RWBY is turning into a franchise, possibly the first franchise from a web series. A few months ago, Lost in Translation looked at the first RWBY novel, EC Meyers‘ RWBY After the Fall. A follow-up novel, RWBY Before the Dawn by the same author, is due out July 2020. Merchandise is available, including Funko Pop! figures. Add on to this a video game, a comic mini-series from DC Comics and two separate manga lines. One of the manga lines is a series of anthologies, each volume focusing on a different character on Team RWBY. The other is a 2015 release by Shirow Miwa and published by SHUEISHA. VIZ then received the English language rights to the manga in 2016.
While RWBY is up to its seventh series, interest in the show began early. The 2015 publication of Miwa’s manga came between seasons 2 and 3 of the series. The manga picks up on some threads left by the trailers – Red, White, Black, and Yellow – and season 1. Team RWBY doesn’t just have to deal with Grimm. There’s also rivals at Beacon Academy and mobster Roman Torchwick to deal with. Team RWBY isn’t alone, though. Team JNPR – Jaune, Nora, Pyrrha, and Ren – are there to help.
With a series early in its run, getting details right is key. Character design is the first thing audiences will notice, especially when going from one visual medium (animation in this case) to another (manga). Helping the transistion between media is RWBY having an aesthetic similar to /anime/, Japanese animation. Fans are already prepared for the art style. The personalities of Team RWBY are brought over without problems, as well. Ruby is young, unprepared, but is willing to step up to be a hero. Yang is boisterous, ready for action. Blake is reserved, slowly opening up with her new friends. Weiss is warming up to her teammates as well, though her icy exterior comes from different reasons than Blake’s. The four are recognizable in appearance and action.
In fact, all the characters are recognizable, even those with limited screen time in the manga like Penny. Even the Grimm behave as expected, though with a nice twist to challenge Team RWBY and Team JNPR. After all, there has to be a surprise or two.
The manga gives more details about dust, the magic powder used to power the weapons used by Huntresses and Hunters. Weiss, being the heir to the Schnee Dust Company, provides most of the info, as is fitting. Not everyone wants to hear it, but the info is out there for readers. The first part helps fill in details that audiences of the animated series might not have received.
Miwa’s RWBY is very much RWBY, especially as it was in 2015. A snapshot of a series that continued to evolve. The manga may not reflect what RWBY is now, it is a reflection of what it was and is still worth a read.
Movies based on TV series can go in one of two routes. The first is the remake, where a TV series is used as the basis of a movie. CHiPS and the Mission: Impossible series of movies are a good example. Sometimes the remake works; sometimes it doesn’t. The other approach is to either continue a TV series or give the series an ending. Typically done with the same cast, the movie provides fans a chance to see the characters at least one last time. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Serenity, and Veronica Mars are examples here. Of course, there are movies based on TV series that don’t fit into either category. Batman (1966) was created to advertise the TV series in the new markets it was going to. And then there’s The Simpsons Movie.
The Simpsons began as a feature on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. The popularity of the shorts increased their frequency over the run over The Tracey Ullman Show, leading to the creation of the TV series in 1989. The Simpsons has been running for thirty-one seasons as of this writing with no signs of stopping. The series had a short time being aired on Thursdays, defeating NBC’s powerhouse, The Cosby Show, in the ratings, before being moved to Sundays. The series is now the longest running American prime time series, live action or animated. Soap operas and sports broadcasts are the only TV series that have lasted longer. There are people watching The Simpsons that were born after the series started.
The Simpsons have been around long enough that anything that they could parody has long since ended. The show is now the media standard it made fun of in the past. What more can the Simpson family – Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie – get up to? America’s animated nuclear family, with a mother, a father, and 2.3 kids, has been through a lot, including moving their hometown of Springfield due to pollution. The series has a loose continuity. Big events tend to have echoes in later episodes, but other events are remembered when convenient.
A typical episode has one of the Simpsons, most likely Homer or Bart but even Maggie has instigated a plot or two, coming up with a scheme that backfires horribly. The rest of the episode has the cast trying to clean up the mess. The series has a large supporting cast thanks to being a long runner. It’s very possible now for a season to focus on a different character each episode and run out of time before running out of characters.
The year 2007 was twenty years after the first appearance of the Simpsons. The characters had evolved a lot in their animation style since their Tracey Ullman days. The only thing left was to go full CGI. The Simpsons Movie broke that barrier in glorious 2-D. With the same cast and crew as the TV series, the movie could easily keep to the core of what makes The Simpsons tick. It’s just a matter of what goes into the movie.
