ASU Professor of Film and Media on the Phenomenon of Film, Show Adaptations

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October 7, 2022

Katherine Morrissey is working on a book exploring romance and gender for the contemporary digital age

In a battle for content, streamers like Amazon Prime, Hulu and Disney+ are relying more than ever on books and graphic novels for gripping stories to attract subscribers. While a passionate pre-existing fan base can ensure more viewers, it can also create impossible expectations.

And in the age of social media, producers are often hesitant to tamper with beloved source material too much, lest the Twitterverse destroy its chances before it even gets through opening weekend.

One example is Netflix’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” which experimented with breaking the fourth wall, an approach where the lead speaks directly to the camera — in this case, with a tinge of snark. This did not please the public.

Katherine Morrissey, an assistant professor of film and media studies in the Department of English at Arizona State University, studies romance genres and has reviewed several Jane Austen adaptations.

Morrissey said Netflix’s “Persuasion” adaptation was likely torn because it didn’t meet the expectations of an audience that already had “close ties to the source material and strong feelings about what the adaptation should look like. , what the narrative should be, what scenes are preserved.”

“Netflix was probably trying to woo female audiences with the material, and it backfired,” she said.

Morrissey also studies the impacts of digitization on creative communities, looking in particular at film and show release standards, mass reaction, and how women are viewed in romantic contexts.

She shared her thoughts on the recent wave of movie and show adaptations, as well as the effect of social media and other factors on the phenomenon.

Question: Why do you think “Persuasion” and other similar adaptations were poorly received?

Answer: Because social media and fan networks are so important today, you see how they shape people’s responses. So if you get enough people to frame an adaptation in a particular way, it’s going to color how everyone gets into it. With ‘Persuasion’ there was so much hate thrown at it, just from the trailer, that I don’t think anyone was going to like this movie. There is a moment when the tide turns.

Q: Apart from financial motivations, what can influence how a story is adapted to film?

A: Whether… a streaming service (is) specifically interested in a certain niche of subscribers, or if it’s a big franchise movie, (producers are) looking for a particular reach, and all those different contexts really shape how they adapt the film.

Q: What’s a good example of an adaptation done well?

A: An older example that went in a better direction (than “Persuasion”) is Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “Lord of the Rings.” They were so careful throughout the process to constantly reassure fans that this franchise was in good hands and being honored appropriately. And it helped them deal with pushback, and fans really embraced the adaptation.

Q: Neil Gaiman’s beloved graphic novel ‘Sandman’ nervously premiered on Netflix earlier this year, and while blessed by the author, fans of the novel were excited but extremely concerned about the adaptation. As a fan yourself, what do you think?

A: I was afraid to see the adaptation. I think it turned out well, but honestly, I’ll never like it because of my emotional attachment to the graphic novel.

Q: Is there any clear data to back up the feeling that there are a lot more adaptations going on right now?

A: That may seem like it since streamers are in such fierce competition, and adapting something that has already proven popular seems less financially risky.

Q: You are working on a book, “Redefining Romance: Love & Desire in Today’s Digital Culture,” as part of your appointment as a researcher at the Institute for Humanities. Tell us about that.

A: In an analog age, romantic genres helped stabilize a hierarchy of sexual norms for women and privileged a particular type of white, heteronormative femininity. In the 21st century, digital platforms use algorithms to manage a range of competing sexual hierarchies. Across all media, romance genres have been reshaped by changes in technology, emerging digital markets, and a more participatory media culture.

(I’m interested in looking at) how to start making sense of today’s media landscape, where we have all these different avenues to watch media, where there’s not one unified place where everyone watches the same thing at the same time? So how do you start thinking about how standards circulate, how standards change over time? I am interested in the representations of female desire through the media. And I look at romantic media in this broad way, because we often tend to think of one thing when we think of romance, like romantic comedy or romance novels. The reality is that romantic media is far more complicated and diverse than these particular little silos.

Listen to Morrissey speak on the subject below:

Andrea Chatwood

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