Audience acceptance of adaptations can be finicky. Everything can be set up just so but if something is off, the audience is thrown. On the flip side of that, an adaptation can get a lot wrong, but if it gets certain details right, the audience will just go along for the ride. Casting plays a role in this. Adaptations that audiences weren’t sure about did well when certain actors were announced. Likewise, fans have become divided when their dream casting didn’t happen.
With books, the goal is to find actors who can pass for how the characters are described. The author may or may not have a specific actor in mind when creating a character. Fans may pick up on the description and figure out who the author was using as a reference. Other works, the author may not have anyone particular in mind. In this case, the casting director should be aware of the characters’ general appearance. Some works make the casting work harder, particularly those with a young cast that grows over the series of novels. Since the appearances are all in the description, it shouldn’t be difficult to get close. Mind, some cases are harder than others; Harry Dresden, being canonically six-foot-nine, has a limited pool of actors to work from. The adaptation went with six-foot-four Paul Blackthorne as Dresden, then used camera angles as needed to emphasize his height.
The Harry Potter books make for an interesting case with child actors. The initial casting of Harry, Hermione, and Ron worked; the young actors resembled their character’s description from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. However, each book ages the characters one year. It is hard to tell what a child actor will look like in a decade. With the Harry Potter movies, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grew with the roles, but that isn’t a guarantee.
On the flip side, casting for the Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation caused a rift among fans. While the films went with Dakota Fanning and Jamie Dornan as the leads, fans wanted Alexis Bledel and Matt Bomer instead, going so far to start a petition to have the cast changed. The adaptation did well in theatres, though the backlash against the cast may have meant the film under performed.
More visual media provide a definite base to begin casting from. Not every role is locked into a specific look, just a general appearance. However, certain types of works become iconic. Animation is one of those. The art shows the character, from general appearance to mannerisms. Even comic books have distinctive characters, particularly the costumes. In these cases, ignoring the iconic looks may cause problems. Audiences, though, are aware of the restrictions and can adjust their perceptions while watching the adaptation. Some notable exception have come up, making for pleasant additions to their adaptations.
The 2002 Scooby-Doo movie did well at the box office, thanks to its star power. Matthew Lillard, though, deserves special mention. As Shaggy, Lillard managed to channel Casey Kasem’s portrayal, getting the voice right. Adding to his performance, he managed to get Shaggy’s unique walk. Of all the cast, Lillard was his role the most. In fact, Lillard has since taken over as the voice of Shaggy after Kasem passed away in 2014.
In a case of where getting the casting right would make or break a film, Karl Urban as Judge Dredd in the 2012 Dredd. Urban insisted that Dredd’s face would never be seen, correcting a major issue with the 1995 Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone. The one time Dredd is seen without his helmet, he’s in shadow, with no facial features showing. Urban became Dredd for the film, and while the film wasn’t as successful at the box office, it became an instant cult classic thanks to the portrayal.
Sometimes, the announcement of a casting choice can get an audience on board, even if there were reservations before. Michael Bay’s Transformers was seeing fan pushback on the idea of a live-action adaptation. Then the studio announced that the voice of Optimus Prime was cast – Peter Cullen would be reprising the role that was his when the cartoon first appeared in 1984. Fan reception changed, and the movie, while still having problems, succeeded well enough to have three sequels.
When it comes to adapting a live-action work, the limitations are obvious. Unless an actor has a child that looks much alike, and there are some who do, the adaptation will have to go with best fit. The appearance may not be important; instead, the portrayal is critical. The original actors will have set the characters; the new cast will have to adjust to expectations. Karl Urban once again shows how it’s done as Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. While Urban doen’t look like DeForest Kelly, he once again channeled the character. Urban’s co-star, Zachary Quinto, had an added difficulty. Unlike the rest of the cast, Quinto had one of the original cast of Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy, playing the older version of his character, Spock. Audiences could compare the two directly. Helping, though, was all the character development Spock had gone through in the movies. Quinto’s Spock was the younger version, Nimoy the mature. The result, though, was that Quinto held his own.
Casting is important. Getting the right actor for a role is key, for original works and adaptations. With adaptations, getting fans on board means getting someone who can be the character. When that happens, the adaptation grows beyond expectations.
Lost in Translation will be taking the next two weeks off and will return November 10.
