Do Mass Market Adaptations Make Great Books Go Bad?

We live in an era populated by adaptations, with theatre producers, filmmakers and even game designers looking for a classic text to make their own classic piece of media. With many classics being adapted time and time again, many of which are created to appease a mass-market audience, are they ruining the classic novels from which they based? Are audiences and fans looking for a faithful retelling of their favourites, or something that utilizes more creativity and imagination from these media creators? To answer these questions, one must take a comparative adaptation journey by looking at two classics that have received similar treatment.

The two classics that will be examined are, The Phantom of the Opera (Leroux 2008) and Les Misérables (Hugo 2003). Both were released within the late 1800s/early 1900s, but did not receive similar recognition. The Phantom of the Opera (referred to as TPOTO from this point on) sold very poorly when it was originally released and was critically shunned. It never became a classic in the lifetime of Gaston Leroux, and was unheard of until the 1925 silent movie adaptation that allowed a mainstream audience to discover the works of an unknown author.

Les Misérables (referred to as LM from here on) had a completely different success story when it was released in 1862. It was advertised throughout Paris, and generated much excitement from fans and critics alike. Therefore when comparing the two texts, one can see that LM was regarded as a classic from the release of the novel whereas TPOTO required the adaptation process to allow people to recognize a novel existed.

Moreover, one can see the theory of 'Adaptation Displacement' is clearly put into practice within the case of TPOTO. With each film, and especially the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, eclipsing the novel that received such a poor response from critics and audience alike. LM was seen as a success from its release, consequently it did not require the use of adaptations to raise the awareness of the book's existence.

Though adaptations have helped TPOTO become more popular within mainstream audiences, it is interesting to look at how LM has been adapted in a variety of unique ways that have been both flawed and successful. Both texts were transformed into films within 1925, each of which received positive critical reviews and awe from the public. These accomplishments could be due to the way in which the filmmakers chose to adapt the stories. When Wagner's (1975) 'Three Modes of Adaptation' are applied to these movies, one can see that both films can be categorized as a 'Transposition' adaptation. Which means that both movies are very faithful to the novels on which they are based. Therefore, one may state that by being as faithful to the novel as possible, fans of the novels and avid movie goers alike are both satisfied by this method of adaptation, even though they appeal to the main stream audience market.

This 'Transposition' mode of adaptation was also beneficial in raising awareness of TPOTO novel, which allowed it to become recognised as a piece of classic literature. The 'fidelity approach' can also be applied in these cases, as Cardwell (2002) theorises that the novel is the dominant media; this means that each subsequent adaptation is heavily reliant on the source text, which cannot be displaced. With LM this statement can be seen as truth, with the novel being such a big accomplishment of its time, many adaptations will struggle to reach this point of nobility. However, TPOTO required the use of a mass-market adaptation to point people in the way of the novel. One must also be aware that with more adaptations of old literature, it allows the sells of such books to increase. Consequently the classic novels rely on adaptations to keep them alive within the ever-changing world, and adaptations rely on these classic sources to create new versions of stories that people come to adore.

Though with more adaptations being created for one story, it puts more pressure on the media creators to think of new and exciting ways to tell these tales. The musical versions of LM and TPOTO were unexpected to say the least. They push the boundaries in what can be achieved through experimentation that not only appeals to a mass-market audience, but to loyal fans of the source material too.

Andrew Lloyd Webber opened his version of TPOTO in 1986, with his lead duo consisting of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. This lead to a lot of controversy when it came to casting Crawford, the Some Mothers Do 'Av 'Em star. Though many may have been outraged by the thought of a comedian stepping into the role of a well-known character, it allowed for a better publicity when the show premiered within the West End. It was seen as a success critically and earned a big fan following. With sites such as (a fan site dedicated to people who want to discuss their love for TPOTO), it is easy to see that this unusual method of adaptation, allowed the story to become ever more popular.

Therefore when Wagner's (1975) 'Three Modes of Adaptation' are applied, we see that this adaptation actually fits within two categories. The musical can be viewed as 'Commentary', which Wagner describes as an original that is, 'taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect'. As the story has been altered to allow for a better, theatrical experience. For instance, the phantoms face is only half disfigured which mean he wears an iconic porcelain mask that fits one side of his face. This image is now instantly recognizable and is immediately linked to TPOTO. However in the book, a whole mask covers his face. Thus the theory of 'Adaptation Displacement' can be seen within the case of this musical retelling, and because Andrew Lloyd Webber has created a new piece of art using sound and imagery, we may also view his creation as an Analogy. Wagner describes this term as a 'considerable departure' from the source material, 'for the sake of making another work of art'. Webber's work changes the genre, from horror to romance, changes the emphasis from story to music and has made an adaptation that not only strays away from the source text, but also may be viewed as better because of this.

LM has also received a musical transformation, which again represents the fact that media creators are constantly challenging our opinions on popular classics by using imaginative ways to retell them in medias that many thought impossible. The musical, which was created by Claude-Michel Schönberg, and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, premiered in London in 1985. It received poor reviews and was heavily criticized by reviewers, which leads into an interesting comparison with TPOTO legacy. It seems we have a reversal of roles where each text is allocated as a classic in the audience's eyes. With TPOTO, the book was only viewed as a classic in later decades and can be viewed as a critical failure, whereas the musical did excellently within this area, allowing the book a second chance at becoming more of a critical success. LM is the opposite; the book was lavished with praise yet the musical was seen as a letdown to say the least.