To no surprise, really, The Simpsons Movie plays as an extended episode of the TV series, just bigger thanks to the size of a movie screen. Things go horribly wrong yet again thanks to Homer. The fate of Springfield and all its inhabitants is sealed when Homer thinks with his stomach and makes the city’s already terrible pollution worse. The EPA cuts off Springfield from the rest of the world with a dome, with only the Simpsons able to escape.the city, just ahead of a lynch mob.
The movie plays with the idea of being based on a TV series, with screen crawls and a fade to black with “To Be Continued” on screen. Any character who appeared in the TV series appears in the movie with the possible exception of Side Show Bob. There’s an extended “Itchy & Scratchy” short to open the film before the opening credits, a more orchestrated version of the TV show’s credit sequence but ends with Green Day instead of a couch gag. The movie is The Simpsons, with more time to let the story idea play out and all the extras, such as cameos, that are expected.
The Simpsons Movie is just that, The Simpsons as a movie. The differences are in the budget, allowing for better animation for the bug screen, a fuller orchestration of the soundtrack, and higher stakes. For those expecting more than that, disappointment awaits. However, The Simpsons Movie delivers on the expectations set by The Simpsons.
Crossovers can be an odd lot. When done within the same setting, characters from two or more sources, typically series, meet and work out a way to solve a problem they have in common, whether the problem is medical, social, or villainous. Crossovers become events in comics and on TV; casts appearing outside their own title does draw an audience but the writing has to take into account the new personalities. Cross-corporate crossovers are an oddity. Normally found in the realm of fanfiction, where negotiations between companies about how their property appears isn’t a thing, the cross-corporate crossover does occur from time to time and is treated as an event by all companies involved. Examples of successful cross-corporate crossovers include JLA/Avengers, bringing DC and Marvel’s premier super teams together, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, bringing together cartoon characters from Disney and Warner Bros.
Archie Comics, though, tends to have the more interesting crossovers in the comic industry. Among the crossovers are The Punisher Meets Archie, Archie Meets KISS, Archie vs Predator and Archie vs Sharknado, the latter being an official crossover written by the Sharknado creators. Archie is the little black dress of comics; he goes with everything, no matter how odd the pairing seems on first glance.
DC, in the meantime, has been continuing some if the older TV series based on their characters, notable Batman ’66, based on the Adam West series, and Wonder Woman ’77, based on the Lynda Carter show. Both series aim to capture the feel of the original series. And this is where Archie comes in. Archie Comics has a timelessness thanks to being around since 1939. Their titles have reflected a wholesome image of teenagers ever since, with the characters remaining a constant despite changes in culture and society over time. The company’s digests have featured current and older stories, with the only real difference being art style and fashion. This makes dropping Archie and his friends into a specific era easy to do.
Archie Meets Batman ’66 is not an unusual crossover for Archie. The Adam West Batman series shows a more wholesome version of Gotham City, a Gotham terrorized by villains foul, that wouldn’t look out of place beside Riverdale. Archie fits into that setting without any need to shoehorn details.
The comic ran as a six issue mini-series in 2019, then later released as a trade paperback collection. It begins in Gotham City as Poison Ivy terrorizes the World’s Science Fair with her snapdragon, only to be thwarted by Batman, Robin, and Batgirl. But Ivy provides the distraction Bookworm needs for he and his henchwoman, Footnote, to steal an electronic book. Elsewhere, the United Underworld – Catwoman, Joker, Penguin, and Riddler – comment on Ivy’s efforts, The Riddler realizes that Gotham isn’t where the United Underworld should start its world domination. Batman is just too difficult to overcome. It would be easier to take over a city that doesn’t have a superhero. Riverdale has everything Gotham has – a chief of police, a rich millionaire – and no Batman. Very low crime rate, even. Perfect for striking.
Hiram Lodge is the first victim of United Underworld’s mind control scheme. However, the scheme only affects grown men. With coerced help from Riverdale technical genius Dilton Doiley, the villains manage to get all the adults, but teenagers are still a random element. Riddler finds a protege in Reggie Mantle, while the Joker needs effort to turn Jughead into a junior version. Catwoman’s alter ego Miss Kitka gets most of the teenaged boys on board, leaving Veronica, Betty, and the other teenaged girls, plus Kevin Keller, to figure out how to stop the United Underworld. Fortunately, Batman is on the case. It takes a combined effort from Batman, Robin, Batgirl with Archie and his friends to defeat the United Underworld and save Riverdale.
With crossovers, characters from both sources need to be equally active in the plot, at least to the point of believability. Having one set of characters be in the backseat of the plot, being dragged around from plot point to plot point, does them a disservice. The spotlight’s on all the characters, not just the ones from one of the sources. Archie Meets Batman ’66 does this. While Archie and his friends aren’t trained crime fighters, they do pitch in. They may not fight, but they are willing to be distractions. Likewise, Batman, Batgirl, and Robin don’t stand alone against the villains in Riverdale. They accept the help offered.
