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In Name Only? Or, what's in an adaptation?

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

In Name Only, or, What’s in an adaptation?

I’ve just finished the newly-released The Invitation, and I am a bit disappointed.

The previews of the film promised a great deal, and I was looking forward it: a reexamination of vampire mythology, the politics of ancestry, particularly for Black Americans, and gender dynamics (not to mention a very pretty cast). But the experience of the film itself is a bit flat, burdened by awkward acting (perhaps for poor writing), and a heavy reliance on a source the film both wishes to dismantle, and fundamentally ignores. At its core, The Invitation is Ready or Not meets Dracula, but lives up to neither, instead indulging in the recent media trend of adopting the ethos of established story without truly working within the intellectual property from whence it draws its credibility.

Three other properties immediately come to mind: Joker, Ratched, and Wednesday (the last of which I have not seen, and know only the premise). The first is a dark and engaging examination of mental illness, class inequalities, and the failure of social structures whose relationship to the titular character are tenuous at best; call the film anything else and it’d still be a great movie, and would be largely unrecognizable as a DC-influenced comic property. Similarly, Ratched can be an indulgent treat of brooding and suspenseful drama, which relies on audience ignorance to make a connection between the famous psychiatric nurse of Kesey and the show’s principal character. And Wednesday, the latest Addams-connected property, fundamentally deconstructs central values of the IP in order to establish its premise (namely, that there is emotional discord in the Addams clan which inspires the family to send their daughter away, rather than the affectively supportive and nurturing family of oddballs of other representations).

For The Invitation in particular, the source is, well, Dracula. But it ignores significant plot points of the original (the titular character’s own complicated identity as a foreigner coming to England, for example, and his identity as a social and racial Other), adopting names and the concept of three “brides” and … telling an entirely different story. Stoker’s brides serve a far different purpose than the confusing power bond in the 2022 film (why must Dracula have three brides to be immortal? And why one English bride? It’s not explained). No explanation is given for Mia and Jonathan Harker’s presence as retired servants of the DeVille household, or any number of other deviations. Were it an original story such explanations would be unnecessary, and The Invitation could establish its own mythology; in purposefully drawing from a well-known narrative the film is arguing for inspiration that is nearly entirely absent, and fails to fulfill its promise.

Which is not to say that adaptations are uniformly unsuccessful or unoriginal: I, for one, am looking forward to Blood and Honey, and am a great fan of Maleficent, both of which adapt juvenile properties to explore methods of storytelling, the complicated nature of nostalgia, and character development. The newest Scream is a love letter to the franchise, and I will unabashedly drown in every Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice that are made. But when a new property ignores its purported source the result is nothing more than false advertising, and speaks to creative insecurity.

Why not just write a new vampire story?

Why not just create a show about a young psychic solving murders at her boarding school?

Why not just film a drama about the consequences of social inequities?

Why call a film something it’s not?

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