After a few weeks of heavy works, it’s time to take a small breather. To celebrate the recently passed Ides of March, it’s a good time to look at the classic Wayne & Shuster sketch, “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga“.
The death of Julius Caesar at the hands of Roman senators led by Brutus became fodder for William Shakespeare, who turned the assassination into a tragedy. The play, Julius Caesar, was first performed in 1599 and has been a regular in the repertoire of many a Shakespearean company. Julius Caesar is also a common play taught in high school English classes, thus continuing the legacy of those fateful Ides of March.
Meanwhile, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster* created their duo, Wayne & Shuster, after working together since high school. They went professional in 1941 on radio with CFRB in Toronto. “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” was released on LP in 1954, and was then used for their big break with American audiences on The Ed Sullivan Show. After the show, New York City bars were offering “martinus specials” after a line from the act**. Sullivan had the duo back a record sixty-six more times over eleven years.
“Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” is a hard-boiled detective story using Julius Caesar as the starting point. The obvious place to start is after the big murder, the assassination of Caesar. Wayne’s character, Flavius Maximus, is a private Roman eye, hired by Shuster’s Brutus to find who killed Caesar. As Brutus, Shuster is giving a wink and a nod to the role the character had in the play. The sketch plays out as advertised, a hard-boiled detective story, with the various suspects coming up and being interrogated, including Calpurnia, Julius’ wife. The play’s characters are treated as if they had Mob connections as Flavius looks for Mr. Big.
As a comedy sketch, “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” toys with the source material, going for laughs instead of accuracy. Yet, the sketch does show another way to adapt a work, by taking a different angle, either through the eyes of a minor character on the edge of the events or by bringing in a new character as an observer. Flavius Maximus wasn’t in the original Julius Caesar, but the mixing of genres allows him to insert himself into the aftermath of the assassination and bring Brutus to justice.
* Frank Shuster’s cousin Joe also became famous, through Superman. His son-in-law, Lorne Michaels, also is famous, having created Saturday Night Live.
** Flavius: “I’d like a martinus.”
Cicero: “Don’t you mean a martini?”
Flavius: “If I want two, I’ll ask for them.”
Last week’s look at Mercury Theater’s War of the Worlds saw HG Wells’ science fiction story about the invasion of Britain by Martian war tripods moved wholesale to New Jersey. The radio drama is a classic presentation; yet, localization is becoming problematic today, with concerns about live action version of both Ghost in the Shell and Akira around. Today’s post will look at the issues around localizations.
A localization is an adaptation remade for a new audience, taking into account what the culture that the audience lives in. An localization made for an American audience is better known as an Americanization. Several popular television series came about because of Americanization, including All in the Family, after the UK series Till Death Do Us Part; Three’s Company, after the UK series Man About the House, and The Office, after the UK series of the same name. Not every attempt to Americanize a foreign work succeeds, though. The nigh-infamous clip of Saban’s Sailor Moon missed the core of what the original was about in an attempt to bring the anime across the ocean.
The difference between Mercury Theater’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds and Saban’s failed Sailor Moon adaptation lies in the intent. Mercury Theater’s goal was to scare New York City; bringing over the Martian invasion from the British countryside to New Jersey, across the river from the Big Apple. The biggest changes to the story were location and time, with a focus that changed from a first-person narrative to eyewitness news reports on the radio. To the end Mercury Theater wanted, the action had to be close to the listeners. An invasion of Britain would not have had the immediate impact that destroying Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, had.
With Saban’s Sailor Moon, the intent was to bring in a popular anime series without necessarily bringing the aninme. The new series was part live action, part animated, with a superficial resemblance to the original. However, the core of the original Sailor Moon was, ultimately, the concept of a shoujo heroine in Japanese fiction. Usagi is the least likely person to ever save the world multiple times. She’s not the smartest, not the strongest, and not the bravest, but she has heart. Her heart is how she defeats villain after villain. Sailor Moon wins not because she’s the most powerful, but because she believes in her friends and is willing to extend a hand in friendship. Usagi is the hero, not Sailor Moon, and that’s a concept that can get easily lost in translation.
Note that both adaptations have a target audience. Even Saban’s attempt at localizing /Sailor Moon/ was based on the company’s knowledge of American children’s television. Likewise, the three TV series mentioned at the beginning were well aware of the audience that would be watching. Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family, had seen episodes of Till Death Do Us Part and was struck by how much the relationship portrayed there resembled the one he had with his father. All in the Family was built upon that resemblance, allowing a near-universal experience be the core. The American version of The Office reflected the American work experience, which, because of differences in labour laws between the US and the UK, results in a different dynamic.
Television has the luxury of being able to target a specific audience. The bulk of the television work out of Hollywood is meant for American consumption, with foreign markets a bonus. Movies, though, don’t have that option. With budgets rising and frequently break the $200 million mark, studios can’t rely on the domestic take to break even. Films on the big screen need to have a broader appeal today. A work that is known internationally is a draw studios want, but too many try to Americanize to appease the domestic market. Some of these works, though, don’t translate well. Ganriki.org has gone into details about the problems surrounding the live action Akira movie, from the screenplay to the purpose of the movie. Essentially, the US was never the target of the only two atomic weapons used in war, and never had to rebuild after a defeat, something that is inseparable from Akira.