When adapting a tabletop RPG, the ideal original work is one that allows for more people in the setting than just the main characters. Star Trek, in its various incarnations, allows for other Starfleet officers, creating an instant hook for an RPG. Television, though, works best with a limited cast, mainly for budgetary reasons, with a broad hook. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files was prime for a TV adaptation, with one central character, a small core of supporting characters, and numerous recurring guest characters. For an RPG, though, that isn’t the best set up.
Or is it? As the series of novels grew, Butcher expanded the setting. Harry Dresden isn’t the only wizard in the world, just the only one to open a detective agency. Over the course of the series, Harry picks up an apprentice, deals with the various threats both mundane and supernatural, has to work around the wizardly White Council, and keeps the peace among the supernatural factions and the Mob in Chicago. There is a world beyond just Harry Dresden. This is where Evil Hat Productions comes in.
Evil Hat developed the Fate RPG by building on the Fudge system with elements that went beyond just attributes and skills. Called Aspects, these elements allow players and GMs to use drama points, called Fate Points, to modify the narrative. Players can invoke the Aspects to gain an advantage for their characters; GMs can invoke the same Aspects to put the characters into a disadvantageous position. Fate doesn’t encourage the old “killer DM” play; the goal is for everyone to have fun and be challenged.
At this point, there’s two levels of adaptation going on. First, the adapting of The Dresden Files as a tabletop RPG. Second, the adapting of Fate to The Dresden Files. Fate is Evil Hat’s house system, a concept seen widely in the tabletop RPG industry. Game mechanics take time to develop and playtest. Many RPG publishers, once their mechanics are worked out, don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time a new game is released. When licensing a title, one of the issues faced by RPG publishers is making sure that the work can fit into their mechanics.
Evil Hat’s approach to Fate, especially for The Dresden Files and their previous game, the original work Spirit of the Century, was to emulate the writing process. While that approach may not work for some players, it does set the tone of the game, reflecting Dresden‘s literary background. The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, released in 2010, comes in two volumes, Volume 1: Your Story and Volume Two: Our World. That’s not unusual for tabletop RPGs; while getting both mechanics and setting into one book is ideal, if there is too much information, printing over two thick volumes makes sense.
Our World details Harrry Dresden’s Chicago, as presented in the novels. The city isn’t just the landmarks that can be found in a Wikipedia entry. Our World adds the elements that have appeared in the novels – characters, themes, the vampiric Red and White Courts, the police, the Mob, the morgue, and even Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History that became a zombie. Anything and everything players could want if they want to play in Harry’s Chicago.
Your Story contains the mechanics of Fate, how to roll the dice and how to create a character. Being an urban fantasy RPG, the Dresden game has to include not just regular skills but also supernatural abilities, with some extrapolation from what’s seen in the books to provide players a range of options. To help players, the game includes templates based on characters who appeared. Included in the templates are Wizard, like Harry, Champion of God, like Michael, Were-Form, like Billy and the Alphas, and White Court Vampire, like Thomas. Most templates have a Fate Point refresh cost, so some may not be available depending on the initial amount of points available at start. However, Pure Mortals, like Karrin Murphy and Waldo Butters, gain two Fate Points for use to buy stunts, to offset not having access to supernatural abilities, reflecting how such characters in the books can survive being around Harry.
Fate was designed as a generic game system, one that can be modified as needed for different settings. The core easily takes additions, though some care is needed. Gameplay revolves around the Fate Point economy, encouraging players to let their Aspects restrict them so that they can use those very same Aspects to save the day. Characters, though, aren’t the only ones who get Aspects. Everything can, from the city the game takes place in to a specific location to the current scene. The approach at the time was new, but one that gained a following. The GM and players work together to create their own city, if they want one, allowing the campaign and its theme to be personalized for the group.
Presentation in RPGs often helps sets the tone, With the Dresden RPG, it’s not just adapting the mechanics for the settings, it’s also the maginalia commenting on the main text. Used often to help explain a concept, either by directly commenting or refering to an event in the books, the marginalia is written as Harry, Bob, and Billy, in different handwriting. At one point, when the main text is using Harry himself as an example for character creation, Harry corrects his player, Jim, and then tells him to roll better.
RPGs have a tough challenge when adapting a work. They have to take the work, extract information, and make the setting playable for others beyond the creators while still providing players options to go beyond what has been produced. Evil Hat managed to hit this mark with The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, taking Jim Butcher’s creation and presenting it in a way that players can have their own adventures in Harry’s world, whether as Dresden and his companions in Chicago or as their own group elsewhere.
