Lost in Translation has examined the passage of time on technology and how that affects adaptations and remakes. However, technology isn’t the only thing to change over time. Society and culture aren’t static. What was one scandalous may now be commonplace. What was once de rigeur is now out of fashion. What was once common practice is now forbidden by regulations.
Older contemporary works are seen as period pieces today. The social mores of Jane Eyre have long given way, so adaptations place it during its time. Prohibition limits The Great Gatsby to the 1920s. Changing the setting of either requires work to make the stories believable in the new era. Today’s world isn’t as class-based as the Victorian era and the excesses of the Twenties fall flat in today’s borderline recession.
Some works don’t have that nice delineation in their era. Their themes are considered timeless. But the details have begun to date them. Adaptations that don’t take into account the changes are going to fall flat. Take Catcher in the Rye, a novel commonly assigned in high school English classes. The novel was written in the Forties and reflected education and teenage isolation of the time. While teenage worries of finding a place in the world is still a concern, the details of the novel date the work. Today, Holden wouldn’t have flunked out of four schools; at some point, his learning disability would have been diagnosed long before the story began. He wouldn’t have been able to leave school without permission without an Amber alert being issued. And there is no way he could have walked into a bar to order any alcohol without ID; bars risk losing their license and both the establishment and the bartender risk large fines. While the book appears to be contemporary, it isn’t, and any adaptation, assuming the Salinger estate allows one, needs to be able to adjust for these changes.
It’s not necessary to go back that far. Even works from the Eighties needs to adjust. The 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice had to account for how much the War on Drugs had changed since the TV series began airing in 1984. The police have become far more militarized, with military-surplus gear, in the intervening time. And not all changes are obvious. Subtle changes have happened over the past few decades.
Contemporary novels aren’t the only works affected. Science fiction has always been about the issues of the time the works were written. Let’s take two episodes from the original Star Trek, “Let That Be Your Final Battlefield” and “Day of the Dove”. With “Let That Be Your Battlefield”, the message was that discriminating because of skin colour was destructive, as the last two survivors from a planet where the only difference between peoples was whether they were black on the left side or the right side. Today, while the message is still needed, the approach would be less of a sledgehammer, like in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Far Beyond the Stars” which showed how discrimination hurt people. The message of “Day of the Dove” was that it is possible for foes to set aside differences and come to peace. In the original Trek, the Klingons represented the Soviet Union while the Federation acted as a stand-in for the US at a time when the Cold War was in full force and almost turned hot after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the Cold War is in the past and, for the most part, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been dropping since the Eighties.
A quick fast forward to 1978 to the original Battlestar Galactica provides another example. At the time, women were beginning to try to break into the combat arms of various military services. The first American woman to be a combat pilot was Jeannie Leavitt in 1993. In the episode “The Lost Planet of the Gods”, to replenish the losses in shuttle pilots during the evacuation of both the Twelve Colonies and Carillon, the Galactica opened flight training to all, including women. In the episode, thanks to a disease picked up on a planet, the Galactica‘s fighter corps was down to just Apollo and Starbuck, forcing the new shuttle pilots to upgrade their skills to fly Vipers, the starfighters. On a mission to escort a medical shuttle to the planet to find a cure for the disease, Apollo and Starbuck lead the new pilots, but each needs to break off, one to check the planet for a safe landing zone, the other to check on a Cylon fighter trailing the squadron. When Starbuck leaves, he places Lieutenant Deitra, played by Sheila DeWindt, a black woman, in charge. Deidra gets four on-screen Cylon kills over the two-part episode and returns in a later episode. Today, though, the idea of not having women in any combat arms, especially in an advanced society, is considered backwards, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot showed women, including Kara Thrace and Sharon Valerii, as pilots with no fanfare about their gender.
Even today’s works will be affected in the future. As a wise green Muppet once said, “Always in motion is the future“. Most works will be based on current culture and issues. Creators can try to predict, but the most surprising thing about these predictions is that there is a success rate. What speculative fiction can do is explore the potential issues, from treatment of artificial intelligences to the problems of extraterrestrial colonization, and get people to think about them. The idea of firsts – first man in space, first woman to become a fighter pilot, first black man to command a mission on the International Space Station – will fall eventually as the firsts are achieved, yet today, they are important to track.
Culture is changing. The only constant is change. Adaptations, including remakes and reboots, will have to either keep the original work in its original time or make the effort to adjust the work to reflect the changes. Both approaches have challenges, and it is possible that an original cannot be easily updated.
Comic adaptations of works have grown over time. From the time of Classics Illustrated, comics were used to adapt a work to a format readers would be more familiar with. Adaptations of popular movies allowed readers to re-live the thrills at a time when home video was non-existent. Today, though, the comic format allows creators to continue a work from another medium. It’s not a new phenomenon; DC Comics published a four-part series of graphic novels continuing the story of Village in The Prisoner: Shattered Visage in 1988. Today, though, getting the information out on adaptations is far easier thanks to the Internet and cross-medium works are far more common.
The benefit is that a work can find a format that works best to gather and keep an audience. Movies are expensive to make and market, and even if profitable, they may not have enough of a following to justify a follow up work. Television, while not as expensive as film and able to spread costs over a number of episodes, are still subject to whims of ratings; a niche series may not have the critical mass to survive a season. Comic books don’t have the expense burdens a film would and can be sustained with a far lower number of readers than a TV series can with low audience numbers.
Even series that have had a good run can take advantage of the switch to comics. Fans will want more, especially just after a series has ended, and the series’ creator can explore areas that the show couldn’t, either because of expense or network limitations. Such is the focus of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation comic series. The Buffy TV series, itself an adaptation, ran for seven years, a good run. The series had a definite end, with Sunnydale sinking into a Hellmouth to seal it and an army of Slayers defeating demons trying to overrun the Earth. But Buffy’s story wasn’t done.
