Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (Eric Zala, 1989)
In 1982, three twelve-year-old fans of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark (released the previous year) decided to direct their own home made remake. Eric Zala directed and played the chief villain, Belloq; Chris Strompolos played Indiana Jones; and Jayson Lamb took care of the cinematography and special effects. The “Raiders Guys” filmed on and off for seven years, completing their “adaptation” in 1989, after the release of the second official Raiders sequel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. After a well-received screening for the local community (many of whom had been enlisted in the project), they put the film away and forgot about it until 2003, when friends-of-friends passed the movie to Harry Knowles of the website Ain’t It Cool. Knowles played the film at his “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” film festival in Texas, and wrote a rave review, describing it as “the best damn fan film I’ve ever seen.” In 2004, a detailed article about the production followed in Vanity Fair. Despite very limited screenings – the film is a flagrant copyright violation, so both screenings and the circulation of copies have been tightly controlled – the legend grew. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation has become one of the most famous fan films ever made, and it deserves all the praise heaped upon it. It is more than just a credit to its makers’ ingenuity and love of Spielberg’s original: what might have been expected to be just an amateurish imitation becomes a wonderful mix of loving tribute, comic riff, and childhood memoir.
Some have suggested that the fuss about the Adaptation is misdirected, arguing that we should be saluting those who make original works on heroically low budgets, rather than elaborate derivatives of Hollywood blockbusters. (Even as a fan of the adaptation, I don’t particularly think others should try to repeat the exercise.) Crucially, though, I have never seen the film criticised by someone who has seen it. When you actually see it, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer determination and ingenuity of these kids. Generally, the low budget filmmaker’s approach is to make a film that is tailored around the materials available: even examples like El Mariachi that look astoundingly good for their budget are carefully built around what is achievable. If a sequence can’t be done, it just isn’t in the movie. By instead tackling a familiar blockbuster, with a pre-determined set of big moments, Zala, Strompolos and Lamb gave themselves no ability to shirk challenges. The original Raiders of the Lost Ark becomes like an obstacle course: watching the Adaptation, we know each hurdle that the filmmakers have to overcome, and wait with expectation to see how they do so. The result is a strange but refreshing collision between low budget and high budget filmmaking. The original Raiders is a multi-million dollar blockbuster, made with the assistance of the best technical people in Hollywood, and it is a film of enormous scope. Yet with homemade effects and minimal budgets, the Raiders Guys managed to reproduce almost all its big moments: they constructed a giant rolling boulder; filled a room full of snakes; set people on fire; and had Indy climb onto a World War II submarine. (I mean think about it: an actual submarine!) They skip only one sequence (the fight on the flying wing), but recover any lost credibility by staging a very impressive recreation of the truck chase, including the scene in which Indy goes under the truck. Watching the stunts these kids pull off is at once impressive and kind of alarming: that nobody was seriously injured is something of a miracle. Yet you can’t help but admire the sheer audacity of the exercise.
The attention to detail extends beyond the big set-pieces to little details, and in this respect their decision to use Raiders as their inspiration was fortuitous, as the film has aged exceptionally well and remains very popular. (You have to pity any poor kids stuck with a homemade remake of Smokey and the Bandit). By adapting one of the best films by one of the worlds’ most accomplished directors, the young filmmakers were giving themselves a really solid basis for their film: favourite moments such as Indy shooting the swordsman still generate a huge cheer in the remake. Perhaps more importantly, though, Raiders is embarassingly familiar to many filmgoers: partly out of sheer repetition, and partly because of Spielberg’s instinct for staging and rhythm, it is one of those films that many have memorised almost beat-for-beat. This means that even in the little moments of performance – such as Indy tipping his hat after he steals the idol in the opening sequence – you can really appreciate the exactness of the Adaptation’s match: this wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if the trio had adapted a more flabbily-directed source. Given that in the early days of work on the adaptation, Zala and the others were working without access to a tape of the film – cobbling together a storyboard from a combination of memory, a bootlegged audio recording, and a comic book – the precision of their copy is remarkable. (You can see shot-for-shot comparisons here).