Moving away from anime, Harry Potter was spared from localization thanks to JK Rowling being able to set terms, and that was from the sheer popularity of the books. Like Akira, Harry Potter is very much set in the country of its origin. Britain has a long history, with castles that are older than current North American nations. Boarding schools are common enough that the average person in the UK will have a good idea of what being at one is like. The wizarding world in the books is as old as the country. Moving Hogwarts to the US loses the sense of foreboding history that the school has in the books. The characters reflect British society throughout time, from the upper class Malfoys to the common Weasleys. Harry Potter also demonstrates the power of the draw. Audiences wanted the Harry they read about, not one that was transplanted to another country. With works that have the widespread appeal like Harry Potter, alienating the audience is not a good idea.
Similar to the problems facing Akira and a hypothetical American Harry Potter, the 1998 Godzilla lost some important elements on moving the action to New York City. While Tokyo and NYC are major cities along a coast, filled with tall buildings, a lot of people, and neon, the similarities end there. The first American Godzilla movie forgot that the eponymous monster was a result of the nuclear age, going back to the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the nuclear weapon tests in the Pacific. It is possible to have a story featuring giant monsters stomping through an American city, but Godzilla has cultural ties that don’t make the journey to the West easily. The 2014 Godzilla acknowledges the nature of the monster’s origin, starting him near Japan before sending him westward.
What can help with localization is changing the nature of the story. War of the Worlds updated the story; the American military, with its mechanization, its improved communications, its aerial capabilities, all not available in 1897, still lost to the Martian invaders. The Seven Samurai, a story based in Japanese samurai, was successfully translated to the American West with The Magnficent Seven and then moved into science fiction with Battle Beyond the Stars. The goal in these adaptations wasn’t so much to localize, but to retell the story within the new trappings. Ronin became guns-for-hire, who then became starfaring mercenaries; all three are similar, but are very much dependent on their culture and their settings. Similarly, Phantom of the Paradise took the core ideas from both Faust and The Phantom of the Opera and combined the stories and bringing them into the Seventies, with a villainous record producer in the role of Faust and a hapless songwriter as the Phantom.
Sometimes, though, the effort to localize doesn’t pay off. The film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo kept the story in Sweden. The plot could have easily been moved to an American setting, yet the makers kept the work in Sweden, with most of the cast being Swedish. Part of the decision comes from the original work; the novel is set in Sweden, using various towns in the country. Moving the work would mean finding a similar location, It was easier to keep the Swedish locations.
Localization isn’t necessarily a negative. Presenting a story that the intended audience can understand culturally can get the point of the story across. The problems begin when the original’s culture isn’t accounted for when translating the work. Care needs to be taken, and there are some works that don’t translate well, even if the two countries involved share a common language.
This week’s subject, The Mercury Theater presentation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds demonstrates two elements that have recurred here at Lost in Translation. The first is the medium of the adaptation and how time available affects how the original is adapted. The second is the passage of time and how it affects an adaptation made decades after the original.
As has been mentioned in a number of previous Lost in Translation entries, the time allotted for a work has a direct impact on how the adaptation is handled. Long form works, such as novels and television series, allow for a deeper examination of characters and events. Shorter works, including movies, need to get to the point straight away. Details get lost or bundled together, whether character or setting. Even films trying to be as faithful as possible to an original work will have to lose details just to keep to a reasonable running time.
The passage of time and the advances in technology can affect how a work is seen. Unless the adaptation is treating the original as a period piece, the changes in available technology can cause problems. This typically happens when an original work is set in “now”, whenever that “now” was. For example, “modern” works from the Eighties often show characters using car phones, large blocky handsets plugged into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter port. If the work were to be brought to the today of the 2010s, that blocky car phone would be replaced with a smartphone with far better coverage and no need to go through a mobile operator, which may reduce the tension in a scene.
Wells’ War of the Worlds was first published in 1897 as a serial, and told from a first-person perspective as a journal by the narrator. The story details the Martian invasion of Earth, starting from the first impact of a Martian cylinder in the English countryside. The locals are abuzz, wondering what the object is. After the Martian recovers from its journey and landing, it begins to use a terrible weapon, a heat ray, against the crowds. The Army is sent in, with cavalry and horse-drawn artillery, to deal with the threat; but with more cylinders falling, each one containing a Martian war tripod, the soldiers stood no chance.
The narrator tells of his journeys and the people he meets during the initial attack and the response. News travels by word of mouth, mainly from the narrator as he walks through the countryside to reuinite with his wife and escape the destruction. The Army, though, uses heliographs to maintain communications between units. London is unaware of the danger despite news reports trickling out until the tripods reach the city three days after landing. The Martians have a second weapon, a black smoke that kills anything that breathes it. British civilization begins to break down as the Martians march unimpeded. The mighty British Empire is brought to its knees. The only thing that saved the Empire and the world was microbes, bacteria that humanity had a resistance to that the Martians did not.
The 1890s saw the British Empire at its height, with the sun never setting on it. The Industrial Revolution fifty years prior brought along mechanization, allowing for steam engines, railways, and ironclad ships. Tensions between empires existed, with the expectation that one or another would try to invade Britain. With War of the Worlds, Wells introduced an invader that was more than a match for the British military forces.
In 1938, much had changed. The horse-and-carriage gave way to the automobile and radio allowed for faster transmission of news to listeners. The Great War brought down several empires and introduced new forms of warfare. The threat of war with Nazi German loomed. Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater brought the 1897 story up to date in a sixty minute radio drama on October 30, 1938, the day before Hallowe’en.
