Posted on by Scott Delahunt

First of all, welcome to the fiftieth installment of Lost in Translation. I’ve learned a lot about the process of adapting a work over the past almost two years. I’ve watched shows and movies, both good and bad, to try to work out the common factors that work towards a good adaptation. The word “respect” kept popping up over and over.

However, older works do not stand up well to social progress. Pulp-era stories were aimed at a specific audience – men. Older science fiction and fantasy evolved out of those stories and kept the same biases. The main characters were men, and women, if they were in the story, were relegated to supporting cast. Many times, the woman in the story was the damsel to be distressed by the villain.

Times have changed. Audiences expect a more diverse cast. Women aren’t background characters anymore; neither are minorities. Marketing departments have realized this and will insist on adding the missing elements. A good example of a woman being added to a movie is The Hobbit. Galadriel was added in a scene to offset the rest of the entirely male cast. The original story featured thirteen dwarves and a hobbit, all men, going on an adventure. The novel represented JRR Tolkien’s background where men went to war and women tended the homefires.

These days, though, women can serve on the front lines. What was once chivalric is at best quaint and at worst sexist. The audience has changed. What was accepted before isn’t anymore. When it comes to adapting, though, making a change needs to be a delicate operation, especially if the original has a sizable fanbase. Composite characters can be used; audiences tend to understand the need to keep the cast manageable. But gender-switching can cause outrage. The Battlestar Galactica remake was running into this issue by changing Starbuck’s gender. However, as in Galactica‘s case, a well done final product can, if not remove, then ease the issue.

Creators now, though, can help in the adaptation process, and may already be doing so without realizing it. As mentioned above, a diverse cast goes a long way to help the production crew. If the elements already exist, there’s no need to add more. Sure, there are still other problems to deal with, such as studios not believing that a woman can carry an action movie.*

On a more celebratory note, I’ll pose a question. What do you feel were the best adaptations and remakes? What were the worst? And what ones should I take a look at in the future?

Next week, superheroes and origins.

* Conveniently forgetting both The Hunger Games and Tomb Raider.

  • This is something of the same stance I took in my blog post here: — We’ll always find new ways to be both cynical and naive, but that’s a good thing. It gives us new ways to be surprised, and new outlooks we can bring to things that have been part of our cultural furniture. The fact that the 1960s “Batman” has a campy flavor about it is a good thing, because it means we can see how it stands apart from other things all the more completely.

  • Now, to answer your question:

    BEST ADAPTATION: It’s always tough to single out one best, so I’ll mention a few: the Michael Radford movie of George Orwell’s “1984”; the movie version of “The Accidental Tourist” (; and “Sideways”, which did the amazing trick of taking an okay novel and turning it into a truly splendid movie.

    There are a number of anime that make this list too: “Basilisk” (which, again, improved on the source novel);

    BEST REMAKE: “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (actually, a re-adaptation, and re-adapted by the same director!); John Carpenter’s “The Thing” beats the living hell out of the original; and the new version of “True Grit” is in many ways a great improvement on what came before. It’s hard to unseat John Wayne, but the movie aims for a different flavor of story, and gets it.

    I’d include “A Fistful of Dollars” (remake of “Yojimbo”), although it was an unsanctioned remake at the time, and ended up landing the filmmakers in hot water.

    I hope Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” fits this category. (Which, if you haven’t seen yet, SEE IT as preparation for said remake.)

    WORST ADAPTATION: A recent and deeply egregious example – the filmed version of Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human” (I pilloried it here — – they managed to take the single most important thing about the book and completely omit it.

    WORST REMAKE: The 2008 version of “Sanjuro”, re-shot from the same script as the original but minus all the things that made it so good — like, for instance, Toshiro Mifune. (

    Also, the U.S. remake of George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing” (by the director himself) is a travesty compared to the horrific original .. but, oh irony, the director thinks the remake is better.

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