Posted on by Scott Delahunt

During my review of Dredd, I touched upon the idea of a work being influenced by the current events of its day.  Judge Dredd was influenced by movies like Dirty Harry, the beginning of Thatcherism, and the fascism of Spain’s Francisco Franco to become the dystopian future shown in the pages of 2000 AD.  While some works can be seen in their historical setting, fantasy and science fiction is meant to transcend the era of creation while still providing a look at society and humanity of the day.  Other works, already historical, like Westerns, can still reflect the mores of the time of creation.

Society isn’t static.  Mixed-race marriages, for example, was scandalous in 1910 but is mostly a given in 2014*.  Adaptations need to adjust for changes in sensibilities.  The casual racism in early works such as 1929’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. just won’t fly today and didn’t in the 1979 television adaptation.  At the same time, as seen throughout Lost in Translation, the best adaptations come when the crew of the new work respect both the original work and its fans.  While the loss of the racism in Buck Rogers didn’t hurt the series, the same couldn’t be said for an All in the Family remake.  Groundbreaking for its time, All in the Family looked at bigotry and bigots through the character of Archie Bunker.  A remake of the series might not be possible today.

Westerns are in a similar bind.  Once the staple of serials, movies, and television, Westerns went through years of desconstruction, especially with Spaghetti Westerns like Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy** before being mostly abandoned after Heaven’s Gate bombed.  Westerns would return, reconstructed, but no longer had the cachet that they had in the early years of Hollywood.  Even then, many early tropes had been disproven by the advancement of history and the changing view of the era from Wild West to the march of civilization across new states.

Science fiction, as mentioned above, is also vulnerable to the passage of time.  I’ve touched on changing  technology in an earlier column, but this goes beyond just tech.  Take Star Trek.  The original Star Trek aired during the Space Race and the Cold War, where exploring the final frontier just beyond Earth’s atmosphere was a competition between the US and the USSR.  When Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired in 1987, the Soviet Union had just started a policy of peristroika, reformation of the Communist Party, and glasnost, openess, essentially bringing the Cold War to a close.  Space exploration was being done through unmanned probes, satellites, and ground-based installations.  Skylab, launched in 1973, had fallen from orbit and disintegrated in the atmosphere in 1979.  The trend of cocooning, where people stayed home with families instead of going out, was starting, though wouldn’t get named until the 1990s.  Star Trek: TNG reflected the changes.  Gone was the maverick captain, commanding the only ship in the sector.  Captain Picard reflected a new style of management, one where he weighed the opinions of his officers and crew, and acted in a more deliberate manner.

What happens when the era of the original isn’t taken into account?  Or, what if the era of the original is seen as irrelevant?  Let’s take a look at two recent financial flops, 2014’s Robocop and 2013’s The Lone Ranger.  Please note that I have not yet reviewed the movies as adaptations.

First, Robocop.  The original Robocop was released in 1987, near the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term as President of the US.  The movie, while being a science fiction action flick, contained heavy amounts of satire of Reagan-era policies.  TV series had boiled down to T&A with catch phrases, ie, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”  The ozone layer had been destroyed.  Detroit had gone bankrupt and was owned by a corporation, with police services privatized.  In 2014, it’s not as funny.  Television is recovering from being a wasteland, mainly through expanded cable stations and competition with other streams of entertainment on the Internet, but catch phrases still come up in sitcoms.  The destruction of the ozone layer has led to drastic climate change over the past decade, with weather records broken yearly and tropical storms growing worse.  Detroit, while in shaky financial shape in the 1980s, has declared bankruptcy, though police services haven’t yet been privatized.  Military services, though, have, with Blackwater/Xe/Academi LLC being one of many private “security” firms to receive contracts from the US government during both the Afghanistan invasion and the Iraq war.  Suddenly, the satire, pointed but exaggerated, in the original Robocop seems prophetic and painful now.  Removing that satire, though, removes a lot of the heart of the movie.

