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Original: 1973 Sveriges Television miniseries
Current: 2021 HBO limited series
When Ingmar Bergman’s six-episode series depicting the end of a marriage hit Swedish TV screens in 1973, it was considered so impactful that the country’s rising divorce rates were partially blamed on the portrait of a couple in crisis. (Its subsequent 167-minute theatrical version, released in the U.S. in 1974, also caused a stir when it was deemed ineligible at the 47th Academy Awards.) In 2021, a dissection of a crumbling marriage could hardly have the same effect, which for writers Hagai Levi and Amy Herzog meant looking for insight beyond the original.
“Bergman was writing for a society where it was largely presumed that marriage was a positive good. We’re writing in a context where marriage has been interrogated so many times. We needed a different approach,” explains Herzog.
The two consulted sociologist Eva Illouz, who argues that modern-day relationships have been infected by capitalism and consumerism. “There is this idea that we can always trade in what we’ve got for something better — it’s actually the way we prove our self-worth,” says Herzog. “I became very interested in the idea that the more that we gain as women, the further we get from a sense of value that’s intrinsic or spiritual rather than commercial.”
A gender swap of the two main characters — the HBO version has Jessica Chastain’s Mira as the family’s breadwinner — further allowed Herzog and Levi to update the conversation. The one rule the duo were determined to stick to, however, was maintaining the structure of the original show. “If you don’t keep the structure, then you’re doing a new show, which I didn’t want to do,” says Levi, adding that there were moments so insightful in the 1973 version that they inevitably found their place in the remake.
“There’s just an enormous amount of richness there,” says Levi. “If, in the original, there was a sentence or a dialogue that we felt is so good, we did everything we could to keep it. And then, you make the small but significant decisions to lift it out of its original context and let something new come through.”
Original: Isaac Asimov short stories, published 1942-50
Current: 2021 Apple TV+ series
It took two hours for showrunner David S. Goyer to outline the thousand-year journey depicted in Isaac Asimov’s expansive book series in his pitch to Apple TV+. “Most pitches are an hour or under, but the people that were listening knew it was a huge financial, time and scheduling investment. They needed to know that the story had some legs,” says Goyer. “Also, Asimov never finished the story, so they needed to know that I at least had some vague idea of what we were writing toward.”
The fact that Asimov’s multigenerational saga lacked an ending was only part of the problem many had faced in attempting to bring it to the screen. “The first novel is really a conglomeration of short stories that are all loosely connected,” says Goyer. They also barely contain female characters. “That clearly wasn’t going to work,” continues Goyer, who saw opportunity in gender-flipping one of the main characters (Gaal Dornick, a brilliant mathematician played by Lou Llobell) and fleshing out others. “We could create backstories and origin stories. Instead of condensing, I was excited about the opportunity to expand it and to breathe life into it.”
While taking plenty of liberties with the material, there was one plot point Goyer wouldn’t budge on. “There’s a character called the Mule, who is one of the great villains of modern literature, and because the Mule is so phenomenal, prior attempts to adapt Foundation always wanted to bring the Mule in from day one,” explains Goyer. “When I sat down with Apple, I said, ‘We need to earn the Mule.’ “
Having turned down the chance to adapt Foundation twice, what made the third time the charm for Goyer was an evolution of the medium that made delaying a vital character possible. “TV-viewing audiences adapted to things unfolding at a slower pace,” he explains. “People do have the patience, as long as the story is compelling.”
Original: 1998 TV Tokyo series
Current: 2021 Netflix series
When an intellectual property has fans as vocal as those of Japanese manga-turned-anime series Cowboy Bebop, being responsible for bringing its live-action version to screen comes with a bit of stress. “The phrase we used on set was, ‘This is Cowboy Bebop, let’s not fuck it up,’ ” says showrunner André Nemec with a chuckle. “We would say it in production meetings. We would say it as we were setting up camera. We would say it in postproduction. We would say it a lot.”
Thankfully, for Nemec, the nerves only served as fuel to nail the feel of the original. “The anime had a poetry to it that could sucker punch you, either with a laugh or a tear that you didn’t know was coming. It was very important to capture that essence,” he says. “But first and foremost was really approaching the stories from a character perspective: Who is Spike Spiegel?”
