Since the dawn of television, the medium has been seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Film was seen as more prestigious. Today, though, the situation has reversed. While film adaptations are still desired by fans, television may be the better medium, allowing for greater depth. What happened?
In the US, television became dominated by three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. While there were other options, including the public broadcaster PBS, those three networks aired the bulk of TV series. The nature of ratings meant that, on average, a network could expect a third of the viewing audience for any given time slot. To attract a broader audience, the network would need a show with broad appeal, something that attracted families during the early evening and something that brought in adults later in the night. An inexpensive family drama could survive longer than an expensive high-brow science fiction series that needed special effects and dedicated sets. Broadcasters also could let a series find an audience. Even a 20 share meant that the network could sell the show to sponsors.
Film, however, was where the glamour was. Movies had an edge on television just on relative longevity alone. In the Fifties, colour was the norm for film, shown on a large screen. The stars were larger than life, thanks to the Hollywood glam machine. Even as televisions became more affordable, a weekly night out at the movies wasn’t a hardship. Studios still had limitations, though. The “voluntary” Hays Code, taking effect in 1930, put limits on what could be shown, leading to writers leaving what happened off-screen to the audience’s imagination. Beginning in the late Fifties, with Some Like it Hot, directors and studios started ignoring the Code, or, in the case of foreign film makers, weren’t bound by it in the first place. As a result, the MPAA introduced a classification system in 1968 that would let audiences decide for themselves what they were comfortable with.
Early television couldn’t compete with film. Television sets were small, with grainy black and white pictures, and very dependent on the strength of the broadcast signal. Movies were backed by studios with a good distribution system, shown on large screens that directors took full use of. Actors used television as a stepping stone towards a career in film. Better televisions were available, and colour became the standard for TV in the Sixties, but film still got the lion’s share of attention.
Then came the 500-channel universe. As cable grew, the choices available went from local and nearby broadcast stations to specialty channels available through subscription. Audiences could find a niche they wanted. Advertisers could target their market with more precision. Sports fans had several channels available to them, as did lovers of classic films and science fiction aficionados. With the expanded range available, specialty channels didn’t have to worry about the lowest common denominator. Networks, though, took time to learn the lesson. With the expanded competition, though, the quality of even the lowest of the low still had to improve. Add in time-shifting technologies as video cassette recorders and digital recording, viewers no longer had to plan around their favourite shows.
Film ran into new problems. The competition in television meant that there was less time for the weekly movie outing. The economic woes meant that nights out became rarer, especially after the Great Recession of 2007. Coupled with rising ticket and popcorn costs at theatres, who were trying to find ways to stay afloat despite record blockbusters, a movie night became a luxury. Not helping was the ballooning costs of making movies. Comedies were starting to cost as much as special effects laden science fiction movies; The Hangover 3 cost as much to make as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Studios now need films to be popular not just in the US, but also around the world. This need means aiming for the lowest common denominator, one that transcends international borders.
In contrast, televisions main problem is filling all the hours. Stations, broadcast and specialty alike, will still fill time by airing old programming. Sports stations will show classic games of the past; science fiction stations show older series that still have a following, like Star Trek; movie channels will show classic films of yesteryear. The stations will also create new programming as well. The quality may not be great, but even Sharktopus brings in an audience. Budget is a concern, but specialty channels can create TV series that brings in subscribers.
For adaptations, this reversal of roles means that television is the better medium, especially for long form works like novels. HBO’s success with A Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and AMC’s similar success with The Walking Dead, based on the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, showed that it is possible to create a series that resonates with audiences. Naturally, there were follow-the-leader adaptations, especially in fantasy with MTV adapting Terry Brooks’ Shannara series as The Shannara Chronicles. Television allows for greater depth over a season than possible in a two hour film, allowing the adaptation to take the time it needs to present the characters properly.
