Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the 1959 TV series with Robert Stack. The series took liberties, but presented the episodes with a feel like a newsreel. Stack played Eliot Ness as a straight edge cop and head of a squad as dedicated to law enforcement as he was. The series did acknowledge that they took ideas from Ness’ autobiography, The Untouchables, co-written by Oscar Fraley.
In 1987, about thirty years after the series, give or take, David Mamet wrote and Brian De Palma directed an new adaptation of the autobiography. The film, also called The Untouchables starred Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, Robert De Niro as Al Capone, Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone, Andy Garcia as George Stone/Giuseppe Petri, Charles Martin Smith as Oscar Wallace, and Billy Drago as Frank Nitti. Connery won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Malone, and the film was nominated for three others, Best Original Score, written by Ennio Morricone, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design.
The film focuses on the Untouchables’ pursuit of Al Capone. Ness’ first outing in Chicago goes as it did historically, a lot of notice and no whiskey; Capone’s men had been tipped off by someone on the Chicago Police Department. Despite the headlines, Ness pushes on. He gathers a core group of men he can trust – former beat cop Malone, rookie cop Stone, and IRS accountant Wallace, who was assigned to help Ness with an eye on nailing Capone for tax evasion.
The point of view remains on Ness and his men for the bulk of the film. Capone is is kept removed from the day to day operations of his mob, making it difficult to pin him on any crime. The mob boss does keep his own men in line, with force if needed. The choice is be loyal to Capone or die. Ness, however, earned the loyalty of the Untouchables. The difference between the mobsters and the law enforcement agents is wide. Capone has an expensive home, has staff who will serve the finest dinner on silver plates and wine in crystal glasses. Ness has a simple house, crammed in between two similar houses, a wife and child, simple furnishings. When Ness goes out with his team, they go to a cheap diner.
Ness’ investigation includes a raid on a smuggling convoy along the Canadian border with the RCMP’s assistance, where he manages to arrest Capone’s bookkeeper. With some persuasion, the bookkeeper helps Wallace to decode the ledgers. Capone doesn’t take the news well. Nitti is sent to make sure the bookkeeper doesn’t testify, resulting in both the bookkeeper and Wallace dead. Capone ups the ante by having Malone killed as well.
Undaunted, Ness continues the fight. In his dying breath, Malone tells Ness about Capone’s other bookkeeper being sent out of town by rail later that night. Malone and Stone stake out the railway station, leading to one of the tensest scenes in cinema history. The clip below doesn’t show the tension building as Ness watches people arriving and trying to figure out who could be part of Capone’s gang. The shootout is the release of that tension.
With the bookkeeper, Ness is able to build a case for tax evasion against Capone. Despite an attempt at jury tampering, Capone is found guilty, is fined $50 000 and is given 11 years in prison.
The movie takes a few liberties. Some were needed because of the nature of the medium. Ness had ten men initially, all under thirty and idealistic. It’s harder to corrupt a young man full of idealism than an experienced man who has seen how the world works. The TV series could bring in different members through the use of a rotating cast of supporting actors. A film doesn’t have that luxury, so Ness has just Malone, Wallace, and Stone. Frank Nitti didn’t die during Capone’s trial from a fall from a building; Nitti took over Capone’s mob when Capone went to prison and died by his own hand in 1943. However, the film did keep the focus on Ness’ investigation of Capone.
While some of the historical facts were loose, visual details were accurate. Chicago landmarks were used, and the fashion of the era for men and women, for high class and for working class, was accurate. Visually, the film is lush. The 1959 TV series didn’t have the luxury of colour, so couldn’t be anywhere near as lush. The advantage of movies is budget, and The Untouchables made the most of this advantage.
Like the 1959 series, the 1987 film lets drama outweigh historical accuracy in a few areas. However, the strength of the cast, the writing, and the filming lets audiences ignore differences until well after the film is over. The Untouchables is a crime drama, a war between law & order and criminal enterprise, and is well worth viewing even if it isn’t 100% accurate.
Next week, Tom Amandes as Eliot Ness.
Three weeks ago, Lost in Translation took a brief examination of the history surrounding Prohibition, Al Capone and the organized crime that built into empires thanks to bootlegging, and the Bureau of Prohibition agents known as “The Untouchables” led by Eliot Ness. From 1921 until 1933, a war between gangs and Federal agents waged, with the only real way to shut down the gangsters being charges of tax evasion brought against them by the IRS. Always pays your taxes. The IRS doesn’t mess around.
Ness, with Oscar Fraley, wrote an autobiography called The Untouchables which was optioned by Desilu productions. The pilot episode of The Untouchables series, “The Scarface Mob”, starred Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, Neville Brand as Al Capone, and Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti and was narrated by Walter Winchell. The two-part pilot covered Ness’ campaign to take down Capone, taking out breweries and distilleries and showing some of the problems The Untouchables had thanks to local police and political corruption.
With Capone dealt with in the pilot, the rest of the series focused on Ness taking on other mobsters. Frank Nitti (still played by Bruce Gordon), Waxey Gordon, Ma Barker, Dutch Schulz, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, “Bugs” Moran, “Lucky” Luciano, the Purple Gang, and many others had their stories fictionalized for the series. Ness wasn’t involved in the investigation and arrest in most of the mobsters. The New York City-based gangsters, like Schulz and Luciano, were targeted by Assistant District Attorney Thomes Dewey.
The episodes did show the difference between The Untouchables and the mobsters they faced. While the gangsters were living the high life, getting tailored suits, eating the best food, and driving the best cars in the most expensive locations, Ness and his men had to make do with regular suits and whatever food they could afford, and whatever vehicle the Bureau supplied while on a case. Even when it comes to weapons, the gangsters have semi-automatic pistols while The Untouchables only have .38 revolvers. Both sides, though, have access to the classic Tommy gun.