The radio version of War of the Worlds made several changes. The setting was localized to the area near New York City. Scaring a large radio market is easier when using areas local to it than using English towns like Woking, home to HG Wells. The second was to accelerate the first book of the novel. Welles used the immediacy of radio to drive the first two-thirds of the drama, having events happen in almost real time. The show is interrupted by breaking news from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, an alien cylinder crashing into a farmer’s field. The cylinder reveals itself as a hostile machine, firing a heat ray. The station then turned over its facilities to state militia to allow for better communications, allowing the audience to follow the action. The black smoke has a more immediate impact listening to an artillery battery succumbing to it. Another scene has an Air Force squadron trying an aerial attack against the tripods and being shot down by heat rays, something that Wells couldn’t have added as the Wright Brothers hadn’t yet made their first powered flight. And like London in the novel, New York City tries to evacuate.
The last third has Welles’ character, Professor Richard Pearson, formerly of the Princeton Observatory, wandering through the New Jersey countryside, meeting a number of people the same way Wells’ unnamed narrator had in the novel. Pearson is trapped at Grover’s Mill, the initial landing site of the invasion. His life has changed; time passes without being marked, and his primary goal has become survival. The survivalist Pearson meets is taken directly from the novel, with almost no changes except for time constraints.
HG Wells’ lone first-person narrator may work in a novel, allowing the reader to experience events through the character. Radio, though, loses that connection if someone narrates from that perspective. Instead, breaking news with no apparent filtering allows the listeners to bring their own emotions in. The invasion happens faster on radio than in the novel, but response times have also increased. Cavalry in 1938 means tanks and aircraft, not horses. Radio is far more immediate than even telegram. The listener’s response is more raw; the separation that exists between book and reader is reduced or even removed on radio, especially when the format used is a news broadcast. The most heartbreaking moment is a radio operator, call sign 2XQL, calling out, “Is there anyone on the air? Is there anyone on the air? Is there anyone?”
Mercury Theater’s adaptation demonstrates the elements that can be in the way when translating a work into a new medium. What works in one medium may not work in another. Wells’ lush paragraphs of description don’t translate into radio. Instead, the radio work has to build the setting through words and sounds. The heat ray’s effects, from the sound of it firing to the screams of its victims, were demonstrated. The discovery of the cylinder is treated as breaking news, broadcast, instead of being a curiosity for the townsfolk of Woking. However, despite the restrictions and the localization, the radio drama is a good adaptation, getting to the heart of the novel.
Before diving into the analysis, a note about nice round number in the title. Two hundred reviews. I never expected to get this far. The number doesn’t include all the non-review essays, including the History of Adaptations. Thank you all for reading and thanks to Steven Savage, who not only encouraged me to write about adaptations but also supplied web space, and to Paul Brian McCoy, of Psycho Drive-In for picking up the series and providing the visuals you see each week.
Television the past few seasons is taking the lead from the silver screen, with more adaptations appearing. Both DC and Marvel are well represented withy multiple series based on their titles. But comic books aren’t the only source being used. MacGuyver brings back the classic Richard Dean Anderson series, updated for today. Likewise, the Lethal Weapon TV series updates the original movies from the the late 80s to now.
The original Lethal Weapon, released in 1987, starred Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs and Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh, and was a buddy cop action/comedy/thriller. Murtaugh is a family man, just turning fifty, counting the days until retirement. Riggs is a new transfer from Dover, suicidal since the death of his wife in a car collision. Being Christmas, Riggs’ depression has become far more severe, with his only reason to live being the job. The staff psychiatrist wants Riggs off the force as a danger, but the Captain believes he’s bucking for a disability pension. Riggs and Murtaugh get paired up as partners, then get assigned to a case that started as an apparent suicide. The victim appeared to get high and fell off a building, but the autopsy shows that the drugs were laced with drain cleaner.
As the investigation continues, Murtaugh realizes the truth about Riggs; he is suicidal, taking risks that could get him killed. Murtaugh invites Riggs to meet his family, who adopt him. As much as Riggs is suicidal, he is a family man, just one who lost his family. Seeing the Murtaughs at home and having them welcome him helps him, a little, enough for him to realize that there’s something else to live for.
The victim’s killer is part of a former CIA black operation from Viet Nam. A long shot lead that figiratively and literally explodes in their faces leads Riggs and Murtaugh to the ring. With the two detectives getting closer, the ring, led by former general McAllister, played by Mitchell Ryan, sends his people, including Joshua, played by Gary Busey, out to deal with them, kidnapping Murtaugh’s daughter Rianne, played by Traci Wolfe. McAllister underestimates just how crazy Riggs is, though, leading to the ring’s downfall.
The core of the film came from the strength of Shane Black’s writing, Richard Donner’s direction, and the chemistry between Gibson and Glover as Riggs and Murtaugh. As a pair of buddy cops, it takes them time to get to be buddies, as both have issues that they need to work through. Once they get to that point, they trust each other, though Murtaugh isn’t always sure of Riggs’ plans.