Film still has its glamour, though. Movies have budgets that television can only dream of. The same budgets, though, mean that most studios aren’t going to take huge risks. Deadpool, an R-rated superhero raunchy comedy, would never have been made if the X-Men franchise didn’t get past the first movie. With television’s lower budgets, a failed pilot isn’t as much of a loss as a blockbuster dud, and the expectation of TV pilots is lower.
The reversal of roles between film and television is recent and the root is economic. Adaptations of longer works, including series of novels, television has become the medium of choice. Film’s competitive edge has eroded, and television is coming into its own.
Budget can be a reason why a remake is made. A low budget movie that picks up a cult following will be noticed by studios, and cult classics grow audiences over time. Studios, being risk adverse, prefer to make movies with a guarenteed audience. What happens when a film made on the cheap gets a budget? Let’s look at the Roger Corman classic, Death Race 2000.
As a producer, Roger Corman is known for being tight with money. He also seldom loses money on a movie. With Battle Beyond the Stars, he kept costs down by using film students for crew and an out-of-business hardware store for a studio. With Death Race 2000, the budget was a modest $300 000. Yet, the film endures.
Based on the short story, “The Racer”, by Ib Melchior, Death Race 2000 is set in the 1975 future of 2000, where the US economy has collapsed after defeating the Soviet Union and China in the Cold War. Mr. President, the head of the Bipartisan States of America, has ruled the country from afar for 25 years, using bread and circuses to keep the masses happy. The biggest circus is the Transcontinental Road Race, where drivers compete from New York to Los Angeles to score the most points and the fastest time. Scoring comes from killing pedestrians, with women worth ten points more in all categories, children under 12 worth seventy points, and seniors worth one hundred.
Not everyone in the Bipartisan States are happy with the status quo. The Resistance, led by Thomasina Paine, played by Harriet Medin, wants to end the race, and plans on kidnapping the top racer, two-time Transcontinental winner, Frankenstein, played by David Carradine. Frankenstein earned the name after being rebuilt race after race, having parts destroyed or removed through accidents and deliberate actions by other racers.
Four other racers join Frankenstein in the starting line up. Machine Gun Joe Viturbo, played by Sylvester Stallone, is Frankenstein’s main rival and is determined to show who is the better driver in the race. Matilda the Hun, played by Roberta Collins, is a neo-Nazi who has named her car “The Buzzbomb”. Calamity Jane, played by Mary Woronov, takes the Western motif to the hilt, decking her car out with bull horns, perfect for ensuring a kill. Rounding out the line up is Nero the Hero, played by Martin Kove, decked out as a Roman gladiator. Each driver also has a navigator; Frankenstein has Annie, played by Simone Griffeth, and Machine Gun Joe’s moll is Myra, played by Louisa Moritz.
The race starts well, at least for the drivers. The Resistance would prefer to keep things bloodless, but even they start taking matters further. Nero the Hero is taken out in the first stage by the old “Bomb in a Fake Baby” trick, robbing him of not only his car, his navigator, and his life, but also of the seventy points the baby would have been worth. The Resistance tries to take credit for the kill, using a pirate broadcast, but the BSA claims that the French sabotaged the race instead. The Resistance also takes out Matilda the Hun and Calamity Jane. Matilda falls for a Wile E. Coyote-style detour. Calamity is forced off the road by the Resistance and hits a land mine.
During the second stage, the Resistance uses its mole to lure Frankenstein astray so that he could be replaced. Thomasina’s great-granddaughter, Annie, tells Frank about a retreat for old senators that is ripe for points. Frank breaks through the ambush, though. Knowing that Annie is part of the Resistance lets him trust her enough about the trick he has up his sleeve. Frankenstein’s plan is to win the race so that he can meet Mr. President and set off his hand grenade. Frank shares a goal with Annie, the ending of the Transcontinental Road Race; he is the latest Frankenstein, with the others having died instead of being put back together.