With Walter Winchell narrating, each episode took on the feel of a newsreel, preserving the feel of the era and allowing the show to have episodes from different parts of the 30s, pre- and post-Prohibition. The episodes unfold out as morality plays, with the moral being “Crime does not pay.” Given the era, though, crime may not have paid, but it did allow gangsters to rent happiness. Still, on The Untouchables, mobsters wound up either in prison or dead, no matter how much money they gained.
The series’ main problem is that it used up Capone in the pilot. Today, taking down Capone would be the focus of at least a season if not the series. With Capone serving time during the years the 1959 series covered, writers on the series had to use other mobsters. Fortunately, Prohibition had created a number of colourful gangsters. Ness, however, didn’t interact with many of them. Historical accuracy, at least in this frame, was loose. The goal of the series, though, was to tell good crime drama stories that kept viewers coming back week after week, something that happened over four seasons and 117 episodes.
Next week, Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness.
It’s taking longer than expected to get through the 1959 The Untouchable series. At thirty episodes per season and fifty minutes her episodes, it’s a lot of Robert Stack to watch. I should have something ready next week for the series. Today, though, I want to go back to something I touched upon in April, an eternity ago.
Back in April, Lost in Translation discussed creativity during the pandemic. People are coming together by staying apart to create performances. Redditors came together to perform a full orchestral version of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia“, recording separately and then engineered together. But a new form of music has come out as well. Described by the Guardian as the pandemic’s musical genre, Bardcore came out of nowhere and has spread through YouTube. Also known as “Medieval Style”, Bardcore takes modern music and takes it back a thousand years or so.
Most of Bardcore is instrumental, using older instruments or their electronic equivalent to their replace modern counterparts. There have been a few songs that have had lyrics included, translating the ideas to the medieval era. A good example is Hildegard von Blingin’s version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, keeping to the meaning of the song while using fanciful lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place a thousand years ago.
However, for some, that’s too easy. There have been people who have taken the extra step of using the correct language. The_miracle_aligner used Old English for his version of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks“, then switched to Old French for his version of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun“. Not satisfied, he then went to Classical Latin for his version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Not all Bardcore is based on rock or country music. There are some classical songs, music from film scores. music from video games, something for everyone. Not everyone song will be a favourite, but there’s enough to pick and choose from. Relive the Black Plague during the current plague!
Minor problems with shipping has delayed getting to The Untouchables with Robert Stack. I had been hoping that it would have showed up sooner, but them’s the breaks. The first entry for The Untouchables will be next week.
This week, though, a look at an idea for remakes. Hat tip to @DiscordianKitty for the idea on Twitter. Her idea, “Instead of remaking great movies, they should remake bad movies based on good stories but did not meet expectations.” The idea has merit. Today, when finding a favourite movie to watch is a matter of checking streaming services, it is the terrible and the unpopular movies that get the short shrift. Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, is never going to be unavailable. It is too much a classic film to let slip into obscurity.
A few ground rules. The big one is that if there is another film in the franchise, the franchise gets excluded. Cult classics also don’t count for the list; they have a charm on their own. B-movies will only be added if they are truly dire; the nature of a B-movie meant it was a backup feature, not the main draw, and didn’t get the attention, budget, or cast a feature would. This holds for direct-to-video films and TV movies; only the most dire will be mentioned. And while Mystery Science Theater 3000 did show cheesy movies, the worst they could find, it’s too easy to list something just because it was featured on the show.
The ten movies that deserve a remake, in reverse order:
10 – Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
I almost left this off the list. Originally based on the John Varley short story of the same name, the movie was made for public television, with a corresponding budget. It will be difficult to bring the gravitas that Raul Julia had, but the story does deserve a second attempt to be brought to film.
9 – Gigli
The only film on ths list I haven’t seen, Gigli suffered from studio interference, wanting to take a dark romantic comedy story and turn it into a star-driven vehicle for Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck to cash in on their tabloid-exploited relationship. The film tanked with word of mouth giving warning about the quality. The original plot may be salvageable and, without studio meddling, could be a decent film, Just don’t re-use the title or turn it into a star vehicle.
8 – The Black Hole
The Black Hole came out in 1979, but harkened back to older science fiction movies, which was the film’s main problem post-Star Wars. Expectations were hard to manage. The movie is really a Gothic horror film with science fiction trappings, something Disney wasn’t going to green light at the time.
7 – Ator the Fighting Eagle
The main issue the movie had was pacing. There was a lot Ator was trying to do and limited time to get everything out. While the movie might be better served as a TV series, it could be remade with an eye on ensuring that the pace is kept moving. Turn it into a series of two or three films if needed.
6 – Battleship
Battleship was several good ideas turned into a mediocre, by-the-numbers slog. The movie’s biggest sin is bringing the USS Missouri in the final quarter. The name of the movie is Battleship; bring in the battleship early.
5 – Howard the Duck
Howard is the only franchise film on the list. I have it here because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has introduced Howard in a post-credit sequence at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. The main issue Howard had was relying on practical effects, though CGI wasn’t a viable option at the time. With today’s rating system, Beverly’s job can remain the same as in the comics. There was a plan for a Howard TV series helmed by Kevin Smith, but that has been cancelled.
4 – Plan 9 From Outer Space
While it is tempting to add more Ed Wood movies to the list, Plan 9 is the one that really qualifies for inclusion here. Plan 9 has several problems, from low budget to Bela Legosi’s death to needing a good editor. There is a nugget of a good idea, but Wood’s imagination could not be matched by his skill or his budget.
