Reading the first volume of DC’s short-lived Flintstones by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh got me thinking about how you keep an adaptation faithful (or don’t) when it comes out 46 years after the original debuted.
(This is another of my old columns from my own blog)
For anyone who doesn’t know, The Flintstones was a hit prime-cartoon that ran from 1960 to 1966. An acknowledged riff on Jackie Gleason’s hit The Honeymooners, it had Fred Flintstone (Alan Reed) instead of Gleason’s blowhard loudmouth character Ralph and Barney (Mel Blanc) as counterpart to Ralph’s loyal sidekick Norton (Art Carney). What made it different from the source material was that Fred and Barney were caveman living in a “modern Stone Age” that combined a social structure modeled on the 1950s with stonepunk technology such as animal appliances and cars you can power by pushing your feet on the ground.
The Flintstones stayed alive via reruns, spinoffs (Flintstone Kids) and expanded universe stuff including comic books and direct-to-DVD films such as The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones. As far as I remember, all the later stuff stuck consistently to the original cartoon look, as in Harvey Eisenberg’s Dell cover, and kept both the tech and 1950s-ish social setting. As Pugh’s cover above shows, the look on DC’s 2016 series was more realistic, but Bedrock is also much more contemporary. Wilma’s now an artist and Fred’s less of a loud-mouthed jerk. Where the original satirized topics of the day such as Beatniks, Russell satirizes contemporary issues such as homophobia: in Bedrock, supporters of traditional relationships protest this newfangled idea called marriage (getting it on the sex cave was good enough for your parents, wasn’t it?). I enjoyed the book, though as it folded after 12 issues, I’m guessing not enough people did.
The point I’m getting at — yes, I do have one — is that Russell and Pugh faced a perennial issue when working with older characters: can you update them and be true to the characters or should you keep them a period piece?
This is something you run into a lot in community theater. If you’re staging a play from a couple of decades earlier, typically you treat it as a contemporary show, updating any specific references (politics, TV shows, etc.). After a certain point, that no longer works. No Sex Please, We’re British is a fast-paced 1970s farce about a bank employee and his wife who get tangled up with a porn company. In the 1980s, my theater group did it as a contemporary piece; when I saw another group do it a decade ago, they did it as a 1970s period piece. It simply wouldn’t work as a contemporary show because the porn industry has changed so much.
Conversely I saw a production of Last of the Red-Hot Lovers about 15 years ago which suffered for not going period-piece. The 1969 comedy of a middle-aged man trying to get in on the sexual revolution is very much tied to its time; doing the show in 2005 as if it were happening in 2005 didn’t fly (a fortysomething New Yorker isn’t going to be shocked at someone smoking pot around him).
Similar things affect many other characters. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes as a contemporary character and the Sherlock Holmes films handled him that way, constantly updating the setting as the years went by. Then came Basil Rathbone’s Hound of the Baskervilles, set in Victorian times —— and suddenly Holmes was a “Victorian” character (though that didn’t at all kill off contemporary Holmes stories).
I could understand if DC had stuck with the “classic” Flntstones elements. Even though I enjoy them, they’re outdated and sexist — but having viewed them umpty-zillion times, I doubt I’d be as bothered by 1950s sexism as if it were a brand new mythos. That said, I think Russell and Pugh made the right call because I enjoyed the contemporary takes. Fred and Barney are veterans from a pointless war against the tree people; capitalist consumption, like marriage, is a new idea and not making anyone happy; the cover of #1 shows Pebbles reading Cannibalism, the Unknown Ideal and I’m always up for mocking Ayn Rand.
But like I said, I must have been a minority. Possibly the series fell between the stools, not traditional enough for hardcore fans but not drawing in any new ones. Or maybe there just aren’t enough fans of the mythos, particularly among people younger than me; certainly it hasn’t had the success in later decades that Scooby-Doo has.
So no firm conclusions, just some thoughts.
I’m going to blame the flop on the nature of the so-called “mainstream” comic industry; for 40 years, the Big Two have systematically driven out all readers except hardcore superhero completists who fetishize continuity, and the stores have mostly followed that pattern, stocking and promoting only those things that have historically sold, such as umpty-nine Batman titles and a plethora (in the actual definition of the word, “not just a lot, but way too much”) of X-Men variations. Books that don’t involve mesomorphs in their jammies punching each other tend to die quickly and painfully at the comic shop.
Side-note: Though The Flintstones was acknowledged as a knock-off of The Honeymooners, in actual practice, Hanna-Barbera’s tweaking of the material had the effect of turning it into a much closer knock-off of another show, “The Life of Riley” starring William Bendix. Riley ran on radio in the late 1940s before the TV version appeared. It ran several years longer than Honeymooners, and Flintstones was in many ways more similar. Life of Riley was set in the suburbs, as opposed to Ralph Kramden’s tenement apartment, and the Riley family had children, where the Kramdens did not, and their life was more typically middle-class than Ralph and Alice’s.
Interestingly, Jackie Gleason starred as Riley in the first two years of the TV version, as William Bendix’s contract for the radio show prohibited him from doing the TV show. He took over the TV version in 1953 and was Riley until the show ended in 1958. Both Alan Reed and Mel Blanc were regulars on the radio version.
I think I caught a radio episode on one of those compilation CDs they have out but that’s about all I know of “Life of Riley.” So thanks for the added info.
I Thought The Flintstones was always intended to be a 12 issue maxi series and not an ongoing, pretty much like Snagglepuss. Either way both series were pretty enjoyable.
Yeah, I had the impression that all of the Hanna-Barbera books that DC did at that time (Wacky Racers & Future Quest) were all intended as limited series. All of them were pretty good, as they weren’t beholding to the DC Universe and, they weren’t being rigidly held to classic H-B standards, since Warner didn’t give a @#$% about those properties, for younger audiences.
By the way, you talk spin-offs and don’t mention The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show? My Generation X heart is crushed! When I was a wee one, there was the original show and there was Pebbles & Bamm-Bamm. Fred & Barney hadn’t met Things or Shmoos, hadn’t reverted to childhood, nor had they done badly rendered new cartoons. Not that P&BB was a great show; but, it wasn’t bad, for the era, where the network censors went to town on cartoons. Besides, they were voiced by Dennis the menace (Jay North) and Gloria Bunker Stivic (Sally Struthers)!
No disrespect intended to Pebbles and Bam-Bam, which I remember too.
You may be right about the limited series. As a fan of Scooby-Doo Team-Up, which ran 50 issues (followed by a short run of Batman/Scooby-Doo), I may have let that warp my memory. But of course as Scooby & Co. are a way bigger franchise than the others, they may have gotten different treatment.
I’m honestly still haunted by the vacuum cleaner.
Yes, that was absolutely heartbreaking.