Buffy and her friends still had the army of Slayers, and that issue was worth exploring. Creator Joss Whedon continued the story in the comic series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, published by Dark Horse Comics. A new threat hangs over the world, and Buffy and her army need to discover what it is before the Apocalypse happens. Or, the same old same old for the Scoobies. And the series wouldn’t be Buffy if personal issues came up. Not only does Buffy have an army of young girls with supernatural abilities to try corral, her sister Dawn has run into some problems, and her own personal life is falling apart. Again, nothing new for Buffy. The fans, though, expect Buffy and her friends to have to deal with personal issues while saving the world. Skipping that skips the essence of the TV series.
The comic series does deliver. The characters’ behaviour reflects their growth over the run of the TV series, from teenagers in high school to young adults trying to figure out what their place is in the world while dealing with weirdnesses most people never have to worry about. The graphic format allows for effects that would be difficult to achieve on television, either because of time needed, the expense, or because of the laws of physics. Dawn, as part of a curse, grew to be several stories tall; showing this on screen would require green-screening and filming her scenes twice, once with her and once with the regular sized cast. When TV episodes need to be completed within a week, that’s extra time that could be better used, especially if the curse is season long. In another scene, Buffy and Angel wind up changing settings page to page; if filmed, that would mean setting up in multiple locations for only several minutes of film. It’s doable for an episode, but would mean making extensive use of sets instead of location shots to minimize travel time. In a comic, both are easily done. Dawn can be drawn far larger than the rest of the cast without any camera effects or multiple takes and the new settings that Buffy and Angel use are needed in each panel anyway, whether they stay in one location or jump every panel to somewhere new.
Buffy Season Eight picks up after the destruction of Sunnyvale. Buffy and her Slayer army have found a home in Scotland with room for the young women to train. Dawn gets cursed while studying at university. A new threat and old adversaries return. Worse, the threat is one that Buffy herself creates. However, the draw isn’t the situation, it’s the characters. How the Scoobies react to the new threat and old problems is the key, and the comic shines there. The TV series was always more than just being about a student staking vampires, and the comic continues with the idea that the heroes are people, too, even the vampires.
Comic continuations come with their own shortfalls. Page limits mean a comic can be read in five to ten minutes, unlike a forty-two minute television episode. Comics are released monthly, unlike television’s weekly schedule. Artwork may not resemble the characters*, though that was not an issue with the Buffy comics. Sometimes, the limitations of one medium that will force a creator to come up with a work around that results in a better product will be avoided. While the limits of the medium can’t be helped, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight avoids most of the shortfalls, though does get self-indulgent at times. Some subplots linger too long, while others get ignored. However, what one reader finds dragging, another will find enthralling.
Overall, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight works as a continuation. The situation that develops in the comic builds from what was shown in the TV series. The characters grew from their experiences; the Xander of the comic is not the Xander of season one, but the Xander of the end of season seven after everything he went through. The hints of what Buffy was doing as seen on Angel were expanded. Like gravity, continuity is a harsh mistress, but fans have expectations. The continuation comic meets these expectations.
* When creating a comic based on a live-action property, the actors still have control over their likenesses unless there’s a clause in their contracts allowing for comic tie-ins. Marvel Comics ran into the problem in the Eighties with both their Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica comics, where they didn’t have the rights.to the likenesses.
Every once in a while, there will be a film adaptation that perfectly highlights a key point at Lost in Translation. For the perfect adaptation that still fails at the box office, there’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. For the by-the-checklist approach, Battleship. And for adaptations that miss audience expectations, there’s Jem and the Holograms.
Jem, though, wasn’t a bad movie nor a bad adaptation. The movie just wasn’t what audiences wanted to see. Audiences wanted the cartoon adapted, not just the dolls. While the movie did pull characters from the animated adaptation, the direction it took went against the nostalgia the older audience had for the cartoon, and the older audience would be the group taking the target audience to the theatre.
The nostalgia factor is one of the draws for adaptations, especially for older works. It’s easy enough to take a currently popular work and adapt it; the Harry Potter films were successful because they drew from the books’ readers while they waited for the next book in the series to be written. Adaptations of older works don’t normally have an obvious audience that current works do. There are exceptions; episodes of every Star Trek series are easily found and Star Wars has expanded its fandom by expanding its universe. Word of mouth, the way Trek fandom spread in the early days and how Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew, is hard to measure. DVD sales and tracking online streaming might work, but with all the different ways to watch old shows today, TV ratings don’t always reflect the audience numbers. Likewise, an older work that was popular in its time might not bring in the audience it once did. Tastes change, and what was once popular may have faded away.
In-name-only adaptations are a problem. These adaptations happen when a studio understands that a work is popular without understanding why. The 1998 Godzilla demonstrates the problem. Godzilla has a long cinematic history, and the draw is the kaiju himself. Iterative changes to his appearance isn’t a problem; a massive makeover is. The 1998 film could easily have been its own monster movie, but needed the draw of the Godzilla name. Not helping matters is that movies featuring giant monsters are in a small niche. An original monster movie, once the staple of B-movies, has a limited audience. Studios either have to build on an existing name or franchise, or create an original while keeping special effects costs down*. Both are risky at a time when studios are notoriously risk adverse.
Studios can take advantage of the nostalgia factor. Curiosity will draw in fans of the original, provided that the adaptation doesn’t drift too far away from the concept. The Jem film adaptation is a good example of what happens when the adaptation drifts too far from the work fans are most familiar with, resulting in a two week run in theatres. At the same time, it is possible to have an adaptation that does break from the original and still do well at the box office; 21 Jump Street being a good example. The key to using nostalgia as a draw is making sure either that fans of the original won’t feel like they are being made fun of or that the new builds on the old.