The problem with copying a copy is image degradation – finer details are lost thanks to the resolution of the copier. When the image is simple, such as words in a sans-serif font or stick figures with thick lines, the losses are minimal and the details are easily seen. With an intricate painting with precise colours, the loss of detail hurts the copy. This tends to hold with adaptations.
It’s not that the adaptations of adaptations are bad. Many are acclaimed, including shows like M*A*S*H, which was based on the movie of the book, and the 1959 Ben Hur, a remake of the 1925 silent film adaptation Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ which itself was based on the novel of the same name. However, each step away from the original brought on changes. Robert Hooker’s MASH: A Novel of Three Army Doctors focused on the hijinks of the surgeons and nurses of the 4077. The movie built on it but added an anti-war angle, which was continued into the TV series, which then added more serious elements. The TV series may have had hijinks, but some of the practical jokes were done to keep sanity and the humour was kept out of the operating room.
What happens is that, unless the crew making the new adaptation takes a look at the original, they won’t know what needed to be removed to for the new format. If the crew is only familiar with the first adaptation of a work, there may be a wealth of detail they are unaware of. For example, if a studio decided to make a Harry Potter TV series based on the movies instead of JK Rowling’s books, key details will be lost, such as the importance of Neville Longbottom, who will lead the resistance at Hogwart’s in Year 7. Neville was critically ignored in the early movies because the studio wasn’t aware of what he would do later in the novels.
Yet, as mentioned above, adaptations of adaptations can stand on their own. The 1931 Frankenstein may be the definitive version with Karloff’s childlike monster, but the film owed more to the various plays that were written based on the original work than on Mary Shelley’s story. The M*A*S*H TV series won numerous awards over its eleven seasons. The 1959 Ben Hur was the most popular movie in its year of release. Just as adaptations aren’t necessarily bad, adaptations of adaptations aren’t necessarily bad. Comparing them to the original means following through the generations to see what went missing and why.
Part of the problem is that there are times that an adaptation becomes the definitive version of a work, despite the presence of the original. Movies like 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stargate SG-1 have surplassed their original works. With The Wizard of Oz, adaptations including The Wiz, with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and Muppets Wizard of Oz build off the movie, not L. Frank Baum’s original novel. The popularity of Buffy and SG-1 means that a remake of either, which has been suggested for both, needs to take into account the events in the TV series.
Despite the the loss of details from original works, adaptations of adaptations appear to be able to fill in the blanks, adding instead of removing. What helps is the original fading into the background. A more obscure original work leave both the adaptation and the adaptation of the adaptation wriggle room to make changes. The hypothetical Harry Potter TV series doesn’t have that wriggle room, while the M*A*S*H TV series needed that space to allow the characters to develop. The Harry Potter novels are still too popular to ignore outright.
Adaptations of adaptations will happen. Movies get remade. TV series get rebooted. It’s the nature of the beast. Details can get lost. Yet, it is possible for the second generation adaptation to surpass its precursors. It takes work, but the results are worth it.
Last week, Lost in Translation took a look at animated adaptations with a high level view. It’s time to delve into a specific one to get a better view of how such things turn out.
Thanks to the success of Star Wars merchandise in 1977, toys and toy licensing became another way to make money from a movie. Sure, prior to Star Wars, there were toys made for some franchises, but not to the same extent and success. However, many of the most toyetic movies were also R-rated, meaning that the target audience for the toys were not likely to have seen the movie except in ads. However, the reduction of FCC regulations against using children’s entertainment as advertising presented a new way to introduce the characters to the new audience – cartoons. Thus, among other animated adaptations, RoboCop the Animated Series.
The original RoboCop was a violent, over-the-top satire of the Reagan era. Everyone has a gun. Automation destroys jobs. Detroit is bankrupt. The Detroit police get privatized, bought up by Omni-Consumer Products, who saw the city as a test bed for automating law enforcement. The movie wasn’t subtle. Officer Alex Murphy is shot with the symbolism of the Crucifixion. Scenes had to be trimmed to avoid the dreaded X rating, preventing the movie from getting into any theatre. Blood was shed by the barrels.
The perfect movie to adapt for children.
The 2014 remake, with its PG-13 rating, had its violence toned down. No more graphic deaths. No one getting shot with hundreds of rounds by a robot still in beta. It was one of the problems fans of the original movie would cite about the remake. The violence was reigned in. There still was violence. Drones got destroyed. Murphy got shot and burned. But the gore was gone. The remake’s satire hit closer to home, but the violence of the original allowed audiences to take a step back. The PG-13 rating was seen as the problem by fans of the original, not allowing for the over the top violence of the original.