3 – Dungeons & Dragons
Wizards riding dragons fighting! Rogues skulking about! What could go wrong? All of it went horribly wrong. The direct-to-DVD sequels were far better, able to meld mechanics and plot. The catch will be to not feel like a D&D inspired by-the-numbers fantasy novel. It’s a fine line to walk.
2 – Super Mario Bros
Don’t just take my word for it; Steven Savage has words on this movie. The movie wastes so much talent and ignores gameplay and even the colours of the iconic characters. A remake that follows the plot of any of the Mario games would be an improvement.
1 – Manos: The Hands of Fate
There is a dark horror film lurking in this minimal budget film that wants to come out, even if it’s as a student film.
Did I miss a movie? Do you disagree with my choices? Please, leave a comment below.
Over the next few weeks, Lost in Translation will be looking at various incarnations of The Untouchables, including two TV series and a feature film. However, each of those can trace back to the real-life Untouchables, a group of agents who took down Al Capone in during Prohibition. The Untouchables, led by Eliot Ness, gained their nickname by turning down sizable bribes. The name also was used for Ness’ autobiography, the 1959 TV series, the 1987 film, and the 1993 TV series.
There is a history lesson to get through first, to set up the era. Prohibition, the banning of alcohol except for very limited uses or, if today’s media existed in the Roaring Twenties, “The War on Alcohol”, ran from January 19, 1920 until December 5, 1933. Instead of just enacting laws, the US went with a Constitutional amendment, the Eighteenth. To enforce the amendment, the Volstead Act was enacted, with Congress overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. The Act banned “intoxicating beverages”, which was further defined as anything having greater than 0.5% alcohol by volume. The restriction included home-brewing of beer but, thanks to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, not home wine making.
The Volstead Act also provided for the creation of the Bureau of Prohibition, a branch of the Treasury Department that was charged to enforce the law. The Bureau of Prohibition was understaffed, with an initial 1500 agents for the entire US, and lacked resources, with a budget of $500 000 (a little under $6.8 million today). There were no initial requirements to become an agent other than be recommended by a Congressman or local politician. Cronies easily slipped into the Bureau.
The lack of budget caused another problem. People weren’t willing to just stop drinking alcohol. Booze is a social lubricant; people enjoy going out for a couple of drinks with friends. Prohibition was brought in because of excesses, but it didn’t take into account the reasons why people drank alcohol. There is a huge difference between having a glass of wine with dinner and polishing off a six-pack in an hour. Since all alcohol, with exceptions for medicinal purposes and home-made wine, was illegal, the only way to get alcohol was to turn to the criminal element. Organized crime saw a massive influx of cash during Prohibition, enough that it was cheaper to pay off a Prohibition Agent with a year’s salary, $3000, to look the other way. Agents were underpaid, at least in the field. Combined with cronies put in by politicians who frequented speakeasies, the Bureau of Prohibition was a bandaid on a sucking chest wound.
Even if a speakeasy was found and closed, the fines involved weren’t enough to dissuade the fined from re-opening elsewhere. The Volstead Act just didn’t go far enough to be a deterrent. There were enough ways around the laws and enough people who didn’t care about the laws to stop the flow of alcohol. Organized crime flourished, allowing men like Al Capone to get rich while controlling cities.
A few things changed because of the corruption and lack of effect the existing laws were having. In 1927, the IRS started investigating tax evasion by mobsters and bootleggers. The IRS didn’t care where the income came from; it just wanted the income declared and taxed. In May, the ruling in the United States v Sullivan ruled that, yes, criminals still had to file tax returns, though the Fifth Amendment allowed for not revealing the source. With this, the IRS created a special unit specifically to go after tax evasion by mobsters.
In 1930, the Bureau of Prohibition was taken from Treasury and placed under the Department of Justice. Prohibition agents were investigating more violent crimes, which fell better under the umbrella of Justice. In Chicago, the US attorney appointed Eliot Ness as Special Agent in Charge of the area. Ness gathered the top agents in Chicago, all of whom were incorruptible and skilled, in order to take down Capone’s mob. After a few attempts at working with the Chicago Police Department on raids that were busts because of corruption in the department, Ness and his team worked alone on raids that did put a dent in Capone’s criminal empire.
Ultimately, Al Capone was arrested for tax evasion. The Volstead Act just could not do justice to everything the mobster did in his career. Capone was tried and convicted of five counts of tax evasion in 1931 and was sentenced to eleven years in prison and a then-record $50 000. Capone’s gang continued without him, but the biggest blow to rumrunners was to come.
In 1933, Utah became the thirty-sixth state to sign off on the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth entirely, ending Prohibition. However, there were some lasting effects. Organized crime got a strong foothold and a large infusion of cash during Prohibition. Corruption among Prohibition agents and local police left both with poor reputations, even if it wasn’t a majority of law enforcement officers involved. Several states ran into problems with revenues; taxes on alcohol funded a number of budgets. The Federal government lost $11 billion in tax revenue and spent another $300 million to enforce Prohibition.
There’s still some holdovers from the era. Cocktails became popular during the time; bartenders added juices, colas, ginger ale, and maple syrup to the bathtub gin they served to hide the taste of the raw alcohol and the impurities from the distilling process. NASCAR has its roots in bootleggers racing each other, even after Prohibition ended. Non-American breweries and distilleries made new in-roads to the US market. At least one brewery, Sleeman Breweries in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, has included its role in provided beer to the US during Prohibition in promotional material.
The stage is now set to review the various versions of The Untouchables, from three different eras. Each review will link back to this if a refresher is needed on the era. If some of what happens seems familiar, remember that some lessons take a long time to learn.
Some interesting announcements came up the past few days that involve remakes/reboots/adaptations. Let’s take a look.