However, relying on nostalgia alone to draw an audience is risky. The original’s name isn’t enough. Thanks to the success of the film adaptation of the Harry Potter series and, to a lesser degree, The Hunger Games, audiences are more demanding about faithfulness to the original. The worst thing a studio can do today is to use the name of an older, serious work and turn it into a comedy. That move will alienate fans of the original, the fate of such adaptations as The Land of the Lost and CHiPs. The former adaptation was turned into a comedy vehicle for Will Farrell, losing the core of what drew audiences to the original. The latter took a police procedural along the lines of Dragnet, Adam-12 and Emergency** showing a work day for a pair of California Highway Patrolmen and, again, turned it into a comedy with almost no resemblance to the original except for names.
Name recognition is a key reason why studios are adaptation prone. An original work will require effort from the studio to raise interest in an audience. A known name, whether a popular actor or a popular original work, gets attention. That’s not enough, though; the new adaptation now has to stand out in the crowd of adaptations. Audiences are less accepting of changes for the sake of change. They want the characters they know and love.
There are workarounds for the studio. The first is to take a work with name recognition but not well known. While contradictory, the idea is to find an original work with a core concept that is known but not the details. The studio has more leeway in how the work is adapted as a result. The 21 Jump Street film adaptation went this route. The TV series was known in the Eighties, but because it was on the then-fledgling Fox network, the series wasn’t well known to audiences, and is best known for having a young Johnny Depp in the cast. The core concept – police officers undercover in a high school – is broad enough to make the jump from television to silver screen. In contrast, CHiPs was on NBC, one of the three networks available and ran in syndicated reruns even while still airing new episodes, bringing in a larger audience. The approach wouldn’t work with The X-Files; the series found an audience in the science fiction fandom and had a more dedicated following.
Second, the studio could take a popular older original and update it for a more modern take. Society and technology are always changing. What was once ground-breaking has turned quaint or has led to new issues that weren’t even on the horizon when the original first appeared. The classic “woman trying to make her way in a man’s world” sitcom from the Sixties and Seventies, such as That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show looked at issues important at the time. Today, while many of those issues are moot, new ones have taken their place, allowing for an update of the sitcom. The catch here is that many of those sitcoms are tightly tied to the main actors. Workcoms, sitcoms set at a workplace, fare better here. Dynamics have changed, but interpersonal relationships still exist. Taking an older workcom and bringing it to today isn’t difficult and allows for several of the original actors to return. The original WKRP in Cincinnati was set at a low-rated radio station with an unusual group of personalities; the remake, The New WKRP in Cincinnati kept the station, brought back several characters, and introduced new ones, all perfectly plausible in the industry. The main problem The New WKRP had was quality; the original set too high a bar and was in syndicated reruns when the new series aired through first-run syndication.
Finally, the studio could go back to an original’s core concept and present a new take that still works with the idea. The Battlestar Galactica reboot series is a prime example. Both the original and the rebooted Galactica featured the last of humanity escaping the destruction of their home on a ragtag fleet. The original, though, was a family drama as the fleet was shepherded by Commander Adama to find Earth; while the Cylons were bent on destroying the Galactica, the series maintained a hopeful tone for the survivors. The reboot, however, took a harsher look and didn’t focus on just the Adamas; the show put in doubt humanity’s survival and demonstrated how the different aspects of society clashed in the crisis. Both series were popular, but the reboot garnered more attention and is now the one audiences will remember.
Audience expectation has to be managed. The studio needs to know what the audience expects from an adaptation. Just taking an original and adapting it because it’s popular or it’s a comic book isn’t enough. Adapting is popular with studios because of the built-in audience, but ignoring why that audience followed the original will lead to disaster.
* The low budget approach is how the SyFy monster movies work, including Sharktopus, the Sharknado series, and Lavalantula. They typically feature a known name and cheesy special effects that are part of the charm of the movies.
** Technically, Emergency was more a paramedic procedural, but it did show how the Los Angeles Fire Department’s program worked.
Continuing from two weeks ago, franchises lead to two other forms of adaptation. The first is the cinematic universe, where the work is adapted to a new medium with its own continuity based on the original but allowed to go in its own direction. The main advantage is that there is no continuity lockout for the general audience, at least at first, and catching up means watching the previous installments instead of trying to find forty to eighty years of stories.
The second form is the expanded universe. Unlike the cinematic universe, the expanded universe allows for works beyond the original medium to build up the setting. Different aspects can be explored that couldn’t be delved into in the original, either because of where the focus was or time limitations. Continuity lockout can become a problem, but there are ways to avoid it. Expanded universes are typically associated with franchises; popularity and demand allow for the original to expand. While Star Wars has the enduring popularity to support a universe far beyond the original movie, Manos, The Hands of Fate does not.
Franchises have a number of ways to manage expanded universes. Going back to Star Wars, Lucasfilm managed levels of canon, from the core movies to the books and games to the older animated series. If a work in the expanded universe contradicts a movie that came out later, then the older work is either considered wrong or considered true, from a certain point of view. The only exception may be the work done by West End Games; WEG worked with Lucasfilm to fill out the Galaxy Far Far Away for use in the RPG. Paramount, though, treats the Star Trek expanded universe differently. The only canon sources are the TV series and the movies; all other works have no influence, at least officially. Even the animated series is generally non-canon, except when it is canon, like “Yesteryear”. At one point, Paramount forbade different licensees from collaborating, probably after FASA worked with John M. Ford, author of The Final Reflection*, on the Klingons and their history and culture.