Details are also important. DC’s Batman ’66 is based on the Adam West Batman, not the regular continuity. A Batman that works only in black and really dark gray wouldn’t fit in. The colours are bright, suiting both the 1966 series and Archie Comics. Even the smaller details help. United Underworld is pulled straight from the movie, as is Miss Kitka. The Joker has Cesar Romero’s mustache under the whitepaint. The Batusi makes an appearance as does The Archies’ hit single, “Sugar Sugar“, albeit three years too early.
There are scenes, though, when the soundtrack starts playing in your head. Fight scenes have the appropriate written sound effects, none repeated in the run of the mini-series. The narrator, who in most comics serves to remind readers of past events, takes on the voice of the TV series’, with alliteration during the cliffhangers at the end of chapters 1-5.
Archie Meets Batman ’66 manages to meld the two sources, combining Archie Comics’ timelessness and wholesomeness with the 1966 Batman TV series’ sense of fun and camp. The two merge seemlessly, a crossover long overdue. Both sources come through shining.
Now that the Teens are done, it’s time to look at the breakdown of popular movies by originals and adaptations. In 2015, Lost in Translation looked at the decade up to that year to wrap up the History of Adaptations series at the time. With five more years gone by, things have changed. Once again, I’m using the compiled list at Filmsite.org.
Toy Story 3 – sequel. Pixar’s most popular series of films.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – sequel and adaptation. The last of the Harry Potter movies based on the first seven books.
Marvel’s The Avengers – adaptation.
The Dark Knight Rises – sequel of adaptation, The Dark Knight.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – sequel and adaptation. Covers the second book of The Hunger Games trilogy.
American Sniper – adaptation of American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Pyle.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – sequel. The first Star Wars movie released after Disney bought Lucasfilm.
Jurassic World – adaptation. It’s a tough call, as it was marketed as a sequel but doesn’t share much between the original Jurassic Park movies or the book. It’s more, “What if Jurassic Park didn’t have the dinosaur break-out shown in the book and movies?”
Avengers: Age of Ultron – sequel of adaptation. The Marvel movies that led up to this release didn’t make the list.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – spin off. The first of several films meant to look at other parts of the Galaxy Far Far Away that aren’t part of the main Skywalker saga.
Finding Dory – sequel of original. The second Pixar film on the list for the Teens.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi – sequel.
Beauty and the Beast – remake of adaptation. Part of Disney’s series of live action remakes of their animated classics.
Wonder Woman – adaptation. The second DC property to make the list.
Black Panther – adaptation. Diversity matters.
Avengers: Infinity War – sequel of adaptation.
Incredibles 2 – sequel. Another Pixar film, this time fourteen years after the original.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – sequel of adaptation.
Avengers: Endgame – sequel of adaptation
The Lion King – remake. Computer animated remake with photo-realistic characters.
Toy Story 4 – sequel of original and fourth of the series to be mentioned in the History series.
Captain Marvel – adaptation.
Disney is a big winner, with fifteen films listed above. The list breaks down to six adaptations, six sequels of original movies, five sequels of adaptations, two movies that are both sequels and adaptations, and one spin-off. There are no original movies on the above list, the worst showing for any decade. Since popular movies tend to stay in the pop subconscious, the backlash against adaptations has a point. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been popular original movies. Us was knocked out of the top ten of 2019 by The Rise of Skywalker in the final weeks. If anything, the Teens was the decade of the blockbuster, big budget films.
Superhero films were popular, with nine total in the list, including the one not based on any comic book character. Superhero films are filling the niche that Westerns once had, becoming almost ubiquitous. The trend of adapting Young Adult novels that heralded the start of the decade faded; few YA novels ever had the buzz that Harry Potter and The Hunger Games had.
Gone from 2015’s list are Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Frozen, Despicable Me 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Inside Out, and Furious 7. The Teens’ top grossing movies come mainly from the latter half of the decade. Part of the losses were to be expected; as the decade continued, more movies had opportunity to outperform what had already come. But the latter half of the Teens had more blockbusters, more record breaking grosses than the first half. Some of it can be chalked up to Disney’s marketing department. The rest of the explanation needs some further study.
As the new Twenties dawn, adaptations hold ground. At this point, it’ll take a sleeper hit to get studios to put the money they do for adaptations behind an original, untested work. Risk avoidance means original works won’t have the spectacle of an adaptation. It may take a well-known name to get an original work done to the same level at this point. For the next few years, expect adaptations to get the lion share of budgets and marketing.
