Top Ten Most Adapted Characters

OK, folks, this one’s going to be a little different from my usual Top Tens. This one fulfills a need. This one needs to be put up. There is a hole in the Internet that requires filling, and I’m the man to do it.

Let me explain. Not long ago, you may recall, I did a review of the Disney Tarzan. During the course of said review, I did a spot of research on the film, and in the course of said research I came across a rather fascinating little tidbit on IMDb.

Said tidbit was to be found in the Trivia section of their entry on the movie. I don’t know who posted it, but it claimed that Tarzan “is second only to Dracula in the adaptation chart”.

Well, I thought to myself, that is an intriguing bit of information, assuming it’s true. Second only to Dracula in terms of adaptations, eh? I wonder who the runners-up are, then? There must be a list somewhere.

I set out to find it. A half-hour later, I was a seething mass of frustration.

There were no lists of such things. None. Wikipedia didn’t have one. Nobody had one. Oh sure, there were plenty of lists of people’s favorite such characters, but most-adapted? Neh-eh. Not a one.

Now if there’s one thing you can say about me, it’s that I don’t give up easily when I’m on the scent. No such list existed, eh? Then I’d make one! Yoiks! Tally-ho!

So blow the bugles, merry huntsmen, for I’ve tracked the quarry to its lair. I present to you my list of the Top Ten Most-Adapted Characters!

This is not solely a movie-related list, but given that a good chunk of the adaptations involved here are into movie form, I feel that it qualifies for this site. As always, there are a few ground rules to set up first – and these are important ones, given all the material I have to sift through, so there are a few more than usual.

To start with, in order to qualify for this list a character cannot be part of an ongoing franchise, and inflexibly the property of the producers of same. There are zillions of different versions of Batman out there, for instance, but he’s been owned since day one by DC Comics, so those would count more as “alternate versions” than “adaptations”.

Second, characters with a mythological, historical or folkloric background are out (even though they’d probably have a clear advantage here, as they’ve been around for much longer). It’s too difficult to establish their origins (i.e, what they’re adapted from), and some of them, such as Robin Hood, may or may not have been real people, which is also a mark of disqualification. To qualify for inclusion here, a character must have a clear, fictional point of origin.

Third, the character must be a main one, not a member of someone’s supporting cast – Mr. Darcy, for example, doesn’t count. Fourth, while individual entries in a series can count, they do not if they are part of a continuing storyline – a trilogy, for instance, counts as one adaptation, not three. Fifth, an adaptation of an adaptation (a video game based on a movie, for instance) or a direct continuation of an adaptation in another format (such as a TV show) is not an adaptation in and of itself, but a part of a separate spin-off franchise. Therefore, they won’t be listed here. Sixth and finally, sequel entries that feature someone’s son/daughter/pet/whatever, but not them, do count as long as their relationship to the original character is clearly established and part of the work’s backstory.

Also, this is the first Top Ten I’ve done that is in a specific order – least to most. Wouldn’t work very well if it wasn’t.

Shall we greet our guests?

#10: Arsène Lupin

The character: In the late 19th Century, the French police are continually frustrated by a particularly vexing miscreant – a thief who cannot be stopped. Rich men live in fear of him, as he passes through their security like mist on the breeze, and leaves with their valuables before they even know he’s there. While he does occasionally aid the law in capturing other criminals, he is out, first and foremost for himself. Armed only with immense skill and an inimitable sense of style, he is the ultimate gentleman thief – Arsène Lupin!

Number of adaptations: 76.

Comments: This one took me a little by surprise. I’d heard of Arsène Lupin through characters like Lupin the 3rd, but I had no idea he was such a big deal. Oh well, he sounds cool. Arsène Lupin, everybody! He’ll take the escargot.

#9: Zorro

The character: In the days of Old California, when Spain still ruled, Don Diego, a young nobleman, returns home from overseas. Away for years, he is dismayed to see the brutal oppression that has flourished during his absence. Vowing to bring justice to the innocent and defenseless, he masquerades as a foppish dandy by day, while by night he dons hat, cloak and mask and puts the swordsmanship he learned in Madrid to good use as El Zorro – the Fox!

Number of adaptations: 86.