The advantage expanded universes have is that they can provide information that otherwise doesn’t appear in the original work. Going back to Star Wars, the names of the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina didn’t come from the movie; they came from the action figures from Kenner. The credits don’t list the names, and the only alien who rates a name was Greedo, who didn’t get to see another scene afterwards. The rest, including Hammerhead and Walrus Man, had their names on Kenner’s packaging. Even R5-D4, the astromech that blew a gasket after being bought by Luke and Lars, was just “this R2 unit” in the movie and only got a name in other media.
Whether ideas from the expanded universe make their way into the main works depends on the franchise. As mentioned, Paramount places restrictions when it comes to Star Trek; FASA’s explanation of the differences between Klingons from the Original Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture never appeared in any Trek series since, not even when the difference was pointed out in Deep Space Nine‘s “Trials and Tribble-ations”. Lucasfilm, though, maintains control on what gets placed into the expanded works, so it is possible to see an items from a comic to make an appearance in a TV series. In fact, Lucasfilm provided the WEG sourcebooks to Timothy Zahn when he began his Heir to the Empire series, and Brian Daley’s Han Solo books introduced the Z-95 Headhunter, which has appeared since Han Solo at Star’s End was published in video games and in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Continuity, especially when the different expanded works can share information, becomes an issue if not managed well. Fortunately, there are ways around the problem. If it’s equipment, like the above mentioned Z-95, then just have it appear without explanation. This works best with gear that isn’t too specialized. Audiences are familiar with the idea of new technologies appearing in real life, from cars to phones, so something like that happening in the expanded universe adds a layer of verisimilitude. Characters, though, do come with extra baggage. Their previous appearances will have shaped them, How the character is handled may depend on the medium. Comics have a history of footnotes referring to past issues, but other media may either have to either ignore the background and just present the character as is or take time for a flashback. With novels, an author can spend a page filling in readers without losing the flow. Movies and even television can’t spend that much time unless the information is plot-relevant. But if information isn’t plot-relevant, does it need to be brought up? Introduce the character properly and the personality will let the audience in the know feel comfortable with the portrayal and the rest of the audience isn’t left scratching their heads.
The benefit of an expanded universe comes down to income. If a work is popular, fans will pay for more about it. However, fans will also recognize when the expanded work is sub-par and will avoid it. Creative types who are engaged to work on the expanded universe, though, are likely to be fans of the original, so will put in an honest effort. The catch, though, is that as the original’s universe expands, new fans may come in through one of the expanded works and may not be aware of the origins.
Expanded universes aren’t for every franchise. The setting of the original has to allow for the expansion. With Star Wars and Star Trek, there is a vast setting beyond what was seen in the original works. The 007 expanded universe – video games, comics, and novels by authors other than Ian Fleming – keeps the focus on James Bond; adding a new 00 agent wouldn’t have the impact and the new character may be better served in his or her own original work instead. Likewise, not every franchise creator wants to expand. The Harry Potter universe is popular, but, outside the movie and video game adaptations, there isn’t much beyond the original books except for the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. JK Rowling isn’t interested in expanding to the degree Lucasfilm has, and she maintains control of the Potter-verse.
The line between adaptation and expanded universe is much like the line between adaptation and franchise, very fine and mostly exists from perception. The main differences is that the expanded universe can influence future works even in the original medium and that fans are aware that there is more than what is presented in the original. This pushes the expanded universe from adaptation to continuation, and will be noted in future reviews.
* However, Ford’s creation of the Klingon “Black Fleet” in the afterlife appeared in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery. As an expanded universe grows and matures, new writers will incorporate ideas from even areas that aren’t canon if the ideas are good.
Apologies. Unfortunately, an emergency came up that prevented getting a post ready for today. Lost in Translation will return next week.
With superhero movies becoming a mainstay in theatres, the question arises, what is the border between adapting and expanding a franchise? Lost in Translation has already touched on the question, but as comics get adapted for both film and television and movie series get TV series and comics, the line between adaptation and franchise gets blurred.
The difference between a tie-in work and an adaptation is academic. The 007 movie franchise started with one adaptation, Dr. No, but grew from there. Likewise, Marvel’s cinematic universe started with just one film, Iron Man, and expanded when the movie succeeded at the box office. Tie-in works aren’t limited to going from books to movies; Star Trek, Star Wars, and Murder, She Wrote all have long-running series of novels with a goal of continuing the story begun in the original works.
The main difference between an adaptation and a franchise tie-in is perception. Tie-in works are seen as part of the monetization of a work, expanding the influence into other media. However, very few adaptations are made without an eye on turning a profit. Even the notable flops weren’t meant to fail at the box office. Studios and publishers aren’t charities; they exist to be profitable. That distinction between franchise and adaptation isn’t really a distinction.
Even licensing isn’t a factor in the difference. Reboots, a type of adaptation, are often done by the rights holder; Paramount rebooted Star Trek into Star Trek: The Next Generation to great success. Warner, DC Comics’ parent company. has rebooted the Batman movie franchise several times. In DC’s case, being owned by a movie studio does add a level of separation, but that doesn’t hold for Paramount and Star Trek.
Is the perception that adaptations and franchise tie-ins are different correct? Lost in Translation has been looking at how works are adapted, and every franchise has to start somewhere. There would be no Wonder Woman breaking box office records if William Moulton Marston hadn’t created the character for All Star Comics number 8. The difference between Disney getting Marvel to create a line of Star Wars comics and DiC creating The Real Ghostbusters under license from Sony or Saban licensing BattleTech from FASA for an animated series is how far out from the ownership of the adaptation is from the original work. Disney owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm; Sony didn’t own DiC nor did FASA own Saban. But the result, a new work based on an existing one, is still an adaptation.
