Not long ago, I saw an episode of South Park in which the young protagonists stumbled upon Indiana Jones being sexually abused by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Witnessing this crime, they later decided, was a bit like sitting through Lucas and Spielberg's most recent Indiana Jones movie, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – in both cases Jones was systematically degraded and abused to gratify the two Hollywood moguls. "Do you remember that scene with Indiana in the refrigerator?" the boys lamented, shaking their heads. "It just didn't make any sense."
The point being made, in the satirical cartoon's inimitable fashion, was that something uniquely awful happens when a cultural icon like Indiana Jones gets violated in the name of popcorn entertainment. Everything fans held dear about the action hero was destroyed by 2008's Crystal Skull, with its wooden acting, shoddy plot lines, and ludicrous denouement. In two underwhelming hours, a character whose narrative arc had spanned three previous blockbusters, touching hundreds of millions of viewers, was rendered absurd. Releasing that film was therefore a kind of abuse.
That's how South Park saw things, anyway. And if you happen to visit the cinema on a reasonably regular basis, you may very well agree. Lucas and Spielberg are by no means the only Hollywood moguls committing acts of gross indecency towards characters such as Indiana Jones; they're just the most visible. For amid the endless sequels, "reboots" and shoddy adaptations their industry has begun churning out films which aren't merely bad, but which also bastardise the most precious memories of their viewers; films which, for want of a better expression, desecrate your childhood.
Take The A-Team, which opened in the US earlier this summer and will arrive in British cinemas in a week's time. If you happen to have grown up in the Eighties, when the TV show of the same name was a fixture of ITV's Saturday afternoons, then to watch this movie is to have a sledgehammer taken to rose-tinted memories. The endlessly varied, hilariously improbable, low-budget television caper you once knew and loved has been reimagined as a workmanlike 21st-century action movie. Fight scenes have been all-too-slickly choreographed, core values have been "updated". BA no longer wears dungarees. Little wonder the end product has lost every iota of its original charm.
Or take The Karate Kid, the 1984 film about a plucky underdog who triumphs over neighbourhood bullies by learning a cheerfully ludicrous blend of eastern mysticism and martial arts. This movie, which my generation watched over and over on the family Betamax, has fallen victim to a grimly predictable makeover, also opening next week. It stars Will Smith's teenage son Jaden, and transplants the action from Eighties Los Angeles to modern-day China (where the script was approved by local censors). Thus a parable about a free-spirited teenager who boldly stands up to intimidation has been shamelessly re-engineered to endorse the values of one of the world's most oppressive political regimes.
Is much else from that golden era sacred? Apparently not. Gossip magazines are full of pictures of the ubiquitous Russell Brand on the set of a remake of Arthur, the cult Eighties film which made a Hollywood star of Dudley Moore. No one has yet explained why this perfectly good movie needs to be remade. Elsewhere, in what looks suspiciously like an effort to trammel the memories of an entire generation, next year's release schedules contain a new Ghostbusters flick, starring Bill Murray, a feature adaptation of MacGyver, yet more Rambo and Terminator sequels, and the frankly appalling prospect of Tom and Jerry: the Movie.
Once those film and TV franchises have been ruined for posterity (and let me predict right now that they will indeed be ruined) studios will also set about destroying your memories of the toys that you grew up with too. In a couple of months, Michael Cera will star in a new film which, judging by its worryingly awful trailer, is partly based on the video game Donkey Kong. Next year, Twilight star Taylor Lautner will play the children's action figurine Stretch Armstrong (Sienna Miller and friends having already ballsed-up GI Joe). In development, I kid you not, are studio projects inspired by the board games Battleships and Monopoly, and those "Magic 8-ball" fortune-telling devices that were popular for a brief while, roughly a quarter of a century ago.
