The Nutcracker and the Public Domain

The Nutcracker and the Public Domain

If a working screenwriter hasn’t scoured the lists of public domain books, characters, and even comic books, then they’re either lying or are successful enough that they don’t have to. The concept of a big budget film based off an intellectual property from the public domain is nothing new to Hollywood. In fact, it’s how Disney fueled their production slate of animation films, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937. 

As timeless as some of these stories are, the titles themselves seem to mean more to executives than to audiences. While the idea of an underdog stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is a story with great interest to current audiences, how many times will someone pay to see another period version of Robin Hood? If you’ve witnessed your friends or family members shrug at the new trailer for the Robin Hood film coming out this fall, then you already know the answer.

This week, Disney will release The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, which is a take on the E.T.A. Hoffmann short story and uses much of the goodwill that comes from  the ballet, written by Marius Petipa, which is performed regularly around the world during the holidays. This film is a tricky spot for Disney; they have had their share of successes and failures chasing live-action blockbuster hits that are based on public domain titles. For every Jungle Book, there has been a John Carter. Of course the former had the advantage of also being an animated hit for Disney. For films like John Carter, Disney knew it had recognition from the title, but were those stories beloved enough to support a billion dollar franchise?

As the industry moves forward, public domain properties become less and less desirable for studios if they haven’t already been made in some successful medium. When Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland was released and made a billion dollars, audiences most likely found interest in the film due their fondness for the animated film when they were young. The sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, was released without a well-known version that it was based on and it was much less successful. Some would argue the first film was better, but I would counter that nostalgia and familiarity helped the first Johnny Depp film immensely.

 Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Mckenzie Foy, Helen Mirren, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Joe Johnston, Lasse Hallstrom,

Even though it’s based on an intellectual property, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms feels like the closest Disney will come to making an original live-action film these days. The original “story” is basically an absurdist Victorian tale of a girl dreaming up fantastical nonsense during her parent’s Christmas Party. Instead, screenwriter Ashleigh Powell created a world in which a bigger and more cohesive film could function, one in which the young girl, Clara, journeys through the titular Four Realms while chasing a key and dealing with her relationship with her mother. There are twists and turns that were conceived solely for this adaptation. The idea of the Four Realms is a new creation, as well as many of the characters, including Keira Knightly’s Sugar Plum (which is riff on the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the ballet.) A good portion of what happens in the story is original storytelling by Powell, anchored by bits of familiar iconography from the source material.

The buzz on the Lasse Hallstrom directed picture hasn’t been good. Joe Johnston was brought in after production wrapped to reshoot significant sections of the film; so much so that the film received a rare duel director credit. However, that doesn’t mean families, desperate to find entertainment that isn’t based off a comic book, won’t support the film. And the dazzling visuals depicted in the trailer will probably be the biggest draw, more than the title recognition and even the star power – it’s big, loud, and beautiful. 

As studios continue to make films with famous characters like Dracula, Dorothy, Zorro, and Hamlet, expect there to be drastic changes so that it can appeal to the current culture. Audiences have proven that they are beginning to find these stories stale in the form that they are accustomed to. The formula needs to be blown up. Having a character that we don’t know a lot about travel through four fantastical realms is a nice start, but it may not be enough. 

Audiences claim that they want originality in their films, but the financiers who need to put hundreds of millions of dollars to make that dream happen don’t quite believe that – hot intellectual property is the king of Hollywood and will be for a while. The best answer to this originality problem are adaptations from novels like Harry Potter and Gone Girl, where inspired storytelling can develop a fan base.

So, these public domain stories like The Nutcracker will most likely continue to be completely unrelated to their source material. The relatable aspects will be stripped and the commercial elements will be glossed up and injected with thrills, star power, and storylines that have been tested with focus groups. Of course, this all changes when one of these reconstructed public domain stories is a hit – then that version can be remade into an animation film and, well, rinse and repeat.

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