Ultimately, what all the above means is that the field of available works to review at Lost in Translation has grown. There is still the same process when translating a work from its original medium to a new one, with the same problems to overcome.
And a quick reminder that Lost in Translation is on Facebook!
With apparent* remake fever, studios are adapting everything. Netflix recently announced a two-season origins story for Catch 22‘s Nurse Ratched. High brow, low brow, nothing seems to be off limits. The question, though, is why not get some of the old low budget titles? Sure, they may not have the draw that /Catch 22/ has, but being unknown will pique some curiosity. Consider it a bonus if the remake is better than the original. In this spirit, let’s look at remaking the one and only Danish kaiju movie, Reptilicus.
It is safe to say that Reptilicus has issues. Movies don’t get featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 if they don’t. Reptilicus was the first movie featured on MST3K: The Return. It was ripe for riffing, thanks to a slow start, an odd character that seemed to be there solely for comic relief, and special effects that showed a low budget. Yet, the movie had potential, which is critical when remaking a work.
As a Danish-American production, two versions were made. The American version substituted one actress from the Danish version and removed one of the title monster’s abilities because of how it looked on screen. The movie begins in Lapland with the discovery of the tail of an ancient creature frozen in the ice. The tail is shipped to the Danish Aquarium in Copenhagen, where scientists study the remains. An mishap allows the tail to thaw, leading to the monster, dubbed Reptilicus, regenerating like a starfish. Once fully regenerated, the monster menaces Copenhagen and the North Sea. The military is called in, but is limited in what they can do. Using explosives means that parts of Reptilicus could lie unseen and able to regenerate into a new monster. Only two ways will work to destroy the monster – fire and poison. However, the military finds out these details too late, after having blasted off the creature’s foot. The movie ends on a shot of the foot lying underwater.
Reptilicus start off slow, in the way of far too many B-movies, with serious men being serious scientists explaining the plot before it starts. However, the square-jawed science hero isn’t in this movie; the scientists are older with families. The slow start also helps delay the other big problem of the film, Reptilicus itself. It is very much a rubber monster, shot on different film stock than the rest of the movie. The movie tries to avoid showing the creature too much, knowing that it really isn’t that threatening. Instead, the destruction in the monster’s wake is shown.
However, in trying to not focus on the monster, the movie does get a few good shots in, including the panicking of the crowd. One scene has a drawbridge that starts rising before people could cross it. Several bicyclists drive off the edge into the water below before they could stop. The Danish military gets several good scenes as they try in vain to stop Reptilicus. The movie has potential. It was just the execution where Reptilicus had problems.
In the hypothetical remake, the first thing to work on is Reptilicus itself. Special effects have come a long way since rubber puppets in 1961. The monster can be more threatening and appear in the same frame as its hunters today. However, it may be best to keep its ability to fly out of the remake; the American version in 1961 removed it because it was too silly. Given the location, a sea monster would work well; long, snaky, a threat to shipping and the coast. Its ability to regenerate could be kept, though it’d take some work to make it believable today. Monster movies can get away with some biological weirdnesses, but too weird and the suspension of disbelief snaps.
In terms of plot, the monster has to be on screen sooner. The draw of monster movies is the monster as it wreak havok in a major metropolitan area. The lack of collateral damage was one of the problems with the 1998 Godzilla. With better effects, Reptilicus can appear sooner and with the destruction such a monster is capable of. Ships and buildings can be destroyed on screen. Get Reptilicus right, and the initial investigation won’t have to carry the first half of the film.
The scientists can stay. They provide the explanations the audience needs. The monster’s ability to regenerate can be shown on screen, but having someone in a white lab coat mention the process, especially to military leaders, never hurts. Show and tell instead of just telling. The discovery of the remains of Reptilicus and the mishap that lets it thaw are key moments in the film, so they need to be kept. Since it should be easier today to show more of the monster onscreen, the remains can be a near-complete carcass instead of just the tail.
The end of the film will need work. The monster was finally defeated in the movie when a sedative was fired into its mouth by the general using a bazooka. Combined with the poor effects of the monster, the scene didn’t work. The concept is good, but getting it to look right on screen will be tough. The restriction on method in-story was that Reptilicus was in the city; fire bombing the monster would not look good on the military. The collateral damage would be too high. But a difficult shot with a weapon meant to be used against large targets like tanks and bunkers. Accuracy is difficult, and the bazooka has been superceded by the rocket launcher, a weapon that really doesn’t do sedatives. A grenade launcher may work better – gas grenades can be filled with what’s needed with some handwaving – but the accuracy is still an issue. Grenades aren’t really precision weapons. The end may involve someone running up to Reptilicus to toss the modified gas grenade into the monster’s mouth. It would make for a satisfying bit of action after seeing Reptilicus trash Copenhagen.
One of the problems with remakes lately is the Hollywood-ization factor. Studios, not wanting to risk losses on a film, populate casts with either the latest and greatest or the pretty, with no thought on what the roles need. Reptilicus features high level personnel at both the aquarium and the military. The head of research isn’t going to be a twenty-something; likewise, the general isn’t going to be a model. It’ll take a director willing to push back somewhat to make sure that the actors for these roles fit.
Reptilicus has the potential to be a good remake. All the original movie needed was a bigger budget for the monster, something that a studio can provide today. The core of the original is a monster movie; the draw is the monster rampaging. Keep the focus on Reptilicus and avoid the temptation to add subplots and the remake will draw an audience.
* I say “apparent” because the past few decades have been teeming with popular original work. As seen in the History of Adaptations, that wasn’t always the case.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at adaptation that weren’t really adaptations. This week, a look at the flip side of that, an non-adaptation that is an adaptation. With works that are trying not to look like an adaptation, the main reason for the changes boils down to one thing – lawyers.