The success of Lethal Weapon meant sequels were going to happen. In 1989, Lethal Weapon 2 brought back Riggs and Murtaugh, adding in Joe Pesci as Leo Getz, a creative accountant and middleman under witness protection while waiting to testify. Guarding Leo means pulling Riggs and Murtaugh off their main case, an investigation into a drug ring headed by a South African* diplomat that leads to Riggs discovering that the accident that killed his wife wasn’t an accident. Lethal Weapon 3, released in 1992, brings back the trio and adds Rene Russo as Lorna Cole, an Internal Affairs investigator working a different side of a case involving the funneling of submachine guns and machine pistols with armour piercing bullets from police storage to the streets through a dirty ex-cop. Lethal Weapon 4, released in 1998, brings back everyone, with Riggs and Murtaugh promoted to Captain, skipping Lieutenant, because the LAPD’s insurance company won’t insure the force if the pair are still working the streets while a Chinese human trafficking ring, overseen by Jet Li as Wah Sing Ku. Throughout the series, the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh grows, going from assigned partners to true friends.
The movie series was popular, with Lethal Weapon 4 showing the only dip in performance at the box office. Naturally, something popular will get remade. In the case of Lethal Weapon, it was remade as a FOX TV series starting in the 2017-2017 season. Television brings a number of new restrictions. Unlike movies, where ratings exist to help audiences decide what level of sex and violence they are comfortable with, television can’t go to such extremes. Each of the Lethal Weapon films were R-rated, mostly due to a level of violence that prime time television isn’t allowed to air. Adding to the ratings issue, television has a different timing compared to film. While a television episode may run forty-three minutes after removing ads, a season may run up to twenty-two episodes, giving the series time to expand ideas over multiple airings that a movie has to get in during its one two-hour show.
With the Lethal Weapon TV series, there are tricks to get around the restrictions on violence. Imagination works just as well as outright showing the act of violence, possibly more so because the audience is filling in the blanks with its own past viewing experience. Car chases and explosions aren’t considered as violent as a shoot-out with every bullet hit detailed in a shower of blood. Even cutting out the blood reduces the impact of the violence. The other issue, timing, works in favour of the TV series, allowing the audience to see Murtaugh’s relationship with his family more often without it being the focus every episode. Riggs, his deathwish, and his turn around can also be given more depth, spreading the issues over several episodes.
The critical issue with a Lethal Weapon TV series, though, is the chemistry between the leads. In the movies, Gibson and Glover played off each other so well, a remake would be impossible. Yet, in the TV series, the impossible happens each week. The casting of Clayne Crawford as Riggs and Damon Wayans as Murtaugh brings in the chemistry as the two work well together. They may not play off each other the same way Gibson and Glover did, but they do bring a new approach.
Another issue is the passage of time. The pilot episode of the TV series aired almost thirty years after the first movie’s release. In that time, there have been changes in how police departments operate, especially when it comes to officers like Riggs who are suffering from mental health problems. The Captain’s attitude in the first movie, that Riggs is bucking for a disability pension, would have him written up by the staff psychiatrist. Instead, Riggs has regular sessions with the psychiatrist, Dr. Maureen Cahill as played by Jordana Brewster, with her word being what allows him to work. The plots of the first two movies would need heavy rewrites to be adapted as episodes, should the series chose to use them; the end of US involvement in Viet Nam was over forty years ago and Apartheid in South Africa ended in 1991.
The series changes a few details. Murtaugh’s wife is now a defense attorney. Riggs is now from Texas. Murtaugh isn’t so much hoping for his last years on the force before retirement to be quiet; he now has a pacemaker and is under orders from his doctor and his wife to take things easy. These changes don’t affect the core of the show; Murtaugh is still a family man who loves his wife and kids while Riggs is a family man who is despondent after losing his wife in a car crash.
The opening scene of the pilot episode demonstrates this clearly. During a hostage taking after a failed bank robbery, Murtaugh is on scene working to get the situation handled quietly, with the proper people in to talk the robbers into letting everyone go with no one coming to harm. Riggs takes matters into his own hands, delivering a pizza to the robbers and exchanging himself as a hostage.and freaking out his captors by provoking them into shooting him. That wasn’t the way the two met in the movie, but it sums up both characters well. The Lethal Weapon TV series is still, at heart, a buddy cop action/comedy, with one cop wanting to keep things quiet and the other with a deathwish, fighting crime in LA while causing millions in collateral damage.
* In 1989, South Africa was still under Apartheid, a system of government suppressing the black majority by the white minority. In Lethal Weapon 2, Riggs treated the diplomat as being no better than a Nazi. The distraction Leo and Murtaugh cause at the South African embassy is well worth seeing.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at a fan-made audio drama, including the nature of audio plays. The post goes into greater detail about the needs of an audio adaptation. This week, Lost in Translation looks at another fan audio work, Star Trek: Outpost, from Giant Gnome Productions.