In reproducing nearly the entirety of the original film, the Adaptation takes the logic of fan films to its obvious conclusion, while bypassing their pitfalls. Fan films try to satisfy the desire of fans to relive and enlarge the experience of the film: when the original film isn’t enough, fan films fill the gap and provide more. Yet such films are always subject to a damaging tension: the desire is to see more of the world of the original, to show the things we didn’t see; and yet the more fan films stray from the settings, plot and characters of the source movie, the further they move from what made the original special. This kind of tension can lead to innovative solutions, such as the way Kevin Rubio’s short Troops (justly one of the most famous of the genre) nests its events in between the familiar scenes of the original Star Wars, providing a reinterpretation of the original’s plot. However, such a successful resolution of the tension between fidelity and originality is the exception to the rule, and generally fan films are unsatisfying. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation bypasses this whole dilemma by jettisoning all original content. It isn’t just set between the scenes of the original: it is the original, and as such it acknowledges the real goal of fan films: to become one with the source film, and to somehow make it your own.
Because it is a bunch of teenagers who have taken ownership of the film in this way, Raiders itself is strangely transformed by the encounter. Gus van Sant copped a lot of flack when he remade Psycho shot-for-shot, and a lot of the criticism was unfair: while not completely successful, the 1998 Psycho was a fascinating exploration of how changes of setting, cast and cinematography can mutate a movie into a new and unfamiliar specimen. Yet by substituting children and teenagers for Hollywood stars and veteran character actors, Raiders: The Adaptation takes this sort of exercise into a whole new realm. The closest precedent I can think of is Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, which staged a generic gangster plot with a cast of children. Yet in that film adults were directing kids in an exercise they hoped would make money: here, what we have are kids basically playing around for their own amusement. It makes all the difference, giving the film a goofy charm that is key to the enjoyment of the film. It would be overstating it to say that the Adaptation becomes some kind of postmodern ironic comment on the original, but after a while there is certainly no doubting that the Raiders Guys were alive to the comic possibilities of their exercise. There is a great comic reveal, for example, of their substitute for the original film’s monkey, and the film gets big laughs from the dubbing of their child-sized punches with the Dolby sound effects from the original. At the same time, though, it avoids becoming too self-aware. The kids play it pretty straight: while it doesn’t seem quite right to be talking about performance in a film such as this, Strompolos shows a talent for mimicry in his chanelling of Harrison Ford’s performance, Angela Rodriguez is a suitably feisty Marion, and Zala is remarkably suave as Belloq.
The after-life of the Adaptation since its rediscovery has been remarkable. The story of the production has been optioned by producer Scott Rudin for a possible feature film: while I’m glad the trio have received some reward, I’m not sure the story will necessarily translate well into a semi-fictionalised account. More promising is the mooted documentary based upon the outtakes footage, tentatively titled When We Were Kids. The real treasure here, however, is the Adaptation itself, and until the legal obstacles to its wider release are overcome, that will continue to play to appreciative crowds only in tightly controlled circumstances. Lamb has talked of re-mastering the film so that it can be “the movie we always intended on making”: it’s a revisionist impulse that George Lucas would be proud of. I hope one day the current version (unremastered, with all its scruffy virtues intact) can surface on DVD, because Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation is great fun. In the end, that’s the best thing about it: it takes you into the lives of a group of kids you wished you’d known. It’s an inspiring reminder of the world of possibility in which kids live, where no dreams have yet been shattered, and anything seems possible.
I saw this film at a special public screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, one of only two showings in Melbourne. Please do not email me asking where you can get a copy of it: I don’t know. (As far as I’m aware, the makers have managed to keep bootlegs off the internet. ) Your best bet is probably to keep an eye on sites such as The Indy Experience or The Raider.Net which sometimes have details of screenings.