Sometimes, a license just isn’t available for one reason or another, but a studio has an idea that comes from, in one way or another, the unavailable original. To get the work produced, the studio has to scrub the identifying elements out of the final product. Sometimes enough gets removed. Other times, lawyers get rich arguing over how much of the remains is too much. Let’s take a look at a series that had a dispute over how much got filed off, Mutant X.
Marvel Studios in the late Nineties wasn’t in the prime position it is in now. Marvel Comics had licensed out several of their top selling titles for movie rights, including X-Men and Spider-Man, leaving the company with very few A-listers. Previous attempts at using these A-listers had mixed results – The Incredible Hulk ran for several seasons, but the Captain America TV movies had problems. Meanwhile, the X-Men had a good run as an animated series, leading to improved sales of the X-titles. But Fox had the movie rights for the X-Men and related characters, with a movie due for 2000.
Thus, Mutant X, a non-X-Men series. While Fox had the rights to the X-Men name, Marvel’s mutant line included other titles, including Mutant X and The New Mutants. Characters did drift between the titles and guests from one title appeared in the others, mainly to establish that the new titles were in the same continuity. Fox got wind of the attempted end run around the licensing agreement and sued. The result – the logo for the Mutant X TV series had to be changed and the show could not mention the X-Men or related characters nor use costumes or code names. This, though, triggered a second lawsuit, this time between Marvel and Tribune Entertainment, the distributor, over the allegation that the comic company encouraged the distributor to treat Mutant X as an X-Men spin-off. Even Fireworks, the Canadian production company that worked with Marvel Studios to film Mutant X was sued. The real winners in all this were the lawyers.
The tumbleweed of lawsuits aside, the end result is that the /Mutant X/ TV series could not even have a hint of being an X-Men clone in it. The goal for Marvel Studios, Fireworks, and Tribune Entertainment was to not adapt the comic while still drawing in people who read the comic. The licensing agreement and the settlement meant that the name X-Men could not be used, nor could the characters or likenesses. That still gave Marvel wiggle room. The comic titles The New Mutants and Mutant X weren’t mentioned in the agreement or the settlement, and that is a large loophole to push a TV series through. Never mind that both were spin-offs from the X-Men comic; the names were available, and that was enough to try to lure in an audience familiar with the X-titles.
The core cast of the TV series featured five characters. Leading the Mutant X team and movement is Adam Kane, played by John Shea. Adam, who didn’t get a surname until season 2, was a genetic wunderkind, having graduated from university in his teens. He was hired on at Genomex right after graduation, where he worked on trying to correct problems in the DNA of patients. His research led to the creation of “new mutants” – people with superhuman powers and abilities. However, when Genomex became an arm of the GSA, he left, forming Mutant X. One of Adam’s first recruits is Shalimar Fox, played by Victoria Pratt. Shalimar’s genetic code has been spliced with that of a cat, giving her quick reflexes and enhanced senses. Along with Shalimar is Jesse Kilmartin (Forbes March) who can manipulate his body’s density. During the pilot episodes, Adam recruits the telempathic Emma deLauro (Laurent Lee Smith) and the lightning projector Brenna Mulwray (Victor Webster). Heading the opposition, Mason Eckhart (Tom McCamus) ran the secretive GSA, using Adam’s genetic research to both build his own private army of new mutants and to cure his own condition. Eckhart was briefly replaced as the major villain by Gabriel Ashlocke (Michael Easton), who was Adam’s first patient, the first and the most powerful of the new mutants.
With that cast, how does Mutant X differ from X-Men? Let’s start with Adam, who is in the Professor X role. However, Adam differs from Xavier in three critical ways: Adam is not a mutant himself, instead having high intelligence; he does not need a wheelchair; and he is not bald*. Adam does not run a school; he has Sanctuary, a high-tech hideout from where he organizes an underground railroad for new mutants to escape the clutches of the GSA. The powers of the new mutants express in four different general streams. Ferals, like Shalimar, have animal genetics spliced into their own DNA, giving them enhanced reflexes, strength, and senses. Elementals, like Brennan, are capable of producing and projecting various forms of energy, including lightning, fire, and light. Telempaths, including Emma, are psionic, capable of reading and manipulating minds; the name given to this type of new mutant is to avoid problems with telepaths like Jean Gray and Professor X. Moleculars, like Jesse, can change their body at the atomic level. Every new mutant, save one, falls into one of these categories. The exception, Ashlocke, Patient Zero, had all the abilities.
Thus Shalimar wasn’t Wolverine nor Wolvesbane. She healed faster, but no “healing factor” was ever mentioned. She didn’t grow claws nor change form. Shalimar was good at mixing it up hand-to-hand with her wire-fu. Likewise Brennan wasn’t Storm; he didn’t control the weather, just shot lightning. Jesse wasn’t Shadowcat; he could both phase through objects and become so dense bullets bounced off him. Emma, well, she wasn’t Jean Gray, despite the red hair and telempathic abilities; she didn’t have telekinesis, and her mental contact was more based on emotion than thought, at least in the first season. And the Double Helix, Mutant X’s plane, was definitely not the Blackbird.
So, if Mutant X is not X-Men, what is it? At its core, the show is a syndicated action series featuring superpowers and wire-fu fight scenes. As the seasons progressed, the show explored each character’s past and the nature of being a new mutant. Several episodes showed the Mutant X team working to protect new mutants from the GSA while others showed the team protecting the general populace from new mutants. There were even episodes where the main characters’ own powers threatened to hurt or even kill them. Sure. some of these themes appeared in X-Men, but themes are universal. X-Men used them but didn’t corner the market on them. It’s how Mutant X explored the themes that matters.
