Remake vs. Adaptation
[This is the fourth post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]
Format sales are the heart of the international television market: although the export of shows from the United States or Britain remain significant sources of revenue for the television industries in those countries, other countries which might not be able to export as much of their TV content can still generate significant income by developing formats that can be licensed for use in other markets.
And so rather than suggesting that Skam is getting an American “remake,” it is important to acknowledge the ways this simplifies the exchange happening here. Simon Fuller purchased the rights to create a U.S. version of Skam, but he was really purchasing the format: this includes the show’s narrative, true, but it’s also the transmedia storytelling approach, the production bible on how the show constructs its real time stories, and likely even the promotional blackout that I discussed in part three. What Fuller does with this remains an open question, but he has bought more than the rights to create American versions of Eva, Noora, Isak, and Sana and playing out the same stories but with English language dialogue and fewer references to Russe buses.
And yet that’s often what happens. The challenge with adapting formats is that there are two competing instincts. The first is to make significant changes to reflect a different market, particularly in cases like this one where Norway and the U.S. are—I know this is shocking—very different countries. However, the second is an industrial belief that the reason you use formats is to take advantage of their proven success, a belief that pushes producers to change as little as possible to ensure they’re not wasting the opportunity to have a successful show with minimal additional effort.
The only way to successfully adapt Skam for the American market is to throw out everything but the show’s core values and start from scratch. This is also something that is extremely unlikely to happen, given the context in which it is being developed.
Reiterating a common theme across these posts, the circumstances of Skam’s creation bear the marks of a public service model: Julie Andem had months to travel around Norway interviewing teenagers, looking for ways to make the show as authentic as possible and crafting characters based on her conversations with youth in that country. In a perfect world, then, building an American Skam would start with someone—probably not Andem, who deserves a break—traveling around the U.S. talking with teenagers and generating an entirely distinct, specific set of stories about the show’s target demographic in this country.
There are two problems with this. The first is that the United States is, well, not as small as Norway. While no country is truly culturally homogenous, Norway is considerably closer to it than the United States, which is deeply regionalized and thus incredibly difficult to treat as a single entity for such a project. It’s feasible that a showrunner could meet with teenagers in various cities across the country, but that would take a considerable amount of time, and might still not come to a consensus on how to move forward (especially geographically, which I’m covering in more detail in the next post because it’s 100% the part of this process I’m most invested in).
And here’s the thing: everything about Fuller’s acquisition of the format suggests that this is not intended to be a lengthy process. The suggestion in media reports at the end of last year was that they intended to film the series in 2017, despite there not yet being a writer attached to it (as far as we are aware). It betrays the truth of format adaptations, which is that producers view them as an easy way to make money, limiting the amount of resources you need to put into development: just find a writer who can write convincing teenagers, and send them off with some Skam DVDs, and have them figure out how to make some small adjustments to the narrative to allow it to be produced this calendar year.
This is a cynical read on Fuller’s goals, although admittedly it’s tough to think that the creator of the Idol format is capable of understanding the nuances of Skam’s format. In the trade coverage of Fuller picking up rights to the format,
“a spokesperson for XIX said Fuller will be working closely with NRK to duplicate the ‘essence’ of the original production,”
with NRK’s head of TV citing that
“[Fuller] wants to be true to the original to make ‘Shame’ a series that can change the rules in the American TV market.”
But these questions are all related to the distribution of the series, and not the specific stories it tells and the way those stories tap into real cultural experience. Those two things need to be working in accordance with one another for the show to be successful, but we’ve been given little indication Fuller is invested in developing the narrative alongside correcting the fact that “there is precious little content created primarily for a teen audience” (which really means “content that we can use to sell those teens to advertisers”).
The “essence” of Skam is a process, not a product. Yes, you could simply go out in search of an “Eva” type and go right into shooting a first season, and it would probably work okay: her story is the show’s most straightforward, although in subtle ways that provide a strong point of connection for anyone who has ever felt alone, or found themselves adrift in the social ups and downs of high school. But that is not the essence of Skam—the essence of Skam would be finding new stories to tell, drawing on the distinct experiences of American teenagers and thinking about how the series’ core values would have to naturally change to reflect a different cultural context and a different set of “needs” among American teenagers.
A Change.org petition entitled “Stop Simon Fuller from making an American version of Skam” is, as its title suggests, not happy about the idea of there being an American version of the show. One user, based in the U.S., suggests that they should just “put it on netflix with the option of subtitles, don’t make a whole new Americanized version of it, come up with something different and original america.” As I discussed in the introduction to this feature, there are reasons why the former won’t happen, but the latter represents a narrow view of how formats can work. A U.S. version of Skam can, I honestly believe, absolutely be something both different and original. There is nothing in the acquisition of this format that would dictate a show that would be forced to “remake” the original series, and the format is such that I would love to see more countries take its “essence” and think about its local applications. Beyond providing financial stability for NRK (who makes money with every use of the license), the spreading of the format extends its mission of exposing teen audiences to important issues, something that seems to be to be a fundamentally good thing.
The problem, of course, is that the likelihood of the best case scenario is slim in an environment where the lowest common denominator is king. And so while I find the blanket rejection of adapting Skam for American audiences to be somewhat unreasonable, the basic pessimism is something I can relate to, and there’s a very good possibility that any U.S. version of Skam would fundamentally fail to embrace cultural specificity in ways that are necessary to the show’s success.
And as I’ll discuss in the next and final post, much of that will be rooted in where they choose to locate it, a decision so difficult that a previously mentioned adaptation just decided to ignore it entirely.