Although not every great movie franchise has a literary source, most of them do. But there’s a very indicative difference between British movie franchises and American movie franchises.
The Brits have the greatest, richest uninterrupted literary tradition in the world, so it’s not surprising that their great movie franchises have literary sources. To take the obvious examples, the James Bond movies and the Harry Potter movies all began as novels. There are others, too, such as the Lord of the Rings franchise, and the Chronicles of Narnia franchise. They’re not quite of the magnitude of the James Bond and the Harry Potter franchises—nothing is—but they represent great achievements in filmmaking and people love them.
When you think about it, you realize that the Brits have been doing this for a long time. The great British masters of the detective story, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, wrote novels and short stories that have produced more movies than I care to count. Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot remain perennial favorites - and with good reason.
Then there’s Hollywood’s favorite novelist, Jane Austen. Although she didn’t create a franchise character, her novels have a distinctive style, and all of them have now been made into exquisite movies.
American literature, on the other hand, has been split between high art, and popular art. Not surprisingly, then, American movie franchises with literary origins have usually come from popular literature. Perhaps the first franchise character in American film with literary origins was a cowboy, Hopalong Cassidy; he was the subject of no less than 28 novels by one Clarence E. Mulford. And beginning in the late forties, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer franchise had a pretty good run.
It’s worth noting that the Godfather franchise is partially literary, partially not. Only the first movie was based on a novel, The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. The other two were not, although Puzo worked on the scripts.
Over the last half-century or so, one trend makes the
cultural differences between England and America especially clear. If the great
British movie franchises have come from novels, the great American movie
franchises have come from the most popular form of popular literature: comic
books. We can all think of comic book heroes who have become immensely
profitable movie franchises; a partial list includes Superman, Spiderman, Batman,
and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
So what it comes to is this: while technological innovation
produces changes that affect movies in a variety of ways, when it comes to
cultural tradition, some things don’t change. British filmmakers can always
turn to novels, and American filmmakers can always turn to comic books.