What allowed the writers to distinguish the Netflix live-action series — which stars John Cho as Spiegel — from the original was the decision to add two more decades under the protagonist’s belt. “Spike Spiegel is a cowboy with a broken heart — you require some miles on the odometer to be a cowboy and carry a past that lingers,” says Nemec. “Not to mention that there is a core part of our audience that is 20 years older than when the anime came out.”
This also gave Nemec an opportunity to veer away from well-trodden ground. “For me, a good adaptation means that you don’t serve the same meal,” he says. “It was important that we create our own history of certain events while weaving through some of the very pivotal moments in the anime. I think that will land with a lot of people, whether new to it or familiar with it.”
Original: 1988-93 ABC series
Current: 2021 ABC series
It takes a brave person to put their spin on one of the most beloved shows in television history. This is why, when Lee Daniels approached Saladin Patterson to reimagine ABC’s The Wonder Years — which aired on ABC for six seasons between 1988 and 1993 — the showrunner initially gave the project a hard pass.
“It’s something that is held in such high regard and has such a special place in the hearts of people,” says Patterson. “I didn’t want to mess it up and be the person that was just going to do a quote, unquote, Black Wonder Years.” After further conversations with Daniels’ company about using a familiar backdrop of American culture in the late ’60s to present a unique perspective of the emerging Black middle class, Patterson was swayed.
He did, however, have one mandate for the show: “I had to do it with Fred Savage,” says Patterson of the original series’ lead actor, who began directing television with a 1999 episode of his sitcom Working. “Fred is a great director, and I knew Fred as someone who had had similar creative instincts to my own. It was a plus that he was also the person that represents The Wonder Years in everyone’s mind.” Ironically, having been approached for decades about various reprisals, Savage was equally unenthused — at first. “He said, ‘This sounds like the most unique version I’ve ever heard, a version that needs to be done, but I’m going to pass,’ ” recalls Patterson, who managed to persuade Savage to come aboard as executive producer and director: “We both came to the conclusion that this would be stronger with him than without him.”
With the pivotal pieces in place, Patterson’s personal hurdle became shaking off all those expectations. “The prestige and legacy of the original weighed heavily on me early on, especially in the development process,” admits Patterson. “But our show is a specific family in that time, on their own path with their own agency. When looked at that way, I can now see how the title is an asset and that we are actually contributing to the Wonder Years story.”
Original: 2018 book by Beth Macy
Current: 2021 Hulu limited series
Danny Strong already had descended deep into the rabbit hole of researching America’s opioid crisis when he discovered that Fox 21 — the sister studio of 20th Television, to which he had sold a limited series script on the subject — had purchased the rights to Beth Macy’s 2018 best-seller, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America. “They asked if I would team up with their project, so I read the book, and I really liked it,” says Strong, who then brought Macy into the Dopesick writers room. “Beth did this incredible job of really showing the people on the ground and the victims of the opioid crisis. I really wanted to capture that spirit.”
Before bringing in Macy and additional consultants, however, Strong had developed the structure for the Hulu limited series — which intertwines the U.S. Attorneys’ and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s investigations into the beginnings of the opioid crisis during the mid-aughts, with the origin story of the Sackler family-controlled Purdue Pharma broadening the market for its new product OxyContin through false claims of its addictive nature. The show also depicts the horrors of the opioid crisis through the eyes of its victims, many of whom were legally prescribed OxyContin.
But the showrunner says every additional voice served to make the project stronger. “I gave them all the scripts and said, ‘Tell me anything you think is wrong.’ That’s how I approach my project: If it’s inauthentic, I’m going to change it,” he says, adding that any nonfiction story, even when adapted from an existing property, should never be limited by its source material.
“When I did Game Change [HBO’s 2012 film about the 2008 presidential election], I took two chapters from the book and turned that into the whole movie. In this case, I think that the show very much encapsulates the energy, depth and emotion of Beth’s book.”
The result is a mix of real-life and composite characters — played by series stars Michael Keaton, Kaitlyn Dever, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Rosario Dawson — that emerged from the full scope of the research. “I love this path to [a story], which is the truth combined with composite characters that give you freedom of dramatization,” says Strong. “You get the best of the facts, the best of true life. It’s a great way to work.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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