Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Last week’s look at Mercury Theater’s War of the Worlds saw HG Wells’ science fiction story about the invasion of Britain by Martian war tripods moved wholesale to New Jersey.  The radio drama is a classic presentation; yet, localization is becoming problematic today, with concerns about live action version of both Ghost in the Shell and Akira around.  Today’s post will look at the issues around localizations.

A localization is an adaptation remade for a new audience, taking into account what the culture that the audience lives in.  An localization made for an American audience is better known as an Americanization.  Several popular television series came about because of Americanization, including All in the Family, after the UK series Till Death Do Us Part; Three’s Company, after the UK series Man About the House, and The Office, after the UK series of the same name.  Not every attempt to Americanize a foreign work succeeds, though.  The nigh-infamous clip of Saban’s Sailor Moon missed the core of what the original was about in an attempt to bring the anime across the ocean.

The difference between Mercury Theater’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds and Saban’s failed Sailor Moon adaptation lies in the intent.  Mercury Theater’s goal was to scare New York City; bringing over the Martian invasion from the British countryside to New Jersey, across the river from the Big Apple.  The biggest changes to the story were location and time, with a focus that changed from a first-person narrative to eyewitness news reports on the radio.  To the end Mercury Theater wanted, the action had to be close to the listeners.  An invasion of Britain would not have had the immediate impact that destroying Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, had.

With Saban’s Sailor Moon, the intent was to bring in a popular anime series without necessarily bringing the aninme.  The new series was part live action, part animated, with a superficial resemblance to the original.  However, the core of the original Sailor Moon was, ultimately, the concept of a shoujo heroine in Japanese fiction.  Usagi is the least likely person to ever save the world multiple times.  She’s not the smartest, not the strongest, and not the bravest, but she has heart.  Her heart is how she defeats villain after villain.  Sailor Moon wins not because she’s the most powerful, but because she believes in her friends and is willing to extend a hand in friendship.  Usagi is the hero, not Sailor Moon, and that’s a concept that can get easily lost in translation.

Note that both adaptations have a target audience.  Even Saban’s attempt at localizing /Sailor Moon/ was based on the company’s knowledge of American children’s television.  Likewise, the three TV series mentioned at the beginning were well aware of the audience that would be watching.  Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family, had seen episodes of Till Death Do Us Part and was struck by how much the relationship portrayed there resembled the one he had with his father.  All in the Family was built upon that resemblance, allowing a near-universal experience be the core.  The American version of The Office reflected the American work experience, which, because of differences in labour laws between the US and the UK, results in a different dynamic.

Television has the luxury of being able to target a specific audience.  The bulk of the television work out of Hollywood is meant for American consumption, with foreign markets a bonus.  Movies, though, don’t have that option.  With budgets rising and frequently break the $200 million mark, studios can’t rely on the domestic take to break even.  Films on the big screen need to have a broader appeal today.  A work that is known internationally is a draw studios want, but too many try to Americanize to appease the domestic market.  Some of these works, though, don’t translate well. has gone into details about the problems surrounding the live action Akira movie, from the screenplay to the purpose of the movie.  Essentially, the US was never the target of the only two atomic weapons used in war, and never had to rebuild after a defeat, something that is inseparable from Akira.

Moving away from anime, Harry Potter was spared from localization thanks to JK Rowling being able to set terms, and that was from the sheer popularity of the books.  Like Akira, Harry Potter is very much set in the country of its origin.  Britain has a long history, with castles that are older than current North American nations.  Boarding schools are common enough that the average person in the UK will have a good idea of what being at one is like.  The wizarding world in the books is as old as the country.  Moving Hogwarts to the US loses the sense of foreboding history that the school has in the books.  The characters reflect British society throughout time, from the upper class Malfoys to the common Weasleys.  Harry Potter also demonstrates the power of the draw.  Audiences wanted the Harry they read about, not one that was transplanted to another country.  With works that have the widespread appeal like Harry Potter, alienating the audience is not a good idea.

Similar to the problems facing Akira and a hypothetical American Harry Potter, the 1998 Godzilla lost some important elements on moving the action to New York City.  While Tokyo and NYC are major cities along a coast, filled with tall buildings, a lot of people, and neon, the similarities end there.  The first American Godzilla movie forgot that the eponymous monster was a result of the nuclear age, going back to the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the nuclear weapon tests in the Pacific.  It is possible to have a story featuring giant monsters stomping through an American city, but Godzilla has cultural ties that don’t make the journey to the West easily.  The 2014 Godzilla acknowledges the nature of the monster’s origin, starting him near Japan before sending him westward.

What can help with localization is changing the nature of the story.  War of the Worlds updated the story; the American military, with its mechanization, its improved communications, its aerial capabilities, all not available in 1897, still lost to the Martian invaders.  The Seven Samurai, a story based in Japanese samurai, was successfully translated to the American West with The Magnficent Seven and then moved into science fiction with Battle Beyond the Stars.  The goal in these adaptations wasn’t so much to localize, but to retell the story within the new trappings.  Ronin became guns-for-hire, who then became starfaring mercenaries; all three are similar, but are very much dependent on their culture and their settings.  Similarly, Phantom of the Paradise took the core ideas from both Faust and The Phantom of the Opera and combined the stories and bringing them into the Seventies, with a villainous record producer in the role of Faust and a hapless songwriter as the Phantom.

Sometimes, though, the effort to localize doesn’t pay off.  The film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo kept the story in Sweden.  The plot could have easily been moved to an American setting, yet the makers kept the work in Sweden, with most of the cast being Swedish.  Part of the decision comes from the original work; the novel is set in Sweden, using various towns in the country.  Moving the work would mean finding a similar location,  It was easier to keep the Swedish locations.

Localization isn’t necessarily a negative.  Presenting a story that the intended audience can understand culturally can get the point of the story across.  The problems begin when the original’s culture isn’t accounted for when translating the work.  Care needs to be taken, and there are some works that don’t translate well, even if the two countries involved share a common language.

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