Tolls, 101 Dalmatians, The Exorcist, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Giant, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Love Story, The Wizard of Oz, The Firm, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Shrek, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Graduate, The Towering Inferno, Kramer vs. Kramer, Dances with Wolves, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Best Years of Our Lives, Rear Window (short story), Duel in the Sun, The Dirty Dozen, How the West Was Won (LIFE magazine serial), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Sayonara, Psycho, The Robe, Leave Her to Heaven, Doctor Zhivago, MASH, The Song of Bernadette, Blue Skies
Based on Popular Plays/Musicals (18): The Sound of Music, Grease, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, Meet Me In St. Louis, Funny Girl, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The King and I, Auntie Mame, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Goodbye Girl, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, On Golden Pond, Mister Roberts, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, This is the Army
Based on Classic Literature (18): The Jungle Book, Pinocchio, Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, Around the World in 80 Days, Sleeping Beauty, Mary Poppins, Cinderella, Aladdin, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Song of the South, Peter Pan, The Grinch, Lady and the Tramp, Bambi, Shane, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Jones, Fantasia (classic music)
Based on Pre-Existing Characters (7): Batman (1989), Superman, Mission: Impossible, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, The Fugitive, Men In Black
Historical/Biblical Pieces (18): Titanic, Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, Spartacus, The Caine Mutiny, Samson and Delilah, The Jolson Story, Bonnie and Clyde, The Longest Day, Patton, The Guns of Navarone, Lawrence of Arabia, Apollo 13, Sergeant York, Saving Private Ryan, Quo Vadis?, El Cid
Sequels (27): The Empire Strikes Back, Return of The Jedi, Thunderball, Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Rocky III, Jaws 2, Toy Story 2, Terminator 2, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Batman Forever, Mission: Impossible 2, Austin Powers 2, Beverly Hills Cop II, Batman Returns, Superman II, Rush Hour 2, Lethal Weapon 2, Rocky IV, You Only Live Twice, Goldfinger, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, The Lost World, The Trial of Billy Jack, The Phantom Menace, The Mummy Returns, Liar Liar
Remakes (2): Heaven Can Wait, Three Men & a Baby
Parodies (2): Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein
"Original" Films (49): Star Wars, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Independence Day, Home Alone, Rocky, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Twister, Ghost, Armageddon, Crocodile Dundee, American Graffiti, The Sting, Saturday Night Fever, Back to the Future, Platoon, Gremlins, Toy Story, 9 to 5, Porky's, Stir Crazy, The Jerk, The Lion King, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, Every Which Way But Loose, Rain Man, Some Like it Hot, The Sixth Sense, National Lampoon's Animal House, Tootsie, The Greatest Show on Earth, Mrs. Miniver, Pretty Woman, The Bells of St. Mary's, Fatal Attraction, Top Gun, Air Force One, There's Something About Mary, House of Wax (1953), Earthquake, Billy Jack, White Christmas, Going My Way, Smokey & the Bandit, An Officer and a Gentleman, Cast Away, Operation Petticoat
This list covers a wide gamut of films in terms of quality, prestige, and Hollywood support. It spans the entire era, and features a fairly fair representation of Hollywood's output over the years: war dramas and musicals in the 30s and 40s, Westerns and epics in the 50s and 60s, action and disaster flicks of the 70s and 80s, and the big budget Hollywood experience of the 90s and 2000s.
This list suffers a bit from a few biases, though, which I'll cover here:
- The short feature. Hollywood used to produce many more shorter (and smaller budgeted features) to make money in between their big releases. As the studio system faded, so did these features. And since many of these features were derivative and "unoriginal" in premise, some of these ideas trickled upwards to the main releases. (One example: The 1930s equivalent of Star Wars, Flash Gordon, was produced as a multi-part serial shown in the theaters weekly to encourage repeat business.)
- First come, first served bias. When the idea of Hollywood first evolved, it had the entire length of human history from which to cull source material, and it did so with gleeful abandon (Walt Disney being far from the only culprit.) By the 1960s, though, much of the source material had already been optioned, its rights sealed off - and living authors took the care to protect their own works from being used unfairly. Today, the book-to-movie system is a much more calculated (and costly) business for Hollywood, which has closed off at least some avenues for ideas and matriculation of projects.
