By Pete Vonder Haar | May 14, 2008

Herzog had “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” Coppola had “Apocalypse Now,” and Terry Gilliam had…everything he’s ever breathed on. All the greats can point to their labors of love; movies whose completion was a task on par with the cleaning of the Augean stables. Add to that list “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation,” which began production in 1982, when the principle filmmakers (director Eric Zala, producer Chris Strompolos, cinematographer Jayson Lamb) were all of twelve years old. By the time the film was completed in 1988, they’d grown facial hair, were about to graduate high school, and – quite unexpectedly – had put together a hell of a film.

After an introductory scroll that reads almost as much as a “don’t sue us” plea as it does a heartfelt thanks to Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan for making the original “Raiders,” we’re off. A shot-by-shot remake is normally a recipe for unmitigated disaster (hello Mr. Van Sant), but “The Adaptation” is ridiculously entertaining. Considering that when they started, these guys didn’t even have access to a copy of the movie (video rentals not being available in 1982), the attention to detail is remarkable. Strompolos and company must have gone to see “Raiders” in the theater as many times as I did.

Technically, it’s certainly uneven. This is to be expected when you’re relegated to shooting in your mother’s basement, or (illegally) on the streets of Gulfport, Mississippi, or on the USS Alabama. And the audience’s tolerance for amateur camera technique and unsophisticated acting will be tested early on, but as you keep watching, it’s obvious that real talent and an abiding love for the source material are at play here.

Half the fun in watching “The Adaptation” is seeing how they recreated the film’s classic environments. Zala’s backyard stands in for the jungles of South America, with a handful of pasty suburban kids for Hovitos. In the other hemisphere, Sallah sure got a lot skinnier, and Snickers the beagle steps in as the traitorous monkey (though he perches admirably on one’s shoulder). All the same, for a bunch of teenagers with no experience and almost no money, the final result is quite extraordinary.

Naturally for a movie shot on a shoestring, certain sacrifices had to be made (Jock drives an outboard instead of a biplane), and there are some touches that only teenage boys would think of (the Army Intelligence guys roll their eyes at us instead of each other when they hear the “Wiped clean by the wrath of God” line). And even then, the unintentionally hilarious moments are the real gold, such as when a pudgy teen Strompolos says, “It’s not the years, honey…it’s the mileage,” or when the dog gives the Nazi salute.

I must admit, part of my appreciation of “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” and the work Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb have done stems from our shared love for the movie. Like “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” played a large part in making me a movie buff. Unlike “Star Wars,” I can rewatch “Raiders” without flinching in embarrassment. Also, I was 13 in 1982, so in some ways I am a “shadowy reflection” of those guys. and might have attempted something like “The Adaptation” myself. But for that to have happened, I’d have needed friends who were more interested in filmmaking than trying to get 19-year olds to buy them beer, and I would’ve needed something resembling ambition.

In retrospect, it’s probably better that these guys did it. “The Adaptation” is a hell of a lot of fun, and has more heart than just about any production, studio or otherwise, you’re likely to come across.

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