China’s quest for its own Harry Potter or Game of Thrones – a profitable global franchise

  • Chinese filmmakers hope to emulate the West’s hugely successful film and television franchises, known in China as super IPs
  • Some fear that poor-quality adaptations tarnish the reputation of the original material from which they are drawn
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 6:01am

While the entertainment industry prizes originality, adaptations have long sustained film and TV productions. Thinking that adapted video fare will always appeal to the core fan base of the original books and games from which they are drawn, producers regard adaptations as a less risky investment.

The trend of adapting popular novels and video games for cinema and television has grown so big that the China Film Association sounded a warning over the practice last year.

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In its 2017 Report on Chinese Film Art, the association said adapted films concentrate on themes like fantasy, mythology, monsters and historical deconstruction. “[They] lack the intricate and astute portrayal of humanity, artistic depth and originality. Some are even coarse and slapdash productions,” the report said.

What prompted the association to make the warning was the plethora of poor Chinese television and film adaptations, which tarnish the artistic reputation of the source materials’ creators.

Adapted from martial arts novel Riot in Chang’an City, written by bestselling author Han Han, Easy Life (2016) bombed at the box office, taking in only 1.84 million yuan (US$266,500). Another 2016 flop, Kill Time, adapted from Murdering Things Past, a mystery and suspense novel about amnesia written by Cai Jun, raked in only 13 million yuan, in spite of a stellar cast including Angelababy and Ethan Juan.

The two-hour film prompted fans of Cai to post angry posts online, saying it had ruined the spirit of the original through poor acting and the wanton deletion and amendment of main plot points in the original.

While poor adaptations fall by the wayside, the successful ones have turned into franchises, or what the Chinese call “super IP”, that spawn numerous offshoots. While such entertainment franchises for now appeal only to domestic audiences, entertainment titans and pundits hope they will earn worldwide adoration like foreign franchises such as the Harry Potter and Marvel superhero films, and The Transformers film series.

One promising candidate is Daomu Biji, or Grave Robbers’ Chronicles. First written by Kennedy Xu Lei, 36, as a series of online novels, Daomu Biji was published as nine separate books from 2007 to 2011. Having sold over 20 million copies and been translated into English, Daomu Biji has grown into a hugely profitable franchise, putting Xu in second spot on the richest Chinese authors list in 2011.

Daomu Biji is about the adventures of a young man from a family that had been tomb raiders for centuries. It was adapted into a TV series in 2015 and a film, Time Raiders, in 2016, with the latter raking in over one billion yuan in Chinese box office.

Like legendary American author George R.R. Martin, who kept expanding on Game of Thrones to satisfy his army of voracious fans, Xu kept releasing new chapters of Daomu Biji online, placating his fans who hope the series will never end.

Finding Nemo’s box office takings were only US$200 to US$300 million, but the value of its product offshoots reaches over US$6 billion. This is the real value of an IP
Kennedy Xu Lei, author

Dubbed the creator of a super IP, Xu said in a film and arts forum in Hangzhou, eastern China, in 2014 that IP incubators have to know the core of Chinese TV and movies. “When I am consuming American TV series, I am consuming American values … If Chinese TV series were made like American ones, it is meaningless. We should be called America not China if that’s the case.”

Harry Potter is an IP that started from a novel. Although it has accumulated a big fan base, there must be huge capital support for the first movie to produce the very good effects … after the movie becomes an amplifier, Harry Potter-inspired products will reach every part of our lives. Finding Nemo’s box office takings were only US$200 to US$300 million, but the value of its product offshoots reaches over US$6 billion. This is the real value of an IP,” Xu said.

Film adapations continue to attract Chinese cinemagoers, who yearn to see their favourite characters reprised on the big screen. According to the 2017 Tencent Entertainment White Paper, the average box office receipts for the 65 movie adaptations in 2017 was 174 million yuan, a nearly 80 per cent increase on the 98 million yuan average for the 88 film adaptations in 2016.

While Daomu Biji is a home-grown Chinese adaptation series, and growing into an entertainment franchise with video games and toys, adaptating original material from overseas is a tried and tested formula for commercial success.

One recent example is Animal World, released in June. The film was adapted from Japanese author Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga and anime series Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, which had two live-action Japanese adaptations, in 2009 and 2011. While the Post’s film editor Edmund Lee was not impressed by it, calling it “a marginal improvement on the histrionics of its Japanese predecessor”, the Chinese film took more than 500 million yuan at the box office, and a sequel is on the way.

Chinese TV and film producers have to tread carefully when adapting foreign material. A poor adaptation will incur condemnation for the mindless appropriation of foreign culture. One blatant example is the hugely popular Midnight Diner adaptations, which have their origins in a Japanese TV series based on the manga of the same name written by YarōAbe in 2006.

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Portraying the fortuitous but profound connections between the chef of a tavern and his late-night customers, Midnight Diner is famed for the pathos of its portrayal of city dwellers’ loneliness, estrangement and disillusionment. When Netflix released the fourth season of the Japanese TV show (Midnight Diner: Tokyo Series) in 2016, it received glowing reviews.

However, a Chinese remake starring Huang Lei, released last year, was so bad that even People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party, criticised it for appropriating the Midnight Diner stories without making any changes to cater to Chinese tastes. Online reviewers panned the remake for wholesale copying of the Japanese original and its rampant product placement, which they said turned off viewers.

Undeterred by the disastrous TV version, theatre production company ACOrange made a musical version, which has just finished its Shanghai run and debuted in Beijing on 22 November. The musical received glowing reviews for the cast’s superb performance, its original Chinese song and dance, and elaborate set-ups, even though its plot and Japanese setting stick closely to the original.

Theatre veteran Huang Guansong, who played the tavern’s chef, told the Post that, of the more than 20 stage productions in which he has acted in China, those adapted from foreign source material appeal to Chinese audiences more than original Chinese productions.

“[Foreign adaptations] are more mature. Like Les Misérables, it has been amended through the years to become the classic today,” says Huang. He says China doesn’t have home-grown source material for stage productions of similar stature.

“Making a [bankable] adaptation is a long process. We have to [first] learn how foreigners do it, learn their techniques and the production flow before we can create good [ones ourselves],” he says.

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