Lost in Translation has pointed out that television is the better medium for adapting longer form stories, such as novels. Of late, movies are better with mind blowing, budget breaking action scenes, but are limited when allowing a story to develop. Television doesn’t have the budget, but a good accountant can find ways to spread the costs over the run of a season. The catch with TV, though, is ratings. A series that can’t find an audience fast enough is often cancelled. The days where series like M*A*S*H and Cheers would be allowed time to grow an audience. Today’s television is not only competing among the networks and cable stations but also streaming services.
The key to adapting a novel is knowing just how much time can be filled. The Expanse took seventeen episodes to adapt the first book of the series, Levianthan Wakes, all of season one and the first seven episodes of season two. If the series wasn’t picked up after the first season, The Expanse would have ended at a natural break point, leaving the main plot still unfinished but giving the characters an end of sorts for their arcs.
Season lengths tend to be set for American network productions; thirteen or twenty-two episodes, giving allowing for reruns and holiday breaks. British television, though, is not beholden to the format. Seasons run as long as needed, no more, no less. This gives a bit more freedom when it comes to adaptations. There’s no need for filler episodes as seen in long running anime or even original TV series on American television. Being able to set the length of a series adapting a novel means the showrunner can figure out what can be kept and what can be dropped without losing the core of the original work.
The 2019 adaptation of Good Omens is perhaps the best use of a limited series to adapt a novel. Based on the novel Good Omens: A Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the series co-produced by the BBC and by Amazon took on the task of adapting the book nicely. The main catch to the novel was the narrative. The narrator provided a lot of extra information and footnotes that would be difficult to replicate. Tone is also crucial; the original novel is a comedy about the End of the World.
Published in 1990, the novel takes the idea of the Antichrist as seen in such movies as The Omen and asks the key question, “What if the Antichrist didn’t have angelic or demonic influences?” The novel also looks at the question of nature versus nurture, ineffability, and the nature of humanity. All while an angel and a demon rebel against their own sides to save the world.
How does the Antichrist get misplaced, though? One would expect that the angelic hosts and demonic hordes would keep a close eye on the bringer of Armageddon. However, while God does not play dice with the universe, God is also not beyond a little Three-Card Monte, by adding a third baby to the mix. Not only is the wife of the American ambassador giving birth at St. Beryl’s Order of Chattering Nuns, but Mrs. Young is as well. The demon Crowley passes the Antichrist off to one of the Satanic nuns who gets confused on who is the American ambassador and switches out the wrong baby. While Heaven, represented by the Principality Aziraphale, and Hell, with Crowley coming in, try to influence young Warlock, the Antichrist, named Adam, is growing up in Tadfield, England.
Add into the confusion Anathema Device, a professional descendant of Agnes Nutter, and the owner of the only copy ever published of Agnes’ book, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch; the Witchfinder Army, consisting of Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell and new recruit Newt Pulsifer, descendant of the man who burned Agnes at the stake; the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse with new recruit Pollution replacing the retired Pestilence; Adam’s gang, Them, with Pepper, Wensleydale, and Brian; and a Bentley where every cassette morphs into The Best of Queen over a fortnight. Gaiman and Pratchett keep the story moving along and a good pace as Adam starts realizing that he is more than what he appears as his eleventh birthday approaches. Ultimately, Adam shows that he is neither good nor evil, just human.
Being adapted can be seen as winning the lottery by some writers. It takes writers with experience and pull to be able to control how their stories are adapted. Neil Gaiman is one such author, with experience working in television and enough best sellers to make studios notice. Gaiman became the showrunner for the 2019 adaptation of Good Omens. His familiarity with the story and his respect for his co-writer Pratchett comes through with the results. Gaiman also wrote the script and, working with the BBC and with Amazon’s streaming service, was able to get the novel out without being rushed, without losing key ideas, and without having to cut corners.
The series starred Michael Sheen as Aziraphale and David Tennant as Crowley, with Adria Arjona as Anathema, Jack Whitehall as Newt, Miranda Richardson as Madame Tracey, Michael McKean as Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, Sam Taylor Buck as Adam, and Ollie as the cutest Hellhound ever, Dog. The six episodes follow the events in the novel closely, losing only a few bits and characters due to limitations. To new viewers, though, these losses don’t leave a visible hole, so the second set of Four Bikers of the Apocalypse aren’t muddling the flow of the plot onscreen. Likewise, the reason Queen is used as the soundtrack is never explained, but it’s a soundtrack featuring Queen. The fate of the third baby isn’t revealed, leaving the question dangling of what just happened after the swapping at St. Beryl’s. At the same time, the series expands on how the Arrangement between Aziraphale and Crowley came about, where they cover for each other when one gets stuck elsewhere.