With that in mind, if there was a backlash against the 2014 remake, how do things shake out for 1988’s RoboCop: The Animated Series? If a PG-13 rating forced the 2014 remake to focus the violence on drones, how much is lost for a weekly cartoon? Repeatable violence isn’t allowed. Shooting a gun is repeatable. Punching is repeatable. Running someone over is repeatable. And forget language. Even in syndication, there are words not allowed anywhere near children’s entertainment. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” won’t be heard.
How well did RoboCop survive the translater to animation? First, a look at the the characters themselves. While Orion could license the characters, the studio couldn’t license the appearances of the actors. The actors own their looks. It’s the same reason why the character design for The Real Ghostbusters changed so much. However, the costume for RoboCop hid most of Peter Weller, so the character could be animated as accurately as the production could. Likewise, the ED-260, the upgraded version of the ED-209 from the movie, was accurate, with the new number allowing for differences due to animation.
For characters like Officer Anne Lewis and Sergeant Ross, the animation tries to be close to their looks without necessarily copying their actors. Lewis lost her curls, but the costume – body armour and a helmet with a visor – is close enough. Other characters, like the Old Man, have more extensive changes. However, Clarence Boddicker, the man responsible for killing RoboCop in both the movie and the series, has only minor changes. Boddicker appears in the opening credits and in the episode “Menace of the Mind”.
Animation helps with showing RoboCop’s abilities. The original movie used practical effects and stop-motion; the suit Weller wore slowed him down just from mass. An animated character doesn’t have that limitation, so having RoboCop lift a van by its bumper or run after a perp is easier to show. The technology of the future of Old Detroit changed, too. RoboCop and the rest of the police force use lasers. Some of the criminals still used guns, but since they were shooting RoboCop, there were no bullet wounds, no arterial sprays, nothing to worry parents about what their children were seeing.
Characterization of the characters was off. RoboCop comes off as his RoboCop 2 incarnation after community input forces several hundred new directives installed. Murphy acts more as Murphy’s cheerleader. However, the focus of the series is on action; dialogue is kept to a minimum. Bursts of dialogue aren’t much to build a character on. A few characters do change. SWAT commander Lt. Roger Hedgecock gets promoted from being a minor character in the original to a rival. Hedgecock isn’t a fan of automation and is trying to outshine Murphy. Casey Wong returns as the talking head of “Media Break”, the three-minute news segment that appeared in the movie.
A few characters were added. Dr. McNamara, an OCP designer working on the ED-260 project, wants RoboCop shelved in favour of his Enforcement Drone, and is the mastermind behind the plot in several episodes. The Vandals were a gang that caused problems in Old Detroit until stopped by RoboCop.
The series did try to work with some themes from the movie. Biting satire is out, but some still slipped in. A section of Old Detroit was called “Trickledown Town” and was where the old abandoned factories were. One episode, “No News Is Good News”, had a Geraldo Riviera parody, chasing non-stories until he focused on destroying RoboCop’s reputation. Even the idea of automating jobs came up for satire with ED-260 being pressed into traffic duty and causing collateral damage after an illegal lane change. Outside the satire, Murphy still had to come to terms with his humanity. While Lewis still saw Murphy as Murphy, others, including Hedgecock and McNamara, saw him as a machine or as a product.
RoboCop is a tough movie to turn into an animated series, especially one aimed at an younger audience. What is allowed in an R rated movie doesn’t get on television in prime time, let alone weekend afternoon for kids. RoboCop: The Animated Series had its fangs pulled because of the the new format. It tries, but the focus is more science fiction action, not violent biting satire of the Eighties. If it was a standalone work; it would be an entertaining series on its own. Tied to the RoboCop movie, the series is sanitized.
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.
There’s no post this week due to circumstances beyond my control. Lost in Translation will return next week. My apologies.
After analysing a number of adaptations over the past few years, it’s nigh time to examine how the different sources of material affects how a work is adapted. The History of Adaptations series helped show the different sources that led to popular works, with other works being reviewed expanding the list.
Literary sources cover a wide range, from novels to short stories to plays to poems. Each source has its own challenges for adaptations. Novels, being a longer form, tend to lose details when adapted as films. A series of novels adapted to film can lose critical scenes, especially if the adaptation begins before the last as happened with the Harry Potter series. Television may be the better format for novels; while individual episodes are shorter than a film’s run time, a full season gives more time to delve into the work. With the today’s choices for television going far beyond the three-channel universe, a traditional 22 episode season isn’t needed. Mini-series can take as long as needed. One other means to adapt a novel is to just use the characters and create new situations, such as happened with The Dresden Files. The benefit of novels is that their popularity is easy to track. The New York Times‘ best sellers lists, while flawed still provide studios an idea of how well a title is selling. A novel that makes headlines because of fan enthusiasm makes the choice to adapt it easy.
