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Why Hollywood’s Adaptations Fail: Beyond ‘Warcraft’

"Warcraft" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass" are just the latest examples of Hollywood struggling to get its source material right.


It won’t open until next week, but “Warcraft” is already shaping up to be a disaster. At last report, the $160 million production was tracking to open in fourth place, behind “Now You See Me 2,” “The Conjuring 2,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.” That’s bad news for the movie, which has taking a thorough drubbing from critics in early reviews, but the predicted box-office lineup tells another tale: Two sequels on top, followed by another sequel that’s also kind of a remake (surely we haven’t forgotten “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze”) followed by a video-game adaptation. Originality, we hardly knew ye.

After the lukewarm opening of “X-Men: Apocalypse” and the downright tepid “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” it seems that not even trading on audiences’ attachment to a beloved property is enough to guarantee they’ll turn up. As remakes are remake, reboots rebooted, the question of how to make the old seem new without losing the connection to the old seems more and more pressing: How do you give audiences something that feels both unexpected and familiar?

"Alice Through the Looking Glass"

“Alice Through the Looking Glass”

There’s no better case study than Disney’s “Alice” franchise, the latest iteration of what surely has a claim to being the most-adapted book of all time. There have been “Alice” movies for nearly as long as there have been movies, beginning with Cecil Hepworth’s eight-minute short from 1903 — more than three dozen, including a pornographic version from 1976. To make matters worse, Tim Burton’s garish 2010 “Alice” effectively sucked Lewis Carroll’s oeuvre dry, leaving returning scribe Linda Woolverton with the necessity of inventing a new story from whole cloth.

How much did she invent? Put it this way: There’s a time machine.

There are a potentially infinite number of ways to illustrate just how far off the rails “Through the Looking Glass” is, but you can start with the fact that it centers around Alice stealing a device called the Chronosphere to travel through time — a concept that didn’t even exist when Carroll published his books in the mid-19th century. Apart from his iconic characters, some of whom are themselves barely recognizable, there’s no trace of him in the movie’s story, which involves Alice attempting to prevent the apparent incineration of the Mad Hatter’s family, or its themes, a lumpy mixture of daddy issues and pop feminism.

And yet, even as someone who accords Carroll’s writing the status of holy writ, I found myself experiencing a strange sensation during “Through the Looking Glass.” I… didn’t hate it? There is, to be sure, almost nothing good about the movie, apart from the plucky sincerity of Mia Wasikowska’s Alice; it’s big and loud and dumb, without even the (extremely) modest and fleeting charms of Burton’s movie. Much as I hesitate to put present-day Tim Burton on the positive end of any comparison, he at least made sure that Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp modulated their over-the-top performances. (Bonham Carter actually lowered her voice to yell “Off with their heads!” as if even compulsory decapitation has become a tiresome ritual.) James Bobin, who helmed the Muppets reboot and its less-wanted sequel, doesn’t know how or doesn’t care to keep his stars in check, so there’s mugging aplenty. It is, to steal a phrase from Carroll, much of a muchness.

But “Through the Looking Glass” is less loathsome than its predecessor because it bears so little connection to its purported source material that it leaves no mark upon it. Change a few names and identifying details, and it could easily be a freestanding, at least nominally original, work of its own. It’s terrible, but it’s not a disgrace. And it didn’t, as the currently voguish phrase goes, ruin my childhood. It just came and went, like a foul smell that wafts through the window of a moving car, gone before you can even figure out what it was.

In gutting Carroll’s work for spare parts, Wolverton was merely following in the fine Walt Disney tradition. Some of Disney’s greatest animated movies, from “Cinderella” to “Beauty and the Beast,” make utter hash of their source material, without engendering any particular hatred from fans of Charles Perrault or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Compare Disney’s first whack at “The Jungle Book” with Jon Favreau’s new one, or the original Disney Cinderella with Kenneth Branagh’s live-action take. Even Disney’s 1951 version of “Alice,” which purported to hew closer to the original text, interpolated syrupy songs to smooth over the grotesqueness of his visions.

Jan Svankmajer's "Alice"

Jan Svankmajer’s “Alice”

The most successful “Alice” treatments are those least preoccupied with fidelity to their source, or at least its letter rather than its spirit. Of all the versions I’ve seen — not all, by any stretch of the imagination, but quite a few — the only one that works is Jan Svankmajer’s, a unsettling revision that does away with wordplay altogether and brings Carroll’s proto-surrealist tendencies to the fore. Watching Svankmaker’s “Alice” is nothing like reading Carroll’s, and yet it feels true to it in ways more literal-minded adaptations don’t. It’s why the most successful screen version of “King Lear” is Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran,” which throws out the play’s text and transposes the action to feudal Japan, and why Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” works better than Kenneth Branagh’s. Writers are told to kill their darlings, but adaptors have to kill someone else’s.

Too often, however, it feels like movies are simply ripping the hearts out of things we once loved and filing them up with sawdust and scraps of newspaper. So we get a “Through the Looking Glass” in which the Mad Hatter is the wayward son of a hat-making family cast out because of his impractical designs, and a “Peter Pan” in which Captain Hook is, well, whatever the hell Hugh Jackman was doing in “Pan.” These adaptations don’t have the integrity to literally adapt their sources or the courage to challenge them, so we end up with half-strained mush. In theory, a movie like “Warcraft” ought to have more free rein, since there’s no real story to adapt. But that also leaves it without a guiding star to navigate by, or an original text that a director can return to when outside pressures lead them astray.

One of the reasons the “Alice” books continue to appeal, more than a century and a half after Carroll first wrote them, is that they don’t treat their readers like children — and no one appreciates that more than a child. There are no lessons to be learned, no tedious Victorian morals, and they never stop to explain themselves: Alice may hit bottom, but we just keep falling, the words rushing past us as we struggle to keep up. (I all but memorized Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice” as a teenager, and I still discover new things every time I read.) “Through the Looking Glass,” contrariwise, lays everything out on the table, leading its audience by the hand rather than daring them to keep up. To quote the tediously reiterated moral from “Through the Looking Glass,” we can’t change the past but we can learn from it. If that’s the case, let’s learn this from its mistakes: It’s okay to hollow out a work in the process of adapting it, but you have to fill it up again.

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