In spite of this, it has been proven through many medias that critical success does not essentially qualify a piece to be established as a classic (Gremlins, the movie and Deadly Premonition, the game, are examples of this). This is especially the case with LM, as audiences loved this new take on a story that is both, bleak and depressing. Similar to TPOTO when Webber chose to cast Crawford as the Phantom, LM also went against a stereotypical way of thinking, by producing a musical that is based on a story with no truly happy moments. Many people will no doubt think of a musical as a joyful experience that heightens one's mood when they leave the theatre doors, but LM showed that a musical can have people leaving the theatres with tears of sadness, even though they loved the show.

Moreover, if we look at the question of whether people are looking for a faithful retelling of their favourite novel, or searching for something that opens their mind to something completely new and different. One can see that unusual methods of adaptation can lead to some successful outcomes. Notably, LM and TPOTO, the musicals, are both seen as classics in their own right. Hence forth, we may view the musicals as an 'Adaptation Displacement' of their original texts. Both musicals were aimed at a mainstream theatre audience market, and both seemed to appeal to this group of people. Therefore is has opened up an access point for these musical theatre goers, so they may explore the original classics and draw their own opinions on the stories told within. This allows for an enhanced public sphere, for people who are fans of either the book, the films or the musicals, to discuss how they view the source material compared to people who have accessed the story from a different media.

From there, one can explore this further with Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel. Love Never Dies continues the story of the Phantom as he becomes the mysterious owner of Coney Island's Theme Park. This sequel, which is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, is an excellent example of 'Adaptation Expansion'. This theory describes the expansion of an adaptation, which goes beyond what is read within the original source material. Another theory that is touched upon by this example is Jenkin's (2008) theory of 'transmedia storytelling'. Wherein the story continues, yet any one person can access the TPOTO universe by either watching the sequel first, (which Webber sees as a standalone piece) or by starting with the adaptation. On the other hand, many may argue that this is not an example of 'transmedia storytelling', as it only engages the viewer through the use of theatre rather then using other medias such as video games or movies to expand this fictional universe. In spite of this, there is an opportunity for any media creator to expand on the story that Webber has given to the fans of the tale, as he has added new characters and subplots. Therefore, although Webber uses only one type of media to complete his 'Adaptation Expansion', the way he has done so, could be seen as a method of 'transmedia storytelling'.

LM, has not yet been subjected to 'Adaptation Expansion' and cannot be placed as part of a transmedia universe. Nevertheless, we see more media exploration when one examines the adaptation journey of this story. It has been adapted into a number of films, an anime series and a video game. It could be said that the story is being exploited, and the original text may be lost in the sea of these adaptations. However, it should be noted that each adaptation, whether it is designed for a mass-market audience or not, leads the user/ viewer back to Victor Hugo's novel. As said before, this allows the novel to withstand the test of time and gives people of various cultures and ages, the chance to learn about the great literature, which can, at times, be displaced by the countless amounts of adaptations.

This 'Adaptation Displacement' can also cause media creators to stay away from popular texts, as they do not want to disappoint fans of the new classics that arise from the old. For example, TPOTO is now seen by many as a musical about a romantic love triangle, with the iconic half faced mask worn by the Phantom and filled with rememberable songs such as 'Music of the Night'. If a filmmaker were to now create a new adaptation of TPOTO, which remained faithful to the source text, fans would feel disappointed that the story is no longer a romance, but a horror story, built around a phantom that has a full-face mask rather then the recognizable half mask. Hutcheon (1980) terms this fixed part of a fan's fictional world, as Fanon, therefore if someone were to now create a new, faithful retelling of TPOTO, they would be breaching the Fanon that fans have now established within the Phantom's universe.

This causes problems to arise when one looks at creating an adaptation for a mass-market audience. The media creator cannot breach the Canon, thus disappointing the fans, yet s/he cannot use elements from Webber's production due to copyright issues. This difficulty can also be seen within LM, where movies in the past could be viewed as loyal to the source text, in this post-musical stage we find ourselves in, many would feel disappointed if a movie were to be created and it not be related to Mackintosh's classic. For instance, LM was released in 1998 starring Liam Neeson in the starring role; though it was received poorly by the critics as they found that it was a typical mass market produced adaptation, and fans were disappointed by this movie as they were expecting a musical.

As a result, 'Adaptation Displacement' can lead to interesting takes on classic texts, and can also raise popularity for these stories. However, when an adaptation is displaced, it causes a ripple effect on the adaptations that can follow. This can be due to the Canon rules that fans create on the tales they adore, without realizing what the true intents of the authors were, whom originally fabricated these worlds of fiction. Therefore one can dismiss Cardwell's theory of 'adaptation fidelity' when examining the cases of TPOTO, and LM, as both have displaced the original text, and TPOTO has even managed to expand the fictional universe that Leroux created.

When this is faced against the question of whether mass-market adaptations make great books go bad, it is clear to see that there are positives and negatives to this mainstream adaptation method. With the case studies of TPOTO and LM, their adaptation legacy has allowed more people to be aware of the source materials from which they arose from, and have given a wide range of people the chance to explore these novels. However the later adaptations stray from their source materials and become classics of their own. Therefore, people who enjoy the musical versions of the tales will be more disappointed when discovering the origins of the stories, thus damaging the Canon walls that have been created. One can thereby say that fans and audiences enjoy new, unusual retellings of classic novels and through these new medias; the novel retains its place as a classic throughout time. Even if new fans become disappointed when reading the roots of their favourite stories.