Comments: Oh, now we’re talkin’! I love me some Zorro. Shame he’s so low on the list, but hey, at least he got on. Swash that buckle, my good fellow, and tuck into those empanadas! We’ll be munching popcorn and cheering you on!

#8: The Phantom of the Opera

The character: The Paris Opera House has many hidden corners that no one knows about – secret passageways, underground tunnels, routes that a clever man could use to travel undetected from one end to the other. Such a man is Eric, a hideously deformed musical genius who lives in the catacombs underneath it. For years, he has been content to merely enjoy the performances and demand certain privileges, but when he falls in love with the beautiful Christine, whose heart belongs to another, there will be no end of chaos until the Phantom of the Opera is stopped.

Number of adaptations: 114.

Comments: And the honor of being first to crack triple digits goes to – the Phantom! Well-deserved, too. Eric may have gotten just a wee bit over-exposed in recent years, what with the whole Andrew Lloyd Webber thing and all, but there’s no denying that he has a great deal of style, and has left quite a legacy of movies, plays, etc. in his wake. (And if none of you have read the original novel, you should. It’s terrific stuff.) Please forgive him if he doesn’t socialize, but he’s a little… sensitive about eating in public. He’ll take his meal in a private booth. (It’s spaghetti, in case you were wondering – heavy on the marinara.)

#7: Alice

The character: One lazy summer day in the Victorian era, a young girl named Alice notices a rabbit in a waistcoat hurrying by. Curious to see where he’s going, she follows him down a rabbit hole and emerges in a strange land, where tea parties go on forever, cats can dematerialize at will, and the rules of croquet involve flamingoes.

Number of adaptations: 118.

Comments: This entry should surprise absolutely no one, except possibly its placement. If I had counted every single little reference to Alice and her adventures, it would have been a good deal higher, believe you me. (She’s also the only female character who made the grade, which is regrettable, but hey, them’s the breaks.) Still, here she is, so say hi, everyone! She’s already had dinner, it seems, so some jam tarts for her.

#6: Tarzan

The character: Left abandoned along the African coastline, Lord Graystoke and his wife made a life for themselves in the jungle – briefly, before they both died. Their infant son survived, however, and was adopted by a tribe of wild apes. Growing to manhood thinking himself one of them, he discovered his roots and left his wild home for love, only to return to it when he tired of the outside world. With the skills of an animal and the cunning of a man, he is Tarzan, lord of the jungle!

Number of adaptations: 124.

Comments: And here we have our good pal Tarzan, the whole inspiration for this list, as well as solid proof that that guy on IMdB didn’t know what he was talking about. “Second only to Dracula”, eh? Ye-ah. You just keep thinkin’ that, man. Oh well, Tarzan’s still cool, so let’s hand him some fruit salad and a big glass of coconut milk and continue on our way.

#5: Conan the Barbarian

The character: Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, a lone warrior wanders the Earth, a man strong of arm and quick of sword. He’s a dark, brooding fellow, out for all he can pillage. In a world full of scheming sorcerers, ravaging monsters and evils ancient even then, he is Conan the Barbarian!

Number of adaptations: 127.

Comments: This was an eye-opener. I knew Conan was popular, but I had no idea he was this popular – I’d always considered him somewhat of a niche character, archetypal, but far from universal. Oh well, I guess I was wrong. Conan’s not really my thing, but he’s hacked his way through enough bad guys over the years to make my opinion irrelevant, so… yeah. Give the guy a plate of wild boar and stand back.

#4: Dracula

The character: For many long years have the good people of Transylvania trembled under the knowledge of the dreadful horror that lurks up in the mountains, in the castle that no one goes to. Now, the creature that lurks inside has decided to expand his horizons to the outside world. Tremble, all ye who can, for he is Dracula, vampire of all vampires!

Number of adaptations: 140.

Comments: Oh, now he shows up. Took his time, I must say. Still, at least he’s here. Dracula, everybody! What a fellow! Smooth with the ladies and never touches wine! He’ll take blood sausage, extra rare.

#3: Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde

The character: Good and evil are inside us all. That is the nature of mankind, and it is folly to tamper with it – but one man dared. Hoping to separate his evil side entirely, he instead created a potion that lets it take over his body and do what it will. Now the streets of London are haunted by the monster inside Dr. Jekyll – Mr. Hyde!

Number of adaptations: 145.