The narrator is handled by having Frances McDormand be the voice of God, narrating as needed, giving the extra explanations the narrative in the original novel does. The Metatron, the Voice of God, though, is played by Derek Jacobi. By having God narrate, the little asides that come up in the book can carry over to the series, giving the audience the information needed to understand where the story is going and why.
Casting was critical. The chemistry between Aziraphale and Crowley had to work. Fortunately, Sheen and Tennant were more than capable in recreating the forbidden camaraderie of two people who have known each other over 6000 years. Sam Taylor Buck plays Adam as a normal kid who isn’t all that normal, one who just wants to enjoy his time at home, neither good nor evil. The cast, in short, was perfect, even with the minor characters like Jon Hamm’s Gabriel, portrayed as an out of touch middle manager who doesn’t have to deal with the front line.
Having Gaiman as showrunner ensured that the adaptation stayed true. The parts and characters that were removed weren’t needed in the overall plot and would have taken up time needed elsewhere. Good Omens remained faithful to the original novel, keeping the tone and the themes that helped make the story popular.
Studios will mine anything for an adaptation – popular books, classic literature, remakes of popular movies, television, games of all sorts. If there’s an audience, a studio will try to get its attention with a big screen adaptation. Sometimes, adapting a work may be the only way a project gets greenlit.
Police procedurals have been around for some time. Dragnet, the prototypical police procedural, began on the radio before moving to TV. Webb followed up with Adam-12, a series about two LA police officers and the calls they responded to during the day, and Emergency!, a paramedic procedural following the calls taken by the fictional Squad 51. The two series also went into some depth on what the characters did between calls.
In 1977, NBC added a new element to the police procedural. /CHiPs/ was typical for police procedurals, with a mix of action, drama, and comedy, but emphasized the buddy cop aspect that was still nascent in the previous series. Starring Larry Wilcox as Officer Jon Baker and Erik Estrada as Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, CHiPs ran six seasons, gaining a fan base. The characters were typical of a duo at the time, one stoic, the other hot blooded, but the buddy cop archetype has to start somewhere, taking cues from The Odd Couple. Each standalone episode had a mix of comedic and dramatic police calls, threaded together by a subplot involving the main characters in their downtime. Even the supporting cast, including Randi Oakes, Paul Linke, Robert Pine, and Michael Dorn.
The series is memorable, at least among the older audiences, and the name stands out. This made it prime for adaptation, which Dax Shepard did with the 2017 release, CHIPS, starring Shepard as Jon and Michael Peña and Ponch. Shepard had been trying to get a movie starring himself and Peña, a comedy about motor sports, but studios kept turning him down. He decided to adapt CHiPs and the studio, Warner Bros Pictures, green lit the project.
The movie made a few changes to the characters. Jon became the CHP’s oldest rookie after he went through the police academy to try to win back his wife. Before that, he was a professional motocross rider, with the injuries that built up over his career, including gaining a titanium humerus among all his scars. Rainy days are not his friend. “Ponch”, really FBI Special Agent Castillo, is an undercover operative, being sent into different organizations to infiltrate and expose crime. The movie begins with him being the getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers.
In LA, a number of armoured car robberies have been going on with precision, leaving no one dead at the scene of the heist. One of the robbers even moves a young woman out of the way of the shaped charge, dragging her from the car. However, during the robbery, a CHP cruiser arrives. The ringleader takes the driver of the armoured car with him, holding him hostage as a CHP helicopter hovers overhead. The catch, the driver is in on the crime, as is the helicopter pilot. The ringleader forces a choice, and the pilot takes a dive out of the chopper.
The FBI sends in Castillo as Poncherello to infiltrate the CHP the same day Jon is given an ultimatum. Due to his poor marks at the academy, Jon has to finish in the top ten percent in performance or be washed out of the CHP. The only area he has top marks in is motorcycle riding. Jon gets paired with new transfer Ponch and the two begin their patrol. Ponch starts his assigned investigation, only to be hindered by Jon ticketing for every possible offense. However, Jon turns out to be more observant than Ponch, noticing in a brief look that the home of the dead pilot’s widow didn’t have any sign that they were even together.
The investigation keeps building, leading to chasing of the ringleader’s son after a drug deal. The ringleader isn’t out to get rich but to get his kid to a place where he can kick his drug habit. The death of his son in the chase pushes him over the edge, leading to a campaign to get his revenge on Jon and Ponch.
