Lost in Translation has covered how TV viewing habits have changed since Philo Farnsworth created the cathode ray tube TV in 1927. Television has gone from a three-to-five local over-the-air channels to the Big Three networks and PBS plus local indies to cable bringing in distant channels clearly to Pay TV and having fifty-seven channels and still nothing on, to now with the infinite channels. There’s the rub.
In the past, viewers just needed a television. Sure, at one point, TVs were luxuries, but they became an appliance much as a washer or an over. Televisions replaced radios and fireplaces as the place families gathered in front of. As the cost of TVs came down, it was possible to have a spare one in a bedroom for late night viewing. Add in the silicon chip, broadband Internet delivery, and the decreasing costs of computers and even cellular phones with increasing capabilities, it is possible for the viewing audience to have multiple ways to view content.
Naturally, content providers expand to take advantage of the new capabilities. Cable had tiers of service, but audiences just needed the one provider. In many areas, there wasn’t a choice of cable companies due to how the signal was delivered. Cities that had multiple providers often had a physical separation between the areas covered. Take Ottawa of the Seventies and Eighties; the city had two providers, Ottawa Cablevision and Skyline Cablevision. To choose one over the other meant deciding on which side of the Rideau River to live on. The two services had separate cables underground to deliver the TV signal, so each provider had a slightly different line up of channels. Viewers still had to pay the cable bill, but the signal was clear.
With the Internet becoming as necessary as a phone line was in the past, new ways of delivering content came about. Netflix, originally a mail-order DVD rental service, saw that streaming over the Internet could be lucrative. The company was right. Its main competitor, Blockbuster, didn’t make the change over, leading to the demise of the video rental powerhouse and leaving Netflix alone in the field. Netflix started with just providing the movies it was renting through mail-order, but expanded to become a creator as well, with notable series such as Stranger Things, the One Day at a Time remake, and Blazing Transfer Students REBORN.
With the success of Netflix, everyone wants their own streaming service. That’s already bad news for Netflix. Amazon is just a competitor here, trying to get access to the same content Netflix has while creating their own. When content creators get into distribution, the usual middlemen get cut out. In this case, with Disney and CBS having their own streaming services means content that Netflix has now may not be available in the future. Disney’s streaming service, Disney +, is going to have Disney movies and not just the animated works. Disney owns ABC, ESPN, Marvel Studios and Star Wars, a huge draw that can suddenly go exclusive to just Disney +. CBS All Access has every show CBS owns, including Star Trek: Discovery, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and Elementary. NBCUniversal is planning on its own streaming service.
As it stands right now, Netflix is joined by not just Amazon and CBS, but Hulu, Sling TV, DirecTV, Playstation Vue (and Playstation is planning on getting into film and television productions), and YouTube TV. If other studios and networks start getting into the streaming game, it’s going to get harder to find the gems. As it stands right now, word of mouth is the most effective way of a production getting known. Audiences won’t be able to afford every streaming service available. YouTube TV costs $40 per month, and another $10 per month for YouTube Red and its original works. Few people can afford all the streaming services, and no one has the time to watch them all.
The result will be a balkanization of television. Audiences will be split, trying to find the streaming service that provides what they want without too much cruft. With audiences split, advertisers have to work out where their targets have gone. In the old three-channel universe, once ratings came out, it was easy to find what a demographic was watching. Recorders, video or digital, allowed audiences to skip ads, leading to new techniques to get the message across. With subscription fees, though, audiences may not be as tolerant of ads as in the past. The problem there is that advertising paid for shows’ production. Subscription fees may not cover the full amount.
To illustrate the effects, let’s take three popular TV series and the viewers for their last episodes. M*A*S*H, with “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (airdate 28/02/1983), had 106 million viewers, a record broken by the 2010 Super Bowl and not matched by any TV series. Seinfeld‘s finale, “The Finale” (airdate 14/05/1998), had 76 million viewers. The Big Bang Theory‘s last episode, “The Stockholm Syndrome” (airdate 16/05/2019), only had 18 million viewers. M*A*S*H came from the end of the three-channel universe, just as cable television and Pay TV was starting to catch on. Seinfeld saw an expansion of offerings plus recording technology allowing for time-shifted viewing. The Big Bang Theory comes from the expansion into the infinite channel universe, where there is heavy competition for attention. The numbers “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” saw may never happen again outside special events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics. There may be more viewers now than in 1983, but there’s also more choices.
