Here’s this week’s question, from reader Jon Grunert:
What piece of pop culture should have been adapted in a different medium? For instance, seven seasons of Harry Potter on television instead of an eight-entry film series, or Firefly as a cult movie that became a TV series—à la Buffy—instead of vice versa.
I love Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell. It’s an insane classic-rock opus that’s theatrical in all the right ways, and I’ve always wished I could buy a ticket to a stage show of the Bat Out Of Hell trilogy. A collaboration with composer Jim Steinman, the three-album arc has always played like some absurd musical theater production minus the theater part, and I’d love nothing more than for that to be corrected. I can’t think of anything better than sitting down, flipping through a program, maybe getting some meatloaf from a concession stand, then watching The Loaf rush out from behind a curtain as the opening notes of “Bat Out Of Hell” rang out. It’s a match made in heaven. Or maybe hell, I guess.
I really love Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which already exists in comic book, game, and movie form. But the film has such great songs and fight scenes, how about a musical stage show? It would be fun to try to recreate those battle scenes for stage combat (I’m imagining lots of pyrotechnics and wires), in addition to even more cuts from Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb, maybe some puppets for the flashback sequences, and performances by the Katayanagi Twins as well as Envy Adams’ version of “Black Sheep.” It’s possible I love this source material so much, I want to see it in as many versions as possible. But one element the movie had over the comic was the soundtrack, which a stage musical could expand on even more. Who doesn’t want to hear more songs that make them think about “death and get sad and stuff”?
It’s been almost 25 years since Nintendo last handed the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom to an animation studio, but the Super Mario Bros. franchise has only managed to get more cartoonish (in a good way!) in the interim. The three licensed series that aired in syndication and on NBC at the height of Mario mania erred too heavily on the antagonistic relationship between Mario and Luigi and their reptilian adversaries, an element of the games that has warped and evolved as developers introduced new settings, established bigger bads, and taught the characters how to drive. I’d love to see a new animated Mario Bros. that stomps around in this expanded sandbox, telling stories that run the length of the average Looney Tunes short (or, for the youths of today, an installment of Adventure Time or Steven Universe). I eagerly await a “Duck Amuck”-style treatment of the WarioWare series.
In an ideal world, the rise of the oh-no-they-didn’t Broadway musical adaptation would lead to a stage version of School Daze, Spike Lee’s 1988 comedy about the warring factions within a historically black college. School Daze is a dizzying blend of genres and tones, including several elaborately choreographed musical sequences that would make it relatively easy to port the film to a stage show. As a cult film that predates Lee’s opus Do The Right Thing, the audience for such a show probably isn’t there. And the film’s take on colorism within the African-American community might be a little heavy for an audience sing-along (though The Color Purple musical touches on similar themes). But it would be an amazing project all the same. Anyone who doesn’t want to see E.U.’s “Da Butt” adapted for a Broadway stage doesn’t share my values.
A favorite book of mine, Jane Eyre, has never become a favorite movie, despite its many adaptations. That’s because the appeal of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece is in the internal, not the external; the plot is less important than how Jane’s inner voice carries her through it, her relationships status an accessory of her fierce intelligence and resolution. Instead of trying to convey that inner voice in a 90-minute romance, Jane Eyre might be better served with a Boyhood treatment, following a plain English girl through her youth spent at wicked Aunt Sarah Reed’s Gateshead Hall in the first installment; checking in with her less miserable but still not exactly happy years as a student and then teacher at Lowood Institution for girls; and allotting ample time for her adulthood both single and in the company of two men, the brooding Mr. Rochester and cold St. John Rivers. Too much of the film adaptation is placed on Jane’s relationship with Rochester, but that’s really not the main story of the novel. That story is Jane’s and Jane’s alone. A quietly thoughtful movie from Richard Linklater would far better serve Brontë’s quietly thoughtful book than any swoon-heavy adaptation has so far.
