Last week, A.D. was canceled due to low ratings by NBC. The show’s producers hope to revive it for their digital channel, whose launch is two years away, but I suspect most will have moved on by then, particularly if half the cast has also gone on to other projects. In short, for all intensive purposes, the series is dead.
I am not happy about this, but I would have been shocked by a renewal, because the series made all the same mistakes that former “Bible-based” productions made before it, and then some, which led to a lot of its core audience ceasing to tune in every week. Hollywood seems to make these mistakes again and again, because they have no idea what Christian audiences really want. Mostly, though, they keep shooting their cash chow in general. They don’t understand why we don’t support their efforts. Allow me to enlighten you: when you adapt a book for the screen, your primary audience are fans of the book. So when you change the book, rewrite characters, leave out entire sections, or interpret the story as how you see it, rather than as it is written, this core base tends to get angry and not watch your stuff.
I am not just talking about Bible movies, either. So far you have managed to botch just about every major book franchise except Harry Potter and Twilight, because you knew those fans would rip you limb from limb if you butchered their beloved sacred cow. If you knew it then, why don’t you know it now? Why do you disrespect the source material? Why do you insist on altering it? Some condensing for the big screen is understandable, but not rewriting entire stories. You think that by changing it up, you will get wider audiences and appeal to those who have not read the book, but again, the book fans are your biggest base. Lose them and you have no core audience, just the few stragglers who happened to wander in one day.
Look at what happened to Narnia on the big screen. The first movie was excellent. It stuck primarily to Lewis’ original story and it was an enormous success worldwide. The most it did was fill in a bit of characterization with the children in order to give them more distinct personalities. That did well, so they went on to make more films, each one deviating more and more from the source material, and in some instances, directly contradicting Lewis’ personal belief system and vision for his tales in an attempt to make the story more modern. (Example: Susan fighting in battle, when Lewis did not intend her to fight – “Wars are ugly things when women fight”.) Hollywood expected a big turn out and did not get it, because book fans got upset, and no one except book fans really cared all that much. There were simply too many changes. Caspain was turned into a romantic lead, instead of a brave child; the Pevensies stormed the castle. The next movie was less dramatically different from the source material but still added subplots that never existed in the original, and the original has been beloved by multiple generations for decades.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell just aired in Britain, to abysmal ratings. It is a masterpiece but not exactly like the book, and not all of its inventions, deviations, substitutions, and changing around of characters are appreciated by the book fans. Some of them fundamentally alter characters and deviate from the source material in ways that undermine its powerful themes. These changes are ultimately meaningless in the scope of the narrative, which means they were unnecessary. Adapting a book does not mean you need to put your own spin on it, or reinvent it. That is not what book fans want.
The Hobbit made this mistake. Lord of the Rings deviated a lot, but in some instances it tightened Tolkien’s story and streamlined it (even if it was too long), so it was a huge success. Great! Let’s do it again, but have 90% Peter Jackson and 10% Tolkien this time! And, although The Hobbit did make money, it didn’t make as much as they anticipated, because it… upset the book fans. Book fans went in expecting the fun, somewhat lighthearted little book that Tolkien wrote about a chubby middle-aged hobbit going on an adventure, and got LotR: The Preque. The hobbit actually got kind of lost, because the story was too busy making up stupid subplots involving star-crossed elf and dwarf lovers to remember that it is a children’s story. And that’s really where the flaw in some of these adaptations lies; they forget that these stories are children’s stories. Narnia is children’s stories. Children’s stories do not need made into adult stories, because their power lies in their effectiveness as children’s stories. Let them BE children’s stories. Do not add battle scenes. Do not add romantic subplots. Leave them as the author wrote them.
If you want to talk less palatable adaptations, Hannibal just got axed by NBC due to abysmal ratings. The show is immensely clever and ingenious, a masterpiece of symbolism and nuance, but again, its primary core is book fans who bailed long ago when they realized that these characters are not those of the books; that the books would be torn apart and remade in order to frame new narratives, that Will Graham would be pulled through the mud and become demented, and that the show-runner would largely miss the point. Some book fans are still around, others are long gone. Gore aside, had the series managed to retain all of the book fans, it would probably still be on air in a niche market. On a similar note, Game of Thrones is still popular, but also losing viewers, because HBO has reached the end of the book series (so far) and is making it up as they go along, which means book characters are no longer acting like themselves, with the result that … book fans get mad and quit watching.
What about the recent Romeo & Juliet, where Julian Fellowes added on to Shakespeare’s language, changed some of the words, modernized it a bit, and made Romeo’s killing of his adversary premeditated instead of based in impulse? He turned Romeo into a premeditated murderer, and then the studio was shocked when Shakespeare fans threw a tantrum. Why wouldn’t they?
So, let’s consider the Bible adaptations that have so far failed to generate a Christian audience. Noah turned the title character into a depressive lunatic hell-bent on murdering his grandkids. Exodus turned God into a petulant child and assigned all the plagues to natural disasters. A.D. had its strengths but also its weaknesses — it changed Bible stories around, slandered Cornelius, introduced ethnic actors among the disciples an attempt to be politically correct, invented subplots to frame around scriptural events, threw in tons of brutality and violence for shock effect, and then was perplexed when it hemorrhaged its core audience. All the studios and producers involved in these respective projects expressed confusion when their productions failed to generate an outpouring of support. Tragically, in my opinion A.D. had the most potential and the most powerful writing (truly, some of it is inspired), which makes its missteps all the more heartbreaking, since it was the greatest missed opportunity.
Historical films are no different. Their primary audience is going to be fans of the period, so when you play fast and loose with history, you can’t expect the amateur historians to stick around. Adding flavor is fine, but when you change established facts for no reason at all, people get annoyed. When you deviate from the source material, fans of the source material get annoyed. When will Hollywood figure this out? How many times must they make the exact same mistake, with the exact same result, before they realize what they are doing wrong?