There's an expression that perfectly describes the sort of environment in which these projects get green-lit, and it's two words long: creative vacuum. For as long as the film industry has existed, it has of course re-appropriated ideas from other mediums. Gone With the Wind was adapted from a novel, and The Sound of Music was originally a Broadway musical. But in the past, these movies tended to improve on their source material, and were released alongside a host of completely original titles, Nowadays, underwhelming adaptations, reworkings of old ideas and endless sequels are pretty much all we ever get to see.
If you think I'm exaggerating, look at this year's box-office charts. Just two of the Top 10 films released so far in 2010 are original products: the Dreamworks animation How to Train Your Dragon and the Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups. Of the remainder, four are sequels (Toy Story 3, Iron Man Two, Twilight 3 and Shrek 4), two are "rebooted" films from the Eighties (Karate Kid and Clash of the Titans), and two are literary adaptations (Shutter Island, Alice in Wonderland). Among the top 30 films released this year – a pretty reliable cross-section of what studios are putting out there – just 10 are original titles. For a town built on the power of imagination, Hollywood appears to be terribly short of new ideas.
Ask anyone in the film industry to explain this trend, and they will shrug their shoulders and trot out the excuse always used to justify their trade's most heinous crimes against good taste: money. The reason movies based on new ideas aren't being brought to market (and the reason why dearly beloved old TV and film franchises are therefore being prostituted) is that new ideas represent a gamble: you can never be sure the public will actually like them. Old ideas are, on paper, safer. And in recent times film-making has become a risk-averse business.
You can trace this development back a decade. "In the late 1990s and early 2000s, really beginning with Titanic, movies started becoming more and more expensive," says Nicole Laporte, a film industry journalist and author of The Men Who Would be Kings, a history of Dreamworks, the studio which in recent years has successfully ruined a generation's memories of Transformers. "That's when you start to see special effects becoming more advanced and therefore pricier, and quotes from actors going through the roof, with people getting $20m a movie. Of course, the more expensive something gets, the riskier it gets."
A decade ago, the average studio film cost $30m (£20m); $50m would put you into solid action-movie territory. Nowadays, those ballpark figures are out by a factor of two, or even three. The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a new Disney release starring Nicolas Cage which flopped badly at the weekend, cost an eye-watering $160m. Sam Raimi was rumoured to have quit the Spiderman franchise earlier this year because Sony balked at his budget request of $300m.
Most studio films will now set you back at least $100m; since no one wants to gamble with those sorts of sums, the industry has decided to make fewer and supposedly safer investments. "One very easy way to do that is to make movies that are out of existing products," adds Laporte. "Whether the film is good or not, your marketing is done. People know what it's about. If you take something like The A-Team, from the 1980s, and turn it into a film, then you hope to get older demographics turning out, because they already know the property. They will bring their younger kids along with them."
"I've just talked to someone who wants to remake [the 1984 film] Sheena Queen of the Jungle. The overall sense is that if you can do these kinds of picture right, you will still make money." Little wonder, then, that almost every talent agency in town now has beady-eyed agents mining the archives for long-ignored TV formats that they can snap up the rights for, then package into a movie (starring their own clients), and sell to a major studio. The men in suits, who never miss a trick, have decided to use our nostalgia against us.
You might say that it was ever thus: that major studios have for years been churning out rubbish based on old ideas. To an extent, you'd be right. But in the past, their dross was supplemented by a vibrant independent film industry. That no longer exists: firms such Miramax (which gave us artists like Quentin Tarantino) and New Line are essentially defunct, their business model killed by a huge decline in DVD sales. Most of the "indie" movies getting released are financed by labels like Fox Searchlight: specialist divisions of major studios, who trot out a small handful of fresh titles each Christmas, in an effort to give their corporate bosses something to cheer about during Oscar season.
The rest of the time, films are structured as branding opportunities rather than artistic products. In this realm, old ideas are also considered more reliable: they present proven opportunities for making money away from the box office. Currently in development, for example, are new films based on He-Man, one of the cartoons that defined my childhood, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which did the same for my younger brother. Film-makers already know they can be turned into lucrative ranges of toys and games, based on previous form. Toy- makers like Mattell, which these days employ a major Hollywood talent agency to represent their interests, are happy to play ball.