The movie is presented as a major sports event, a violent version of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The result is a darkly satirical comedy about the nature of sports and entertainment, where sex and violence are draws. The goal wasn’t to shame the audience, but heighten awareness while still reveling in what the movie rails against. Everything is over the top, taking Ib Melchior’s deadly serious short story and turning it into a satire. The script is kept tight, and what appears to be a continuity error near the end is really a clue that scene is not what it appears.
The 2008 remake, Death Race, approaches the events in a different manner. The movie opens with the background. The US economy has crashed, hard, with jobs scarce and crime levels growing higher and higher. To combat the crime problem, all prisons in the US are now privately owned and may well be the most stable companies around. One prison, Terminal Island Penitentiary, capitalizes on their inmates by broadcasting the “Death Race”, a three-day, three-stage event forcing prisoners to race against each other in cars armed and armoured to the teeth. The race consists of three laps, the first where the weapons are unarmed, the second where pressure plates can be driven over to activate weapons and defenses, and the third for the carnage.
Two racers at the prison have a deadly rivalry. Machine Gun Joe Mason, played by Tyrese Gibson, is set to kill Frankenstein, voiced by David Carradine. The race is close, with Frankenstein in the lead but getting chewed up by Machine Gun Joe’s truck with Frank’s defensive systems not working. Frankenstein wins, more from the force of the explosion his car makes as it crosses the finish line than anything else. Ratings and, more importantly, profits go up. However, the warder, Claire Hennessey, played by Joan Allen, needs a new Frankenstein.
Elsewhere, former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames finishes his last day at a steel mill as it shuts down due to the economy tanking. Jensen gets his meager last pay just before the SWAT team appear to quell a riot that didn’t happen until the SWAT team arrived. The problem with private prisons is that they need a constant influx of prisoners; the SWAT team may have been trying to drum up potenital inmates. Jensen, though, makes it home to his wife Suzy and newborn daughter Piper. However, a masked intruder breaks in, knocks Jensen out, and kills Suzy, framing Ames for the murder. Jensen is sentenced to life imprisonment at Terminal Island.
After a run-in with Aryan Brotherhood member Pachenko, played by Max Ryan, Jensen is called to the Warden’s office. Warden Hennessey has a deal for Jensen – race as Frankenstein and win one more race, and he can go free. Jensen agrees, and is introduced to Frankenstein’s pit crew. The head of the crew, Coach, played by Ian McShane, shows Frankenstein’s car to Jensen, going over the weapons and defenses available.
The day of the first stage arrives. The navigators arrive by prison bus from Terminal Island’s women’s penitentiary. Other than Machine Gun Joe, each driver has a woman as navigator, for the ratings. Machine Gun Joe, though, has a man; speculation is that’s because either he goes through so many navigators that viewers were turned off by the deaths or he’s gay. Once inside his car, Jensen takes off teh Frankenstein mask, revealing himself to Case, played by Natalie Martinez. Case isn’t surprised; Jensen is her third Frankenstein. During the race, three drivers and navigators are killed. Hector “The Grim Reaper” Grimm, played by Robert LaSardo survives a wreck, but while ranting after escaping his vehicle, is run down by Machine Gun Joe. Travis Colt is taken out by Jensen. Frankenstein’s defensive systems once again failed, but Jensen gets creative. He has Case put the napalm on the ejector seat, then fires it out so that the bottle breaks and the liquid inside cover Colt’s car. Case then tosses the cigarette lighter at Colt’s car. Jensen is well ahead and is set to win until Pachenko catches up to him. Jensen recognizes the gesture Pachenko makes as the same one his wife’s killer had made. Distracted, he doesn’t see Machine Gun Joe until too late. Frankenstein finishes sixth, last among the surviving drivers.
Warden Hennessey isn’t impressed by Jensen’s finish. She calls him in and ups the stakes. Hennessey promises that if Jensen loses, his daughter will be adopted out and he will never see her again. Jensen promises that things will get more vicious in the next stage. In the garage, Frankenstein’s put crew checks the oil sprayer and finds that it is working properly. Jensen starts putting the puzzle together and confronts Case. For her part, Case admits she sabotaged the defenses; she was promised her own release papers for preventing Frankenstein from leaving the Death Race.
