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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Adapt or die?

So what do we Dark Shadows fans do now?

Wait for the sequels, of course.

The fact is that being a die-hard fan of a pop culture phenomenon (like Dark Shadows or Star Trek or Babylon 5, to pick three examples not so randomly) puts you in a strange place. It’s not unlike a nerd who somehow manages to have a one-night stand with a supermodel. You find yourself either perpetually living in the past or else living on unrealistic hopes for the future.

A TV series like the ones mentioned above are broadcast, then they are over. When people don’t want to see a cherished series end, they agitate to bring it back, in one form or another. In the case of Star Trek and B5, the original series did not come back, but in both case new series set in the same universes did eventually get broadcast (more often and more successfully in the case of Star Trek). And the original Star Trek did come back as a series of feature films. Dark Shadows is a strange case in that two attempts were made to bring it back to television, both times using the original characters but played by new actors. And in both cases, they set out to tell more or less the same story told in the original series. Unlike Trek and B5, the new series didn’t get the chance advance the original story or tell or a new one. The first DS remake (in 1991) lasted a few weeks. The second one (in 2004) didn’t get past the pilot.

Tim Burton’s new feature film yet again retells (more or less) the original story using new actors. This makes it sort of a remake to Dan Curtis’s 1970 movie House of Dark Shadows, which also was based on the original Barnabas story but which used the original actors. Curtis’s big screen version did it up as a fairly standard horror movie. Burton’s four-decades-later update did it up as, well, as a Tim Burton movie. Once again, the story is not advanced. Rather it is served up for a new generation and as an exercise in nostalgia for the original fans.

I suppose the TV show that has most rewarded its fans, who have wanted to see it continue ad infinitum has to be the BBC’s Doctor Who. Debuting on British tellies in 1963 (a full three years before both the original Star Trek and Dark Shadows), it is still spilling out new stories a half-decade later. It has also spawned one feature film that was in continuity with the series as well as a couple that weren’t, and there is chatter about possibly another one. Who is clearly the gold standard for fanboy validation.

Seeing a beloved TV show make it to the big screen is different than it is for a favorite book or comic book. Conveniently, I (and many like me) now have at least three notable examples to compare. The book I most ever wanted to see made into a proper (non-animated) movie was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. (Some will tell me that this is actually a series of books, but Tolkien actually conceived and wrote it as one large book. It became a trilogy because of the limitations of the state of printing at the time.) Fans of books just want the movie to create the experience of reading the book as closely as possible. Peter Jackson’s films did just that for me and, I think, for many, many others. Obviously, compromises had to be made for the medium, but he did a pretty darn good job. I think Harry Potter fans would say the same of their favorite series.

Comic books are different than standard books. They are like TV shows in that they provide images and their narratives are open-ended, i.e. the stories go on until canceled. One of my favorite comic books as a kid, as it happens, was Marvel’s The Avengers. And yet I didn’t spend much of my adult life yearning for a proper movie version of The Avengers the same I did for The Lord of the Rings or for Dark Shadows. But when it happened, I enjoyed it quite a bit, as well as all the other movies leading up to. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, fidelity to the source material was not so much of an issue. After all, the source material had been reinventing itself for decades. It didn’t bother me that the story now is that Nick Fury started the Avengers. It’s not a tale set in stone like that of Middle-earth. I suppose I did want the movie to be faithful to the spirit of the comic books that I personally had read. And Joss Whedon’s movie was. The basic personalities of the characters and the way they all had to fight each other each time two of them met was all consistent with the Marvel style of comic book heroes.

Unlike the comic books of my youth, Dark Shadows did not keep reinventing itself over the years. It told one complex story for five years and then stopped. (The one TV remake that made it on air ended so quickly that it didn’t really count.) So did that make DS more like a book than a comic book? Yes, in the sense that it had spooled out a huge number of individual stories over its run, but no, in the sense that it didn’t go through reboots every few years when a new creative team took over. But the sheer number of episodes in the original series (1,225) precluded any serious thought of a faithful adaptation à la The Lord of the Rings. Even a pared-down version of just the basic original Barnabas story would be too dense for faithful adaptation, although Dan Curtis made a pretty good job of it in HoDS, with the down side that he killed off practically the whole cast. Any new film adaptation (especially a Burton one) was always going to be a pastiche, i.e. the same basic story but “re-imagined.” It’s less like having Dark Shadows back than like going to a really good Dark Shadows party.

Could Dark Shadows still come back to television? Well, Big Finish Productions in the UK has done a pretty good job of bringing out new stories, using several of the original actors in audio dramas, although they’re not really a replacement for the TV series. (They also produce audio dramas of Doctor Who and other TV shows.) At this late date, a new TV version would have to be a “next generation” show, given the age or absence of the original actors. But if such a project were undertaken, I think I know who I would like to take it on.

That would be J.J. Abrams. He has shown he can successfully do the reboot thing, displaying proper respect for the original, with his Star Trek movie. And, in my opinion, if there is any TV show airing these days that does what Dark Shadows did for its time, it is Fringe, which Abrams created with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. I tried watching Abrams’s Lost and just couldn’t get into it and gave up. But Fringe had me hooked form the very first moments. Like Dark Shadows, it gives you characters you can care about and then puts them into the most preposterous and threatening situations. And along with the horror elements, there is a love story. Behind it all, there is clearly a manic sense of humor, but the story is played with resolute seriousness—whether it involves parallel universes or time travel or scary monsters. In a very true way, Fringe is the new Dark Shadows.

That is the ultimate lesson. It is fine to look back at old, cherished favorites. But there is always something new coming along that just might be able to take its place if you can keep an open mind.

-S.L., 14 May 2012


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