First up, Comedy Central is working with Mike Judge for a new Beavis and Butt-Head series, with two seasons confirmed. Judge will also return as the voice of the titular characters. The deal between Judge and Comedy Central includes possible spin-offs.
Next, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Bill Lawrence are working with MTV to make new episodes of Clone High. The original series ran one season, thirteen episodes, but became a cult hit.
Finally, a potential Groundhog Day TV series is in the works. The series will be based on the movie starring Bill Murray, who played a reporter who was stuck in the same Groundhog Day repeatedly. The movie is now shorthand for any similar plot where a character or group of characters have to relive the same day over and over.
The question, really, is why? Why bring these three works back? Beavis and Butt-Head ran from 1993 to 1997, with a 2011 revival. Clone High ran one season in 1993. Groundhog Day was also released in 1993. That’s roughly 20 years, or one generation. Memories will have faded somewhat, especially with the animated series. Beavis and Butt-Head did have a reputation in its time for being a little much for parents’ groups. Memories fade over time, and 20 years is a lot of time in human years. Two are reboots, bringing back series. Both being animated helps; voice actors may have aged but the characters haven’t. With Groundhog Day, it’s a change of format, though how that will work remains to be seen. Will it be a season of the same episode each week with minor changes? Or will it be more like 24, where audiences will go through the life of a reporter on one day, the same day, season after season? Time will tell.
Unrelated to the above, Derek Kolstad and David Leitch are teaming up to bring the video game My Friend Pedro to TV. Kolstad was the writer for John Wick; Leitch was a co-director of the film. The game itself follows a man’s battle through the underworld at the behest of a sentient banana named Pedro. The game’s launch trailer may give a better idea. Or not.
Two animated series being brought back, a classic movie turned into a TV series, and a live-action TV series of a video game. Sounds about right.
A few weeks ago, Lost in Translation looked at Alien Nation and the difference between film and TV. The Alien Nation TV series got into more world building and character development than the original film could, thanks to the time a TV series can provide over a film’s 120 minutes run length. Movie’s main strength is delivering a spectacle bigger than life, but blockbuster leaves little time for introspection. TV has time to spare.
Another science fiction movie and subsequent TV series also shows the difference. The 1990 film, Tremors, spun off into a franchise with four sequels, a prequel, and a TV series. Tremors is a monster movie, inspired by older B-movies, with writing that shows the writers are well aware of what normally happens in such movies. Starring Kevin Bacon as Val McKee, Fred Ward as Earl Bassett, Finn Carter as Rhonda LeBeck, Reba McIntyre as Heather Gummer, and Michael Gross as Burt Gummer, Tremors tells the story about a monster attack on the town of Perfection, Nevada.
As the movie unfolds, Val and Earl discover the existance of a subterranean monster. They rescue geology student Rhonda and return to Perfection to spread the word of the danger. The townsfolk dub the monsters “Graboids” for lack of a better word, but do ask Rhonda about them. She guesses that they are prehistoric, having never appeared in the fossil record. The townsfolk learn quickly about how graboids hunt – they sense their prey using soundwaves carried through the ground. Graboids can burrow quickly under soft soil, but hard rock stops them. One is killed by forcing it to run into a hard rock outcropping. Another breaks in the wrong goddamn rec room. Yet another is killed by luring it with thrown stones before tossing a pipe bomb for it to eat. The problem is, graboids are smart and can learn. What works with one won’t work with the next.
The movie had a strong cast, with Michael Gross playing against his previous role of Steven Keaton on Family Ties, the complete opposite of Burt Gummer. Ariana Richard played Mindy and would later play Kathy in Spaced Invaders and Lex in Jurassic Park. Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and Finn Carter had amazing on-screen chemistry together. Boosting the strong cast was a well written script that had the light touch of humour along with the action and scares a monster movie needs. Finally, the graboids weren’t front and centre. The tension in the film came from not knowing when a graboid would appear, leaving a lot to the imagination to the audience, similar to how /Jaws/ worked around the problems of the mechanical shark.
A cult classic in the 90s naturally spawns direct-to-video sequels. Tremors 2: Aftershocks was released in 1996 and brought back Fred Ward and Michael Gross to deal with graboids at a Mexican oil refinery. Earl went after the $50 000 reward and, when he realized how severe the problem was, called in Burt. However, the graboids themselves had a twist. While Earl and Burt were ready to deal with graboids, the monsters went through a change. Part of the graboid life cycle sees a different form, shriekers, tear out of the monster as part of reproduction. Shriekers hunt on the ground, seeking out prey using its heat sense, and tend to multiply with the more they eat. Burt and Earl are over-gunned for the situation, leading to creative use of heat and explosives to deal with the shrieker incursion.
Tremors 3: Return to Perfection was a 2001 direct-to-video that saw the survivors of the original film return, including Ariana Richardson as Mindy, Charlotte Stewart as Nacy, Mindy’s mom, Robert Jayne as Melvin, Tony Genaro as Miguel, and introduced new characters Jodi Chang (Susan Chung), niece of Walter and the new owner of Walter’s store and Jack Sawyer (Shawn Christian), who has started a graboid tour for tourists. Of course, Burt Gummer is still around. This time around, it’s the shriekers who have a new twist. As part of graboid reproduction, shriekers begin a moulting process to turn into a new form, one capable of launching itself and gliding for distances. This new form is dubbed “Ass-blasters” by Jodi. Ass-blasters complete the reproduction cycle by carrying a graboid egg, and their ability to glide allows them to take the egg far from the original hunting grounds.