Like Starship Excelsior last week, Outpost is a Star Trek fan audio series set after the end of the Dominion War. However, Outpost is set on Deep Space Three, a neglected space station near the borders of both the First Federation, first seen in “The Corbomite Maneuver”, and the Ferengi Alliance. The relative calm of the sector compared to those abutting Klingon space, Romulan space, and the ones consumed by the Dominion War meant that Starfleet did what it could to keep the station running without spending too many finite resources. Commanding the station is Captain Montaigne Buchanan, an efficiency expert who has managed to keep the station going with fewer and fewer resources. Captain Buchanan is looking forward to his efforts at the station being rewarded with a promotion to Admiral. However, the transfer of Lt. Commander Greg “Tork” Torkelson from the USS Remington to become as the station’s Executive Officer, throws a few hitches into Buchanan’s approach. Torkelson, as the Exec, also gains command of the USS Chimera, an Oberth-class starship similar to the USS Grissom from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Deep Space Three has a reputation for being a place where Starfleet personnel whose careers have nosedived go to, a collection of misfits and outcasts. The Chimera‘s Chief Engineer, Chief Petty Officer Bert Knox, is one such character. His goal is to keep the Chimera functioning, going so far as to salvage other decommissioned Oberths and to install alien technologies when the proper part isn’t available. Torkelson’s arrival, though, brings in new ideas on how to make Deep Space Three relevant again. Tork’s plans include re-opening parts of the station shut down to conserve power and resources, including the station’s mall. While Torkelson’s choice to run the station – Ferengi brothers Vurk and Tirgil – may not work out as well as he hopes, Deep Space Three is beginning to turn around from its reputation. Whether it can while Orion pirates, a rogue Klingon warrior, the return of the First Federation, and the general weirdness of the Pinchot Expanse are around is another question.
As mentioned last week, audio works need to create the setting solely through sound. Redundant, but success and failure hinge on making sure the audience knows what’s around through sound cues. Outpost succeeds here; the Chimera and Deep Space Three have different sounds, and starship and station both individualize their sets even further. The bridge of the Chimera has the proper sounds as expected and is different from the engineering section and sick bay. Likewise, Deep Space Three’s command centre is different from the station’s sick bay and from the mall. And when power is lost in one episodes, the background sounds disappear.
Like Excelsior, the cast of Outpost is more than compentent, and the two productions share a couple of voice actors, Larry Phelan and Eleiece Krawiec. Of note, the father-and-son team of Ben Cromey and Doug Cromey are fun to listen to as the Vurk and Tirgil, especially their rallying cry, “We’re gonna die!” Combined with the writing, the episodes of Outpost are compelling, with characters who have depth and can be empathized with, even when they’re not immediately sympathetic.
One thing the creators of Outpost do is create “minisodes”, or mini-episodes, when at conventions. They bring in netbooks with USB microphones and get volunteers from the audience to read parts in a script to show how a show is put together. Overnight, they edit the parts together, add in the sound effects and music, then present the minisode in a panel the next day. A good example of how the creators get this done is the minisode, “Ferengi Apprentice“, recorded at the Denver Comic Con. They had some problems with the recoding due to an unshielded cable interfering with a microphone, so the episode was redone, but both versions, the original recorded at the panel and the redone one, are included to show the differences.
Star Trek: Outpost is another fan-made production that takes pains to fit in with the original work. The effects are correct for the era, and the Chimera‘s mish-mash of parts include sounds from Star Treks of old. The result is a well-done adaptation that demonstrates how to adapt well.
Last week’s Lost in Translation featured a discussion about fan adaptations, including a rationale on what works would get analyzed. This week, a look at a Star Trek fan audio productions.
Radio serials were the forerunner of today’s TV series. Families would gather around the radio and tune in favourite series. In the Thirties, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had his own, live, show that had a large audience. Orson Welles had Mercury Theatre on the Air, the production that scared the US with War of the Worlds. The key is to engage the audience’s imagination. Unlike theatre before, movies concurrent with radio, and television afterwards, radio relies on just one sense, hearing. The cast and crew have to create an immersive setting while just using audio. Sound effects become key. The more real the situation sounds, the more the audience buys in. Creative use of sound can also create the mood desired. Welles’ War of the Worlds has a memorable scene where one plaintive voice calls out over radio, “Is there anyone out there?” over and over while the background sounds fade out one by one as the Martian advance, leaving the audience in horror of what’s happening even if they don’t realize why*.
Even with television ubiquitous these days, radio plays still abound. National Public Radio (NPR) adapted the original Star Wars trilogy into radio serials shortly after each movie was released. BBC Radio 4 still airs radio dramas on Saturdays. With the proliferation of portable devices capable of playing .mp3 files, from dedicated .mp3 players to cell phones to tablets, audio plays join music and audio books as something to listen to when the eyes are busy elsewhere.
Fan works, however, exist at the forbearance of the person or company owning the original material. Fan fiction tends to get overlooked; unless the fanfic is notorious, a blind eye is usually turned. There is also no barrier to entry when it comes to fan fiction; all that is needed is a means to write, available with all computers or even pen and paper. Some rights holders encourage fan fiction, with limitations, because of the creativity the endeavor encourages. With original visual works, like TV series and movies, the closer a fan work is to matching, the closer the work gets to being an infringement. Full video also has expenses; while the cost of professional-quality recording and editing equipment has dropped, creating sets and costumes still have material costs. If the fan production charged a fee for viewing, the work becomes a copyright and trademark infringement and corporate attack lawyers will have cease-and-desist orders issued before the first payment can be processed. There are ways around, including donation in kind, where a fan can help by providing equipment, costumes, or props that are needed.
Audio works don’t have the range of expenses a video would. Where a video would need props, sets**, and costumes, audio just needs the sound effects of those elements. The actors don’t even need to be in the same city or even continent, thanks to the Internet and cloud storage. Each actor just needs a good microphone and a way to record, which even the Windows operating system had since version 3.1. The audio production, though, needs to use sound to build the sets, so details that get taken for granted by audiences, such as subtle creaks in an old castle or the rumble of a starship’s main drive through the hull, have to be added to help the listener create the image in his or her mind. One wrong detail, even if it’s just getting a sequence of beeps on a starship’s viewscreen out of order, can break the suspension of disbelief and lose listeners.