The film makes changes to the original. Ponch and Jon are the more obvious change from the original. The movie shakes up the characters, making Jon not so much straitlaced as out of touch. Ponch is professional but is very likely to succumb to his weakness, mainly women wearing yoga pants. Shepard describes the difference between them as female energy (Jon) and male energy (Ponch). Neither is shown as being the better; each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The cast is more diverse than the original series, with a more even mix of men and women in uniform plus a few gay men. The script doesn’t quite take full advantage, but some plot points did slip in. The movie, though, tends to be more bro humour, low brow. CHIPS is rated R for good reason. It’s not necessarily a bad movie. The new approach, though, may be jarring to anyone expecting something like the original.
The main thing holding the movie back from being a good adaptation is that Dax Shepard took advantage of current studio thinking. Original works are risky; adaptations aren’t. Attach a known name to a project and the studio will fund. Given that, there is effort to recreate the original series even while using its name to push through a project that would otherwise not get funded. There is action, there is comedy, there is drama, and there is thought put behind the villain’s motives for what he’s doing, as well as motives for the other characters involved. The result is a movie that at times is held back because it had to be filmed under the banner of another work.
Last week, Lost in Translation used The Mandalorian as an example of a streaming service adapting a work instead of doing something original for the headline. This week, The Mandalorian gets a closer look.
Created by Jon Favreau and produced by Favreau and Dave Filoni, The Mandaloran became the headliner for Disney+, Disney’s streaming service. While Disney has a huge back catalogue that could be used as hooks into the service, the company went with a new Star Wars series, building from the audience attention on the most recent films in the franchise. The Mandalorian is a space spaghetti western with a strong samurai/ronin influence about a Bounty Hunter With No Name, played by Pedro Pascal, who winds up breaking the bounty hunter code when he decides to not turn over a young target to the Imperial client (Warner Herzog) who set the bounty.
The eight 45-minute episodes build up to a climax that may be one of the best episodes of television, bringing together several plot lines introduced over the course of the season. While episodic, each episode builds on what happened before, invoking several western tropes and modifying them for the Star Wars setting. Every character has an arc, from the Mandalorian’s with the young charge he protected to Nick Nolte’s Ugnaught to Gina Carano’s ex-Rebel soldier.
Visually, the series looks like it should be on the silver screen instead of on even a wide-screen TV. The effects are what people expect out of Star Wars, with a mix of wonder, adventure, and lived in. But the series didn’t stop on the surface. Filoni and Favreau dig into an element of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, the Mandalorians, and pull together from previous works, including the animated series Filoni worked on, to show who and what they are.
If some of the episodes seem familiar, it’s because of the influences. As mentioned, The Mandalorian is a space western with samurai influence. Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, as seen in A Fistful of Dollars is an obvious source, but so are Have Gun Will Travel and Lone Wolf and Cub. The first season can be seen as an extended homage to The Seven Samurai by way of The Magnificent Seven as the people the Mandalorian helps come back to help him, including a reprogrammed IG-11 (voiced by Taiki Waititi).
Even the space spaghetti western with a dash of samurai films is just another layer to the series. The original /Star Wars/ took some of its cues from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, so the samurai element was always there in one form or another, particularly when the Jedi are considered. What makes The Mandalorian its own work, albeit an adaptation, is how it builds off the Star Wars mythos. Elements may come from westerns or samurai films, but the heart still lies in Star Wars even as the series expands that setting. The time after the fall of the Empire could be seen as the period following the American Civil War, but the details and dynamics between the two eras are different.
The Mandalorian takes a look at the fall out from the Empire’s fall, as warlords try to maintain what control they have, former Rebels try to figure out what to do now that the goal they’ve been fighting for has been achieved and now have to integrate back into galactic society, and former Imperial slaves come to terms with how they helped, even against their will, an oppressive regime. Even on the fringes of the galaxy, lives matter, actions matter, and motives matter. The Mandalorian has difficult choices to make, even with a code of honour to guide him. Choosing to save a youngling has consequences that may shake the New Republic.
The series is very much a story in the /Star Wars/ setting, even with the trappings. Star Wars does allow for a great range of stories, from warrior monks trying to cope after becoming leaders of soldiers to a young farmboy becoming a galactic hero to the scruffiest of nerfherders showing that he has a heart of gold. The Mandalorian easily stands beside such stories, with an emotional impact that makes the series memorable.
I’ve been in discussions with Steve of Seventh Sanctum and Serdar of Genji Press about the nature of adaptations and how some works could be done as pure originals instead of being tied to an existing property. There are a few examples of works available today or soon to be released that fall into this realm. The question is, why?
Streaming services are getting competitive due to the number of them starting up. To get subscribers, the services need something that will draw audiences in. Disney+, while having all of Disney’s library, went with The Mandalorian, a space western in the Star Wars setting with a lead dressed in armour similar to what Boba Fett wears and a very young version of Yoda. The series is beautiful to look at and has depth that the movies don’t have, mainly because of the nature of a TV series. CBS All Access went with Star Trek: Discovery and will follow up with Star Trek: Picard, banking on Star Trek fans wanting to subscribe just to watch the shows.