At the other end of length, short stories may not have enough material to fill a movie’s runtime. Studios would have to extrapolate and expand from the events in the story, sometimes to the point where the film could have been its own work. A television series would not work, unless the idea is to keep the characters in further situations. However, an anthology series could take the story and adapt it. The Twilight Zone did this throughout its run, with episodes like “Steel” and “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” being typical.
Plays don’t have the problem of having too much or too little story when it comes to being adapted as a film. A typical play is performed in about the same time as a film, possibly a little longer. The script is already written; all the director needs to do is remember that the fourth wall is now the camera’s lens instead of the audience. Plays don’t work out as well for television; length is the limiting factor.
Poems and songs do get adapted, though not to the same degree as other literary sources. The poem or song needs to be narrative, providing or at least implying a plot of some sort. “Harper Valley PTA” may be the best example, having been made into a movie that was then adapted as a TV series. The song provided the basis for the plots in both. Popular songs are easy to track, through Top 40 lists and YouTube hits.
Comics are a popular source for adaptations today. The bright costumes, the spectacle of superheroes fighting supervillains, and the almost black-and-white morality of pulp western serials are a lure for filmmakers. Yet, as a serialized means of storytelling, a comics adaptation could easily find a home on television. The plots are already storyboarded, though only Scott Pilgrim vs the World took advantage of that. Right now, the looming problem is audience burnout. At some point, audiences will want something different, but not too different. Yet, comics cover a wide range, something Marvel Studios has been exploiting. Each of the Marvel movies has been superheroes crossed with something else, from technothriller (Iron Man) to heist movie (Ant Man) to romantic comedy (Deadpool). The variety available in comics, not just the superhero titles, makes the medium ripe for the picking. Add in foreign titles, such as manga, and the surface has barely been scratched.
Television looks like it could make the jump to the silver screen. There have been attempts. The problem is the differences in running times. A TV episode today can run either 22 or 45 minutes, with breaks for ads. A full season can each 22 episodes. Neither fit well into a 2 to 2.5 hour film. Expanding an episode is similar to expanding a short story; much more needs to be added. Age of the work is another matter. Some series, like Entourage, have a goal to end with a cinematic release. Other series may have just enough popularity to risk trying a movie, like Firefly and Veronica Mars. The end result may be true to the TV show, but may not get the critical mass needed for an audience. Older series have another issue; while it may have been popular in its day, a TV series may not be well known to today’s audience. The Beverly Hillbillies, while almost note perfect as an adaptation, didn’t have the name recognition needed to get people out to it. Remaking and rebooting a TV series can work, though. Star Trek returned as Star Trek: The Next Generation to a much larger fanbase than the original series had when it first aired. The new Battlestar Galactica lasted longer than the original, providing a different look at the ragtag fleet searching for Earth.
Film remakes are also popular today. There appears to be a roughly thirty to forty year gap between originals and remakes. Take a look at King Kong; ignoring sequels, after the giant ape’s first appearance in 1933, the movie was remade in 1976 and 2005. With home video tape players and, later, DVD and Blu-Ray players along with specialty movie cable channels and streaming services, this gap may need to grow. The availability of older movies in homes grew tremendously in the Eighties. While the 1959 Ben Hur didn’t need to compete with the first adaptation, a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark has the original available and in many home movie libraries. Adapting a movie to a TV series means further exploration of the film. M*A*S*H and Stargate SG-1 are arguably the most successful film-to-TV adaptations, both having run ten years and are both still available in syndication and on DVD. Not every movie can make the jump to television; the film needs to leave room for further stories featuring the characters.
Video games have had a rough time in adaptation. The early video game movies were either poorly done or completely missed the mark; Super Mario Bros illustrates the latter well. Video games turned out to have similar problems as literary sources. Early games, especially arcade games, had just enough plot to lure players before letting them button mash. similar to the problem of adapting a short story. Later video games, especially once home consoles had the ability to save games in progress, provided for a longer story, requiring several hours of game play. Parasite Eve‘s ten to twenty hours for completion is on the short side. What some adaptations have done is provide extra information for players, either what happened prior to the game or what happened after. Animated adaptations, most in the form of a cartoon like Super Mario Bros Super Show, have been more successful. In most cases, the cartoon just takes the characters and some of the game play and create new stories around them.
