Lost in Translation as taken a look at a number of animated adaptations over the past few years, most recently with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Sherlock Gnomes. Saturday mornings were filled with cartoons, some of them adaptations of other works. Nothing appears to be off-limits when it comes to animated adaptations. Some are well done; others, not so much.
With the deregulation of American television in the Eighties, toy manufacturers were allowed to create what were essentially thirty minute toy ads disguised as cartoons. While networks still had requirements, including non-violence, another frontier opened in the Eighties – syndication. Since the cartoons were being sold directly to the station, bypassing any network involvement, the rules were looser. Toss in a one to two minute public service announcement and the series can be sold as educational, even with lasers blazing and robots throwing each other around.
However, ads don’t work if no one watches them and writers rooms tend to have creative people in them who want to be more than ad copywriters. The result in the Eighties was a number of cartoon series based on toys that had complex storylines, character development, and ongoing plots instead of standalone episodes. Autobots may have stopped Decepticon plots, G.I. Joe may have prevented Cobra from World Domination, and She-Ra may have foiled Hordak but each series always returned to the baseline. A win by any of the factions meant the series ending. Jem may have had the most gains; her goal was to fund the Starlight Girls and make it big in the music industry. Ruining Pizzazz’s schemes was a side benefit.
The catch with cartoons based on toys is that the money for the series depends heavily on how well the merchandise is selling. While not an animated adaptation, Captain Planet and the Soldiers of the Future is a good example of what happens when a series is more popular than the toy. Captain Power ended on a sour note with the death of Pilot, a plot hook for a second season that never materialized. On the flip side, a popular toy gets more of its line released. Kids need only so many of Bumblebee, Man-At-Arms, or Kimber, even with new light-up features. The new action figure, doll, or playset needs to appear in the cartoon. Ultimately, the cartoon exists to sell toys.
Prior to deregulation, the typical animated adaptation was a cartoon based on a comic book character. DC Comics’ go-to for licensing was Superman, with cartoons featuring the character made in 1941-1943, 1966-1970, 1988, and 1996-2000. Marvel’s choice of character was The Amazing Spider-Man, with cartoons made in 1967-1970, 1981-1982, 1981-1983 (with Iceman and Firestar), 1994-1998, 1999-2001, 2003, 2008-2009, 2012-2017, and 2017 (ongoing), and appearances on The Electric Company in the Seventies. Even the third of the Big Three American comics publishers had their own series with Archie in 1968-1970, 1971-1973, 1974-1977, 1987, and 1999-2000 and Josie and the Pussycats from 1970-1972. Given the popularity of the characters, the adaptations were meant to draw an audience and sell advertising time. As other characters gained prominence, they, too, were adapted into cartoons. The X-Men has had several, in 1989, 1992-1997, 2000-2003, 2009, and 2011, and the DC Animated Universe, starting with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 through to Justice League Unlimited ending in 2006 maintained quality through the run.
While comic and cartoon seldom interacted, there were times when the adaptation influenced the original. Batman: The Animated Series had several characters created for it that made the jump back to the main continuity, including Renée Montoya. The episode “Heart of Ice” introduced a background for the villain Mr. Freeze, one that turned him into a tragic figure, that was accepted as canon in the comics. After deregulation, though, the cartoon also became a way to sell action figures of the characters, an added bonus for the companies involved.
Animated adaptations of movies is where things get weird. While there are some films that do lend themselves to a continuation, such as Back to the Future, some movies adapted were aimed at a completely new audience. In most of those cases, the goal was to sell toys, but many of the adaptations were of movies that the cartoon’s target audience couldn’t see due to an R-rating. Rambo: The Force of Freedom (1986, a year after Rambo: First Blood Part II hit theatres) and Robocop the Animated Series (1988) are notable but also just the surface. The Rambo series features a Vietnam War veteran who decades later is still living the war. Robocop was a violent satire of the Reagan-era, over the top to the point of almost being rated X. Robocop could be turned into a police procedural, the violence toned down or even removed, though that does miss the point of the original movie. Rambo: The Force of Freedom turned John Rambo into a ecological warrior, fighting against polluters.