It’s understandable. The streaming services are competing for views, so they are going to maximize the headliner as much as possible, including budget. The services don’t want their headliner to look terrible. The Mandalorian has movie-level production values with casting to match. But the series is a space spaghetti western at its heart. The series adds to the Star Wars setting, but does the Star Wars setting bring anything to the story?
But the need to draw attention means that the services are going to go with their big guns. For Disney+, that’s The Mandalorian. CBS All Access’ go-to is Star Trek. The goal is to get subscribers. But once there are subscribers, why not create a new property? Obviously, if CBS goes for a space spaghetti western with a Bounty Hunter With No Name, with or without a young child, people will suspect the service is trying to follow in Disney+’s footsteps. But what about a new science fiction series, one that isn’t about exploration or isn’t a space western with samurai/ronin influences? There is a demand growing, even if adaptations are still the major draw at the box office.
The problem comes from budget. The headliners are getting a proper budget. The streaming services don’t have unlimited funds. Unlike Netflix, many of the newer services have a back catalogue to help fill time, but there’s only so many episodes of Big Bang Theory people are willing to watch in a day. There’s room for original works in the schedule. The question is, will there be a budget for the original works. Some of the subscriber fees will be going back into the headliners, since they are the draw. The rest, anything leftover after operating costs and CEO bonuses are taken out, may have a number of projects trying to get a chunk. Science fiction tends to be expensive, from special effects to specialized sets. Apartment sets can be redressed as needed. Starship bridges tend to be unique and recognizable.
It will boil down to demand. Will there be enough demand for a new work, and original series exploring new territory? Or will fans demand more of the same?
Time for the now traditional year-end wrap up with a look at the top ten movies of 2019, thanks to the list compiled by Box Office Mojo. The top movies are
1) Avengers: Endgame – sequel to an adaptation.
2) The Lion King – remake.
3) Toy Story 4 – sequel to an original work.
4) Captain Marvel – adaptation.
5) Spider-Man: Far from Home – sequel to an adaptation.
6) Frozen II – sequel.
7) Aladdin – remake of an adaptation.
8) Joker – adaptation.
9) Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker – sequel to an original work.
10) It Chapter Two – sequel and adaptation.
Like last year, there is no original movie in the top ten. Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, was pushed out of the top ten in the final week of 2019 by Star Wars: Episode IX. The top ten consists of sequels, adaptations, or remakes. Aladdin is a remake of the animated film adapted from a folk tale. Superheroes took up 40% of the list, down from 60% last year. One movie, It Chapter Two, is adapted from a novel. Disney is the big winner of 2019, releasing seven of the ten movies. Warner Bros has two, Joker and It Chapter Two, leaving Sony to get one slot with Spider-Man.
Movie studios are still counting on known properties to draw an audience. Budgets have exploded, especially for summer blockbusters. If the movie fails to perform, studios lose money and execs lose bonuses. The effort to redo Sonic might not have been done if less money was involved. This won’t be changing anytime soon. Studios are risk adverse. Unless there’s a number of sleeper hits over the course of a year or several star-driven original works that gain attention, expect more adaptations. Disney and Marvel are at a point where the movies are their own universe, and missing one may mean missing a key part leading up to the big ensemble film. Warner and DC are trying the same, but have had more success with their television series.
However, there is hope for more original works. Us tapped a market that is usually ignored. The film also had a much lower budget. This combination could set a path for more original works in theatres. The problem may not be adaptations but excessive budgets. There is room for smaller budget films in theatres.
Last year’s wrap-up, I predicted that Captain Marvel and Valiant’s Faith may do well at the box office. Faith is due to come out February 2020, but Captain Marvel finished fourth overall in the top ten, following Black Panther dominating in 2018. Studios will have to pay attention to audiences outside the 18-45 white male demographic. However, 2020 won’t be that year. It takes time to create a movie, from story outline to finished product. Audience demand is starting to be seen. All that’s needed now is a hit that features an atypical protagonist for the dam to crack.
Christmas movies can be hit or miss. The worst can appear on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. However, to become a MST3K classic, there has to be potential to the movie. Such classics include Space Mutiny, Danger!! Death Ray, Repitlicus, and even Manos, the Hands of Fate. This brings us to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a 1964 Christmas movie that was featured during the third season of MST3K on the Comedy Channel. That episode of MST3K also featured “A Patrick Swayze Christmas”.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians starred John Call as Santa Claus, Victor Stiles as Billy Foster, Donna Conforti as Billy’s sister Betty, Leonard Hicks as Kimar, Vincent Beck as Voldar, Bill McCutcheon as Dropo, and Pia Zadora as Kimar’s daughter, Girmar. This was Zadora’s first film role, and she was part of the children’s chorus singing the movie’s title song, “Hooray for Santa Claus”[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-TGnBOZj1U]. It’s obviously meant to be a children’s movie. Billy and Betty tend to carry the film and Dropo, a Martian, is comic relief. And, of course, there is Santa Claus.
