Stories have been reinvented for centuries. Shakespeare reworked Chaucer’s poem “Troilus and Criseyde” into a play. “The Lion King” bears a noticeable trace of “Hamlet”. In “Wide Sargasso Sea” (1966), Jean Rhys unravelled the history of Antoinette Cosway, Mr Rochester’s spurned wife in “Jane Eyre”. These works provoke us into analysing the original story: what was left out, and why? Why do its themes endure?
Television networks, too, are increasingly finding new content in old stories: 2017 will see the premiere of shows drawing on “Romeo and Juliet”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Anne of Green Gables”, “Rapunzel”, “Watership Down”, the DC Comics Universe and “Star Trek”, to name but a few. Each production hopes to offer a new perspective on the existing story. NBC’s “Emerald City” promises to remind viewers that “there’s no place like Oz”. “Still Star-Crossed”, on ABC, begins with Montagues and Capulets sparring once again “in the wake of the young lovers’ tragic fate”. “Taken”, another NBC show, is a prequel series to the films that starred Liam Neeson; it will explore how Bryan Mills learned his “very particular, and very dangerous, set of skills”.
In many cases, this is a shrewd move. “Powerless”, also on NBC, offers a window into the lives of insurance brokers in the world of superheroes, poking fun at the genre and appealing to those left cold by the numerous spandex-heavy spin-offs on the silver screen. Netflix has been astute in taking up Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. Fans of the books who felt let down by the 2004 film adaptation are excited: whereas the film crammed three books into 107 minutes, each book will receive two hour-long TV episodes. This will give scope for greater characterisation, scene-setting and attention to detail. Neil Patrick Harris, who stars as the villainous Count Olaf, says the extra running time allows a “much darker take on the material”.
In other cases, however, rehashing stories appears to be money-driven laziness. The CW network’s remake of “The Notebook” follows “the romantic journey of Noah and Allie at the outset of their blossoming relationship”, which sounds like a rerun of the original. Presumably the film’s performance at the box office (having taken over $115m worldwide) and its legions of loyal fans looked bankable. Likewise there seems little need for Netflix to serialise “Snowpiercer”, a South Korean English-language film from 2013. The tenth-highest-grossing domestic film, it is an unimaginative move to appeal to its new South Korean audience (the streaming site launched there in January 2016). In reviving “Prison Break” with its original cast, Fox will demand an unreasonable suspension of disbelief from viewers: it ended in 2009 with the death of its central character.
If there are no new voices or perspectives to add, networks should refrain from adapting old material. Not only does it disappoint audiences (Fox’s “Lethal Weapon”, which aired in September 2016, is described by Rotten Tomatoes, an online review aggregator, as having a “tired narrative”), it also produces safe bets rather than innovative, unusual screenwriting. It would be a shame if the next “Breaking Bad” lost out to a reboot of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.