When the second stage starts, Jensen has his own plans. First, he gets Pachenko to crash, then breaks the Aryan’s neck. He then gets back into his car, determined to win. Hennessey, though, wants a ratings boost. She’s already seeing record numbers of viewers tuning in, but wants to wring the Death Race for every dollar she can. A new vehicle enters the race – the Dreadnought, built on a semi-rig tanker and better armed and armoured than any of the other cars. The Dreadnought scores three kills of its own before Jensen convinces Machine Gun Joe to work with him to stop the truck.
Hennessey, not so happy with the destruction of her truck but pleased with the new paid subscriptions to the Death Race, makes Jensen a new offer – stay as Frankenstein and live a life of comfort. Jensen wants his daughter back, so no deal. When the third stage begins, Jensen and Joe have an escape plan, using a weakened part of the prison’s outer walls. However, Hennessey won’t let Jensen go easily and has a bomb planted under his car. The race goes as Jensen planned. He, Case, and Joe destroy the wall and escape across the only bridge in. Hennessey sends the signal for the bomb to explode, which it then fails to do. Coach had found the explosive, removing and disarming it.
Outside the prison, police try to chase the escapees, but find themselves outgunned and outmatched. Hennessey orders helicopters to pursue Jensen. When his car is finally stopped, it’s Case in the Frankenstein costume. She’s taken back to prison. Hennessey can at least announe that Frankenstein has returned, and opens a celebratory gift sent to her. Coach detonates the bomb, killing Hennessey.
There are some key differences between Death Race 2000 and Death Race. While each film take a look at the nature of sports and television, the changes to both elements necessitate a different approach. In 1975, the concept of pay-per-view didn’t yet exist. Most people watched television via broadcast, not cable. The three-channel universe in the US meant that the choice in what to watch was limited. In 2008, cable reigns, especially for sports. While some major events, like the NFL’s Super Bowl and Major League Baseball’s World Series, are available over national networks free of charge, others, especially for sports with smaller followings, can only be seen on specialized cable stations and even pay-per-view. The more violent sports, like wrestling and mixed martial arts, are pay-per-view only. Violence is movies is far more visceral. Death Race 2000 was almost cartoon-like in its violence while Death Race went for being grittier.
Also gone from the remake was the satirical humour. Much like the Robocop remake, Death Race plays the situation seriously. The remake, though, has several new targets for satire. First is the use of privately owned prisons. A government-run prison doesn’t have to worry about a profit/loss statement at the end of the day; a privately run one has to make a profit, and there’s only so much that a prison can charge to hold a prisoner. Death Race takes the concept of prisoner labour to an extreme, but one that must be on the minds of some CEOs. Would the general public pay to watch prisoners fight in a gladiatorial arena?
The other new target for satire is the new nature of television. Pay-per-view means that after a certain number of subscribers, any more is pure profit. Cut the costs in producing an event, and that minimum needed subscribers drops. Too many cuts, and the audience will be turned off. But if labour costs can be reduced or even removed? Sponsors will be happy to provide equipment at a discount if the producer can show good numbers. Thus, the MOPAR billboard and the Ford vehicles in Death Race.
Budget is another huge difference between the films. Each car in Death Race 2000 was a shell built on top of the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle. Beetles had the two requirements Corman was looking for – they had the engine in the back and could be found cheaply. The Beetle was not an expensive car even when new, and was the most popular import in the US. The latter made finding used ones easy. With Death Race, the two main cars – Frankenstein’s and Joe’s – were current Ford models. Even in a movie decrying bloodsport, manufacturers are willing to take the risk of a bad association if it means free advertising.
Another difference comes from the nature of storytelling on film. In the 70s, slow reveals of the main character’s real purpose isn’t unknown. The audience is assumed to be capable of thinking while watching. Death Race, though, provides all the needed information up front about the main characters. The audience knows right away why Jensen is racing. The audience can sit back and enjoy the spectacle, something that Death Race 2000 satirized.