When Burt returns to Perfection, he finds out that there are a few problems happening. Three graboids are in the area as are a number of shrikers and, soon, a number of ass-blasters. Each form as their ideal means of eradication, and each form learns. Burt and the townsfolk fight off the shriekers and ass-blasters and two of the graboids, The US Department of the Interior steps in, though, as graboids are an endangered species. The final graboid,an albino one dubbed “El Blanco” is placed under protection. An uneasy truce exists between Perfection, now federally protected land, and El Blanco. However, an ass-blaster does survive the film, having been captured and sold by Nancy to fund Mindy’s college tuition.
Over the course of the first three movies, there is a lot of worldbuilding. Once graboids became known to the general public, tourism started. Walter Chang’s ideas of creating graboid merchandise isn’t far fetched. There is worldbuilding and a cult following. The SciFi channel needed a new series, and with the producers working on a Tremors series, the inevitable happened. Tremors: The Series began airing on SciFi in 2003. While the order of episodes got jumbled, it didn’t affect the series as much as Fox’s maltreatment of Firefly.
Characters from Tremors 3 returned, though with new actors. Lela Lee took over as Jodi Chang and Marcia Strassman picked up the role of Nancy. Mindy was off at college, as set up by Tremors 3. Robert Jayne, though, returns as Melvin Plug, a role he had in the original Tremors. New characters came in as well, with Victor Browne’s Tyler Reed buying Desert Jack’s Graboid Adventure tour business and Gladise Jimenez as Rosalita Sanchez who bought a ranch in the area to get away from her Vegas life. Dean Norris portrayed WD Twitchell, the Department of the Interior agent assigned to keep an eye on El Blanco. However, only one man could be Burt Gummer.
The first three filmed episodes, “Feeding Frenzy”, “Shriek and Destroy”, and “Blast from the Past” act as reminders of what the graboids, shriekers, and ass-blasters can do. It doesn’t take long for El Blanco to claim a victim in the first episode, and Tyler almost became the second if not for the timely intervention of Burt. Twitchell from time to time has Burt and Tyler investigate possible graboid sightings elsewhere, seeing that Gummer is the foremost expert on hunting graboids.
Tremors: The Series explores the idea of living in an area where there is a man-eating monster lurking around and how the townsfolk adapt to the threat. The series also looks at how the rest of the world reacts to the idea of graboids. For the most part, the graboids are an oddity. People in the know treat them as a threat, but graboids are an endangered species. There are extreme fans of both El Blanco and Burt Gummer. There are animal rights activists trying to free the graboid. Everything is within the realm of possibility if giant man-eating worms lurked under the ground.
There is also a mini-arc of episodes dealing with Mixmaster, a method of conjoining DNA from various animals. While the graboids aren’t results of the secret experiments, being older than fossils, other creatures that appear in and near Perfection are, creating a threat to not just the town but the world. Key behind Mixmaster is Cletus Poffenberger (Christopher Lloyd), who has been monitoring the situation for several decades. Even Burt was unaware of a secret corporate facility in the valley.
The TV series allows the cast and crew to explore the relationships between the townsfolk of Perfection, where they get along and where they don’t. Burt and Nancy represent the history of the town. Jodi is very much her uncle’s niece, to the point where Nancy gave her a back-handed compliment about being better suited as a CEO for a multi-national corporation. Rosalita and Tyler are the newcomers trying to adjust to life in a town where death is always underfoot and each of them reacts differently.
The casting is strong, in all of main, guest, and supporting cast. The characters are treating the situation as serious, even if the audience is being allowed to laugh at situations. It wouldn’t be a Tremors TV series without Burt, the breakout character from the original movie, thanks to Michael Gross’ portrayal of him. The writing maintains the mix of action, humour, and tension that the movies introduced, still nodding to the B-movie monster movies while remembering modern sensibilities.
/Tremors: The Series/ follows the previous movies seamlessly. What helps is having the same creative team continuing to tell the story of Perfection. They are familiar with the characters, the setting, and the premise, and can build upon all of that while still remaining true to the original. The series gives space to expand the Tremors-verse and make the world a little more weird. Like Alien Nation: The Series, Tremors: The Series takes advantage of the TV format to expand the world and dig deeper into the setting and the characters, something the films didn’t have time to do.
Remakes tend to come about twenty to thirty years after a popular original work’s release. During that time, there’s usually an improvement in film making technology combined with the original fading into the pop subconscious. However, since the advent of home playback technology such as video tape recorders, DVD, Blu-Ray, and conversion to digital formats, finding the original without waiting for it to show up as late-night or weekend afternoon filler is easy. Even in the 80s, when Beta and VHS were gaining popularity, some works could only be found during late night double-features on local TV stations.
The 1989 movie, Weekend At Bernie’s falls into the desirable range. The title has fallen into the pop subconscious; people who haven’t seen the movie are aware that Bernie is dead and is being dragged around for plot reasons. The film may not cost much to get rights to; it’s nowhere near being a Star Wars or a Back to the Future in terms of namespace. The movie is also easily found on DVD, though.
Weekend At Bernie’s starred Jonathan Silverman as Richard, Andrew McCarthy as Larry, Catherine Mary Stewart as Gwen, Don Calfa as Paulie, and Terry Kiser as Bernie. The movie breaks down into three acts. The first act sets up the relationships between the characters. Richard and Larry are young up and comers at an insurance firm trying to track down a couple of million dollars worth of discrepancies. Finding that one person has received four half-million dollar payouts, they go to their boss, Bernie Lomax, with the proof. Bernie mentions that the deceased would have multiple policies with different payout times, except the policies involved were purchased after the beneficiary died. Bernie praises the hard work and invites Richard and Larry to his home on Hampton Island.
That problem solved, Larry forcefully encourages Richard to ask summer intern student Gwen out on a date. Said date goes well except for Richard exaggerating his living situation. Richard still lives at home with her parents thanks to New York’s high cost of living. Larry did off his apartment, but Richard didn’t think Gwen would appreciate the cockroaches living there. The ruse falls apart and Gwen is not happy to be deceived.