The Lone Ranger, on the other hand, had other problems.  The big one was the change in how audiences approach Westerns.  The classic trope of good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats has given way to nuance.  The idea of a First Nation person being a sidekick doesn’t sit well anymore.  A series with a long history, the original Lone Ranger appeared on the radio, in books, on television, and in movies, but had all but disappeared after 1961, with the exception of the 1981 The Legend of the Lone Ranger, which had the controversy of Clayton Moore, TV’s Lone Ranger, being sued to not use the trademark mask, and a pilot to a shelved 2003 WB network series.  Modern audiences who hadn’t grown up with Westerns as an entertainment staple, simply weren’t drawn in, even with Johnny Depp as Tonto.

The time a work was originally created is, indeed, a factor in how successful an adaptation can be.  A remake or an adaptation that fails to account for the change in societal acceptances since the creation of the original may fall flat.  Future reviews will take into account how the difference in time affects the newer work.

Next week, Gnomeo and Juliet.

* Depending on location, but areas where mixed-race marriages are forbidden are well in the minority.
** A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

  • Actually you give me pause for thought on Westerns.

    Westerns right now are hard to do – they do not seem timely, they involve or remind people of racial stereotypes, historically they have accuracy problems that may be more apparent today, and some of their ideas may seem crude, niave, or both.

    But what we do see over time is the adaption of the western into other genres, most prominently science fiction. Star Trek TOS was Wagon Train in space – but over time the Western entered the SF era:
    * Oblivion was a pure intentional space western (and I suspect an attempt at series).
    * Defiance is space western.
    * Farscape had space western elements in it (but I’d argue it was to an extent a refutational exercise).
    * The Buck Rogers RPG from TSR had intentional western elements (and these were mentioned).
    * Jonah Hexx ended up an SF tale.
    * Finally we have the King/Queen of Space Westerns, Firefly/Serenity which contained a lot of tropes deliberately remapped. I’d even argue one issue I had with the movie is it LOST it’s Westernness.

    Even now as Wildstar Online launches, it has HEAVY Space Western elements – including an entire class of techno-occult gunslingers called Spellslingers, who the devs lovingly call “Interdimensional Magic Space Cowboys.”

    The fact we HAVE the term Space Western is telling.

    But it also migrated into horror with Deadlands, some other versions of Jonah Hex – we even have the term “Weird West.”

    So I think the Western Genre, less and less able to stand on its own, has migrated into other genres.

    • Westerns got so played out for a whole generation of audiences that after a while there wasn’t anything left to do with them. But if you wait a bit, another generation comes along, and that generation can be surprised in one of two ways: either by mixing things up as described above, or by going back to basics and rediscovering the heart of the material in new ways (as “Unforgiven” did).

      My take is that every genre will eventually cross-pollinate with every other genre out of sheer force of habit.

      • I’d also argue:
        1) They lost their relevance as time moved on.
        2) Other genres replaces some of their elements.
        3) There’s some sociopolitical attitudes to the Wild West that have changed.

        Westerns may in fact be one of those unique phenomena that are different from other genres – like Samurai films. Which have been combined with Westerns, so there you go.

        • To wit: the Japanese remake of “Unforgiven.” Which I personally cannot wait for.

    • The Western also embodies the idea of pushing the frontier, something that Star Trek also did. Many Westerns were set far beyond the limit of civilization, in untamed lands where the nearest help was days away if not longer. Science fiction, especially works looking at space exploration, shares many ideas, the pushing of frontiers, the distance to nearest civilized base. There’s also the benefit of losing a lot of cultural baggage, where the “savages” are now aliens with outlooks that humans can’t understand.

      Meanwhile, steampunk and horror can easily use elements in history to build up the suspense of a drama. Shamans whose magic works, fighting mythic creatures, in short, Deadlands, is a natural with urban fantasy’s growth.

      • I think that’s a good point on western. Western is a historical genre that had elements of an ahistorical genre, but use of the ahistorical genre (pushing the frontier) in our culture will likely adopt some Western tropes.

        Also agreed – Deadlands is Urban fantasy with chaps.

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