The challenge for television today, as it has been since the industry started airing, is to find an audience. Advertisers want viewers, too. If they can’t find any, they’re not going to buy air time. No ads, no money for production. At the same time, because of the sheer amount of choice now, all TV content creators, traditional networks and streaming services alike, need to create content that will draw in audiences. While streaming services have access to a number of second run and syndicated series and movies, if one starts creating original content or adapting new series, like Amazon and Good Omens, then the others will have to follow just to keep pace.
As the balkanization happens, audiences aren’t going to keep up. Much like cable in the Seventies and Eighties pulled together a number of stations and subscription channels, there’ll be room for a service that curates the disparate streaming services for audiences. Internet service providers have filled this role before, but as the smaller ISPs have been swallowed by the bigger ones, they’re now adding their own services, adding to the balkanization.
Then there’s the indies. Smaller studios who would normally be shut out can now carve a niche online, getting a small but wanted audience. While not a streaming service, these indies, including fan-creations, will just add to the fragmentation of television. The wide range of choice is a blessing for indies, a chance to compete with the majors on a playing field getting levelled.
As the balkanization grows, the best hope an audience has is word of mouth and happy accidents. There’s not enough time to watch everything or even everything that looks interesting. Each member of the audience has a different definition of “interesting,” too. There’s no more catering to the lowest common denominator. The audience is fragmented, just like television. TV has to provide compelling programming to remain competitive with all other forms of entertainment.
Star Wars is huge. It began as a massive blockbuster that broke box office records and became a massive franchise. Now in the hands of Disney, the Star Wars franchise has a number of tie-ins and spin-offs, including games of all sorts, novels, animated series, and, now, spin-off movies. The spin-offs are a way to keep the Star Wars name in theatres, with each one coming about a year after the major releases like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The spin-offs fill in gaps in the storyline and keeps people talking about the franchise. Let’s take a look at the most recent spin-off, Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Solo delves into the history of the franchise’s favourite scruffy nerfherder, Han. A few points, though. Han wasn’t the first character to appear in a tie-in novel – that honour belongs to Luke and Leia in Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1978 – but Brian Daley featured him and Chewbacca in a trilogy of novels beginning in 1979: Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. The three books were later collected as The Han Solo Adventures and were referenced by AC Crispin in The Han Solo Trilogy. The Daley books were the source of the Z-95 Headhunter, first appearing in Stars’ End and then returning in the X-Wing series of video games and in the CGI series The Clone Wars. Of the main characters of the series, Han has had the most done with his background in the Expanded Universe.
The big problem is that there is so much written about Han that a movie risks contradicting what has come before. Canon in Star Wars comes in a hierarchy, with the movies being primary, the animated series coming next, then the tie-in works third. However, West End Games’ RPG tends to be referenced for terms and equipment, so the hierarchy can be fluid. Daley’s works have been around for almost the length of the franchise, a background influence on subsequent work. It’s a tough line for Solo to follow.
As for the movie, Solo is one part coming of age, one part gangster flick, one part Western, one part pulp, one part heist movie, one part origins story, and all space opera. The movie shows Han crawling out of the dregs of Corellia, meeting Chewbacca, meeting Lando, and getting the Millennium Falcon. The seeds of what Han will become in the original trilogy are planted, showing why he got involved with a senile old man, a farm boy, and two droids trying to escape Tatooine. One of the highlights of the film is showing how Han made the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs, and why a unit of length is used instead of a unit of time.
The casting is one of the movie’s strengths. Alden Ehrenreich has the difficult job of being a young Harrison Ford, but pulls off not just the looks but the mannerisms, while still being young and not quite cynical yet. Joonas Suotame plays Chewie, Han’s partner after being rescued from Imperial enslavement. Donald Glover becomes Lando Calrissian, channelling Billy Dee Williams and dominating any scene he’s in. New characters include Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Han’s mentor; Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s love; L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s first mate and droids’ rights activist; and Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), head of the Crimson Dawn crime ring. Everyone named there has a story arc, some successful, others not.