Bernie, in the meantime, Bernie is meeting with Vito (Louis Giambalvo), Vito’s girlfriend Tina (Catherine Parks), Vito’s assistant Marty (Gregory Salata), and Paulie. Vito is a mobster working with Bernie to use the insurance company to launder money, except the laundering has been discovered. Bernie’s solution is to have Paulie kill Richard and Larry; he’ll set things up so he won’t be around for the hit. During the dinner, Tina plays footsie with Bernie. When Bernie leaves, Tina makes an excuse to powder her nose and follows her out, not aware that Vito has sent Marty after her.
The Labour Day weekend arrives. Bernie is the first to the island, getting the murder-suicide set up. Paulie is a little early, at least from Bernie’e viewpoint. Paulie gives Bernie a lethal overdose of drugs and leaves him seated in a chair. Richard and Larry arrive on the island, find their way up to Bernie’s house and let themselves in. They look around for Bernie, expecting that he’s out mingling. Instead, they find his dead body and the drugs planted by Paulie. The first act is spent establishing who everyone is and why it’s safe to laugh at what will be happening to Bernie. Bernie Lomax is not a decent human being. Richard is also due some payback, but not to the same degree as Bernie.
The second act covers the island’s wandering party. No matter where the party starts, it always ends up at Bernie’s. Anyone and everyone on the island shows up. Richard and Larry, who haven’t called the police yet because Larry was concerned that they’d be blamed for Bernie’s death, watch as people talk to Bernie without noticing that Bernie barely reacts. Thanks to a lifeguard giving Bernie a massage, Lomax’s neck is broken, allowing him to turn towards or away from anyone talking to him. Almost everyone at the party is too self-absorbed to notice that Bernie Lomax is dead.
The exception is Gwen, whose family also has a place on the island. Gwen wants to thank Bernie for the summer internship. Richard, who was wanting to call the police again because someone needs to be told that Bernie is dead, hangs up and intercepts Gwen. She gets diverted while Richard and Larry remove Bernie from the party and dump him outside on the beach. With Bernie not around, Gwen decides to listen to Richard who is horrible at apologizing but is starting to come clean. They head up to a lighthouse to look around, when Richard is blinded by the light and falls through the trap door and down the stairs. He and Gwen wind up on the beach, a wonderful night, just Richard, Gwen, and Bernie’s body drifting in with the tide. Richard manages to get Gwen to leave, then grabs Larry to bring Bernie back to the house, where they put him in bed.
The night isn’t over yet. Tina arrives, angry that Bernie stood her up and as drunk or even more so than Bernie’s party guests. She storms up the walk and into the house, demanding to know where Bernie is. Richard and Larry stand aside when she retrieves a large knife from the kitchen, telling her he’s in bed. Tina drunkenly stumbles upstairs, throws open the door, and her mood changes on seeing Bernie. Thirty minutes later, Tina returns downstairs, much happier. When she leaves, Richard and Larry are in shock that even Tina hadn’t noticed. As Larry puts it, “I get yelled at if I just lay there.” Tina leaves, and Richard and Larry call it a day.
The final act opens the next morning when Richard wakes up at 11am. Larry is out on the porch near the pool playing Monopoly with Bernie. Richard wants to call the police, but Gwen arrives to again thank Bernie for the internship that she couldn’t do the previous night. Marty has let Vito know that Paulie is as rusty as the hitman thought, so Paulie has also returned to the island. While Richard tries to delay Gwen so that Larry can dump Bernie somewhere, Paulie sneaks up on the house. The hitman hears Larry running around overhead and is in the perfect spot for Bernie to land on him when dumped. After a brief struggle, Paulie chokes Bernie and finds no pulse.
Richard manages to ward off Gwen again, then goes back to the phone to call the police, this time using the phone with the answering machine. Instead of dialing out. he gets the conversation recorded between Bernie and Paulie with Lomax’s plans to kill the two schmucks with the caveat that Bernie cant be around. Richard and Larry figure the safest place to be is off the island with Bernie. Since no one knows Bernie isn’t dead, they figure making Bernie walk around with them is the best thing to do. They make a dash to the ferry and miss it by seconds. Paulie, though, hadn’t, and is surprised to see Bernie racing towards the ferry.
After some thought, Richard and Larry figure out there is another way off the island – Bernie’s boat. The initial escape has some minor problems, but they do get going, only to run out of gas. Paulie gets to the mainland first and hires a water taxi to get back to the island. Everything starts coming together, with Gwen finally getting to see Bernie only to be told that he’s dead. Richard tries to explain, but given his tall tales earlier, Gwen is skeptical. The skepticism disappears when Paulie returns and empties a revolver into Bernie. The hitman then notices the witnesses and tries to shoot them, except the revolver is empty. He pulls out a second gun and starts chasing Richard, Larry, and Gwen. Bernie is left lying on the floor, a leg blocking a set of stairs.
The chase ends when Larry takes the initiative to draw off Paulie while Richard and Gwen hide in a bedroom. He gets a lucky break when Paulie tries to push Bernie out of the way and gets kicked in the groin for his efforts. The hitman shoots off the rest of the bullets in his revolver at Bernie then starts to reload. Larry sees his best change, grabs the phone with its long cable, and starts wrapping Paulie up in it. He decks the hitman, who falls into a headlock from Bernie.
The police are finally called. Bernie is put on a gurney to be taken to the ambulance. Paulie is arrested and put into a straitjacket. Richard takes his first vacation to spend time with Gwen on the island before she goes back to school. Larry decides to stay a couple of days in Bernie’s home to get in on the wandering party. It’s a happy ending for almost everyone, even Bernie, who finally gets buried.
