In Defence Of Adaptations: Why Old Stories Are Good For Australia’s Film And TV Industry

'Anna Karenina' is now 'The Beautiful Lie'. A TV re-make of 'Wolf Creek' is coming to Stan. Whether you love them or hate them, these re-makes may be a necessity.

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This year is shaping up to be a rewarding one for the Australian film industry. It’s not even Boxing Day yet and we’ve already surpassed the 2001 record for box office earnings, currently sitting at over $64 million. As Glenn Dunks mentioned in his recent Junkee piece, adaptations of stories that have already been told in books and on stage have made a huge contribution to this.

Of course, box office records are just one measure of success; it’s also promising to see that these adaptations are not formulaic made-for-Hollywood stories. There’s complexity in the filmic interpretation of Timothy Conigrave’s Holding The Man, and some important ethical questions to be considered in the adaptation of Reg Cribb’s play Last Cab to Darwin.

This is all present on the small screen as well. The ABC is currently airing six-part series The Beautiful Lie: a modern rendition of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that tells the twisted story of love and seduction, with a distinctly cinematic quality. In a cast led by rising star Sarah Snook, the characters are portrayed with nuance and conviction. Glitch, produced by Matchbox and broadcast by the ABC in July this year, also demonstrated the Australian TV industry’s willingness to experiment a little — at least within limits. The show may have been based on French series Les Revenants, but it’s a genre less explored by local showrunners. In another bold move, the full series was released online prior to the broadcast date.

And then, last month, streaming service Stan made this announcement:

Mitigating Risk And Driving Success: The Rise Of The Re-Make

Why adapt Wolf Creek into a six-part series, when the story has already been told through two feature films? Why rely on Tolstoy, when we have talented screenwriters like Cate Shortland and Jacqueline Perske to make up their own stories? When discussing the latter on the ABC’s web-only review show The Critics, film critic Luke Buckmaster suggested it has much to do with the crowded nature of the film and TV industries. Making use of an existing franchise helps to minimise any risk associated with launching a series to air.

Sally Caplan, Head of Production at Screen Australia agrees. “In some ways it’s easier — it’s a known property, generally you’ve got a bit of a built-in audience.” In an environment where only 10 percent of film ideas actually go into production, knowing that there’s already a fan base is a powerful tool when campaigning for financial support.

In fact, adaptations may be an economic necessity. In his 2010 research paper on the topic, strategist Matthew Hancock argues that adaptations are more profitable than original works as they have a higher median gross box office value. While some of the highest-grossing Australian-made films in the last ten years have been original works, they are a more volatile proposition, with a larger likelihood for box office failure. Films like Moulin Rouge, Australia and Happy Feet may have hit box office success — but if you look at the bottom 50 rating films from 1999-2008, 46 of them were original films.

Pictured: risk.

Adapting a local work for a wider global audience can also help promote Australian talent. Take for example Australian author Graeme Simsion’s 2013 novel The Rosie Project. So evidently lucrative was the story of a socially inept academic that the film rights were sold to Sony, opening Simsion (and by association other Australian literature) up to the mainstream American consumer market — the biggest in the world.

Dispelling Adaptation Myths

Though it might seem that our screens are overrun with adaptations, statistics prove otherwise. Analysis of 1999-2014 MPDAA data shows that only 17 percent of feature films were sourced from published, screened or performative works. According to Caplan at Screen Australia, this is much less than in the US and UK, where the ratio is approximately 70 percent and 45 percent respectively. And if you look at trends since the 1920s, the proportion of adaptations in Australia is actually on the decline.

Nick Forward, Content and Product Director at Stan, admits that the series based on Wolf Creek leverages the success of the franchise, but doesn’t devalue the new production. “The strength of a story should dictate whether you make it and take it to the world, not whether or not it’s an adaptation,” he says. For Forward, the re-imagining of a story is an opportunity to be creative and innovative. “[Wolf Creek the series] is a shift in tone and narrative — it’s a serialised thriller through the eyes of a young woman, which is really interesting.”

Of course, if there’s ever a poster-child for sourced content, it’s reality TV. The Bachelor, The X-Factor and Dancing With The Stars are all carbon copies of their overseas counterparts. Freelance TV producer Marnie Kane has worked across multiple reality shows including Family Feud and Married at First Sight — both are adaptations, the former from the US and the latter from Denmark. While she’s had her fair share of judgment for working in this field, she says the genre provides an opportunity to build skills in a competitive industry. “There’s a lot of work in reality TV … and we get paid for it,” she says.

With money to pay the bills, practitioners can then devote more time to passion projects down the line.

Whatever You Think Of Them, Adaptations Are Here To Stay

At a glance of Screen Australia’s upcoming productions reports, you can see there are a bunch of adaptations in the pipeline: Christos Tsiolkas’ coming-of-age novel Barracuda, Helen Garner’s true crime thriller Joe Cinque’s Consolation, and Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones to name a few.

Australia’s film and TV industry is small — and while it’s important to take risks, they must be calculated ones. The real opportunity, then, is in taking risks by using familiar content as the canvas on which to experiment: using different distribution strategies, exploring new genres, or shelling out for high quality production.

Original content still makes up the majority of our film and TV industry, but it’s trying new things via sourced content that challenges the status quo and grows our industry.

Chelsea McIver is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Her writing has also appeared in Broadsheet and ToneDeaf. She sometimes tweets from @ChelseaMcIver, usually while watching TV or for shameless self-promotion.