Mutant X did deliver on being an action series. Budget and effects limitations restricted how often powers could be used. Flashier powers, including Brennan’s lightning and Jesse’s body manipulation, required more work and money than the more physical wire work that Shalimar needed. Part of the problem is that Fireworks, the production company, is based in Toronto. As mentioned last week, Toronto is better known for being a double for American cities for police procedurals and mysteries, not for science fiction. Things had improved since Captain Power, though, in part because the city was in competition with Vancouver for film and television projects. Mutant X had the advantage of being set in the near future, so no major effects were needed.
Despite being a syndicated series filmed in Canada, the show did pick up a following. In Canada, Mutant X aired on Global, owned by CanWest, the same company that owned Fireworks’. In the US, the show was syndicated in an era predating the cable and Internet streaming onslaught. People tuned in, at first because of the potential of being related to the recently released X-Men movie, then because of the characters and situations of the show itself. The following may not have been able to sustain a traditional network show, but fans were shocked when the show did not continue after the third season. Fireworks and its library of TV series was sold to new owners who weren’t as interested as making shows as they were in getting the series already made. Marvel, though, hasn’t disowned the series; Mutant X is now an alternate universe from the main continuity.
Mutant X was not X-Men. Similar themes appeared, but shadowy government departments hunting underdog protagonists and protagonists rail against bigotry against minorities are universal. The shows writers worked to give Mutant X its own mythology, one that wasn’t based on anything seen in Marvel’s main continuity. The result is a TV series that can stand on its own and compete with other shows. Mutant X reached beyond its limitations, both budgetary and legal.
* For added fun here, John Shea played Lex Luthor on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starting with a head of hair and becoming bald during the series run.
Last week’s look at Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future led to a questions – “When is an adaptation not an adaptation?” On investigation, Captain Power wound up being a parallel development. Gary Goddard had an idea for a TV series and Mattel had a technology they wanted to market. With Mattel’s backing, Goddard could produce Captain Power, at least for one season.
Captain Power isn’t the only work that looks like an adaptation but isn’t. In some franchises based on a series of books, a new entry starts in a different medium, but because of production time, the book gets released first. The 007 film, Thunderball, is such a movie. Fleming worked on the story for the film first, then wrote it as a novel while the movie was delayed. And this doesn’t happen to just franchises. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey began as a film treatment; he then wrote the novel while the movie went through production.
Figuring out what is and isn’t an adaptation does take research. Parallel developments aren’t apparent, even when checking the credits. It’s only after digging a bit that details come out. Some of that digging involves commentary tracks, so streaming isn’t always a good option for Lost in Translation. Fortunately, most creative types are happy to talk about the process with their works. It is easier to tell when a work is an adaptation, though. The credits state it outright, using phrases such as “Based on” or “Inspired by”. However, “Based on a story idea by” isn’t always a good indication. Many movies, including classics, begin from a story treatment submitted where there isn’t already an existing work.
Today, it’s easier to find out what is being adapted. Entertainment news and blogs will have this information out as soon as an announcement is made. Studios want and need fans of the original works to come out to the movie adaptation. Creators get excited about seeing their works in a new format. Finding announcements made in the last ten years is a quick web search away. Older works, though, may have had the announcements, but not with the same hype and not as easily found. Not everything is on the Internet. There are people who do the research, though, which does help.
Why mention these non-adaptations? They affect Lost in Translation in a two ways. First, there’s the discover of works that are suspected to be adaptations that aren’t. Captain Power last week is a good example. Likewise, Thunderball, which will be part of the 007 project, isn’t an adaptation. The film isn’t even an adaptation of the character to film. Ian Fleming wrote the screen treatment of the film before he wrote the novel; Thunderball is an original work in the 007 series with the novel being the adaptation. This issue is likely to show up in other franchises where the original work has grown beyond its original medium.
The second is the discovery that an adaptation isn’t. Reviewing a work does take time; both the original and adaptation must be seen. A longer work, either original or adaptation, takes more time. If it becomes apparant early that a work isn’t an adaptation, something else can be swapped in. However, reviewing longer works means that if the discovery is found on checking a secondary source, such as the commentary track or a website, then it gets too late to change gears. Sometimes, the non-adaptation can provide a look into the process of adapting, either by being an example of the problems faced or by showing how a creator works across multiple media.
Still, even these non-adaptations can provide an insight into how a work is adapted. Creators today can use the various media far more readily for far less cost than in the decades prior. Video cameras are now consumer goods. The Open Source movement means that video editing tools are easily found for low or no cost. Web sites are easily created and can allow creators to display their works, in full or in part, to entice potential audiences. Hollywood is the big producer, but it isn’t the only one.
Toy manufacturers know that a successful TV series based on one their products leads to better sales. Deregulation in the 80s allowed toy makers to fund what were essentially half-hour toy ads masquerading as cartoons and live-action shows. The key issue is getting the target audience to watch, which means making the shows enjoyable to watch. Hasbro has had the most success with their spin-off series, from the various Transformers efforts to My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The latter series has helped Hasbro gain in sales while other toy makers saw sales falling. From the creative point of view, the success of a series based on a toy hinges on two elements – the popularity of the show and the popularity of the toy. If either drops, the show is no longer supported. There have been times when the show’s popularity far outstripped the sales of the toy it was based on. One of the exemplars of the phenomenon is Captain Power & The Soldiers of the Future.
Mattel‘s major line has been Barbie. The doll has sustained the company for almost 60 years. However, few companies want to rely on just one product to sustain them. Mattel expanded its toy lines to include items of interest to boys, with Hot Wheels the best known line. In a competitive market, companies are always searching for the next big thing to cash in on. Mattel thought they had found that next big thing with interactive TV.
