Posted on by Scott Delahunt

As seen since the beginning of Lost in Translation, getting an adaptation or a remake right takes a deft hand.  There are many ways to just miss being good, either through deliberately not taking the original work seriously enough or through misreading.  At the same time, what works for one remake might not work for another.  The grim, gritty Battlestar Galactica remake was widely accepted.  Going for a realistic Beverly Hillbillies would miss the point.

One element not in the control of production staff is fan expectations.  They can be managed, but word of mouth can make or break a movie with near-instantaneous reviews.  Pandering to the fans, though, may alienate the general audience.  Individual comics issues have sales in the tens of thousands, not enough to fill seats and make a profit.  Where repeated theatrical viewings were, if not the norm, possible, thanks to films being allowed to remain in theatres as long as they were drawing audiences, today, it’s rare for a movie to remain in theatres for two months.  DVD release dates are being set shortly after a movie opens.

This leaves the question: “What can be done to manage expectations?”  How can a studio ensure that fans don’t leave with a bad taste while still getting a general audience in?  Movie makers need to be aware of the general impression a work has outside fandom.  The 1989 Batman movie was facing such a problem.  Fans of the comic were well aware of the Denny O’Neill run that turned Batman into a noir costumed detective, with a grittier approach.  The general audience, however, was more aware of the Adam West Batman TV series, a camp comedy.  Add in the casting of Michael Keaton, primarily known for comedies, as Bruce Wayne, and disaster was looming.  With Tim Burton combining the aspects of both comic and TV series, Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and marketing that focused on the darker elements, Batman was successful at the box office.

The first means to manage expectations is the trailer.  The trailer is the first view of a movie an audience gets.  Well done trailers get sought out and spread over the Internet, increasing the dollar value of the advertising for no extra effort.  Through the use of music and selected shots from the movie, the trailer can give audiences a good idea of what to expect.  The first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy showed the main characters being booked into prison, followed by the song, “Hooked on a Feeling”, implying that the heroes weren’t chisel-chinned upholders of the law and that the movie would be fun.  The box office returns show that audiences agreed.

The next means is to figure out what fans of the original work enjoyed about it.  Pandering to the fans is never a good idea.  Neither is flipping fans the bird.  The remake of Land of the Lost left fans with a bitter taste.  The original was a low-budget science-fiction series that managed to weave a coherent story, thanks to having science-fiction writers such as Larry Niven and Ben Bova contribute scripts.  The remake was a Will Farrell comedy vehicle.  The trailers, while they did show Farrell, didn’t quite show the level of humour of the movie.

Ultimately, though, it’s hard to read a potential audience.  Both the original Battlestar Galactica and the remake were about the search for Earth by survivors of the Thirteen Colonies.  The original had a far more optimistic approach, even with it showing problems with food, the dangers of relying on a small number of food-producing vessels, and the logistics of maintaining a fleet of civilians.  At the end of an episode, viewers had the feeling that the ragtag fleet would someday find Earth.  The new Galactica had rumours of main characters getting gender-flipped, which had fans in a minor uproar.  However, the miniseries showed what the remake was aiming for; a grittier, more realistic look at the problems the ragtag fleet would face.  Survival of humanity was never a given, even after the appearance of the Pegasus.  While the new characters weren’t like the originals, they fit better in the remake.  It just goes to show that a read on the fanbase is not the only aspect to look at.  Sometimes, current events plays a role.

With Hollywood studios risk-adverse to the point of needing instant hits with movie releases, especially blockbusters, maximizing the potential audience.  Adaptations come with a built-in audience, but that very same audience may not appreciate drastic changes.  Pandering is inevitable; keeping the existing fanbase happy means a quick, positive word of mouth on opening.  Pandering, though, doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie or a good adaptation.  Studios need to strive for more than just pleasing the fanbase, a fickle entity that may not appreciate even an accurate adaptation.

Next week, back to the reviews.

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  • You’ve got a lot to chew on here. A remake is also a remake of expectations as well as material.

    Know what I’d love to see you do? Create a taxonomy of remakes and a chart of remakes showing which fits into what taxonomy.

    • I probably have to do a bit more background work to lay out the base templates for classification. This could become a long-term wiki project.

  • Pingback: Lost in Translation 117: Adaptations and Expectations - Psycho Drive-In()

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