The strong cast leads into one of the movie’s problems. Han gets overshadowed at times in his own story. The story is still his, but it’s not until midway through the film that Han starts to stand out. Lando in particular tends to take over scenes, thanks to both the nature of the character and to Donald Glover’s portrayal. The interplay between Lando and L3 deserves its own feature, movie or TV series, with Glover and Waller-Bridge reprising the characters. This is of no fault on the part of Ehrenreich; Lando is almost the opposite of Han, suave and sophistcated. A film should make audiences want to see more of a character, but not instead of what’s being shown.
Solo also came out at a time when diversity awareness in movies is acute. Star Wars has had issues with reflecting the audience. In 1977, a sausage fest was understandable and excusable for being an artifact of the times. Today, though, audiences are more aware of diversity. The more recent films in the franchise are showing a greater range, including more women and persons of colour both in lead roles and in the background, moving away from the only woman in the film being a princess. Solo, though, is about a white man at a time when films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are breaking records. This isn’t to say Leia and Rey are slouches. They aren’t. Leia took over her own rescue and Rey is creating her own path in becoming a Jedi. It’s more timing working against Solo. If the movie had been Calrissian instead with the same cast, it’d avoid the backlash and counter-backlash.
The biggest problem Solo has is that it is a good popcorn movie. There’s some insight to the character, but it’s not deep. The movie doesn’t go from action piece to action piece. It’s well written, well directed, well acted. It is a solid film. Many studios would be happy if their movies held together as well as Solo. But with Star Wars, solid isn’t enough. Star Wars has always been about the amazing, and Solo just falls short. Expectations weren’t managed, but doing so with the Star Wars franchise is impossible. Fans are expecting mind-blowing, and Solo wasn’t quite there. The movie is worth seeing, but expectations need to be adjusted.
The dominance of adaptations at the box office has created a backlash, people from in the industry and outside observing who keep predicting that adaptations have run their course and will soon be replaced by original works. Yet, the past few years have shown otherwise. In 2018, though, the top ten money making films were adaptations, sequels, or sequels of adaptations. As long as adaptations are making money, there’s no reason for a studio to take a risk on an original work that doesn’t have a built-in fandom. Hollywood is risk adverse right now. But where does the backlash come from?
First, there’s the memory of the time when all the popular movies were original. Let’s examine that time, though. I went through the History of Adaptations series to see when adaptations overtook original works and discovered that there were only two decades, the Eighties and the Nineties where that happened. The rest of film history, adaptations performed better at the box office than original works. While money may not be the best way to judge a film’s impact – see Ingagi from the Thirties – it’s how films are tracked. Consider the age of the people complaining about the lack of original films; there’s a good chance that they grew up in the two decades where original works were more popular. The Eighties, though, were an odd decade. Entertainment was varied. Film, music, television, all were pushing boundaries. In all three media, follow-the-leader acts didn’t works as well as previous or later decades. Audiences weren’t interested in more of the same and had a wide variety to choose from.
Another issue with the memories of popular original movies is that some of the works the “originals'” were based on fell into obscurity. The Ten Commandments is obviously adapted from the Bible, but Cecil B. Demille remade his 1923 version in 1956 using technology not available for the first movie, tech such as sound, colour, and widescreen. Ben Hur, though, wasn’t directly from the Bible. Instead, the film was a remake of a 1925 movie which itself was an adaptation of an 1880 novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Saturday Night Fever, from 1977, was adapted from an article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, publish in 1976 in New York Magazine. Even The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an adaptation of a stage production, The Rocky Horror Show. What might be remembered as original may really be an adaptation.
Next, the sources of today’s adaptations may be off-putting to some parts of the general audience. In the Twenties and the Fifties, adaptations tended to be taken from literary sources, novels and plays. In 2018, though, half the top ten movies were comic book adaptations. High brow versus low brow. And while the adaptations were well done, unlike previous efforts, comics aren’t considered high or serious art by the general populace. If studios could make the money comic book movies get by adapting literary fiction, there wouldn’t be a lit-fic shelf left empty by Hollywood producers. Some producers do try, though. Baz Lurhmann has adapted some staples of high school English reading lists, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. While there is a built-in audience, that audience consists of high school students who don’t even want to deal with Coles Notes/Spark Notes. Low-brow works don’t get respect; they appeal to the common person.
There is adaptation fatigue. Every once in a while, people want to see something different, something outside their usual experience. When the choices are adaptation or adaptation or remake of an adaptation, it’s natural to start wondering if Hollywood can ever make something original. It’s a fair thought, at least for the silver screen. Television, despite a number of successful adaptations like A Game of Thrones and Good Omens, is now the source of original works. The competition for viewers today is strong, between the 5000-channel lineup of cable to streaming services to YouTube channels for the very niche interests. A well done adaptation gets attention, but so does a well done original. Want original? Check your TV listings.