Other R-rated adaptations came out including The Toxic Crusaders, based on /The Toxic Avenger/. Even raunchy comedies aimed at younger adults got adaptations; Police Academy tried to bring the humour of the movies to a format for children. Some of the adaptations were to get a toy line out and sold; the adult market wasn’t and isn’t as lucrative as the general toy market. At the same time, the target audience only knows the characters through home video, edited televised showings of the films, or just pop culture osmosis.
With Back to the Future, the aim was an educational series. The draw of the film would be enough to get advertisers interested in buying airtime during the show, and the educational portions added to the sales value to networks. The Real Ghostbusters, while taking advantage of a PG-rated film* with potential for more stories, also had its own toyline. Both series had strong writing; The Real Ghostbusters even answered the question, “What would happen if someone hit Cthulhu with a beam from an unlicensed nuclear accelerator?” (The answer: He’d be very annoyed.) Animated adaptations of movies vary widely; some make sense, others are headscratchers.
With video games, the draw again came from the popularity of the game, especially in the Eighties. Video arcades could be found in every mall and Pac-Man Fever could only be cured with massive amounts of quarters. Home video game consoles came out, though with a slight dip in popularity around 1983 when Atari overestimated just how many people would buy an E.T the Extraterrestrial video game. Many of the early video games really didn’t lend themselves to any sort of adaptation, yet they were made. Pac-Man and related games were all about a yellow blob eating dots and running from ghosts; the Pac-Man cartoon had to create plots and give personalities to the games’ characters.
The explosion of the Nintendo Entertainment System on the market led to the North American audience being re-introduced to the Mario Brothers and a cartoon featuring them. This time, there was a bit more to hang plots on; after all, there was always another castle. With the NES and later systems capable of running games with more plot than “eat dots” or “don’t crash”, adaptations had more to build from. Some game studios took advantage of animated adaptations to add more details to their setting and characters; Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and Mass Effect: Paragon Lost are good examples. Quality varied. Some cartoons were made to take advantage of the popularity of the video game, others managed to take advantage of the new format.
Animated adaptations of literary works were done mainly for educational purposes, introducing classic works to children. As a result, since the work would be one and done, the animation was a higher quality than that of a weekly series; there was time to do things properly. Not every animated film was for educational purposes; no one will argue that Gnomeo & Juliet‘s primary purpose is to educate children on Shakespeare. At the same time, cartoons of literary work aimed at children bring forward the characters and main themes in accessible chunks. The main requirement was that the original had to have something that was visually stimulating. The ghosts in A Christmas Carol and Scrooge’s redemption arc can make for compelling storytelling. A proper Victorian romance, or even an improper one, doesn’t make the cut. Sometimes, a studio just wanted to animate a favourite story, like Watership Down.
Not all animation is for children, though. In the Eighties, Nelvana released fare that was geared for an older audience. Rock & Rule, a take on Faust, featured popular rock musicians including Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop. The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Nelvana’s version of The Devil and Daniel Webster wasn’t as trippy, but was still aiming at an older audience, much like Heavy Metal had. Both films, being made by a Canadian studio, were aired on the CBC, which was available over the air and on basic cable.
Finally, there’s tabletop games. Animated adaptations of these fell under the same restrictions as ones for toys. Once the restrictions were removed in the Eighties, not many board games were turned into cartoons. Most board games are competitive, lending themselves to be licensed as game shows instead of cartoons. Even roleplaying games weren’t adapted, in part because of being a niche industry, in part from the “Satanic panic” of the Eighties. Dungeons & Dragons did get an animated series, but being the best known RPG will get attention from studios. It is telling that only two other RPGs, BattleTech and Heavy Gear, had animated adaptations. The built-in audience is small; each series relied on visuals, that of mecha combat.
The animated adaptation is not going away. It serves a purpose, most often to sell merchandise. Yet, the potential of the adaptation to go beyond just being an extended ad will keep an audience tuned in.
* Probably would have been PG-13 if the rating existed at the time.