Cracking the Polymorphic Code

The Da Vinci Code opening weekend raked in $77million, “the second biggest opening weekend ever among adult-geared pictures behind The Passion of the Christ” (source: Box Office Mojo). The $125 million film is of course an adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel that sold between 40-60 million copies worldwide, depending on what article you read. The film is an adaptation. Now, as a recap, I’ll republish 😉 my term-friendly guide (I’ve got a big-and-multi-word-version for academia) to cross-media content:

Repurposing: republishing the same content on each platform

Altering: commissioning, editing and redesigning content, in the same style as the “original content” according to the affordances and limitations of each platform

Adaptation: providing version of your property/storyworld in different formats on different platforms

Augmentation: providing additional, complementary and contradictory information in different platforms

Stretching: distributing a plot/message across platforms

Now, I won’t get into a lengthy explanation of this here. I just wanted to point out that there are other options beyond adaptation. The Da Vinci Code elements of puzzle solving, conspiracy, murder, suspense and so on provide alot of key elements that different producers and the same producer can have fun with over multiple platforms and formats. It has action and the motivation for action at its core, and this urge can be transported to the reader. The producers (lets call them franchise managers) have indeed indulged: the Google Quest I’ve mentioned before; the various workbooks, websites and so on and so on. Just check out the wikipedia entry. Wikipedia is, incidently, fullfilling the important function that I have spoken about many times: providing a pivot point, a one-stop guide to everything in your cross-media universe. The franchise has repurposing, altering and adaptation but little augmentation and stretching. Is this a problem? Yes.

Most critics have canned the film. Among the many reasons to not like the film is the fact that it is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Since 40-60 million people have read the novel, that is 40-60 million people (and more, counting the people who find out details through the plethora of information out there) that already know what is going to happen. Since the film doesn’t provide, as far as I know, much individual directorial flair (discourse), then we’re left with a story we know and a film that puts the story above the aesthetics. This is an important distinction. A film can be a faithful adaptation of the story but provide new information through its presentation. Dan Brown’s book is written in the style of a film, it isn’t linguistically unique. J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is linguistically unique and so Peter Jackson’s faithful (to a point, he had to exclude alot) adaptation still works because it is different enough on the presentation side. So, back to Da Vinci. A large part of the audience (those that know the story) is left, well, with an unsatisfying entertainment experience. But Brandon Gray, of Box Office Mojo, reports:

Sony’s exit polling indicated that 53 percent of the audience was under 30 years old and 52 percent was female. Nearly half of moviegoers had not read the book.

Nearly half had not read the book. Well there it is folks. The writer (Akiva Goldsman) needed to employ what I call polymorphic narrative techniques to recognise the needs of the multiple audiences. There needed to be enough of the same information to keep the newcomers to the story included and uptodate and enough of new information to satisfy those educated with it: adapt and augment. I am continually surprised by producers that don’t reward their current audiences. But, oftentimes it isn’t about providing a good entertainment experience. It is just about getting that opening weekend number.

“The book became more than a book and the movie became more than a movie,” said Valerie Van Galder, Columbia’s president of domestic marketing. “It became a perfect storm.” (quoted in The Australian)

A perfect marketing storm, the surround-sound effect (of bombarding your message to your audience on every platform) does get the money in. Hmmm. The upcoming game, however, seems to be offering some original content. It is based on the book, but apparently offers locations not listed in the book or the film. Thank God for the gamers. I’ll be speaking more about gamers and polymorphic narrative soon. But that is another post. For now, I just wanted to highlight with this perfect example, how it is so easy for producers to employ the lower end of cross-media techniques and not the others. I guess the others require skill to recognise and employ, something that we’re all learning to do.


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