The question isn’t “Can Hollywood make something original?”, it’s, “What would it take for Hollywood to make an original movie?” If an original work can get the same money as a blockbuster adaptation, studios will start to work on their own takes before the groundbreaking film finishes its first week in theatres. Until then, adaptations will rule movie theatres.
Fans can get creative. Sometimes, fans can create an adapation that surpasses anything that professional studios can do. Sometimes, though, the creativity is willing, the skill level isn’t quite there. Or maybe there’s a time crunch. It’s not an issue for fans who are building up their skills, be it writing or drawing. Animation, though, is skill- and time-intensive. For those fans without the skills, there is another way.
Machinima, technically, is the use of any pre-existing computer graphics engine to create images. The most popular graphics engines used by fans just happen to be video games. Rooster Teeth wasn’t the first, but may be the best known thanks to Red Vs Blue, a series using Halo about the men on enemy armies defending a critical box canyon from the other side. Several video game engines have been used, including Quake, Halo, and The Sims 2 and later versions. What the games have in common is a sandbox mode that allows for free play and being very customizable by players.
Example time. First, though, let’s take a look at a TV series to be adapted. COPS is on its thirty-second season, having started in 1989 and only off the air for a couple of seasons while switching networks. COPS is a reality show, with camera crews riding along with American police officers on patrol. The series made an appearance on an episode of The X-Files, effectively becoming a crossover when the camera crew started following Agents Scully and Mulder. The draw of the show was that it was unscripted. While edited, the show wasn’t staged for viewers.
How does one recreate a reality show, especially one that relies on the unpredictability of life? Enter Grand Theft Auto V, the life of crime simulator from Rockstar Games, with the mod LSPDFR, allowing players to be the police on patrol. Jeff Favignano has been using this combination, plus other mods, to produce his own series of role play, styled after COPS.
While he has monetized his YouTube channel, the work is still by a fan. There’s also the limitation of the game engine. The goal Favignano has is to approach the events generated in game with proper police procedures. As far as GTA V allows, he succeeds. Each episode of his LSPDFR is stylized as an episode of COPS, with a few call outs in each. Surprisingly for GTA V, there aren’t many shoot outs. Favignano aims to end each call peacefully, only escalating when the characters in-game do.
The adaptation works well, until the game’s engine starts going wrong. The pathing AI often sends traffic the wrong direction, through a crime scene, pushing past or sometimes through police vehicles and officers. When things do go off, it’s the game, not Favignano. However, even the game acting up adds to the feeling of the original TV show, where a pursuit and its aftermath weren’t predictable.
Fans will create. It’s the nature of fandom. Today, there are ways to express creativity that weren’t dreamt of even thirty years ago. The results are varied, but do get to the heart of the original works.
Mysteries make for an interesting choice of adaptation. Fans read them to follow the clues and solve the mystery. The twists, turns, and red herrings work because they lead to the climax, but lose their effect once the unknown is made known. The exceptions are the classics of the genre, novels where the craft of the writing becomes the focus of interest on later readings. Sometimes, the mystery is so well crafted that it takes a second or third to follow the detective’s thought processes.
What typically happens is that the character gets adapted instead of the stories, usually as a TV series. This gives the series’ writers room to create new mysteries without spoiling the original books while still keeping to the limited time an episode has. This is essentially what happened with The Dresden Files, a series of novels that cross the detective genre with urban fantasy turned into a short-lived TV series.
Among the classic writers of the mystery genre is Agatha Christie, creator of both the British amateur detective Miss Jane Marple and the Belgian professional detective Hercule Poirot. Both characters have been adapted to a number of movies and TV series. Miss Marple may be the archetype that inspired Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote, a kindly elderly woman who helps friends and relatives. Poirot, in comparison, is more direct and tends to poke and prod at suspects with his questioning, similar to Columbo except the readers don’t know who the killer is from the beginning. One of the more well known Poirot mysteries is his tenth, Murder on the Orient Express, released in 1934, a murder on a train car stuck in the snow.