Strength of writing is also important. Getting the audio details correct does go towards satisfying an audience, but if characters aren’t acting as expected or the plot is dull, listeners won’t tune in. Some original works, including Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, and Harry Potter, have settings broad enough that new stories can be created in them without ever interacting with the original characters. In the case of Star Trek, a fan work could focus on the crew of a different starship, exploring different sectors at any point in the history of the setting. The precedent already exists with Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. With Harry Potter, the novels already show a glimpse of a larger wizarding world; setting an audio series at a different wizard school isn’t farfetched. There’s room to play, and that sort of room allows for creative interpretations. Let’s take a look at a fan-made Star Trek audio series.
Starship Excelsior began its first season in 2007. Set on board the Sovereign-class starship, the USS Excelsior, hull code NCC-2000C, the series is in its fourth season. The main plot of the first three seasons picks up to dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation and ties them together as the crew of the Excelsior investigates an anomaly that leads into dark revelations that threaten the survival of not just the Federation, but the entire galaxy. The fourth season starts a new arc as the Excelsior begins an exploration mission, with a mixture of lighter and darker episodes, though some still harken back to the earlier episodes.
The cast of characters consists of the Starfleet officers assigned to the Excelsior. The ship’s captain, Alcar Dovan, received the command after the previous commander, Rachel Cortez, died in action. Dovin joined Starfleet to explore, not to engage in military action, but he has excelled at surviving in battles, something he has grown to hate. His first officer, Alecz Lorhrok, is an unjoined Trill, chosen to be the exec by Dovan. The by-the-book operations manager, Neeva, is an Orion, dealing with the difficulties of being one of the few of her people in Starfleet. The chief of security, Asuka Yubari, was severely wounded in the special forces, moved to intelligence, then was assigned to the Excelsior. The helmsman, Bev Rol, also served in intelligence, where he lost his idealism. The ship’s surgeon, Doctor Melissa Sharp, wanted to be a researcher, away from patients, but found her career stalled as a result of her beliefs before signing up on the Excelsior. The characters all have their own motivations, from Dr. Sharp’s opposition to military engagements to Rol’s atonement for past misdeeds. They clash, they argue, they laugh, they are fully formed, brought to life by actors who could easily get into professional voice work if they so choose.
The writing of the series is tight and takes into account Trek canon. As mentioned about, the major plot of the first three seasons centred around two dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation, one involving the Borg. The first three seasons are also one continuous story, as opposed to being episodic. Missing an episode means missing plot and character developments. The fourth season has more single-story episodes, but still has an arc to it. Listeners can easily get attached to the characters and worry about their survival and success. There are times when the writers’ fannish tendencies*** show up; Dovan’s exclamations owe a lot to Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, with a nod to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld with a colour that Bolian vision can see that humans can’t.
The audio sets are also built well. The sounds that are expected from a Starfleet vessel are all there, from the rumbling of the engines to the beeps of consoles and PADDs to the alarm klaxons. Even if someone was just tuning into the middle of an episode, the effects would be enough to tell them where the story was set. The result is a series that is very much Star Trek, though in the darker realms of the franchise.
Of special note, Starship Excelsior ran a Kickstarter campaign to create an episode for the fiftieth anniversary of /Star Trek/’s first airing. The campaign was more than successful, letting them rent a proper recording studio and fly their audio engineer in from Toronto. More than that, the success allowed the series get Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Robin Curtis (Saavik, The Search for Spock), Joanne Linville (the Romulan Commander in “The Enterprise Incident”), and Jack Donner (Subcommander Tal, “The Enterprise Incident”) to reprise their original characters in a new story that still ties into the Starship Excelsior storyline. “Tomorrow’s Excelsior” is a one hour, forty minute story where Uhura and Chekov must save Starfleet, the Federation, the galaxy, and the future while avoiding war with the Romulans, with a solution that fits well with their characters. The series took care in emphasizing in the Kickstarter campaign that all money raised would be put into the production of the episode, with the main costs being getting the actors they wanted. The episode is available for free from Starship Excelsior‘s website.
* Creative use of sound continues even today. Alien, a science fiction horror movie, removed background music, leaving the audience no cues on what was about to happen.
** Even with green screening and CGI available, some physical elements are still needed, if only to give the actors something to play off.
*** To be fair, even professional works will have this sort of thing. The Serenity from Firefly had a cameo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, appearing overhead on Caprica.
With two exceptions, Lost in Translation has looked at professionally done work. The first exception, The Four Players, was to show just how far off Super Mario Bros. was from the mark. The second, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, demonstrated an eye to detail needed to maintain a parody of not one but two science fiction series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. The reason for analysing the professional work is two-fold. The main reason is that hte professional work is more available to a general audience. Movies get released to the silver screen, then is made available on DVD/Blu-Ray, digital streaming, video on demand, and other methods. TV series get rerun via syndication and released much like movies.
The other reason is that fan work is variable. Quality runs the gamut from rookies learning how to write and use the equipment to professional-level capabilities that may make the professional work look inadequate. Sometimes, the fan work can lead to getting a paid position; a number of fan droid designers, inspired by R2-D2 in Star Wars were hired to develop build robots for The Force Awakens. At the other end, fanfiction has a reputation for being barely comprehensible, whatever the truth of the matter is.