Death Race also removed the points system. It worked for a cross-country race that encouraged drivers to hit-and-run pedestrians. The remake, though, kept the race in a contained area. Finishing first was the only way to win. Since the hit-and-run was removed, weapons could be mounted on the cars. It wouldn’t be sporting to just shoot an unarmed pedestrian, even one taunting a driver like a bullfighter taunts a bull. But if everyone is armed, then it’s fair game. The defensive systems – oil sprayer, smokescreen generator, and napalm – help cars in front from being sitting ducks. Video game elements like the pressure plates to activate weapon systems fit in with the audience, both the one in-universe and the one watching the movie.
Both movies reflect their time period. In 1975, the US had just gone through Watergate and the Nixon impeachment, showing the cracks in the American system of government. In 2008, the housing bubble had just popped, creating Crash 2.0, leaving people trying to pay for a house that was no longer worth what they had paid for it while struggling to keep a job as corporations cut labour costs to stem the hemorrhaging of money. Each movie’s satire reflects the era, which makes a direct comparison difficult.
That said, Death Race 2000, much like Deadpool, has no problems being silly when it needs to be. Sometimes, a point can be made better when the viewer is laughing. Death Race made the decision to keep things serious, possibly as a nod to the original short story by Melchior. The difference in tone means that people are swearing instead of yelling, “Chrysler!” Staying serious also indicates that the film sees the elements being satirized as grave problem, underlining the nature of the issues.
The two movies take different approaches over most of the same topics. Death Race 2000 is over the top, making it an easier watch even with the nudity and violence. Death Race keeps the violence and uses up-to-date film making techniques to get the audience into the middle of the action. Death Race almost pulls it off, and may have been better off without the original lurking in the audience’s mind.
Technological progress has a way of making older works show their age. In many adaptations, updating the technology to modern ideas of the near future doesn’t harm the work. But what happens when an iconic item becomes outdated?
Case in point, the 1965-70 TV series, Get Smart. Created by Mel Brooks with Buck Henry, Get Smart was a parody of the spy thrillers of the time, including 007 and The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and featured outlandish gadgets that never quite worked properly. The series starred Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99, two agents of CONTROL who fought against the machinations of KAOS, run by Siegfried, played by Bernie Kopell, and his right-hand man, Shtarker, played by King Moody. Max’s boss, the Chief of CONTROL, played by Edward Platt, suffered as Max investigated nefarious schemes, but admitted that CONTROL wouldn’t be half as effective without 86. The opening of the first episode provides a perfect example of how technology changes the intent of a scene. As a stage production is about to start, a phone begins to ring, and Max excuses himself to go to the lobby to answer his shoe. In 1965, this is an unusual situation, something that is absurd. Today, even with warnings and request to turn off all phones, someone in the audience will still take a call.
Get Smart, though, was more than the gadgets. Like many good parodies, like Airplane!, the characters took the situations seriously. That’s part of the humour, the dichotomy between the absurdity of the situation and the seriousness of the characters. With a TV series, the characters also have to be engaging enough for people to keep watching week after week. Max knew his spycraft, even if there were times he stumbled into saving the world or times that 99 came through in the clutch.
As the series progressed, the relationship between Max and 99 grew closer, resulting in a wedding and adding a domestic side to the series. Still, even with the domestic episodes, the series was still a spy spoof, with all the comedic aspects of the core coming through. The in-laws are in town? Great time for KAOS to wreak havoc, just to see how Max and 99 handle both.
There were several attempts at revivals. The first was the theatrical release, The Nude Bomb, with Don Adams returning as Max and 99. Edward Platt’s death in 1974 meant that a new actor, Dana Elcar, had to be brought in as the Chief. The movie took advantage of not being on television and went risque. A second made-for-TV movie, Get Smart, Again reunited Adams and Feldon. A short-lived revival TV series in 1995, also called Get Smart, brought back Adams and Feldon, with Max now the Chief of CONTROL and his son Zack, played by Andy Dick, a field agent. Even Inspector Gadget could be seen as Get Smart aimed at children, with Adams voicing the eponymous character, who was a walking gadget malfunction, who bumbled around while his niece Penny did the hard work.