What should have been a simple train ride home for Poirot gets interesting. The head of the company gets Poirot into the last cabin on the train in a car with fourteen other passengers. One turns up dead when the train gets stuck in a snowy mountain pass, leaving thirteen suspects in what is essentially a locked room. There car in front is the dining car; in back, the owner’s private car. One or more passengers had to have killed the dead man and Poirot sets out to solve the mystery.
Along the way, Poirot discovers that the dead man had a dark secret of his own that led to the murder. The clues point to any of the suspects and are contradictory. The victim was stabbed multiple times by someone who is both strong and weak, both left- and right-handed. With time limited – the train could be dug out, giving the killer or killers the opportunity to escape before being found. Poirot relies on his ability to read people by asking questions to throw each suspect off with the aim of getting them off-balance enough to make a mistake. He does solve the mystery; the clues, while seemingly at odds with each other, do make sense at the end. Christie built the crime and suspects with the end in mind, with the clues laid out for readers to follow.
In 2017, the latest adaptation of the novel came out. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also starred as Hercule Poirot, the adaptation had a strong cast, with Johnny Depp as the murder victim and Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odam Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Sergei Polunin as the suspects. The film kept the setting in 1934, the year the novel was released.
The film opens with a scene that wasn’t in the book. Poirot, in Instanbul, wraps up a theft mystery, showing the audience who he is and what he is capable of. For those who aren’t familiar with the character, the first scene serves as the intro. The scene also gets a quick bit of action in before settling in for the setting up of the titular murder and the introduction of the suspects.
The movie also spends time introducing the setting. Train travel in 1934 is different from today. There’s an element of luxury, even for those travelling second class, that doesn’t exist on Amtrak or Via. When air travel was still in its early days, the Simplon Orient Express gave passengers a comfortable way across Europe into Turkey. The trains also segregated passengers by cost of fares, with first class being the most luxurious. Today, if Poirot was needed urgently in England as he was in Murder, the British government would have just flown him. In 1934, the Orient Express was the fastest way to travel.
The original novel spends time setting up the characters. The murder doesn’t happen right away. Instead, Christie showed the passengers interacting with each other and with Poirot. Clues were placed, though not necessarily called out. Branagh did the same thing; anyone unaware of who the victim is would be wondering which passenger is going to be killed. With a strong line up of actors, it’s impossible to tell who the murderer and who the victim is. Normally, at least on television, the presence of a major guest star means that the guest will either be the victim or the murderer. With a large, all-star cast, that sort of guesswork can’t be used. Disaster movies from the 70s, such as The Towering Inferno used the same approach.
One thing the novel had that the movie couldn’t include was the passenger list with the assigned cabins. With a novel, a reader can bookmark the page to refer back to. A movie can’t really do that, even on DVD. Film is a visual medium, so instead of a passenger list, the characters had to be memorable, either because of the actor’s portrayal or because of details called out.
Barring the opening scene, the movie plays out faithfully to the book. Minor changes come up, more because of the nature of the medium than a deliberate choice to veer away from the written word. Branagh has an eye for details; if he is taking pains to have a believable Belgian accent, he’s not going to make a change to the story without a good reason. The ending felt different, but that could be a matter of interpretation. The murder happened as it did in the novel. The aftermath, though, was added to provide closure to the film. There was also a sequel hook, with a murder in Egypt. Branagh will release Death on the Nile in 2020.
With a celebrated character like Poirot, getting that role portrayed well is key to get buy-in from existing fans. Branagh didn’t disappoint. Along with getting the accent correct, he managed to portray Poirot as the egotist he is, with humanity. The genius of Sherlock Holmes with the humanity of John Watson. The opening scene establishes Poirot’s perfectionism, tempered by humour. Branagh was ideal in the role. The rest of the cast, though, wasn’t slacking, either. The sheer amount of talent in the movie turned in a performance that should have been noticed by the Academy.
Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express remained faithful to Christie’s original novel, not just with plot, but the era. Changes from the book occurred because of the change in medium, all without affecting the story. The result is a lush movie with an eye to detail that carries through to the adaptation.
Adaptations can pop up anywhere. They’re popular. Studios love them because of the low risk involved. Audiences love them from familiarity. For all the complaints that there’s too many adaptations, the problem isn’t quantity but quality. No one complains about well done adaptations, just the sheer volume, yet adaptations have been ruling the box office since the box office began.