The movie works thanks to the writing and the cast. It’s a screwball comedy with people to cheer for and against. The film sets up who deserves what happens, for good and for ill. Bernie, being the cheating bastard he is, gets the worst of it. Richard, thanks to his lies to Gwen, has to go through a few trials himself. And despite Bernie being dead, the movie keeps things light as a comedy should be.
Remaking Weekend At Bernie’s needs to pay attention to the details. The first act sets up several non-literal Checkhov’s Guns in the first act that come back in the third to complicate Richard and Larry’s plans. Even when the audience knows who and what these Guns are, characters don’t. In many comedies, a lack of communication that creates problems that can be cleared up if people would just talk causes audiences to raise their disbelief. In Weekend At Bernie’s, while people talking would clear things up, the people who could have done something were too self-involved to notice Bernie was dead, Paulie wasn’t going to tell anyone except Vito and Marty that he killed Bernie with an OD, and Richard and Larry were given a reason to not let anyone know Bernie was dead. Thus, only the audience has all the information.
Casting will be important. Terry Kiser portrayed Bernie before and after the character’s death. The postmortem smirk Bernie kept up added to the comedy. Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy had a chemistry together that comes out on screen; it is easy to believe that they are friends despite the personality differences. The three actors work well together, which helps when Richard and Larry have to carry Bernie around. A remake will need actors who get along. The new Bernie will need to be good at physical comedy without speaking. Robert Downey, Jr, may be an ideal new Bernie; he can do comedy, see Tropic Thunder. The rest, I’m not sure of.
Location was a key element in the film. The setting was an island with limited access, no cars, just ferries and other boats. The limitations are to prevent an easy solution, just jumping into a car to take Bernie to the police station or the hospital. The isolation is needed. Problem is, while cell phones were rare, bulky, and expensive in 1989, in 2020, everyone has a smartphone. There has to be a reason why Richard, Larry, and Gwen can’t use one on the island. Poor cell coverage is a possibility, which allows for people still taking photos and videos of Bernie’s hijinks without them being uploaded right away. The proliferation of smartphones creates problems with remakes, really.
The final portion that needs to be done well in a remake of Weekend At Bernie’s is the writing. Small details at the beginning, such as Bernie negotiating for a Maserati, the fired handyman, and the gardener, all come back at the end. The remake has to show the Chekhov’s guns to the audience; hiding details from the viewers does no one any favours. The first act could be tightened up; it takes up a third of the movie, but the act also front loads the information needed for the rest of the film to work. Common advice from people using word-of-mouth to get friends to watch Weekend At Bernie’s is to wait out the movie until it reaches the island, so there is room to tighten up the first act. It will be a balancing act, get everything needed for the later acts set up in a quick enough time to keep the narrative flowing.
Weekend At Bernie’s looks like it should be an easy remake, but the devil is in the details. Digging into the film, there are many areas where a remake can trip up and fall short of the original.
A while back, Lost in Translation mentioned the term “replicative fading” during the review of the remake of The Green Hornet. I meant to expand on the idea sooner than this, but now is as good a time as any.
I took the term “replicative fading” from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Up the Long Ladder“, where it was used to describe what was happening to a society of clones. The idea works better with the concept of photocopying; there will be some loss of resolution in a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. The result is, that after few iterations, the last photocopy will look like a smudged, blurred version of the original. Modern scanning and printing technology will increase the number of iterations, and the smudging and blurring won’t be as bad as it would in 1990, but some degradation will be found.
When it comes to adaptations, especially ones where the remake/adaptation is better known, the risk is that a further remake is based on an earlier adaptation instead of going back to the original. The Wizard of Oz is a good example here. The original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published by L. Frank Baum in 1900, was turned into a stage play in 1902 and the iconic film, The Wizard of Oz, in 1939. Baum turned Oz into a series after the success of the first book and the Broadway adaptation. Today, though, most people are more aware of the 1939 film than the books, with the movies – The Wiz, the 1978 all-black remake starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, Richard Pryor as the Wizard, and Michael Jackson as Scarecrow, and the 2004 made-for-TV movie Muppets Wizard of Oz with Ashanti as Dorothy and Muppets in most of the other roles – having been derived from there.
Frankenstein is another work that has seen replicative fading over the years. Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was adapted into a number of plays, some of which were authorized. Through the plays, Peggy Webling’s 1927 version in particular, the movie Frankenstein has several changes and additions to the original story, changing the work about a man trying to run away from his creation to one about a man playing God and being delivered hubris. The Monster turns from being a crafty, intelligent, malevolent being to a child-like innocent afraid of fire. This gets called out in the TV series, The Librarians, in the episode “… And the Broken Staff”, where Ezekiel, who has only seen the film adaptation, tries to stop the Monster using a lighter and is surprised when it gets smacked out of his hands. The Monster wasn’t so much stopped as redirected by the protagonists; modern amenities such as plastic surgery and professional sports gave the Monster what he wanted. However, in Young Frankenstein, the film goes back and corrects problems in the film and the original story by pointing out that Frankenstein is a very poor father. Young Frankenstein, though, demonstrates that replicative fading doesn’t mean a bad movie.
Typically, replicative fading happens when an adaptor isn’t aware of an older work, either due to obscurity or lack of availability compared to the remade work. The Magnificent Seven could be an example. The 1960 version of the film was based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. The works that were adapted from the The Magnificent Seven, excluding direct sequels, include the 1980 Roger Corman film, Battle Beyond the Stars, a 1998 TV series, and the 2016 remake. All kept to the ideas of the Western; Battle Beyond the Stars only moved the setting to space.
