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Depth of Field: Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007


“It seems like a big budget remake or our film.”
—Eric Zala, “Belloq” and director of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, commenting on what it’s like to watch the original Raiders of the Lost Ark today
I have been hearing about Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation for years.  (Even name checking it in a totally unrelated review I wrote a few years ago.)  Its story is now legendary in fanboy circles: In 1982, three kids from rural Mississippi become obsessed with arguably the greatest action-adventure movie of their generation, and armed with the innocence of youth and a Betamax recorder, decide to create a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Seven years later, they wrapped on the film, put it away, and moved on with their lives and apart from each other.  In 2003, on the support of such notables as director Eli Roth and Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles, the film “debuted” at the Alamo Draft House in San Antonio.  Now, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are making the rounds with their masterpiece, and a biopic is in the works to tell their story on the big screen. I had the good fortune to attend a screening and Q&A with two of the three makers of this testament to youth in a near-capacity theater on the campus of the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the movie is exactly as advertised.  All horrible sound and bad picture, the entire first stanza is awash in a yellow-green tint, but by the time Strompolos’ Indy makes his daring escape from Zala’s Belloq and the Hovitos in the opening sequence, your eyes have grown accustomed to the harsh exposure and you are rooting not for the characters, but for the kids putting on this show.  You want them to succeed and you can’t wait to see how they will pull off each subsequent shot that you know is coming next. Very few changes were made to the source material and only one scene is completely omitted, but what liberties the creators have taken are as charming as they are resourceful, like the use of a small motorboat in place of the seaplane (although Jock’s pet snake Reggie in the front of the boat in Indy’s lap remains).  The later omission of the propeller death and the fight scene that precedes it is certainly forgivable and hardly missed in this final cut. The only other change of note is the replacement of the spider monkey with Strompolos’ dog Snickers, who steals every scene he’s in, which undermines the character’s villainy, because the audience is clearly rooting for the mutt.  From his “Sieg Heil!” salute to his ultimate death (both on screen by way of “bad dates” and in real life as noted in the end credits), the dog is a star. Apart from Snickers, one of the surprisingly biggest cheers came from the stop-motion animation of the maps tracking Indy’s flights from California to Nepal, and again from Nepal to Cairo.  The cheers were accompanied by visible disbelief, awe, and head-shaking during the fight and fire sequence in Marion’s bar.  This is also the scene that garners the most attention during Q&A sessions and interviews.  Strompolos’ mom worked at WLOX-TV, where the boys were editing their masterpiece, when footage of Zala on fire was spotted by a responsible adult.  As a direct result, year two of their production summarily halted. The showstopper is most definitely the truck stunt.  You know the scene - Indy is trying to commandeer the truck in which the Nazis have loaded the Ark of the Covenant.  After Indy disposes of most everyone in and on the truck, the driver then throws Indy through the windshield and onto the hood of the moving vehicle.  The cheers are genuine as Strompolos’ Indy descends the front of the truck, but the payoff is how, intentionally or not, the boys brilliantly hold the shot from inside the back of the truck on the ground rushing out from underneath for enough extra beats to really amp up the expectations of the audience before Strompolos shoots out from under the truck.  A perfect money shot, and worthy of the shouts of approval it garners. The credits recognize Mr. Zala for transportation and Ms. Cooper’s work as seamstress, an “in memory of” note for Snickers, and finish with a Jim Morrison quote (“This is the end, my only friend, the end.”).  When asked about the soundtrack that accompanies The Adaptation, the filmmakers cop to lifting John Williams’ original score throughout, and note that their credits actually run longer than the original’s (six minutes total), so they ended up looping themes from Temple of Doom and Last Crusade before circling back to finish up with the Raiders theme in a sort of Indy mega-mix. What’s truly amazing about the boys’ efforts is that these kids worked from memory the first two or three years; there were no home-viewing VHS copies to purchase, or the Internet to find a complete working script of the film.  Raiders was re-released in 1982, which helped, but primarily they relied on collected bits of Raiders info they could gather, including magazines, comic books, long-playing records, a crappy, clandestine audio recording made at the theater, and Zala’s hand-drawn storyboarding. The resourcefulness and originality (which might seem an odd word choice considering they copied a blockbuster frame-for-frame, but trust me, it applies here) of the production itself is a marvel.  And the spirit continues in these boys-turned-men today.  Zala and Strompolos revealed in the Cleveland Q&A session that all the locations used in their movie were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  They hope to work with the governor of Mississippi to have Paramount’s proposed biopic shot in their home state to help pump some much-needed economic life back into the devastated region. Filmed over 21 consecutive days, 23 year-old Kevin Smith’s Clerks launched his career by famously maxing out his credit cards to finance the movie for $27,000 in 1994.  Twelve years earlier, three 12 year-old boys began a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It would take them seven years to complete the film, and cost them roughly $5,000.  Granted, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are not as famous as Smith is, but they just might hit it big yet.

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