Adaptations can occur in two ways. First, there is the planned adaptation. Movies, TV series, and even Broadway musicals take time to create and produce, giving lead time for advertising the works. The other way is the surprise adaptation – a TV series with a seasonal take on A Christmas Carol, allusions to Shakespeare, recreating The Maltese Falcon, or even destroying Earth for a hyperspace bypass lane. These are seldom announced more than a week in advance in a TV series, and comes as a surprise for the audience. The surprise is greater when the adapting work is a car ad.
Let’s jump back a bit. Some time back, Lost in Translation analyzed the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon from the 80s. Six youngsters – Hank, Sheila and her younger brother Bobby, Diana, Eric, and Albert aka Presto – go on a D&D-theme roller coaster ride at a fair and wide up transported into a magical realm where they must battle against Venger, the Force of Evil, and Tiamat, Queen of the Evil Chromatic Dragons. Over three seasons and twenty-seven episodes, the heroes battled evil while trying to find a way home. The series ended without resolution, the kids still trapped in the magical realm.
Recently, Renault Brazil released an ad that resolved that cliffhanger after 34 years. Have a look.
The car ad is a live action adaptation of the /D&D/ cartoon. The characters are recognizable, not just from magical items and costumes, but their look. The ad has all the main characters, the kids, Uni, Venger, Tiamat, and Dungeon Master. Even the setting reflects the look of the realm in the cartoon.
With older works, especially ones originally aimed at children, there’s the temptation to use the “wink-and-a-nod” approach, treating the original as a source or even the butt of jokes. Land of the Lost, the 2009 movie starring Will Farrell, is a prime example. The ad makers, though, treated the source seriously. The ad comes across as the climax of the two-part series finale, complete with sequel hook for the inevitable movie. All of the kids get a chance to show their abilities. Better, they got home. A car ad provides closure for a thirty-four year old story.
What did the ad’s makers get right? The cast is recognizable. The first shot is of Hank, which may trigger a sense of recognition of the older fans of the original series. When he pulls back on his magical bow and takes aime at Tiamat, there’s no mistaking what’s going on. Next, production values. CGI has come a long way since the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie. Tiamat has a presence on screen, and her five heads are accurate to the chromatic dragons of D&D. Uni has a cartoon quality, but does look like she did in the series. The costumes, combined with casting, mean that everyone is recognizable. The characters are live action version of their animated originals.
The only real problem the ad has is brevity. Its length works in its favour; the cost of a 1:45 ad, even with the special effects needed, isn’t going to empty a bank account. At the same time, though, it does leave fans wanting more. The ad is just a snippet of the long-awaited series finale, with a sequel hook. Some advertising campaigns have led to a series of ads, though very few have had an ongoing storyline. The best known series of ads with a story was for Taster’s Choice coffee, featuring Anthony Stewart Head and Sharon Maughan as their characters’ romance bloomed over twelve installments. So a revival of the D&D cartoon as live action car ads is a very slim possibility. As it stands, though, the ad is enough to reignite the fandom.
Sony Interactive has launched PlayStation Productions to take the catalogue of original video games to turn into film and television. There is more detail at the link, but there seems to be more to the announcement than just mining existing intellectual property for fodder.
Lost in Translation has delved into the problems of video game adaptations. The main problem is translating gameplay into a narrative. What works to keep players playing for hours doesn’t work well on screen. The expectations of each medium are at odds; video games require the player to be active while movies typically have a seated, passive audience. There’s signs that the people in charge, Asad Qizilbash and Shawn Layden, understand the problem. To quote Layden, “The real challenge is, how do you take 80 hours of gameplay and make it into a movie? The answer is, you don’t. What you do is you take that ethos you write from there specifically for the film audience. You don’t try to retell the game in a movie.”
PlayStation Productions will also be handling the development instead of licensing out titles, and using Sony Pictures for distribution. The men in charge are using the Marvel movies as a guide. Marvel created Marvel Studios to produce their own movies instead of licensing as well, something that the Disney merger didn’t change. Marvel also used writers who were familiar with the comics being filmed, reducing the chance of something getting mistranslated to the silver screen. PlayStation Productions intends to follow the same roadmap, keeping control over the IP. They are aware of the reputation video game movies have.
The studio will have a number of titles to explore right away. While not every PlayStation exclusive game belongs to Sony, there are still a number that do that will draw an audience. Considering that the PlayStation has been around in various forms since 1994, that’s 25 years of gaming the studio can explore.