Replicative fading can be avoided. The simplest way is to go back to the original work. Andrew Lloyd Webber did this with The Phantom of the Opera, going back to Gaston Leroux’s original novel. This is in contrast to the 1943 movie, Phantom of the Opera, where the focus shifted off the Phantom. Going back to the original can provide a new perspective on the story, one that other adaptations may not have picked up on.
The catch, though, is that some works are better known through an adaptation. The Wizard of Oz is a good example, as is Frankenstein. Being too different from the better known work may throw audiences off. Referring to the original in some way, such as including the original author in the title as Bram Stoker’s Dracula did, will flag the work as not an adaptation of an adaptation. Ultimately, word of mouth will make or break a release.
Today’s audiences are more savvy than before, thanks to the near-ubiquitous means of finding original works. An in-name-only adaptation won’t fly. There is a good reason for studios to avoid replicative fading, if only to stand out. Replicative fading may disappear, especially for more recent works that are easily found on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming, and through e-books. It is easier to get to the original, and if one is spending the money to get a license, might as well spend the money to make a good adaptation.
Lost in Translation has looked at a number of live-action adaptations, the most recent being the 2002 Scooby-Doo adaptation. With adaptation fever going strong in Hollywood, let’s take a look at what makes live-action movies of animated or drawn original work.
A live-action adaption can come from a number of sources, such as video games, comics, and animation both Western and Eastern. Not included are adaptations of written works; the default for literature of all genres is live action unless there is something about the original work that suggests that a different medium would work better. Watership Down has an all-rabbit cast, an animated adaptation became necessary, especially at the time it was made.
The first, obvious question is “Why?” Why make a live-action adaptation of a work? There are several answers. The main one, though, is that the studio is hoping to make money off the movie, either through getting more money back at the box office than spent or by getting a big enough tax wrote-off for a stinker. No one wants to make a money-losing film on purpose. With cartoons, just making an animated movie will only get the target audience, even for a long-running franchise such as Scooby-Doo. Changing to a live-action movie, especially with actors that are a draw, means getting more of an audience than just the fans, and a larger potential audience means a larger potential box office return.
Sometimes, the decision is because of the director’s vision. Scott Pilgrim vs the World came about because Edgar Wright had read the original graphic novels and thought he could turn them into a film. Wright went for live action in part because Toronto was easier to film than to redraw, but he wound up dealing with the video game metaphors of the graphic novels. While the film wasn’t a box office smash, it has the capability of being a cult film. The biggest problem was that Scott Pilgrim didn’t fall neatly into any marketing box.
There is also the challenge of taking a video game or an animated work and turning it into a live-action production. This may be the thought behind the various attempts at making a live-action Akira, which has been in development hell at Warner Bros since 2002 and Sony during the 90s. The animated film of the manga was a visually stunning work, catching attention outside Japan. The problem that the studios keep running into is that even the animated film leans on Japanese culture and history, especially the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It may be easier to make a live-action adaptation of Black Lagoon; the source would have to be toned down to PG-13. But Black Lagoon doesn’t have the name value that Akira and Dragonball have.
Hollywood adapting a Western source can also be fraught with problems. Finding an actor who can portray a character is part of the art of casting. Finding one who looks like an existing character and can match their mannerisms requires a search. Matthew Lillard as Shaggy in the live-action /Scooby-Doo/ movies is a casting director’s high point. Most casting decisions are to be close enough and hope the actor can bridge the gap; Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, Robert Downey, Jr as Tony Stark in the Avengers movies, and Christopher Reeve in /Superman/ all took their roles and made them theirs. It’s rare to see an actor misused in an adaptation today, but Super Mario Bros. does show that it is possible. Mojo Nixon, really? Casting does matter. The first of the Michael Bay Transformers movies caught fans attention by having Peter Cullen back as the voice of Optimus Prime.
With comics, special effects are limited to the imagination and the paint the artist has available, and with digital colouring, paint really isn’t an issue. Jack Kirby’s artwork, something he was able to produce for several titles a month, is colourful and detailed. The Kirby Krackle is named for his style. Even simpler energy blasts, like the Human Torch’s flames, Iceman’s ice bolts, and the Transformers’ laser shots, take time and money to reproduce in a live-action work. Characters like Superman, whose core abilities are physical and can be reproduced through practical effects, including wire work, and Batman, who is still human who has gone through training, are easier to put on screen. CGI has made effects easier today, though, so Kirby Krackle can be expected.
Adapting video games has been covered before. The biggest problem is, whether the game is being adapted to live-action or animated, that the nature of a video game is that the player is active in the storytelling, even if the plot is railroaded. Television and movies are passively watched, with, usually, no viewer input. This is on top of casting, finding actors who can pass as the main character. In some games, character customization is an option, so what one person pictures the lead character, others may not agree.
No matter the source, there’s always a chance that a celebrity will use the adaptation as a vehicle, pulling the attention to the celeb and away from the work. The adaptation will aim for the fans of the celeb, possibly to the detriment of fans of the original. The result is usually a mess, something that gets a brief flurry of attention before being forgotten. The problem is that studios will go by the numbers the celeb vehicle produced and make decisions off that without considering the why behind them.
Adaptations will be with us for the foreseeable future. There’s too much money in them to not make them. The goal is to figure out how and why they work and how and why they fail. Knowing the restrictions in advance will help studios avoid losing money and bring the best product for the audience possible,
On a related note, I will be on a panel at Renaissance Press’ Virtual Conference called “The book was better… or was it? The art of adaptation” on June 6 at 4p, EDT, with three other panelists. Registration is free but space is limited because of technical limitations. Check out the other panels, too; the conference runs June 5-7. There will also be a Discord channel for vendors.