Other games, such as boardgames and tabletop RPGs, see similar problems to video games with added layers of abstraction. Clue may have been the best adaptation of a boardgame; the game itself is a murder mystery with a cast of investigators and one murderer, ideal for translating to the big screen. Battleship, on the other hand, tried to incorporate elements from the game but there wasn’t much to bring in, resulting in a mess of a movie. With tabletop RPGs, the problem is that, while there may be an idea of what game play looks like, the game itself is social. Players create their own characters and storylines. Studios are competing with the imagination of the players. Tabletop RPGs are also a niche market; very few games get beyond specialty stores and into book stores.
Toys may have had the best success rate of all sources mentioned here. Most adaptations of toys started as a way to market the toy itself. However, to keep the audience watching, story and character development happened. Cartoons like Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic took the idea of the toy and expanded on it, creating settings and introducing characters. Not every adaptation succeeded; the live action Jem and the Holograms was pulled from theatres after two weeks. The problem studios need to watch out for is reaction by parental groups and popularity of the toy. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future ended on a heart wrenching note because while the series had an audience, the toyline did not. Even a mess of a movie, like Michael Bay’s Transformers, can still be a decent adaptation.
On side note, Bay’s Transformers didn’t have continuity issues. The Transformers series already had multiple continuities, with fans well aware that cinematic universes are a thing. Bay may have been well aware of the problems he was going to face and made the one move that brought Transformers fans on board – he brought in Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. A loud movie with explosions featuring Autobots and Decepticons fighting kept the fans happy. Getting key details right can go a long way in making a good adaptation.
Not every adaptation is successful, and not every adaptation is accurate. The goal for studios is to overcome the challenges of the source material. There’s a change coming in how television is seen; once a vast wasteland catering to the lowest common denominator, TV is now exploring new ways its format can tell stories. Film, while still seen as the goal for adaptations, is becoming stale, mainly because of remakes, reboots, and other adaptations. The format of the original work may require a hard look at how it is adapted.
Thanks to some early entries in the field, video game movies aren’t appreciated. Super Mario Bros. is one of the big offenders, having been a poor adaptation of the source material. Mortal Kombat was the exception when it came out in 1995, but video game adaptations were still done through licensing arrangements with a studio, placing how the game appears completely out of the original publisher’s hands. In 2001, a game publisher decided to try its hand at making their own film adaptation
Square had great success with its Final Fantasy line of video games. Created by Hironobu Sakaguchi in 1987, the first Final Fantasy was available on the Nintendo Entertainment System and localized for the US in 1990. The next two installments of the game, FFII in 1988 and FFIII in 1990, were released only in Japan. The two games weren’t so much sequels as new stories exploring the same themes as the first, setting a pattern for the rest of the series. When FFIV came out in 1991, it was for the Super Nintendo and released in the US as FFII. FFV was a Japan-only release in 1992 and had a sequel, Final Fantasy: Legend of the Cryptids. FFVI came out in 1994 with an American release as FFIII.
Up to this point, the series was two-dimensional sprites; the draw was the story-telling with the game play. In 1997, with the introduction of the PlayStation, FFVII moved to three-dimensional characters and a more modern setting. The game also retained its numbering in the American release. Square followed up with FFVIII in 1999, turning the setting into more of a planetary romance with a mix of magic and technology with a hint that the world had avanced since the end of FFVII. FFIX rounds out the original PlayStation console games, coming out in 2001 and moving the setting back to fantasy. As newer consoles came out, Square and, after 2003, Square-Enix brought out more FF sequels, covering everything from traditional consoles to Windows to mobile gaming.
While each entry in the Final Fantasy series is a standalone adventure, there are themes that return every game. Young heroes coming together despite tragedies, the difficulty of the heroes working together, an ancient evil returning, rebellion against a government. Magic is based on elements, both the traditional Japanese and Western, and must be balanced within itself and with nature. Technology isn’t necessarily evil, but neither is it necessarily good; it, too, must balance with nature. There are recurring characters, of a sort. Cid, who first appeared in FFII acts as a mentor to the main character and may or may not be part of the party depending on the entry. Biggs and Wedge, named after characters in Star Wars, have appeared in games starting with FFV and are typically used as comic relief.