- And finally, of course, there is a general timelining bias set by the $200 million barrier, since $200 million is a fair amount of money to make even in 2006 terms. But we will simply chalk this up as the price of Hollywood business for the time being, though we may revisit this concept in later methodologies.
Now, before we look at the details of the list, let's be clear: being an "original" film does not make a film better. Certainly no one would confuse the 1953 cheap but effective House of Wax with Alfred Hitchcock's seminal 1960 horror classic Psycho. In fact, many of Hitchcock's best works were adapted from literature - The Birds, Rebecca, Dial M For Murder, Suspicion, et al, and yet we see that Hitchcock's adaptations are compelling cinema regardless of source.
Yet in looking at the evolution of source material in Hollywood, it's important to see the trends it adapts in garnering material. Hitchcock liked a good story as well as anyone (the mystery magazine bearing his name remains the most successful in the world), but ultimately all of his non-original sources were simply the result of commercial calculation, and could've been bought and directed by any other number of studios instead.
So, looking at the list, we see that 49 (26.8%) of our most-watched films may be construed as being original Hollywood fare. Many of these fall under genre divisions (Star Wars and ET under sci-fi, Armageddon and Earthquake under disaster films) suggesting perhaps that they drew from a wide variety of existing source material to cull their story. Others are clearly cultural bellwethers: 1977's obsession with Southern culture giving us Smokey and the Bandit, while the disco craze that same year gave us Saturday Night Fever. And, yes, there a few truly savvy flicks among these: the cheeky glitz of Beverly Hills Cop, the warped horror of Gremlins, and the sheer zaniness of Ghostbusters all emerged from 1984 - perhaps a banner year for original scripts, considering it also produced A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Karate Kid, This is Spinal Tap, Splash, and The Terminator. (An entire article could be devoted to the rise of the directors and writers behind these films - Cameron, Reiner, Craven, Dante, Columbus, Reitman, and Howard - and why 1984 was the year that it was.)
But that still leaves 131 movies coming from other sources. 82 (45.6%) came directly from other literary sources, be they plays, musicals, books, magazines, or comic books. 18 (10.0%) came from real life people. And the remaining 31 (17.7%) were either sequels, remakes, or Mel Brooks parodies (perhaps a genre in itself, but nevertheless not original source material.)
Perhaps the most interesting thing gleaned from this list is that with the exception of the James Bond film franchise and 1974's underrated The Trial of Billy Jack, every sequel on this list came after 1980. While certainly sequels were being conceived and made in the 1930s and 40s, they were viewed as schlocky, and B-movie material at best (the Abbott and Costello series is a prime example of the studio's view on sequels.) Exceptions to this (The "Thin Man" series, Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy series, and the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road To" series) were made more in the vein of episodic teleplays than plot-driven sequels. Sequels were simply considered gimmicky in the eyes of big-studio Hollywood until the Bond films showed a strong central character could carry a franchise.
So the answer to our central question, "Is the audience to blame?" we can clearly see that in the past, being based on popular plays, books, and literature was the key to success without original source material, while it began to evolve in the 80s towards sequel-based fare. What this suggest to me, first and foremost, is that our cultural "literature" has evolved from actual books and plays to movies. We now see the cinema with at least equal, if not exceeding, importance in our daily cultural conversation.
Now, looking at an alternative list, here is a combined list of the top 25 grossing films from each year from 2001 to 2006 (current as of July 2.) This includes some crossover from the earlier list.
