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From Wet Ink to Flickering Light

“You don't live in the real world... You're like me. You live inside this illusion.”–Art3mis

Ready Player One

Ernest Kline

Several days ago, we discussed media that was adapted and expanded into books and comics. Today we’re looking at the broader side of the equation, the side where books, stories, comics, and video games are adapted from novels and short stories. The concept of adapting stories to celluloid is almost as old as films themselves. Now, this list could be extremely long, considering how many films and television series have been either direct adaptations or heavily influenced by speculative fiction novels and short stories. Instead, this article looks at a sampling of the works adapted, some chosen for their impact, and some potentially less well-known works.


Adaptations of the written word go back nearly as far as modern theater, with fairy tales and biblical stories being presented on stage as some of the first productions, though there were many original stories as well. Motion pictures followed the same sort of model, a mixture of original works and adaptations. Noted as the father of the narrative film, Georges Méliès is also credited as being the first filmmaker to adapt literature to film. His movie Cendrillon (Star Film Company, 1899) is a short fantasy based on the fairy tale Cinderella. He also produced Danse du feu (Star Film Company, 1899), a one-minute trick film which he based on a scene from the lost world novel She: A History of Adventure (H. Rider Haggard, Longmans, 1887). In fact, his most famous film, Le Voyage dans la Lune (Star Film Company, 1902) was based on two science fiction works—From Earth to the Moon and All Around the Moon (Jules Verne, Pierra-Jules Hetzel, 1865/1870). This film also is considered by many film historians as the first true science fiction movie ever created.


Using well known stories as the basis for films would continue. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum, George M. Hill Company, 1900) was adapted as a musical. The film, The Wizard of Oz (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939) did decently in the box office on its release, but it wasn’t until its debut broadcast on television in 1956 it would gain true popularity. This fantasy movie is the most seen film in movie history according to the U.S. Library of Congress. However, it was not the only story of L. Frank Baum to be adapted. We’ve already discussed his Santa Claus tales which were adapted, but John Dough and the Cherub (L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1906) is a less well-known work which was not only made into but two films. Adapted as the first segment of The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (First National Pictures, 1908), a movie which holds a place in history as having the first original film score, the story was also filmed as a 10 minute short in 1910 under the books original title. The pair of films also included L. Frank Baum himself playing a part in them. Unfortunately, like many films of the time, all copies of the celluloid have been lost.


Another book which saw many adaptations at the beginning of the film era and well into the late twentieth century was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain, Charles L. Webster and Co., 1889). The first version was the silent film A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Fox Film, 1921). Only three of the original eight reels survive in the U.S. Library of Congress. It was made again under the title A Connecticut Yankee (Fox Film Corporation, 1931) as a musical with Will Rogers, and another time as a comedy musical starring Bing Crosby in the title role (Paramount Pictures, 1949). Новые приключения янки при дворе короля Артура. Фантазии на тему Марка Твена [English translation The New Adventures of a Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Fantasy over Mark Twain’s theme] (Dovzhenko Film Studio, 1988) is a Soviet film which was based on Twain’s novel. The book has been loosely adapted for several cartoon shorts and goofball live action comedies.


The War of the Worlds (H. G. Wells, William Heinemann, 1898) had one of the most impressive adaptations of the books on this list since it affected so many people. On October 30, 1938, Orson Wells narrated a dramatic production of the book on the radio show The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The show caused several panics around the United States and there were over 12,500 articles published in various newspapers in the following weeks. Two theatrical versions using the title The War of the Worlds (Paramount Pictures, 1953 and Paramount Pictures, 2005) have been released. Additionally, the television series War of the Worlds (Paramount Domestic Television, 1988-1990) was released as a quasi-sequel to the 1953 film. Other television adaptations have recently been released, The War of the Worlds (BBC, 2019) and War of the Worlds (Fox/Studio Canal, 2019).


Books of the late 1800s and the early 1900s aren’t the only stories to be adapted. Though several more books, like At the Earth’s Core (Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. C. McClug, 1914), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (Jules Veren, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, 1869), The Island of Doctor Moreau (H. G. Wells, Stone & Kimball, 1896), and A Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, 1864) would be adapted, newer works would also be chosen.