As the company worked on getting FFVII, FFVIII, and FFIX published, Square set up a division, Square Pictures, to release films based on their games. The first and, ultimately, only movie created was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Released in 2001 with Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara directing, The Spirits Within was an ambitious project, with the film being completely computer animated. The ambition came with a high price tag; computers of the time, Penium IIIs running at 933MHz – were being pushed to their limits rendering the film’s frames.
In The Spirits Within, the Earth of 2065 has been overrun by alien creatures known as Phantoms that can pull a person’s soul out of their body, killing them. Even a touch leads to an infection that is fatal if not cured in time. Humanity is isolated into barrier cities protected by an energy field. People who leave the city must go through decontamination to ensure no Phantom infection has occurred.
All is not loss yet, though. Doctor Aki Ross, voiced by Ming-Na Wen, and Doctor Sid, voiced by Donald Sutherland, discover of a way to defeat the Phantoms. If the eight signature spirits can be found and combined, the Phantoms can be pushed off Earth. During a trip to the ruins of New York City to gather the sixth signature spirit, Aki is stalked by Phantoms, only to be rescued by her former boyfriend, Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) and his squad, the Deep Eyes – Ryan Whittaker (Ving Rhames), Neil Fleming (Steve Buscemi), and Jane Produfoot (Peri Gilpin).
On return to the barrier city, Aki finds out that General Hein (James Woods) has decided that the best way to destroy the Phantoms infecting the Earth is to turn the Zeus cannon, an orbital laser, on them. To protect the Earth and its Gaia spirit, Aki reveals that not only is she infected, the spirit signatures she’s collected are keeping the infection at bay.
The seventh signature is found, though Aki’s infection worsens. She falls into a coma and, while unconscious, dreams of how the Phantoms first arrived on Earth. Aki is brought out of her coma by Sid who uses the seventh signature to control the infection.
Hein, believing that Aki is under control of the Phantoms, decides that his plan is still the correct one. He lowers the energy field of the barrier city, intending to let a few Phantoms in. Legions swarm the city, causing havok. Hein escapes to the Zeus space station. Gray, the only member of Deep Eyes to escape alive, joins Aki and Sid on their space ship to find the eight signature.
It becomes a race against time. Hein opens fire with the Zeus cannon while Aki and Gray seek out the eighth signature spirit. One of Hein’s shots kills the spirit, but Aki has a vision of the Gaia of the Phantoms’ home world. The infection within her becomes the eight signature spirit and combines with the other seven. To transmit the completed spirit to the alien Gaia, Gray sacrifices himself. On the Zeus station, Hein orders the cannon into overload, ignoring warnings from techs and computers. The cannon overloads, destroying the station and killing all aboard. The alien Gaia and the Phantoms leave Earth, returning home.
Several of the recurring FF elements can be seen in the above. There’s the young heroes with some issues between each other. Despite the different spelling, Doctor Sid is still the wise mentor to the lead character, Aki. The nature of spirits returns, and how introducing an alien spirit can cause problems. The biggest change is that The Spirits Within is science fiction with some fantasy elements, a huge change from FFVII, FFVIII, and FFIX, the three most recent games prior to the movie’s release. Also unlike the games released, The Spirits Within was set on Earth.
The film was a commercial failure. Part of the problem was the sheer cost of production. The budget for the movie was US$137 million, higher than 1999’s Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace at $115 million. Most of the cost was in the animation, from the hardware to the sheer amount of time animators needed to put the film together. Other problems existed. As mentioned above, video game adaptations were known to be poor. The characters, while rendered to be as realistic as possible, fell into the uncanny valley. There was something just off enough to make the characters seem less than real. And, for a video game movie, there wasn’t much action. The Final Fantasy series of games did offer more than just pure action, adding characterization, investigation, and exploration, but the draw of video games is the action. Audiences found the story to be slower than expected. Because of the loss, Square Pictures closed shop and the merger between Square and Enix was delayed.
Artistically, the film was lush. Backgrounds were detailed. Characters had blemishes. The ruined Earth was heartbreaking to see. The Phantoms provided a harsh alien light to the world. Perhaps the movie could have been better off as another entry in the FF line of games, allowing players to immerse themselves into it as Aki, Gray, and the Deep Eyes.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within wasn’t quite what Final Fantasy fans were expecting, but it did touch upon similar themes as the games had. The failings of the movie are technical. As an adaptation, it is a worthy entry in the Final Fantasy line up and breaks the video game adaptation curse.