Based on Popular Books (9): Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Princess Diaries, The Bourne Identity, The Sum of All Fears, Catch Me If You Can, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Da Vinci Code, Brokeback Mountain, Million Dollar Baby (short stories)
Based on Popular Plays/Musicals (1): Chicago
Based on Classic Literature (8): The Fellowship of the Ring, Shrek, Minority Report, The Polar Express, I, Robot, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Chicken Little, Curious George
Based on Pre-Existing Characters (10): Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Spiderman, Scooby-Doo, Road to Perdition, S.W.A.T., Hulk, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Van Helsing, Fantastic Four, V for Vendetta
Sequels: (44) Rush Hour 2, The Mummy Returns, Dr. Doolittle 2, American Pie 2, Jurassic Park III, Hannibal (prequel), Attack of the Clones, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Men in Black II, Die Another Day, The Santa Clause 2, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, The Matrix Reloaded, X2: X-Men United, The Matrix Revolutions, Bad Boys II, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, Scary Movie 3, T3: Rise of the Machines, American Wedding, Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, Meet the Fockers, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Bourne Supremacy, Ocean's Twelve, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins (prequel), Saw II, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Ice Age: The Meltdown, X-Men: The Last Stand, Mission: Impossible III, Scary Movie 4, Big Momma's House 2, Underworld: Evolution, Final Destination 3, Superman Returns, The Pink Panther
Remakes (18): Ocean's Eleven, Planet of the Apes, Vanilla Sky, The Others, The Ring, Mr. Deeds, The Italian Job, Freaky Friday, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Grudge, War of the Worlds, King Kong, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Longest Yard, Fun with Dick and Jane, The Shaggy Dog, Poseidon, Save the Last Dance
Historical/Biblical Pieces (8): Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down, A Beautiful Mind, Seabiscuit, The Aviator, The Passion of the Christ, Troy, Walk the Line
"Original" Films (52): Monsters, Inc., The Fast and the Furious, Spy Kids, Legally Blonde, America's Sweethearts, Cats & Dogs, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Signs, Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, XXX, Sweet Home Alabama, 8 Mile, Panic Room, Finding Nemo, Bruce Almighty, Elf, Anger Management, Bringing Down the House, Something's Gotta Give, The Last Samurai, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Incredibles, The Day After Tomorrow, National Treasure, Shark Tale, 50 First Dates, Fahrenheit 9/11, DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, The Village, Collateral, Wedding Crashers, Madagascar, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Hitch, Robots, The Pacifier, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Flightplan, Monster-in-Law, Are We There Yet?, Cars, Over the Hedge, The Break-Up, Failure to Launch, Inside Man, Eight Below, Click, RV, Nacho Libre, Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion, The Benchwarmers
A Comparison Chart
Original Films 26.8% 35.0%
Sequels 15.0% 29.3%
Remakes 0.1% 12.0%
Historical Films 10.0% 5.3%
Based on Source
Popular Book 24.2% 6.0%
Classic Book 10.0% 5.3%
Play/Musical 10.0% 0.1%
Other 3.9% 6.7%
And to kind of highlight the point, 6 of the 55 "original" films inspired sequels, 9 are computer-animated family films, and precisely 3 of them were nominated for a Best Writing Oscar (none of them won.) In other words, they are as safe as they come in Hollywood parlance, featuring mostly a mix of broad star-driven comedies and family fare.
So what is the final answer? Well, it seems that Hollywood has clearly taken advantage of franchising and serializing in a way that they failed to do before. Perhaps this is merely a failing of old Hollywood, then: sequels certainly don't seem to suffer at the box office, and in some cases (Saw II, Underworld: Evolution) the sequel outperforms the original on the strength of strong fan support.
Perhaps what we are seeing then is just the first step into the democratization of the box office. And to Hollywood's credit, they are in the full throes of an 80/20 market - and they are willing to spend the extra dollars to reel in more discerning moviegoers with out-of-the-mainstream films, too. Perhaps this is the win-win, then - the average moviegoer gets to see their favorite characters duke it out or save the world one more time, and the critics can still have their Donnie Darko and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
UPDATE Several people have written in with minor corrections, typos, and errata in the list. The most informative update was that Tyler Perry's Family Reunion was actually based on his popular chitlin circuit plays that preceded it. To which I only respond that since Tyler Perry wrote the original source and more or less just converted it to screen himself, it will stand as an "original" film. That having been said, if any of the other adaptations listed here are of the same vein, please let me know, and I will arbiter as needed.
UPDATE 7/9/06: Nemosyn informed me that Save the Last Dance was a remake of a Japanese film. One more strike against originality.