Though many speculative fiction books can now be found on bestseller’s lists and are known to the general public, this is a relatively recent occurrence. Only a few authors of the 1950s and 1960s were household recognized names. Two of these authors, Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert, would have works adapted as movies and television miniseries. Dune (Frank Herbert, Chilton Books, 1965) was originally optioned for film in 1973 by Alehandro Jodorowsky but wouldn’t be made until over a decade later. David Lynch’s Dune (Dino De Laurentis, 1984) was considered a critical and financial failure, unlike the book it was based on. The most recent version of the film, Dune (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2021) did much better. The series of books have also been adapted as the television miniseries Dune (Hallmark Entertainment, 2000) and Children of Dune (Sci Fi Channel, 2003). The second series was a merged adaptation of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune (Frank Herbert, Putman Publishing/Putnam, 1969/1976).


The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, Doubleday, 1950) was released as a three-episode miniseries in January 1980. The series had several big-name actors in it, such as Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, Maria Schell, Bernie Casey, and Darren McGavin. Many people, including Bradbury himself in a 1979 press conference, stated the adaptation was poorly done and boring. Richard Matheson, who would in turn have several of his own works adapted to film, wrote the screenplay. Matheson’s most well-known adaptations are likely the several versions of I Am Legend (Gold Medal Books, 1954) including The Last Man On Earth (Associated Producers, 1964), The Omega Man (Warner Bros., 1971), I Am Legend (Village Roadshow Pictures, 2007), and as noted by George A. Romero an inspiration for his film Night of the Living Dead (Image Ten, 1968).


Books aimed at adults aren’t the only ones to be adapted. From Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car (Ian Fleming, Jonathan Cape, 1964) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl, Gearge Allen & Unwin, 1964), from the Harry Potter novels (J. K. Rowling, Scholastic Press 1997-2007) to the Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis, Geoffery Bles/The Bodley Head, 1950-1956), books and series written with children in mind as the primary audience have been adaptation choices for years. Even lesser-known works like Escape to Witch Mountain (Alexander Key, Westminster Press, 1968) have been adapted. The sequel film Return from Witch Mountain (Walt Disney Productions, 1978) is only a sequel to the film though Alexander Key did write a novelization of the film. Teen fiction series have also been fertile ground for adaptations. Twilight (Stephenie Meyer, Little, Brown, and Company, 2005), The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2008), and The Maze Runner (James Dashner, Delacorte Press, 2009) have proved to be popular and profitable novels to adapt to the silver screen.


These adaptations haven’t been limited to live action though. Several animated features have been released over the years. Some of the most notable films are The Hobbit (Rankin/Bass, 1977) from the book of the same name, The Black Cauldron (Walt Disney Studios, 1985) adapted from The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron (Lloyd Alexander, holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964/1965), and The Secret of NIMH (United Artists, 1982) from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM (Robert C. O’Brien, Atheneum Books, 1971). Lesser known works in an adaptation of two works simultaneously, The Dragon and the George (Gordon R. Dickson, Doubleday, 1978) and The Flight of Dragons (Peter Dickinson, Pierrot Publishing Ltd., 1979) which were the basis for The Flight of the Dragons (Rankin/Bass Productions, 1982).


Comic books have a long history of adaptations, starting with movie series in the 1940s. The first such serial was The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). It was quickly followed by several others, including Batman (1943), Captain America (1944), and Superman (1948). The character of Superman would also be the first film adaptation of a comic book in Superman and the Mole Men (Lippert Pictures, 1951). After the 1950s, superheroes would fall out of favor as palpation material until the late 1970s, which would once again return Superman to the silver screen in Superman: The Movie (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1978). Other films would follow. Not only the sequels to Superman: The Movie but Batman and Batman Returns (Warner Bros., 1989/1992), Spider-Man (Sony Pictures, 2002) and two sequels, and other works like Spawn (New Line Cinema, 1997) and Blade (Marvel Enterprises, 1998). In the late 2000s, comic book adaptations would get a shot of adrenaline with Iron Man (Marvel Studios, 2008), kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the first of the shared universe superhero franchises. DC would follow with the Arrowverse on television and the DC Extended Universe for their movies, once again with Superman at the forefront in Man of Steel (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013). These movies and television series continue to be massively popular.


This has only been a snapshot of the various novels, novellas, and short stories which had moved from the printed page to the flickering screen. As new movies are proposed, be sure that some of them will be based on previously published works, both new and old. What are some of your favorite adaptations? Let us know below.

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