As much as I enjoyed FX’s recent miniseries The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, part of me thought it might have worked better as an epic (but still shorter) three-hour movie. I loved the focus that the television format afforded the series, but I also found that the episodes weren’t as, well, episodic as they could have been. The episodes that would zero in on specific real-life “characters” for much of their running time tended to be my favorite, and that obviously wasn’t what the show was always going for, wanting to serve a broader narrative about the trial. Given that approach, I wonder if a kaleidoscopic single film might have brought everything together with a little more oomph—and allowed for more stylistic chances with the material. I liked those long, winding takes and handheld pans well enough, but they felt like an instance of a TV show having to choose a handful of techniques and return to them repeatedly, rather than developing a fuller cinematic vocabulary. It makes sense to chronicle the Simpson case on TV—that’s how so much of it was defined in the first place—but the show was good enough to convince me that there could’ve been a great movie in there somewhere.
Close to my heart is Les Misérables, the musical which director Tom Hooper nearly ruined in his borderline experimental 2012 adaptation. Les Miz, like other “serious” musicals, only works onstage, in a medium where the looser verisimilitude and heightened theatricality allow the audience to accept an entirely sung-through account of hardship in 19th century France. Hooper’s film siphons the musical’s “musical theater-ness,” attempting to inject grit and realism into its visual modes, performances, and even songs. The result makes all the singing more confusing and highlights holes in the musical’s book (itself a remarkable adaptation). Hooper’s instinct was to suppress what makes Les Misérables a musical, but maybe the answer lies in a medium that embraces those elements: the recent live TV musical trend. As Grease Live! showed us, this form can be unexpectedly dynamic and retain the energy and immediacy of the stage without needing to feel grounded in any reality. A Les Misérables Live, though darker than other live efforts, could finally give fans a complete dramatic adaptation of the musical to watch anytime without shelling out for Broadway tickets. Speaking of which, let’s all brace ourselves for when they fuck up the inevitable Hamilton movie.
Awake remains one of the best TV pilots I’ve ever seen: a clear, gut-wrenching portrayal of grief and yearning that managed to set up a high-concept premise without ever straining too much with the details. The one season wonder that followed that first hour had its moments, but the difficulties of maintaining that premise over the long term were immediately obvious. Hell, they were obvious in the pilot: a cop who spends half his life in a world where his son died, and half his life in a world where his wife died is a brilliant metaphor but not something that easily translates into a weekly procedural. Better if the whole thing had just been a movie—add another hour onto the pilot, find an ending that feels at once definitive and ambiguous, and you’d have something people might still be talking about, instead of a show that most of us slept on.
Here’s one that would probably make me and its creator pretty happy: Metal Gear Solid as a kickass action movie franchise. The series’ (now former) director, Hideo Kojima, never bothered to hide his cinematic obsessions, shoving hour-long cutscenes into the later games, and “casting” famous actors like Mel Gibson and Sean Connery as the stars of the earlier ones (back when he could get away with lifting their likenesses without paying anyone a dime). For my own part, I find the games’ stealth infiltration gameplay kind of a drag, to the point that I’ve experienced most of their high points via TV Tropes or YouTube. So let’s cut out the middleman, wind back the clock, and give Kojima a couple hundred million dollars to make the big-budget blockbuster he was always yearning to make. Sure, we’d lose some clever moments of interactivity—R.I.P. the amazingly smart sniper battle against The End in Metal Gear Solid 3—but we’d also be spared the sight of blocky, PlayStation-era video game characters asking each other if love can bloom, even on a battlefield.
