Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Letter for the King: just adapt the book, not your fanfiction

I recently watched The Letter for the King on Netflix, and thought I'd offer a small thought on the series.

I should preface all of this by stating that I have never read the book.  I had actually never heard of the book.  I looked up the book later on Wikipedia, after watching the first episode.  I might actually read the book.

That out of the way, let me list some positives of the series.  The child actors are great.  I can't say the same about whoever it was playing the puppy-kicking prince, but the others made great performances.  The visual effects were great.  The costumes and props and sets were great.  A lot of people clearly put a lot of effort and thought and care into the series.  It shows through.

But some other people didn't put any effort in.  Namely, the writers.  The writers did not care.  That also shows through.

From episode one, the series is on fantasy autopilot.  It opens with whispered prophecies of dark lords and the chosen one, then cuts to some angsty dark prince doing his best teenage Anakin impersonation.  I half-expected him to rant about sand.  And it stays there resolutely until the final scene of the final episode.  The series is nothing but cliche after cliche.  It plays like A Tough Guide to Fantasy Land put on the silver screen.  You can call what will happen twenty minutes before it does.  Within the first five minutes, I already knew what this was going to be, and was ready to just turn it off.

The writing is crappy.  But it's based on a book.  Maybe the book uses a less heavy hand, and elaborates better on some of these confusing points?  Maybe the book could help me appreciate the screenwriting better?

Apparently, several characters and places from the series have similar names as in the book, and the main character needs to deliver a letter to a king in the book.  And there end the similarities between the series and the book.

This brings me to what I really wanted to say.

The Letter for the King was originally written in Dutch, titled De brief voor de koning, by Tonke Dragt back in 1962.  It has sold over a million copies, and is on its fiftieth print edition.  It has been translated into several languages, including Danish, English, German, Greek, Estonian, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Czech, and Spanish.  It was chosen as one of the the best Dutch books for children in the 20th century.  (Or so the 'Pedia says)

The personal fanfiction of the series writers... isn't any of that.

Back in 2018, Netflix went and acquired the screen rights to adapt De brief voor de koning into an original series.  That's why they are able to call it The Letter for the King, and include so many characters with similar names.

They had to pay money for these rights.  I need to stress that.  I need to stress that because Netflix could have merely made their own original fantasy movie about a child on a magical quest and given it a different name, and not have had to pay money for the rights to De brief voor de koning.

But the executives at Netflix determined that being able to adapt this particular story was worth shelling out the money for.

Presumably, they decided this because De brief voor de koning has sold millions of copies and been in continual print for sixty years, translated into dozens of languages, and is remembered by millions of readers.

Unlike -- and again, I have to stress -- unlike the personal fanfiction of whoever wrote the plot of this series.

Which makes me have to question why?

Why would you pay good, solid money to adapt an internationally beloved children's story, and then not adapt the internationally beloved children's story?

Why adapt crappy fanfiction into a movie, when you have a solid, award-winning story right there on hand?

I can kind of understand why calling the movie The Letter For the King when it wasn't might have been a "good" business idea in the past.  Basing a movie on a pre-existing story allows you to capitalize on the fame and fanbase of the original product to sell tickets.  By the time you piss off the fanbase, it's too late; they already bought their ticket.  The worst they can do now is grumble.

It's similar to how certain food companies would put sawdust in sugar bags if they could get away with it.  Imagine if food distributors could pay sugar companies for the right to put the word "sugar" on their sawdust bags.

Well, food companies can't, but movie companies can.

But today, when every idiot has their own blog, when there are automatic review aggregators and sites for fans to leave comments and everyone and their grandma can sound off on their facebook, I don't get why you'd do this.

The series is currently rated at around 5/10, and very many of those low reviews are from angry fans of the book.

You should never underestimate angry fans, and especially not today when they know your twitter handle.  They will review-bomb your film, brigade your facebook page, and send you death threats on twitter.

I have to imagine that many of those angry fans might have watched a children's fantasy flick regardless of its title, and they would have measured it against itself, or against other children's fantasy movies, and it would have fared okay.  But Netflix didn't tell them this was any old fantasy movie; Netflix said this was a fantasy movie based on De brief voor de koning.

Netflix did not have to piss these people off.  They didn't have to call their movie that.

Netflix paid for the rights to adapt the book.  Netflix did not adapt the book.  Netflix instead made a movie based on Will Davies' fanfiction.  This angered fans, and gave the movie a lower rating.

In no uncertain terms then, Netflix paid money to have angry fans write them negative reviews on IMBD.

But Netflix paid for the rights to adapt the book, and therefore they could have just adapted the book.

Okay, if you don't have sugar and only have sawdust, you might write "sugar" on the bag anyway and try to sell it.

But Netflix did not only have sawdust.  Netflix had the actual sugar.  Netflix had the book that they paid the money for.  The book that won all those awards and sold all those copies and has all those millions of fans.  The book whose popularity Netflix wants to use to get eyeballs.  Netflix could have adapted that book into a movie.

Because that book has a coherent and engaging plot that people have loved for decades.

Unlike -- and I stress again -- unlike the fanfiction that Netflix made.

Netflix had sugar to put in the bag.  But Netflix put the sawdust in the bag anyway.

And I really don't understand why they would.

Why not just adapt for us the book you paid to adapt?

I first noticed this with the Hobbit, which is arguably a drastically more egregious case of paying huge sums of money for the rights to an internationally beloved movie with a huge and autistic fanbase and then adapting the writers' fanfic instead.

Just put the sugar in the bag.  Just adapt the movie you paid for.  Everyone will thank you for it.  Even the shareholders.  Especially the shareholders.

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