The movie begins with a TV crew at the North Pole filming Santa, his wife (played by Doris Rich), and his helpers as they prepare for the Christmas Eve world tour. The footage is broadcast all around the world and into space to satellites in orbit and beyond. On Mars, children watch the broadcast raptly. The children of Kimar, the Martian leader, are no exception. Kimar consults with a sage, who saw the problem coming. To fix the issue of Martian children being too rigid, too controlled, Kimar comes up with the idea to kidnap Santa to help the children of Mars learn how to have fun.
Kimar takes several of his top Martians into a flying saucer to go to Earth. Stowing away is Dropo, who is atypical of a Martian – lazy, clumsy, and child-like. They make the trip across space to Earth orbit and search for a fat man with a long white beard and wearing a red suit and find many. Confused, Kimar orders the saucer to land. As Kimar and his small band search for answers, they find Billy and Betty. They interrogate the kids and find out that the real Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. To make sure that the Martian plot isn’t discovered, Kimar kidnaps Billy and Betty, bringing them on board the saucer.
The saucer takes off again and lands again at the North Pole. Kimar takes his top Martians and Tor, a robot, to grab Santa. Tor is sent in first, but Santa and his elves repair the robot, turning it into a toy. The Martians move in, paralyzing the elves and Mrs. Claus and take Santa. During this, Dropo befriends Billy and Betty, and helps them hide, but there’s not many places to stay hidden.
Kimar brings Santa back to Mars. Santa, Billy, and Betty meet Grimar and her brother. It doesn’t take long before all the children, Martian and Terran, to start laughing. A new toy factory is created for Santa, all automated. Mission accomplished! Except, some of Kimar’s top Martians aren’t happy with what happened and plot to eliminate Santa and return to the status quo of rigid, unimaginative, unhappy children. The automated toy factory is sabotaged, but the damage is easily repaired. The unhappy Martians kidnap who they think is Santa, but is really Dropo wearing Santa’s suit. One final assault on the toy factory goes horribly wrong.
As the Martian children gain happiness, Billy and Betty lose theirs. They are homesick. They want to go home. Once arrangements are made for Dropo to be the Martian Santa, the real Santa Claus takes Billy and Betty home.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians tends to wind up on worst movie lists. It’s not horrible, though. There is potential, but there are several factors holding the movie back. The biggest factor is budget. It’s very obvious low budget. Tor the robot is an actor in two cardboard boxes wrapped in aluminum foil with tubing covering limbs. The Martians’ ray guns are from Wham-O[https://wham-o.com]. The sets are very obviously sets.
However, the movie is meant for children. Their imagination can fill in the gaps. Tor lurches menacingly. The ray guns are real. Santa Claus is in danger. Don’t underestimate the viewers. This doesn’t excuse the low budget, but the audience determines the level of realism. A Christmas movie for children aren’t going to go out of the way to deliberately frighten the audience. The colours will be brighter, with more flashing lights, both of which require a budget.
A larger budget means having Tor match expectations of what robots look like. Star Wars, Terminator, and even Wall-E and Short Circuit have all changed expectations on what a robot looks like, from R2-D2 and BB-8 to the T-1000 to Johnny Five. Cardboard boxes no longer make the grade. The Martian toy factory is a row of labelled doors, similar to a wall of original series Star Trek replicators. Some added flashing lights and moving parts will add to the visual interest of the scene, something that, again, needs a budget.
The story is solid enough. Tone drifts around, but not to the point of mood whiplash until the final assault by the rebel Martians. That assault was only missing cream pies being flung around. If that is going to be the climax, the rest of the movie needs to match that tone. Dropo, as cringeworthy a character as he is, matches. The storming of the North Pole is far more serious, especially with how Tor is treated. Children can handle frightening scenes, but mood whiplash is a danger.
Remaking Santa Claus Conquers the Martians just needs a better budget. Child actors can be hit or miss, but casting directors are always improving. Sets need to look better and less like they were built on a sound stage. And for a bit of stunt casting, bring back Pia Zadora for some role, even if it is Mrs. Claus. Have her perform the remade theme music as well.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians isn’t a horrible film, just one with a low budget and made in a time where children’s films weren’t seen as worthy endeavours. Remaking it just needs a decent budget, which will let solutions for any other problem fall into place.