‘Dark Shadows’  was a hugely popular television series that played in the US from 1966 to 1971. The show was briefly revived twenty years later with Ben Cross in the leading role and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Barbara Steele and Lysette Anthony among the supporting cast. What it was is a fantastically complex gothic melodrama that falls somewhere between thriller and soap opera — what it wasn’t is the sub-‘Beetlejuice’ horror sitcom that director Tim Burton is releasing to cinemas this week. Stateside, the ‘Dark Shadows’ fanbase is disappointed-verging-on-outraged and so far the critical response hasn’t been much better.

 No-one wants to see something they’re fond of being treated badly but how far should we expect film makers to respect and stay faithful to the books, plays, TV shows we love when they adapt them to the big screen?

Personally, I don’t think a director or screenwriter should slavishly follow their source material for practical as well as creative reasons:  a movie usually lasts no more than a couple of hours and the best movies have a pretty simple beginning-middle-end story structure that doesn’t allow for the kind of subplots and diversions you can take in a book or a TV series, so it’s understandable that cuts and changes have to be made so the movie version can work. Also, that enforced streamlining can often be an advantage because it forces the film to focus down on the themes that made the source material so successful in the first place.

Gordon Williams’ ‘The Siege of Trencher’s Farm’ is an example of that. It’s not a bad book, but when Sam Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman adapted it into ‘Straw Dogs’ their story changes made Williams’ central idea – how even the most passive man, when his family and home are threatened, can be forced to resort to extreme violence in order to defend what is his – immeasurably more powerful and effective.

Philip Kaufman’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is another example (even though Milan Kundera, who wrote the original novel, was apparently very unhappy with the film). Kaufman and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere took the best aspects of Kundera’s story and stayed true to his tone and his characters while creating a piece of cinema that stood up in its own right. True, they weren’t faithful to the structure of the book and they jettisoned most of Kundera’s existential philosophising, but subtracting those elements only made the core of the story shine even brighter.

Probably the biggest compliment I can pay to a film adapted from another source is that, once I’ve seen it, I want to track down the source material and read / watch that too. Polanski’s ‘Tess’, Kubrick’s ‘Lolita’ and even Richard Lester’s ‘The Three Musketeers’ have all done that for me and, in some strange way, those novels and their movies have become indivisible from each other inside my head. There are scenes in Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Tess’ that I swore were included in Polanski’s movie, but when I saw the movie again those scenes weren’t there. Polanski never filmed them. And that proves to me how effective a film adaptation can be when it’s produced, not necessarily with absolute faithfulness, but with respect and understanding for what came before.

But ‘Dark Shadows’ is based on a TV show so how about a TV-to-movie example? Okay, let’s take 2004’s ‘Starsky & Hutch’ or this years ’21 Jump Street’. In television form they were both police dramas, in movie form they’re both comedies. But they both work because they’ve obviously been made with a huge affection for the original material, particularly where ‘Starsky & Hutch’ is concerned, and although the central premise is played for laughs there’s never a sense that the show that spawned it is being made fun of. There’s also a huge ‘buddy’ element to both of those series that inherently makes the comedy in the movies work without crapping over the spirit of the original show.

There’s a big difference between taking a well loved idea and trying something new with it while retaining what made that idea special, and taking a well-loved idea, throwing out what made it special and forcing it to stand in the corner wearing a funny hat while you throw rotten fruit and make it look ridiculous.

I think that’s what’s upset so many ‘Dark Shadows’ fans. Despite Tim Burton’s claim to admire the original TV show, he’s completely disregarded (and disrespected) the tone and atmosphere of that show, the universe it created and the characters that live there.

Of course, you could argue that Tim Burton used to be a visionary film maker and visionaries can’t be constrained by what came before. The problem with that is, when he decided to make ‘Dark Shadows’ he should have either found a way to work within the parameters set by the television series (it was a melodrama but never a parody) or, if he wanted to go for the laughs, he should have changed the title, changed the characters, and made a retro-vampire comedy all his own without trading in on the ‘Dark Shadows’ name and throwing a grenade into a concept that, if handled respectfully, could have made an interesting companion piece to his own ‘Sleepy Hollow’.  

Respect is the key. I don’t need a film maker to stay faithful when they adapt material created for another source but I do like to see they have a certain caring for what came before.

After all, isn’t what came before what inspired them in the first place?

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white