"One of the big ideas today is that everything should be branded and you should be able to sell merchandise around it," says Kim Masters, the editor-at-large for The Hollywood Reporter. "It's not enough just to be able to make a good movie experience, and expect to make money from it. DVD sales are down, the internet is fragmenting audiences, the industry is surrounded with nothing but problems, and it believes it can minimise risks with a branded, pre-sold idea." Maybe so. But there's something cynical about the way commercial calculations are made. A few weeks back, I was invited to a screening of Predators, the latest sequel to the Eighties Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Predator, about violent extra-terrestrials with dreadlocked hair. In my early teens, the original was one of my favourite films. But watching the new version gave rise to that all-too-familiar feeling that accompanies the desecration of a childhood memory: anger, resentment, and a deep, almost primeval sense of sorrow.
Today's instalment in the action franchise has no dialogue to speak of. Its plot is ludicrous, to the point of comedy, and peppered with cliché. Racial stereotypes abound: a Hispanic character is a drug enforcer; an oriental one commits hara-kiri. The Schwarzenegger version was doubtless similarly flawed. But it felt unique, and was a product of its era. This derivative version, almost three decades on, had none of its predecessor's charm.
Yet as the film's producer, Robert Rodriguez, explained the following day, Predators was created in a way that makes it almost guaranteed to turn a profit: every previous Predator film has made at least $57m (even the awful 2004 schlock-fest Alien vs Predator made $172m). An easily quantifiable market, of not-too-choosy fans who will watch any old rubbish attached to the Predator brand, clearly exists. So Fox gave him a budget of $43m, and told him to get cracking.
Such calculations lie behind almost every crime against good taste committed in the name of film. They are no doubt the sort of sums that persuaded the makers of Sex and the City 2 to pay almost no attention to the multifaceted characters who had made the TV series a hit, and instead turn out one-dimensional dross that not only ruined the relationship of fans to the SATC brand but also managed to be deeply condescending and offensive to half the Arab world at the same time.
There is, as it happens, a blockbuster-sized elephant in the room. For Hollywood's current attitude towards creativity is hardly helping it thrive – quite the reverse, in fact. In 2009, the number of people visiting cinemas stayed more or less flat, for the umpteenth year in a row; box-office receipts would have fallen steeply were it not for the emergence of 3D films (which punters, for the time being, are prepared to pay more to see) and the $2bn success of Avatar – a one-off movie that, by the by, was based on a wholly original idea.
Recent months, for their part, have been a disaster for major studios, which reckon to make 40 per cent of their annual profits through so-called "summer movies". A string of $100m or $200m flicks have failed at the US box office, including (to pluck a few examples almost at random) Prince of Persia, based on a video game, a pointless reworking of the Eighties horror film Nightmare on Elm Street, and our old friend, The A-Team.
There is, however, another way for studios to go about the grubby business of making money from the art of film-making. A few years back, Warner Brothers took a chance on Christopher Nolan, and allowed the director to develop an expensive, highly complex, ambitious-sounding action thriller called Inception. It opened finally at the weekend, to generally excited reviews, shot to the top of the charts across the world, and has so far made $89m, making it the second most successful launch for a science-fiction title in history, after Avatar.
Here, in case it was needed, was a demonstration of the fact that the best way to make a film feel fresh and original was to base it on an actual original idea, which grown-ups (rather than just fickle teenagers) might actually like. Inception has once again demonstrated that you can create a hit action movie without churning out a sequel or a reboot, or exhuming the films or TV shows or – God forbid – toys that we knew and loved 30 years ago.
Will it change the ingrained culture of a creative industry that has lost its grip on creativity? Probably not. But it might at least remind Spielberg, Lucas and all the other movie moguls out there that a new idea can sometimes be just as good as an old one.