Film Review – Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation

Have you ever seen a film and felt like it spoke to you? What did you do afterward? Did you watch it as many times as you possibly could? Did you show it to all of your friends?  Did you research every aspect of the production until you became a walking encyclopedia on that particular film? Maybe you were so inspired that you decided to become a filmmaker yourself. It’s a feeling that many are familiar with, myself included. But I’ve never met anyone who was so inspired by a film that they then decided to do a shot-for-shot remake with whatever cash they could scrounge together. That’s what three friends by the names of Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb did after they saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. They were only twelve years old.

Over the following seven summers, the boys built sets in the basements of their Mississippi homes, gathered a large cast of friends and neighbors, and set about making the most faithful fan film of all time. Maybe it’s because they had a great script by Lawrence Kasdan to go from, the shots by Steven Spielberg to emulate, and the classic score by John Williams to play in the background that Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation works so well. But it would be too easy to say that the movie is good because it’s based off of something good. The Adaptation is a great film because of the ingenuity behind the camera and the talent in front of it.

What differentiates this from other films made by youngsters is that these kids go all in. The two most impressive sequences of the film are the fight in the Nepalese tavern and the truck chase. These were the scenes where I was expecting the film to play it safe by cutting around the stunts or having the kids pretend to shoot the guns and say “Pew! Pew!” Instead we see them actually set the tavern on fire. But that isn’t far enough for these die hards. They light themselves on fire just like stunt people in the original. Squibs and blanks are going off left and right and I was grinning ear to ear. The truck chase doesn’t have the danger of fire, but instead has children dressed as Nazis hanging off of the door of a moving truck as Indiana Jones (Chris Strompolos) kicks to get them off. Later in the scene, Strompolos is thrown through the windshield and hangs onto the front of the truck for dear life as it speeds forward. These are scenarios that I would be afraid to be in as a grown man, let alone the weeny I was when I was twelve.

It’s not just the willingness to nearly kill themselves that impresses. The fact that they managed to pull out strong performances from so many non-actors is also commendable. Chris Strompolos is great as Indiana Jones; he gets Harrison Ford’s mannerisms and attitude down perfectly. Eric Zala pulls double duty as director and the evil Belloq. His performance doesn’t suffer at all because of it, he is deliciously over the top and knows how to mug for the camera. My favorite performance came from Angela Rodriguez as Marion. She brings just as much fire to role as Karen Allen did and never hits a false note. It’s honestly a shock to me that she didn’t go on to become an actress later in life.

The supporting players are all fun. The actors playing natives in the opening, the diggers in the desert, and the Nazis are all clearly having a great time playing dress-up for the camera. The fact that they are so young adds a lot of charm to even simple dialogue scenes because of the fake beards and stubble they have to sport. Special mention has to be made of Snickers the dog. The boys didn’t have access to a monkey like was used in the original, so they replaced it with a sieg heiling dog. The great part is they don’t change the character, it’s still an evil monkey that just happens to be played by a dog. So Snickers is picked up and put on shoulders for the majority of his screentime, and he totally sells it. I’m sure it was a pain to get him to stay still for that long, but nothing about it rings false in the film.

There are a few other things that are changed, due to the reality of being a minuscule production. In the opening scene, Indiana doesn’t make his getaway in a helicopter, but on a boat. Changes such as this actually make the movie more enjoyable, as you see the resourcefulness of the team in telling the story even if they don’t have everything they need to do so. The biggest change from the original is that there is no fight scene with the German mechanic. It’s a shame that the sequence was left out, because it has always been a favorite of mine. You’d think that it’d be no problem for the kids who did all of the other crazy action sequences, but I guess adding a plane in motion around the actors was where they had to draw the line.

Director Eric Zala is a real talent behind the camera. He had to commit Raiders to memory because the movie wasn’t released on home video when the project first started. The fact that he and cinematographer Jayson Lamb were able to capture nearly all of Spielberg’s original compositions is a true testament to their dedication. You also have to take into account that they were dealing with locations that weren’t built the same way as those in the original. So they had to use their ingenuity to keep the shots the same, even if the locations were laid out differently.

All three boys had a hand in the production design, and based on the work I’d say they could get a job in that department with any major studio. The sets are all impressive, with the cave in the opening sequence taking the cake. The props all match their counterparts in the original, and nothing ever comes across like they did it because it was easy. If they needed a giant boulder to roll at Strompolos, they built it to scale. If they needed snakes in a scene, they went out and got some real snakes. The finale also allows them to add special effects makeup artists to their resumes, as we see Toht’s face melt and Belloq’s head explode in all of their gory glory.

If there was really anything to be down on The Adaptation about, it has everything to do with the technology and nothing to do with the talent. The film was recorded on Betamax and VHS, so the picture is far from pristine. Some shots are dark and muddy, while others are blown out with video noise running through them. Luckily, these inconsistencies don’t tend to last very long. The sound on the other hand fares much worse. Dialogue from characters facing away from the camera or in a wide shot can at times be almost impossible to hear. Luckily the leads understand the medium and project properly, so you won’t be missing any of the important stuff. Plus, if you’re watching this movie, chances are you had the script for Raiders burned into your brain a long time ago.

Unfortunately, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation may never see the light of day in a wide release. It’s hard to work out the copyright issues with something that takes the script and score directly from an existing film. The Mississippi trio has been making the rounds with the film since it became public knowledge back in 2004. I was lucky enough to watch it this past weekend at SIFF Cinema in Seattle. You can keep an eye out on the Rolling Boulder Films facebook page for upcoming screenings in a town near you. It’s something every cineaste should see at least once, if only to remind you why you fell in love with movies in the first place.

Final Grade: A-


John is the co-host of The Macguffin Podcast, lover of 80s teen and horror films, and an independent filmmaker.

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