For the most part, the fans are creating because of a love of the original work. Each fan brings in a different interpretation of the original, seeing different elements despite the shared experiences. Sometimes the interpretation is brilliant, a new look at the original. Other times, the interpretation comes out of left field and has almost no connection to the original at all. it is easy to spot when something is mean-spirited; there’s almost no eye to detail, just characters wearing the names and acting so far out of character, it’s easier to find points that are related to the original work because they just stand out.
As mentioned, Lost in Translation has reviewed two fan adaptations. However, the goal with fan production is to show either how well the adaptation works or to show how far a professional adaptation missed the mark. There is little to gain by picking apart a lacking fan adaptation; there are too many issues and it’s just not fair to a potential budding fan to rip apart a work. Few fans are deliberately trying to make a bad interpretation; lack of experience is a leading cause. Thus, Lost in Translation will point out and analyze the fan adaptations that are a good reflection of original works. It is a bias, but good adaptations do not necessarily mean for pay. Professional quality can come from all quarters.
Going back a bit, I mentioned that there are works where the audience remembers not the original but a later version, whether it is an adaptation or a sequel. Among the works analyzed here at Lost in Translation, Frankenstein, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Superman: The Movie are perfect examples of the phenomenon. Adding to this short list, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is the best known despite being a sequel to 1979’s Mad Max. The first movie in the series, Mad Max, was a little-known film from Australia starring a then-unknown Mel Gibson. The Road Warrior, released in 1981, had a bigger impact on film audiences. While both movies featured the same actor as the same character in the same setting, The Road Warrior took the action into the post-apocalyptic wastes.
Mad Max, the original movie, showed Max, a Main Force Patrolman, similar to a highway patrol officer, takes on a gang. The apocalypse hasn’t yet happened, but the signs of it coming were there. The second movie was as pure an action movie as could be made, with just enough dialogue to establish the situation, told as a story by the young feral boy that rode with Max. A settlement that grew around a gasoline refinery is under threat from Lord Humungus and needs someone to help them transport their gas and the survivors away before the assault begins. Max finds the settlement and is pressured into helping. The plan is to send out a semi rig with a tank trailer to run past Humungus’ gauntlet. Once the rig leaves the settlement, the chase is on, not letting up until the end of the film.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, released in 1985, uses the same narrative frame as The Road Warrior, a young survivor of the events telling the tale as an adult. Once again, Max is pulled into a situation beyond his control and his humanity has to reassert itself to help the child survivors of an airplane crash. Beyond Thunderdome featured Tina Turner as Aunty Entity, co-ruler of Bartertown with designs on becoming the sole ruler, and had hits for her with the movie’s theme song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” and “One of the Living“.
The Road Warrior breaks past the cult classic barrier to be known, by reputation and mood if nothing else, by general audiences. The Reboot episode “Bad Bob” featured a Mad Max-style game, having the cartoon’s cast reboot into characters right out of the movie. The Road Warrior has become shorthand whenever anyone needs to refer to a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with war bands fighting over scraps while the average person is trapped between a rock and a hard place. Pop culture osmosis may have built up the movie into something bigger than it was originally, leading to a thirty-year gap before the next entry in the Mad Max franchise.
In 2015, Mad Max Fury Road was released. Once again, Max, now played by Tom Hardy, gets swept into events. He’s first taken captive by Immortan Joe’s War Boys to be used as a blood bag for a sick warrior named Nux. When Immortan Joe’s top Imperator, Furiosa, goes rogue on a trip to Gastown, he realizes the she has taken his five “brides” and sends his War Boys to stop her. Max is strapped on the front of Nux’s car, still connected to him to provide blood. The chase begins, letting up enough to give the audience a chance to catch its collective breath. Max slowly regains his humanity again and helps Furiosa and the “brides” escape from Immortan Joe to find Green Place. Immortan Joe calls in two other warbands, led by the Bullet Farmer and by the People Eater. There was more dialogue than in The Road Warrior, but the focus is on the action.
Fury Road keeps to several themes found in The Road Warrior, including survival, the fight against would-be tyrants, the need for family, and the dangers of ecological collapse. The new film also adds the empowerment of women, with Furiosa an equal to Max throughout the film and the catalyst for the action. Visually, Fury Road is lush, with the desert wastes beautiful and oppressive, as much a character as the cast. The stunts start with what shown in The Road Warrior and amp up from there. The Doof Warrior, played by iOTA, and the Doof Wagon bring in music for the action, being Immortan Joe’s flamethrowing guitarist and taiko drummers on a vehicle that’s essentially a high-speed mobile stage.
Helping to keep the feel is the core crew. George Miller has been involved with the franchise from /Mad Max/, meaning Fury Road is more of a sequel. Yet, because of the thirty-year gap and the change of actor as the eponymous character, the movie also works as a reboot. Elements from The Road Warrior, which did set the tone for the franchise, appear. At the same time, Fury Road is its own movie. Yet, it keeps the themes, tone, and general feel. Max is lost, physically and metaphorically, and needs to rediscover what it means to be human. Fury Road is a perfect entry to the series, demonstrating everything that made The Road Warrior popular while detailing the setting. The movie is a note-perfect reboot.
Apologies, but no post today. I have been debating on doing fan-made adaptations, so expect a column about that in the coming month. I’ll also remind everyone that Lost in Translation now has a Facebook page.