Does this mean Sony is trying to leverage its IP? Well, yes. That’s what corporations do. Sony has gone from being an electronics manufacturer to a provider of material for those same electronics. Turns out, there’s more money in providing the entertainment played in Blu-Ray players than selling them. With all the games created for the PlayStation over the past twenty-five years, some must have enough interest to justify making a movie or TV series from them. Sony isn’t going to leave money on the table.
At the same time, Qizilbash and Layden appear to understand why the games have fans and why other films based on video games have failed. They’re not just milking a cash cow. Their approach, based on the interview, appears to be more nuturing, Will they get a hit with PlayStation Productions first effort? I’m expecting the first to have flaws, but to reflect the game far better than what has come before, such as Super Mario Bros and Doom. However, if the studio follows through on what Layden said above, the first effort is not going to be a train wreck, either. The film may have problems, but it will reflect the game properly. PlayStation Productions will be in a position to ensure there is a quality to their releases.
The announcement shouldn’t be a surprise. Sony has a lot of IP that’s just sitting around. Video game development takes time. The approach that PlayStation Productions wants to take, though, shows that the studio has learned the lesson about just slapping on a logo on any script that comes along. One doesn’t have to make the mistake to learn from it, and Qizilbash and Layden have done their homework. Time will tell, but PlayStation Productions is off to a good start.
Last week, Lost in Translation did a quick overview of sports movies. It’s time to look at a specific example, a movie about a quintessentially Canadian sport, Men With Brooms.
While curling originated in Scotland, it spread quickly with the settlers in the New World, especially where there was winter three to ten months of the year. Most Canadian small towns have a curling rink. But what is curling? It’s a sport where two teams of four compete over ten ends to get the highest score. To score, a team must have at least one rock or stone nearest to the button, the middle of the target. For each rock nearer to the button than the opponent’s closest, the team scores a point.
Curling gets its name from what each team member must do to get a stone as close to the button as possible. By giving the stone a bit of spin, the curler gets it to arc around the opponents’ rocks, taking some out by hitting them. The curler’s teammates can straighten the path of the stone by sweeping a path using a broom, letting the rock travel farther.
Curling competitions are called bonspiels, where a number of teams compete over the course of a weekend, with the top teams meeting in a playoff to determine the overall winner. There are typically no referees or officials, with the players respecting the Spirit of Curling to maintain sportsmanship. One of the biggest fouls in the game is burning a rock, or touching one while it’s in motion. The expectation is that the team that burned the rock will own up to it.
It may be easier to watch a few ends to understand the game, but the above should act as a primer. Curling is a team sport, and teams are made of people with their own goals and motivations, some of which may cause conflict with teammates. There is story-telling potential in the sport. Which brings us to Men With Brooms.
Released in 2002, Men With Brooms was written by, directed by, and starred Paul Gross, best known as Constable Benton Fraser on the TV series Due South. Billed as a romantic comedy, it was originally intended to be about the other Canadian sport, hockey, but worries about politics surrounding the sport and the size of a hockey team led to changing the focus to curling. From there, the script fell into place.
Men With Brooms opens with the death of Don Foley, played by James B. Douglas, as he and his younger daughter Amy (Molly Parket) retrieve a curling rock from the river near Long Bay, Ontario. The heart attack, though, plays into Don’s goals of getting the curling team he coached back together to win the Golden Broom. The team came close ten years before, but the skip, Chris Cutter (Gross), walked off the ice in the finals, never to return, after being so caught up in wanting to win he failed to call a burned rock. Don wants the team to reform and put his ashes, now in the recovered curling stone, on the button to win the Golden Broom.
The rest of the team – Neil Bucyk (James Allodi), James Lennox (Peter Outerbridge), and Eddie Strombeck (Jed Rees) – are convinced. They all have some problems in their lives, though. Neil is in a loveless marriage to Linda (Kari Matchette). James owes money to people who can afford to send a hardy knee-breaker to recover the cash. Eddie and his wife, Lilly (Jane Spidell), are desperate to have a baby. And Chris has an ex-girlfriend, Don’s eldest daughter Julie (Michelle Nolden), who still hasn’t worked out her anger from when he disappeared. Eva is also now an astronaut; she pushed herself after Chris left. Chris’ old drinking buddy, Amy, is a single parent and attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. Life in Long Bay has not been kind.