In 2008, Warner Bros. released Get Smart, a remake/reboot starring Steve Carell as Max, Anne Hathaway as 99, and Alan Arkin as the Chief of CONTROL. Instead of being a period piece, the movie was set in the current era. The movie changed things up, with Max being a very thorough analyst who wants to be a field agent. His briefings run 600+ pages and gets down into what the subjects of investigation like to eat. In a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, his notes on one potential threat is shown on screen; “The Claw” was another villain from the TV series.
Max’s arrival at work takes him through a museum dedicated to espionage, with one section set aside for CONTROL. In the section, several of the old gadgets from the TV series are on display, including the old cone of silence, Max’s car, and the shoe phone. The entrance to CONTROL itself is through a set of doors, much like the opening credits to the TV series, complete with the classic theme song playing. The gags through the doors change, as should be expected, but the sequence does hammer home the idea of being in CONTROL’s headquarters. Max’s briefing is dry but thorough, but that thoroughness prevents him from becoming a field agent; the Chief needs him as an analyst.
KAOS escalates its total war against CONTROL, first bombing CONTROL’s HQ then going after field agents. Max and 99 are the first to respond after the bombing, investigating the ruins of the headquarters to find the perpetrators. Max’s quick thinking and knowledge of the fire suppression systems lets 99 go deeper into the headquarters, but that same quick thinking and knowledge leaves the Chief with a dent in his forehead. Because of the shortage of field agents, Max’s request to become one is approved, with the idea that KAOS won’t know who he is.
The Chief pairs rookie 86 with experience field agent 99 and sends them to Russia to investigate Ladislas Krstic (David S. Lee), the munitions supplier for KAOS. The flight to Russia, though, has Siegfried’s heavy, Dalip, played by Dalip Singh aka the Great Khali. Max and 99 use a hidden escape from the plane, though Max wasn’t able to get his chute on in time. Dalip follows, taking the now spare chute. Agent 99 does what she can to get rid of Dalip and prevent Max from plummeting to his death.
At Krstic’s manor, the pair discover the location of stolen nuclear material and bomb-making facility, a bakery in Moscow. Max and 99 head directly there, sneaking in and looking for the yellow cake uranium. Max finds it plus actual yellow cake at a birthday celebration, and plants explosives. During this, though, Siegfried, played by Terrance Stamp, finds him and takes him prisoner. The two men try to get the details of what each other know, with Max getting details about Siegfried’s plans to bomb the president. Siegfried leaves Shtarker, played by Ken Davitan, in charge to finalized preparations, which gives Max a chance to escape.
The bakery explodes. During the chaos, Max and 99 run into Dalip again. Fighting the KAOS heavy gets nowhere, so Max uses his knowledge from analysing tape after tape to convince Dalip to stop fighting and help them escape. He’s mostly successful, but he and 99 do get away from the exploding bomb factory/bakery and return to Washington to report in. The Chief sends Agent 23, Max’s idol played by Dwayne Johnson, to make sure that the facility is gone. Problem is, Agent 23 reports that there’s no sign of the uranium. All evidence that there’s a cover up points to Max, who is taken into custody. While in his cell, he hears a coded message for him relayed through Ryan Seacrest; the bomb is in Los Angeles.
Max executes an escape from CONTROL’s prison cells. The escape leads through the espionage museum. Max takes the suit, the gun, the shoe phone, and the car. The roaring escape ends not far from the museum as the car runs out of gas. He tries to commandeer a car, driven by Bernie Kopell in a cameo, but that car is rear-ended. Max does find a car and heads to L.A, where he finds the Chief, 99, and 23. Agent 86 works out who the double agent is and reveals his identity. In the process, he prevents the bomb from exploding and ends the KAOS plot to kill the president.
