From Paintings to Songs to Board Games: A Brief History of Unlikely Adaptations

Slate's Culture Blog
May 21 2012 1:46 PM

From Paintings to Songs to Board Games: A Brief History of Unlikely Film Adaptations

cophetua
KingCophetua and the Beggar Maid, by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

Wikipedia

The aspiring tentpole film Battleship, which arrived this past weekend, failed to sink its competition, The Avengers. Leading up to its release, the film was widely mocked as Hollywood’s latest attempt to cash in on an existing property; according to Entertainment Weekly, “Moviegoers weren’t able to get past the idea of seeing a board-game adaptation crossed with an alien-invasion flick.”

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture blogger for Brow Beat. Follow her on Twitter.

Battleship is not the first board game-inspired movie, of course—that distinction belongs to Clue (1985), which, to be fair, was based on a game with a narrative more or less built in—and it won’t be the last: Risk, Monopoly, Ouija, and Candyland are all reportedly headed to the big screen.  The consensus seems to be that this represents unprecedented creative bankruptcy in Hollywood. But is that really the case?

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Hollywood’s history of unlikely adaptations goes back to its very beginnings. Back in 1921, the New York Times reported that “motion-picture stories based on or suggested by important paintings and sculptures are one of the newest undertakings in the cinema field.” Triart Productions had just completed two films based on paintings and had four more on the way; one of them, a dramatization of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, was shown for two weekends in New York. The Times spoke with various artists who took issue with the film’s aesthetics, though one painter thought such adaptations might “bring about a greater art appreciation than we have before known.”

Sadly, relatively few adaptations of paintings followed. But other art forms with unlikely cinematic potential have provided important source material in the years since.

A number of Hollywood movies have been based to varying degrees on popular songs—and some of the resulting films are excellent. An American in Paris, for instance, was inspired by the George Gershwin composition. Singin’ in the Rain was built around the catalog of MGM producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown; the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green were tasked with creating a musical comedy that would incorporate these songs into a feature-length movie (only three of the tunes were written for the film). One might even think of Singin’ in the Rain as a proto-“juxebox musical”—one so elegantly made that it became one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed films in cinematic history.

And the song adaptation did not vanish along with the heyday of movie musicals: In the 1970s and ’80s, Hollywood turned to country and western songs for inspiration, turning out Harper Valley  P.T.A. (1978), Take This Job and Shove It (1981), and Convoy (1978). The films depict small-town life from various perspectives—that of a single mother, frustrated factory workers, and truck drivers, respectively—though none of them achieved much critical success. Renowned director Sam Peckinpah was in a “fog of coke and booze” when he read the script for Convoy, according to biographer David Weddle, and had hoped to turn the silly song into the next Smokey and the Bandit. It did become his highest-grossing film, but also, according to most, one of the creative low points of his career.

Likewise, Disney’s multiple attempts at cloning their theme park rides for the big screen have led to some high-profile embarrassments (The Country Bears, The Haunted Mansion). However, the original Pirates of the Caribbean was a critical as well as a commercial success, and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, though widely panned at the time of its release, has some passionate defenders.

If it is possible to make a good movie out of a theme park ride, surely no source material is too lowly to be salvaged. If Battleship is a bad movie, the unlikeliness of the source material is not the culprit.