The Sixties were a time of upheaval of the status quo against the backdrop of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Television was starting to come into its own as a medium, especially with colour technology becoming affordable. 007 made the jump from the books to the silver screen and audiences wanted more. To help fill the demand, MGM worked with Ian Fleming to develop a TV series along the lines of the Bond movies, resulting in 1964’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Fleming’s participation ended when a connection between the TV series and Goldfinger was discovered; Napoleon Solo was named after a character in Fleming’s novel, a gunsel that got on the wrong side of Bond.
Fleming’s touch remained. U.N.C.L.E, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, is a multinational agency keeping the peace by working behind the scenes. Alexander Waverly heads up the agency from its hidden base in New York City. His top agents include suave American Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn, and dour Russian Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. The original plan was to have Vaughn be The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – it’s even in the name, Solo – but McCallum’s Illya worked well with Solo that they became a team in the series. Solo would be the more visible of the two, taking a Bond-like approach to investigation, while Kuryakin took advantage of the distraction. UNCLE had an opposite number, THRUSH, an agency bent on world domination. Like UNCLE, THRUSH also recruited from around the world. The difference between the two agencies is simple, their goals. With competing goals, UNCLE and THRUSH clash often, with Solo and Kuryakin responsible for shutting down several seasons worth of plots.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had several advantages while filming. MGM wanted to get its money worth out of its sets, so the studio allowed the series to reuse existing sets from other movies. To add to the unusual for television look that the series had, action scenes had a personal touch as a camera man jumped into the middle, long before handheld cameras were available. Ensuring that the series felt world-spanning, guest stars weren’t limited to just Hollywood. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became a weekly cinematic spy thriller, with a memorable theme tune by Jerry Goldsmith. Rounding out the globetrotting spy series, the titles were always an Affair; the first episode was called “The Vulcan Affair”, setting the tone for the rest of the run.
In 2015, Warner Bros. released Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The fifty years between the original and the remake saw a number of changes in the world, including the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. The nature of terrorism changed; instead of trying to get a message out even just fundraising, today’s terrorists are driven by ideology to the point where fear is the only end to the means. The likes of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army have given way to Daesh. At the same time, a black and white approach to fiction has been replaced with nuance and shades of grey; no one expects heroes to be shiny anymore. Updating The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would mean losing much of what made the series work in the Sixties.
To Ritchie’s credit, he realized that and made the movie as a period piece, set in 1963. He makes use of cinematic techniques of the era, including split screen montages, to cement the mood. The opening credits cover history between the end of World War II and the beginning of the action in 1963, including the Cold War between the US and the USSR, the nuclear escalation between the two nations, the splitting of Germany between East and West, and the building of the Berlin Wall. The plot starts with Solo, now played by Henry Cavill, crossing the border between West and East Berlin, entering the Soviet sector. His goal, extract Gabby, played by Alicia Vikander, a mechanic whose biological father is a top nuclear researcher. However, the KGB has sent someone to prevent Gabby’s extraction, Illya Kurakin, played by Armie Hammer. The extraction is difficult; Illya is as good an agent as Solo, and is only lost while crossing over no-man’s land between the two Berlins.
Gabby’s father turns out to be a bigger problem than expected. He’s disappeared, and both the CIA and the KGB want him found. Both agencies bring their top agents together. Kuryakin and Solo recognize each other and are ordered to put aside their differences to work together and Gabby. The trail goes to Rome, Italy, where Gabby’s uncle and his wife have a shipping company. Both CIA and KGB expect that Victoria, the wife, played by Elizabeth Debicki, is the force behind the operation involving a nuclear missile. However, Gabby is already working for someone, a Mr. Waverly, played by High Grant, who is several steps ahead of both Solo and Kuryakin.
Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more of an origins movie, though one that keeps the action going. Many of the bits that made up the TV series didn’t appear, but since neither Solo nor Kuryakin were UNCLE agents, they couldn’t get to UNCLE HQ through Del Florio’s, nor could they use either the pen radios* nor the modified Walther P-38s** that appeared in the TV series. Another missing element, though the people Victoria was working with were never mentioned, is THRUSH. The movie also introduced backstories for both Solo and Kuryakin, something that never came up in the TV series.
That said, the movie did keep to the feel of the TV series. While Hammer as Kuryakin worked for the Illya of the movie, Cavill’s Solo came from Vaughn’s portrayal. The film avoided a gritty look while still keeping the approach of the TV series, a mix of serious and lightness. Given the trend to make grim-and-gritty versions of older series, avoiding the temptation to do that with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a good move. Solo and Kuryakin aren’t grim killers, nor do they traipse around, usually, and their portrayals in the movie reflected the teamwork seen in the original.
For those who have seen the original series, some of the twists, particularly involving Waverly, could be seen coming. Given that the last episode was first run in 1968, it has been almost fifty years since a new episode*** and even a syndicated run is now limited to specialty channels. The movie reintroduces the characters and the setting for new audiences, bringing them into the world of the 1963 UNCLE. By the end of the movie, UNCLE is a new agency, with Waverly bringing in top agents from around the world, leaving room for further affairs. The movie brings back the core of the original TV series with few missteps.
* The TV series began with a cigarette case radio, but changed to the pen radio after concerns about children wanting a toy based on the prop.
** Known as the P-38 UNCLE, the pistol used by UNCLE agents had an attachable stock, barrel extension, silencer, and telescopic sight, and was never available commercially.
*** Barring the reunion TV movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair in 1983.