Zombie Franchises is a series of occasional articles in which Ken Lowe examines one of the shambling intellectual properties that plods onward under sheer force of box office money. Be wary of spoilers for movies that have been out for a while—or, in this case, the bedtime stories of an entire culture that have been told for even longer.
Quick, no googling: Do you remember anything about King Arthur: Legend of the Sword? What about that James Franco vehicle, Oz the Great and Powerful? How much do you think you’ll remember about the upcoming disaster, titled simply Robin Hood?
It’s easy to see where Hollywood gets its least interesting ideas: This toy line sold enough plastic junk to choke the Pacific, that old movie would play great in China with a younger actor and better CG, comics sure are hot right now. What’s so frustrating about the upcoming Robin Hood is that it’s the latest in a trend of taking some of Western culture’s most engaging ideas and then executing them in exactly the wrong way, with results so predictable you wonder if Hollywood executives truly lack pattern recognition.
I’ve already gone into why I think 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was the last relevant word on British folklore’s Chaotic Good archer archetype (even though I am avowedly a fan of the Disney cartoon version). I now feel as if I need to explain why this upcoming Thanksgiving week train wreck is, totally predictably, about to occupy the same pile of forgotten flops as the duds I named above, the 2010 Russell Crowe adaptation, the 2004 Clive Owen adaptation of King Arthur, multiple Peter Pans (Peters Pan?), and what are sure to be any number of ill-advised attempts to rob the public domain that are even now working their way through Hollywood board rooms.
Zombie Franchises is usually here to chastise those on the foolish quest for more money at the expense of artistic dignity. But today, I am a man pleading: Please, if you’ve ever smiled up at a parent telling you a bedtime story or listened as an engaged teacher related a myth to you, please stop going to these movies. And if you’re one of the people responsible for making them, I implore you to stop.
Stories that belong to everybody, “intellectual property” that belongs to nobody
It’s easy enough to understand why this trend has taken hold, even if it fails to deliver time and time and time and time again. It costs a studio nothing to secure the rights to a story about Robin Hood, the green-clad outlaw having come to us from a time before intellectual property law and copyright infringement. That immediately means starting out from a lower overhead than other franchise hopefuls. It’s not a bad idea in theory if your intention is to count beans rather than craft a memorable film.
In practice, it means you are necessarily telling a story using characters everybody already knows. This presents a very real problem for script writers and directors, who are faced either with failing to live up to the Platonic ideal in our collective imagination or (very likely) failing to craft a fresh take that doesn’t seem totally silly. Consider King Arthur, the 2004 Clive Owen movie. The direction the creative team decided to go in sounds great on paper: What if we’re telling the King Arthur story, but placed into a strictly historical context, set amidst the backdrop of the decline of the Roman Empire? That accurately places the film into the historical milieu of the very earliest Arthur myths. (The film marketed itself as the “true story” of King Arthur, which is absolute bullshit.) Could be interesting, right?
It wasn’t. It was a movie that barely, in any way, resembles depictions of King Arthur we’ve seen before, and not in a new and exciting way. It’s all gritty battlefields, boring villains, and knights of the round table that completely fail to make any impression (except the big bald dude, who I think was Bors? Was he Bors?). We can’t get into how silly it is that all these men are from the same early-Iron Age culture when they have names like “Lancelot” and “Galahad.” The most we get of the steamy forbidden love between Guinevere and Lancelot is a baleful look before Lancelot dies, damn it. Arthur isn’t even “king” until the very end of the movie. There’s no epic tragedy, which is why you should be making an Arthur retelling.
It makes you wonder why these studios want to adapt these specific stories when they have no interest in the elements that make them memorable.
Robbing from a rich story to craft a poor imitation of some other story
Check out that trailer for Robin Hood 2010 again (you know, the one with Russell Crowe that you probably didn’t see). Remind yourself it was first announced as Nottingham and went through three wildly different script interpretations before essentially landing on “Robin Hood, but not a single pixel of green anywhere in it and it’s a medieval hack-and-slash epic.”
This is just Kingdom of Heaven or Lord of the Rings but with a different “intellectual property” attached to it. With that in mind, look at this nonsense now, in the Year of Our Lord 2018.
It’s The Dark Knight, but he’s Robin Hood: Washed out colors, grim and gritty plotting, training montages, the wiser older figure chiding the brash young hero, the every-Batman-movie scene of Bruce Wayne chuckling to the blue bloods, “This ‘Batman’ sure is loopy, am I right??”
We’re clued in to several alarming story directions just from this trailer. The first is that it’s going to be an origin story, despite the fact we all know why Robin Hood is Robin Hood, and this can be summed in one sentence, and that one sentence is “The rich are out of control, so he robs them to feed the poor.” Apparently he needs archery training before he can really be Robin Hood, and there is even a point in the movie where he bitches about not stealing, which means there is going to be enough of a stretch of this movie without stealing, which is what Robin Hood does that they are lampshading it. They try to justify why he’s going to steal money from the Sheriff of Nottingham, something that worries me deeply, because I’m afraid the answer is not going to be “To f*** the Man.”
If you’re going to adapt a story, why aren’t you adapting the damn story? Robin Hood is a centuries-old character, so ingrained in the English language that you can invoke his name in a conversation and it carries a crystal clear connotation: breaking unjust laws to help those harmed by them in a flamboyant and flashy manner that probably is going to get you into trouble. That isn’t the story this new movie is telling-it’s telling a slick superhero tale.
Just give us a straightforward adaptation already.
A “reimagining” of Robin Hood (or Egyptian mythology, or Greek mythology, or King Arthur, or Peter Pan or whatever) is ultimately counterproductive because most audiences aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to see such a thing. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the 1991 film starring Kevin Costner’s laughable accent, did very well in theaters and remains fairly well-regarded today and it’s a straightforward retelling: Robin Hood returns from the crusades to find Nottinghamshire oppressed and his own lands seized, he builds his merry men, then deposes the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. Save for a few framing details, that’s basically the plot of the iconic 1938 film, just as it is more or less the plot of the adored 1973 Disney adaptation.
Making Robin Hood into Batman or James Bond is stupid because Robin Hood should be Robin Hood. If Hollywood took a deep breath and laid aside its formulae for a minute, it could have a lavish, earnest adaptation of the story from a visionary director and committed actors. Most people liked the 1998 and 2012 Les Miserables movies, and they didn’t turn Jean Valjean into Batman. As it is, studios feel that everything must be served to us with a wink and a nudge, shoved into the ill-fitting story beats of other, better films whose plots we already know, probably because those plots supported five-movie franchises.
Robin Hood 2018 is coming, and it is going to be at best boring and at worst terrible. It will be flashy and styled, overproduced and under-thought, and the box office won’t go for it. Maybe they’ll learn their lesson before the inevitable Robin Hood: Legend of the Five Merry Men (2024, probably).
Kenneth Lowe wanders around the forest looking for fights. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.