Comments: Ah, good old Dr. J. What would movies be without him? Your codfish, sir, extra-bland, the way you like it! Make room for him, you lot, and don’t bother handing him a drink – he brought his own. Might tip back a few after he’s had it, though…

#2: Frankenstein’s Monster 

The character: Some people just have too much time on their hands. Case in point one Victor Frankenstein, who sought to create new life. Robbing graves for spare parts, working tirelessly, he finally managed it – but not as he’d hoped. Instead of the perfect man he’d imagined, the creature was an ugly, shambling monstrosity. Hated and feared by all he encounters, the creature is commonly known by the name of his creator – Frankenstein!

Number of adaptations: 153.

Comments: If this one causes you to so much as raise an eyebrow, then you clearly have been raised in the Himalayas or some such place. Ol’ Franky was a particularly tricky entry, too, because he’s not only one of the most adapted characters, he’s one of the most imitated – and some imitations are close enough that it’s next to impossible to tell them apart from the real deal. And this guy’s appeared in everything from movies to lunchboxes – what counts and what doesn’t?

Ah well. It was a tough call, folks, but here he is at #2! Come on down here, ya big lug; grab your plate of bockwurst and take that last seat on the left – not the one at the end, that’s reserved for (drumroll please)…

#1: Sherlock Holmes

The character: At 221B, Baker Street, resides a most incredible intellect, a mind like a steel trap. No detail escapes this mind’s notice, no clue too small for it to comprehend. Criminals shudder at this mind, and the name of its owner, the world’s greatest detective – Sherlock Holmes!

Number of adaptations: 1,156.

Comments: And the man himself has arrived, the guest of honor – the all-time most adapted character ever! A round of applause, please, for Mr. Holmes! A whopping big plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is yours, sir, and I hope you enjoy it!

I must admit, this one threw me a little. Not because of Sherlock himself; he’s a logical choice for the part, but because of the numbers involved. I mean, over one thousand adaptations when #2 was just barely over 150? That couldn’t be right, could it?

This gap delayed the completion of the list quite a bit, as its sheer size convinced me that there had to be someone I wasn’t thinking of – it seemed ridiculous that one character could leap ahead so much when characters of comparable popularity had such comparatively paltry entries. There just had to be more numerous entries, ones who at least cracked 500 or so – but who?

Well, I don’t know, because I counted ‘til my eyes crossed and couldn’t find them. So it seems that the Monster still takes the silver, and I couldn’t be happier for him. The Top Ten Most Adapted Characters, everybody!

Now, I’m not saying this is a definitive list – I basically compiled it through the use of Wikipedia and my own judgment. If anyone else can come up with characters they think should be on here, by all means inform me of them, and if they fit my criteria, I’ll edit them in. Meanwhile, I hope you liked it.

Runners-up who almost made it: Dorothy Gale (67), Peter Pan (52), and Fu Manchu (46).

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21 Comments

    • Same as for all of them – I counted. Sorry, that sounds a little trite, but it’s basically what the process came down to. I looked the characters up on Wikipedia, went over the lists of their appearances and so forth, made on-the-spot decisions as to whether or not such-and-such counted, and wrote down the number that resulted. In the case of Conan, since most of his stuff is in book form, I basically counted all the post-Howard books as adaptations (discounting reprints, ones he co-wrote with other authors, etc.). It was a little more complicated than that, but not much.

      • A perfectly fair assumption, but no – I mean both types, the stories with character and the character on his or her own. The strict full-story adaptations are as a whole more common these days, but with older characters, they’re rarer than you’d think.
        Take Tarzan, for example. There has NEVER, to my knowledge, been a completely faithful adaptation of the original Tarzan Of The Apes, since (and I wish I could tell you WHERE I read this, but I can’t) Edgar Rice Burroughs specifically licensed the book’s characters for adaptation, but not the plot itself – and since the film series was popular enough to affect everyone’s perception of the character, it’s that version that has planted itself in the public consciousness, which strictly speaking has very little to do with the character as presented by Burroughs. Elements from the books are still present, though, so they all still count as adaptations. Similarly, the Sherlock Holmes stories have received plenty of very faithful adaptations, but any Sherlockian scholar will tell you that there are many aspects to the title character as we generally think of him – the deerstalker, the calabash pipe, the strong emphasis on Professor Moriarty – which are purely creations of later media, and were never in the books at all, and these also carry over into his more fanciful and inaccurate appearances, such as that WW2-era one where he fights the Nazis. And yet, it’s still HIM; it’s still Sherlock, so every time the character shows up outside the original Conan Doyle, it’s still technically an adaptation of the author’s work, even if it goes in directions he never would have even considered.
        Therefore, I count both types of adaptation as being appropriate for this list. I suppose it’s not the most scholarly way of going about it, but… yeah.