Just the other day I was struck with the sudden urge for an Elric Of Melnibone video game. There have been a few fitful attempts over the years to make a game based on the book series about a morally dubious albino wizard-king, but with no success. It’s baffling, since the story of a reluctant antihero who gains strength by sucking out the souls of his opponents with his demonic sword, Stormbringer, is essentially a video game design doc. You can use your ancestral powers to summon dukes of hell, fight members of your own royal family who are armed with their own evil sentient weapons, and travel to entire cities warped under the influence of chaos. Elric still exerts such a significant influence on video games, it’s a shame he doesn’t have his own title. An Elric game would fit perfectly into the current wave of ambivalence about violence in games: You get to kill whole swathes of people, reflect on it for a bit, and maybe even feel a little bad—before going out and murdering some more.
Few films of the past decade have affected me as profoundly as The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s achingly sad exploration for meaning, purpose, and connection in a universe of unfathomable complexity, beauty, and horror as filtered through the story of a Scientology-like religion headed by a charismatic science-fiction writer played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anderson creates such a deep, complex universe for the film—albeit one obviously rooted in reality and Scientology history—that I think it would make for a terrific prestige miniseries on HBO. The film ends with Hoffman’s character parting ways with a feral, combustible slab of spiritual yearning played by Joaquin Phoenix. But that doesn’t have to be the end, and this companion pay cable series could chart the two men’s relationship in the years ahead and how it both affects and is affected by the rise of Scientology as a cultural force.
I didn’t hate the film adaptation of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Then again, I was only 13 when I saw it and subsequently read Alan Moore’s original comics. As a kid who grew up loving pulpy Victorian literature, that core concept of a turn-of-the-century supergroup featuring the likes of Dr. Jekyll and The Invisible Man was irresistible. I still think it’s an awesome idea and, with less gratuitous sex and a lot less sexual violence, one that would work well on television in this era of superhero/antihero teams and B-grade comic-to-TV adaptations. The book’s first volume even lays the framework for a tidy first season, starting off as a monster-of-the-week serial and building toward a confrontation with the “real” bad guy. Penny Dreadful has since come along and stolen some of League’s shtick, and while I think the two are different enough to coexist—with Moore’s comics leaning more into the proto-steampunk globetrotting of Wells and Verne than Dreadful’s beloved Gothic horror—TV execs might see things differently.
I would have loved to see Stephenie Meyer’s The Host adapted for TV instead of film. The chronically underrated author’s 2008 follow-up to her Twilight saga is such a dense and multifaceted piece of work that there was never any chance two hours could do it justice. Though many of the elements of Meyer’s book have been seen in science fiction before, she mashes them up into a wonderfully complex and original premise: it’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers meets The Giver meets The Terminator meets Robert Silverberg’s The Second Trip. Explaining the concept practically takes half the movie, and there’s almost no time left to adequately explore the way Meyer spins a classic will they/won’t they/can they romance by putting two angsty teenagers in the same body. And if that sounds silly to you, well, maybe 200 years ago Pride And Prejudice would’ve sounded silly to you, and maybe you should spend less time stigmatizing books written for teenage girls. And you’re not invited to watch my imaginary TV series that gives audiences plenty of time to get to know Melanie/Wanderer and their heartbreakingly fraught, beautifully complex relationship.
My answer is a preemptive strike against the inevitable. For years, there have been rumors of a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in the offing, and now it looks as though it may well happen with James Franco directing and Russell Crowe starring. While I admire Franco’s persistence in getting this difficult project off the ground, I strongly feel that the medium of motion pictures is not right for Blood Meridian due to its inherent time limits. This isn’t the kind of novel in which one plot point logically leads to another and then another and then another until everything is finally settled at the end. A conventional three-act structure just won’t work here. Blood Meridian is about how its unnamed protagonist spends years in his hellish, bloody, brutal existence. He sort of drifts from one terrible experience to another without a master plan, sometimes guided by nothing more than cruel happenstance. A limited-run television adaptation, probably for a premium cable outlet, would be able to convey that more effectively than a two-hour movie. Something in the neighborhood of six episodes, maybe an hour apiece, feels about right. TV-MA all the way. For some viewers, this will feel like a grind, and that’s by design. Blood Meridian should be a protracted, unpleasant experience.