Bond: Roger Moore
Release Date: 1983
Previous Film: For Your Eyes Only
Next Film: A View to a Kill
Original Story: “Octopussy”
Publication Date: Serialized in the Daily Express in 1965; released in Octopussy and The Living Daylights collection in 1966. Both dates are after Ian Fleming’s death.
Previous Story: The Man With the Golden Gun
Next Story: none; Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis under the penname Robert Markham in 1968.
Villain: Kamal Kham (Louis Jourdan); General Orlov (Steven Berkoff)
Heavy: Gobinda (Kevir Bedi), Mischka and Grishka (David & Anthony Meyer)
Bond Girls: Octopussy (Maud Adams), Magda (Kristina Wayborn), Bianca (Tina Hudson), Octopussy`s girls
Other Notable Characters: Q (Desmond Llewelyn), Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), M (Robert Brown), Minister of Defense (Geoffrey Keen), Gen. Gogol (Walter Gotell), Vijay (Vijay Amritraj), Penelope Smallbone (Michaela Clavell)
Gadgets: Q-Branch modified three-wheeled taxi with turbo; acid fountain pen with radio receiver (used by Bond); liquid crystal TV watch (used by Bond); alligator sub (used by Bond); yo-yo buzzsaw (used by unnamed hitman)
Opening Credits: “All Time High“, written by Tim Rice and John Barry, performed by Rita Coolidge.
Closing Credits: “All Time High”, reprised
Plot of Original: 007 tracks down a retired Royal Marine Major who had killed a German officer during the post-war investigations in order to get two bars of Nazi gold.
Plot of Film: After 009 dies at the British Embassy in West Germany after escaping a circus in East Berlin with a forged Fabergé egg, 007 is called in to trace the real Fabergé Egg from Sotheby’s where it is up for auction to the seller, a rogue Russian general who is using the smuggling of Russian artwork to fund his plot and to set up an atomic blast on a US Army base in Feldstat, West Germany, to frame the American government. To stop the plot, Bond infiltrates Octopussy’s Circus and finds not only the rogue general and his bankroller, but also 009’s murderers.
It may be easier to state what remained the same. Both the short story and the movie have an octopus. The short story focuses on Major Smythe, who was in the Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau during and after World War II. Bond is the catalyst for the story, but doesn’t play much of a role. Smythe confesses to killing a German officer after the war in order to steal Nazi gold, then while waiting for Scotland Yard to arrive, goes hunting the scorpion fish and gets poisoned by his prey in a Pyrrhic victory over it.
The original short story becomes Octopussy’s backstory, though updated because of the era. Major Smythe served in the Korean War, and is Octopussy’s father. She is well aware of who Bond is, thanks to the events in the short story.
Octopussy pulls from one other of Ian Fleming’s short stories, “The Property of a Lady”. The auction scene at Sotheby’s plays out in a similar manner, with Bond upping the bid to flush out the seller. However, neither “The Property of a Lady” nor “Octopussy” can fill a 131 minute film. Current events in 1983 had the Cold War easing back ever so slowly. The Iron Curtain started to look rusty, and the economic standing of the Soviet Union was starting to creak. The plot involving a rogue general was within the realm of possibility, as was the potential Soviet invasion of Europe. The production pulled in elements from both short stories as a base for the movie, which went in its own direction.
The problem the film has is that all the easier stories to adapt have been done. For Your Eyes Only ran into the same issue, having used other short stories in its collection for plot elements. With Octopussy and The Living Daylights, the short stories were more character pieces or investigative, with little action. At the time, 007 movies were blockbuster spectaculars, with set action pieces in exotic locales. A quieter pace would have fit the original story, but audiences have a different image in mind for the franchise.
Octopussy also had one problem that no other EON 007 production had, a competing Bond movie. Sean Connery was in Never Say Never Again, the Thunderball remake. Octopussy was competing with the original 007. Helping was the return of John Barry to score the movie, bringing the original musical themes woven into the soundtrack.
After For Your Eyes Only, Roger Moore felt he was getting too old to play 007. The search for the new Bond was continuing when Octopussy was made. Moore’s contract to play the role was over, but he was convinced to be Bond on a film by film basis. He’d play 007 one more time in A View to a Kill, making him the actor the role the most EON films with seven.
Casting notes – Robert Brown makes his first appearance as M in the film. Vijay Amritraj, a successful former tennis player, makes his film debut. Maud Adams makes her third appearance in the franchise; her first was in The Man With the Golden Gun as a supporting character, her second was uncredited in For Your Eyes Only.