The reformed team is enthusiastic, but rusty. For their first match as a team, they take on a team of retirees, one of whom needs a walker. Team Cutter loses the match and they realize that they need help. There’s only one man in town who knows how to coach a winning team. Unfortunately, Chris is estranged from his father, Gordon (Leslie Nielsen). Chris does approach his father, all he wants is a coach, not reconciliation. Gordon agrees, and starts a training regimen for the men.
The team enters the Golden Broom bonspiel. Teams from such metropolises as Kingston, ON, Moose Jaw, SK, and Come by Chance, NF have all arrived in Long Bay to compete for the Golden Broom. Among the teams, though, is the one skipped by Alexander “The Juggernaut” Yount (Greg Bryk), who once represented Canada in the Olympics. The luck of the draw puts Cutter and Yount in the first match. The score is close, but in a later end, a rock is burned by Cutter’s rink with only three men noticing – Chris, Gordon, and Yount. Gordon gives Chris the chance to call it, but Chris refuses. Yount’s rink goes on to win the match. Chris leaves the rink to go to the bar.
Some of Chris’ problems get worked out. Amy and Julie have come to an understanding and Amy has realized that she is in love with Chris. Julie finds out that the unusual happened and both the designated astronaut and his backup have been scrubbed, letting her join the mission. Chris heads to his mother’s grave, where he finds his father, and the two reconcile.
Chris returns to the bonspiel, but Neil has been dragged away by his wife to the country club. Gordon steps in. The Cutter rink stages a comeback, but in the penultimate game, Gordon throws out his back and is unable to continue. The team is down one man and may have to play the final game as a three-man team. However, James’ girlfriend of the moment, Joanne (Polly Shannon), who has gotten to know Neil, retrieves him to finish the bonspiel.
The final game pits the Cutter rink against the Yount Rink one more time. It’s a tough match for the Cutter rink as the Juggernaut lives up to his name. In the final end, though, the score is close and comes down to the final rock, thrown by the skip, Chris. It’s an impossible shot, having to curl around then rebound to land on the button, but Chris gets the rock, the one with Don’s ashes, to go where he wants. Problem is, the rock gets burned by Eddie and only Chris sees it. Chris calls the official over and explains what happened. Yount, impressed that Chris called the burned rock when he could have won, allows the stones to be reset to give Chris a second throw. However, the first throw was impossible. To do it again is unthinkable. And Chris decides that there is another way. A brute force throw sends the final stone with Don’s ashes down the ice, smashing through any other rock in the way, shattering the thrown stone so that pieces of it land with the ashes on the button.
The film plays with curling and bonspiels. The match with the retirees allows the film to explain curling to anyone in the audience who doesn’t know the game, using Joanne as the audience stand-in to ask questions. That match is played mostly straight, using the game to show the relationships within the Cutter rink and how rusty they are. The Golden Broom bonspiel, though, is treated as a major event, along the lines of an NBA final and the Olympics, despite the largest town represented, Kingston, having a population of about 137 thousand. Come by Chance has a population of 228. The Juggernaut’s entrance would fit more at a WWE event than curling. Despite that, the gameplay is what one would expect from curling. Even when the Cutter rink starts using straw brooms instead of the more modern carbon fibre, it’s an odd choice but represents the type of broom Gordon used when he was younger.
Outside the gameplay, the sport is used to bring the characters together, first to reunite them after ten years, then to fulfill Don’s dying wish. The conflicts between characters come out on the ice, adding to the drama. Curling isn’t just the sport being played, but a metaphor for what the characters are going through. After the win, each member of Cutter’s rink has an improvement in their lives, even the divorce.
The ads around the rink are typical for the sport, especially in smaller towns. Instead of the big name advertisers that would buy ads at, say, the Super Bowl, like Apple, there are local shops and smaller grocery chains. This level of realism grounds the movie, allowing the more comedic aspects to shine through.
Curling is an odd sport of choice to adapt to film. While the game has about the same pace as baseball, it’s not as widely known. /Men With Brooms/ took some time to show the audience the ins and outs of the game so viewers could follow the action on the ice. However, the small team size makes for a more intimate drama, even in a romantic comedy. Men With Brooms uses the sport to build from, using curling’s more laid back approach as a springboard for comedic elements while still portraying the game as it is played.