In the 80s, interactive TV was in its embryonic stage. The idea of viewers participating with what they watched became possible as electronics took advantage of the potential of the silicon chip. While the first patent in the US for interactive TV was issued in 1994, the concept predates the patent. NABU Networks was an ambitious attempt to combine cable television with an Internet-like connection with the ability to play games appeared in 1983, though it folded in 1986. By 1987, Mattel developed a version of the technology for their own use, but didn’t have yet have a toy developed.
In steps Gary Goddard, who had an idea for a live-action children’s series. Mattel saw a way to use their new technology, The result is Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Mattel had requirements, mainly at least three minutes of interactivity per episode, but allowed Goddard to develop the series the way he wanted. Technically, this means that Captain Power isn’t an adaptation but a joint effort. However, the development of the series was separate from the interactive technology and the toys released. The fate of Captain Power is still instructive.
The toys and the show were parallel developments. Goddard, who also acted as the producer, decided to film in Toronto, Ontario. To qualify for tax breaks*, he had to make a decision about which parts of the show would use Canadian talent and which parts wouldn’t. He went with using American writers, including J. Michael Straczynski, Larry DiTillio, Marc Scott Zircee, Michael Reaves, and Christy Marx. Goddard reasoned that if the writing was strong, the directors, all pulled from Toronto’s television industry, would be able to work with the scripts despite being unfamiliar with science fiction**. The writing staff was able to work with the requirements. The big one was the three minutes of interactivity . The closing credits provided one minute, and the writing staff started most episodes with an action sequence that led into the main plot, eating up another minute there. A climactic action sequence would use the last required minute, if not more.
Mattel developed the toy line, including the PowerJet and action figures. The PowerJet and similiar, like the PowerBase and the MagnaCycle, were deisgned to interact with the TV series and with three video tapes released. The toys reacted to signals in the shows, scoring both hits made on targets and hits made on the toy. Get hit too often, the pilot ejects. The toys could be played with as stand-alone, not needing the show or the video cassettes, but the main focus was the interactivity.
Captain Power, for being a live-action kids show designed for a thirty minute time-slot, was ambitious. It was the first series to feature a regular CGI character with Soaron, voiced by Deryck Hazel, followed later by Blastarr, voiced by John Davies. The sets were built at an unused bus repair facility. Effects, barring the lasers, the flashing targets, and Soaron and Blastarr, were all practical. Even the back story showed work. When the series starts, the Metal Wars, the last battle between man and machine, are over, with the machines under Lord Dread, played by David Hemblen, winning. The Earth is a desolate, blasted landscape, with pockets of humanity trying to survive against the Bio-Dread Empire. However, a light stands against the darkness. Captain Jonathan Power, played by Tim Dunigan, has assembled a small team. Equipped with Power Suits, the Soldiers of the Future stand against Dread and his army of robots.
Each member of Power’s team has a specialty. Major Matthew “Hawk” Matheson, played by Peter MacNeill is the aerial expert; his suit includes wings and jets to let him fly. Lieutenant Michael “Tank” Ellis, played by Sven Thorsen, is the heavy assault expert. Sergeant Robert “Scout” Baker, played by Maurice Dean Wint, is the infiltration and espionage expert, with a suit that can project a camouflage to let him blend in with the Bio-Dread troopers, and Corporal Jennifer “Pilot” Chase, played by Jessica Steen, is the technical expert and pilot of the team’s Jump Ship. The characters had history, as well. Tank is the product of a cloning experiment. Hawk lost his son during the Metal Wars. Pilot was a member of the Dread Youth, an organization meant to install blind loyalty to Lord Dread into young adults.
That brings up another point. The series was dark. The villain already won by the start of the series. Dread’s forces were robots commanded by humans whose uniforms were modelled after after the Nazi’s. Even the Dread Youth were a reference, this time to the Hitler Youth. Topics covered by various episodes included the loss of a child and how people treated victims of AIDS in the late 80s. The final episode ended with the death of one of the main characters. Soaron digitized victims, sending them into Dread’s Overmind computer. Captain Power also had a story arc; each episode built up towards the season’s climax. The writing staff did not dumb their scripts down, and were inspired by science fiction series of the past, including Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.
Scripts were written for a second season but were never filmed. The series was not renewed. The sales of the toys weren’t strong enough for Mattel to consider funding a second season. On top of that, Captain Power came under fire for its violence. That combination led to the series ending on a downer with the death of Pilot. However, the series transcended what Mattel wanted from it. It was a well-written science fiction series, first and foremost, and it picked up an adult audience through word of mouth and on USEnet.
A reboot of the series has been announced. Phoenix Rising has signed on Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to develop the new series as a weekly hour-long show. The new series is still in development, though, and no air date has been set.
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future shows the limitation of being tied to a toy line. If it had been separate, the success of associated toys wouldn’t have been a factor in the decision to end the series. However, since it was, Mattel had to make the choice in continuing to produce an unsuccessful toy line to support a popular show, and went with its own bottom line. Such is the nature of the corporate world. However, when the creative staff, from writers to directors to actors, all pitch in, a work can go beyond its origins and be remembered.
* Canadian content regulations uses a points system. To qualify as a Canadian production, over half the production must include Canadians. The writing staff could be all American, provided the production made up the difference elsewhere. Goddard used Canadian directors, as mentioned, and kept all the post-production companies in Toronto busy during Captain Power‘s only season. The other benefit of qualifying as CanCon is that it made the show easier to sell to Canadian stations. Canadian television has CanCon broadcast requirements, a minimum about of time that has to be Canadian-made. Captain Power, being CanCon, helped fill that requirement.
** Toronto was and is often used as a stunt double for American cities. The directors of the time were more used to shows like mysteries and police procedurals. The last major science fiction series attempted in Toronto prior was The Starlost, which had many problems.