Friday, October 25, 2013
Public domain works flourishing on TV: Dracula, Sleepy Hollow and more
I’ve written many times about how copyright extensions are harming the public domain. (See “Why you should care about the public domain.”)
Hollywood capitalizes on public domain works while it tries to starve the public domain of fresh works.
Governments give authors and other artists a limited period of exclusivity for their works through copyrights. Once that protection period is over, those works enter the public domain where others are free to use them, adapt them and build upon them. But those periods keep getting extended by legislators beholden to large media companies.
Thanks to the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, derisively known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” works since 1923 have been kept locked up under copyrights.
What follows is a list of TV shows in production based on public domain stories and characters.
Three new network TV shows are based on off-copyright works: Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” a modern-day retelling of the 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving; ABC’s “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” based on the 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll; and NBC’s “Dracula,” based on the 1897 horror novel by Bram Stoker.
They join four returning network shows: the CW’s “Beauty and the Beast,” inspired by the traditional fairy tale first published in 1740; NBC’s “Grimm,” inspired by “Grimms’ Fairy Tales”; ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” based on assorted fairy tale characters; and CBS’s “Elementary,” based on the Sherlock Holmes detective stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The BBC also has a Sherlock Holmes show called “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. It is set to air its third season in the U.S. in January.
Other shows are based on historical events or figures, which, by their nature, are in the public domain. They include “Da Vinci’s Demons,” a fictionalized account of the early years of inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci, on Starz; and the “Hatfields & McCoys” mini-series on the History channel.
More TV shows are coming soon based on public domain stories.
NBC has “Crossbones,” based on the legend of the pirate Blackbeard, starring John Malkovich; a modern-day take on the Hatfields and McCoys, from executive producer Charlize Theron; and a drama about Egyptian queen Cleopatra, written by Michael Seitzman (“North Country”).
NBC’s mining of the public domain for familiar stories even prompted a recent CollegeHumor article titled, “NBC’s Exciting New All-Public-Domain 2014 Lineup!”
But NBC isn’t alone in this practice.
In December, the History channel plans to run a two-part movie “Bonnie & Clyde,” based on the crime spree of the legendary outlaws. It stars Emile Hirsch, Holliday Grainger, and William Hurt.
Starz is developing a series called “Vlad Dracula,” which it describes as a “unique spin of the classic tale, blending the historical facts of the 15th century Prince of Wallachia, with the fictional Dracula whose story is known around the world and continues to fascinate audiences.”
Next year, Showtime will run a new series called “Penny Dreadful,” starring Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton and Eva Green. “In Penny Dreadful, some of literature’s most famously terrifying characters – including Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, Dorian Gray and iconic figures from the novel Dracula – become embroiled in Victorian London,” the network said.
The monster mash-up has been compared to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” a popular comic book series written by Alan Moore. It also features characters from classic fiction and was adapted into a feature film starring Sean Connery in 2003. Now Fox is looking to turn it into a television series.
And three makes a trend. ABC is developing a sexy, Gothic soap set in the present day that weaves together a mythology that incorporates the legends of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, among others.
ABC also is developing a limited-run event series called “Esmeralda,” centered on the beautiful Gypsy street dancer in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo. “Esmeralda” is being written by Evan Daugherty, who wrote the script for “Snow White and the Huntsman,” another public domain-inspired work.
ABC is developing a TV series called “Finn & Sawyer,” a contemporary take on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884). It is described as “an adventure-themed reinvention that revolves around the two famed literary characters who re-meet as young men in their 20s and form an investigative firm in a bustling and steampunk New Orleans.”
CBS is developing a series called “Dorothy,” which is described as “a medical soap based in New York City, inspired by the characters and themes immortalized in The Wizard of Oz.” The show is from writer Emily Fox (“Ghost Whisperer”) and executive producers Carl Beverly and Sarah Timberman (FX’s “Justified” and CBS’s “Elementary”).
Up next: Public domain works used for movies.
Photo: Promotion for NBC’s “Dracula.”