  1. I am impressed by this article, it sounds (and I can I can tell) there was a lot of work and thought that went into it. A golf clap for you, Deneb.

    I’m not too surprised by Sherlock Holmes, but that gap is pretty wow. I thought Dracula would be higher. I wonder what the count would be on say the Scarlet Pimpernel or Dorian Gray.

    Poor Eric, “He had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar.”

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it.
      One of the great parts of being a writer on the ‘Net is that you can fill in the gaps when you see ’em, ya know? I mean, I can’t possibly be the first person to do a search for this particular Top Ten. I CAN’T be – I’ll bet you that right now, the same thought is filtering through the heads of at least a dozen obsessive nerds like myself. Before, they’d be doomed to frustration, because what they were looking for wouldn’t be there. Now it’ll only be partial frustration when they see who I left out. It’s a good feeling.
      The Scarlet Pimpernel and Dorian Gray, eh? OK, I’ll look those two up.

    • I’m also surprised about Dracula; I could have sworn I’d read that he’s by far the most adapted literary villain of all time, just as Holmes is the most adapted literary character, period. Of course Frankenstein’s monster will always be popular, but I can’t believe that he’s made more appearances in all forms of media than Dracula. And Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde? Really?

      Not disputing Deneb’s findings, it just really surprises me.

      • Well, he IS, really – the Jekyll/Hyde character is more a reflection on the duality of man’s nature than an outright villain; at worst, Mr. Hyde is a particularly brutal and creepy thug, whereas Dracula is almost always played for arch-villainy. As for Franky, I would attribute that to his status as a monster who’s not TOO monstrous, if you know what I mean. He can can be either the bad guy or the good guy, and of all the iconic screen monsters, he’s by far the most sympathetic – you can put him in more family-oriented stuff without ticking off the parents, while still preserving the ‘oooh – spooky!’ aspect.

    • Regretfully, fairy tale characters fall under my ‘no folklore’ guidelines at the beginning there – and even if they didn’t, it’s Beauty AND the Beast, and duos don’t really qualify either. (OK, there’s Jekyll and Hyde, but come on, that doesn’t count.) I bet there’d be a zillion of ’em, though.

  2. Presumably all of those Lupin III TV specials help get him that #10 spot.

    And I suspect Dracula’s ranking would have gone down a couple of notches if you didn’t include the ones where he’s the misunderstood good guy. In particular, I’m thinking of The Dracula Tapes, which arguably made him into even more of a whiny puke than Louis de Pointe du Lac.

    • Nah, Lupin the 3rd in general I count as a single adaptation, since it’s an ongoing franchise that really doesn’t have much to do with his grandpappy except the backstory. If I DID count the individual movies, etc., he’d probably be a bit higher on the list.
      And yeah, I don’t differentiate – I count ’em all. Good, bad, he’s still the guy in the cape.

    • Impressive, indeed. The question is, though, is Sun Wukong the main character or not? Because according to Wikipedia, he isn’t, or at least not for the majority of the story; it starts out focused on him, but then shifts focus to someone else for the remainder of its length, and Sun Wukong reverts to a supporting role – which, going by the rules I established for the list, would disqualify him.

    • You’d think he’d be a serious contender, wouldn’t you? But no – by my count, he currently only clocks in at 52, alongside Peter Pan. Mind you, this doesn’t count all the times the character’s story has been EVOKED, but in order to count for this list, an adaptation has to actually use Scrooge himself (or an alternate version of him – for instance, there are several gender-flipped versions featuring a ‘Ms. Scrooge’ or ‘Mrs. Scrooge’). Simply plugging Batman or Daffy Duck or Bart Simpson (or, for that matter, an original character) into ‘A Christmas Carol’ is not the same thing.

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