In a Get Smart adaptation, several elements are expected. The gadgets, as mentioned above, are important, not only in being used but not working correctly. The cone of silence received an upgrade but still didn’t work properly. The shoe phone, though, is outdated thanks to cell phones. Yet, the movie managed to work it in, thanks to call forwarding. Even the new gadgets, like Max’s Swiss Army knife, don’t work right.
Casting was also key. Steve Carell played Max much as Don Adams had, straight, allowing the absurdity of what was happening carry the comedy. Anne Hathaway has a more-than-passing resemblance to Barbara Feldon, and there are several scenes where Hathaway is a dead ringer for Feldon. Terrance Stamp took a darker tone to Siegfried, but Ken Davitan’s Shtarker blunted the darkness by being a comedic sidekick and punch-clock villain. Even Fang, Agent K-13, had a counterpart in the remake – a puppy that Max wanted to adopt but only if he became a field agent.
The writers were able to work with the original material well. The original series had a number of catch phrases that would recur, most of them Max’s but some from 99 and even Siegfried. It’d be easy to just have Max spout them; instead, the script worked the catch phrases in organically. Siegfried did get his, “This is KAOS. We don’t ‘ka-fricking-boom’ here,” thanks to Shtarker. Max had, “Missed it by that much,” “Would you believe?” and “Sorry about that Chief,” in situations where it made sense. The last phrase came up after Max hit the Chief with a fire extinguisher. Even 99 got in a, “Oh, Max.” Anyone not familiar with the lines wouldn’t have seen these shoehorned in while fans of the original series could laugh.
Even some of the TV series’ gags were reused. Along with the malfunctioning gadgets, other staples that appeared included Agent 13. In the TV series, the agent, played by Dave Ketchum, would appear in the oddest, tightest locations. Bill Murray played 13 in the film, appearing inside a tree near CONTROL’s safe house near the Washington Memorial, his complaints about his assignment and the problems of being stuck in the tree echoing Ketchum’s 13 and his issues. The movie is also book-ended by scenes of Max arriving and leaving CONTROL, much like the opening and closing credits.
Updating Get Smart meant having to change update the sensibilities of the times. The nature of spy thrillers has changed since 1965, with the tone turning darker as the nature of the business and the tools of the trade became more known to the general audience. Adding to the difficulty, Get Smart was a comedy set at work, where work was a top secret organization dedicated to the security of the US. Overlooking that aspect would have lost part of the nature of the series. The movie, though, kept both the spy spoof and the work-com aspects, with enough scenes showing how dysfunctional CONTROL’s office is and still making fun of bureaucracy at all levels. Inter-agency rivalries were added, with the Chief butting heads with the directors of the other agencies, including the CIA and the Secret Service.
The movie remake of Get Smart had a difficult task in front of it; paying homage to a series and a character that is iconic. The result, though, shows that the challenge was met. Get Smart was a well done adaptation that managed to update the setting without losing the core of the original TV series.
In previous examinations of works adapted to gaming, Lost in Translation focused on just one original work being turned into a game. This time around, multiple original works are being adapted into just one game system, the Cortex and its successor, Cortex Plus.
The ideal works to adapt as tabletop role-playing games provide a larger setting, one where the original provides for a larger setting than what the main characters there experience. This is the case in three previous game adaptations examined, Star Trek, Star Wars, and 007, where players can take on similar roles as the main characters in both franchises. Even the Buffy RPG could delve into both past and future, allowing players to take up the mantle of the Slayer in a different time. At the same time, if players want, they can still take the roles of the existing characters. RPGs need to keep that flexibility and allow for new characters with similar capabilities as existing ones.
The Cortex system debuted in its early form with the Sovereign Stone Game System, which was based on Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Sovereign Stone novels. Since then, the Cortex system was refined and was used as the base for a number of licensed games published by Margaret Weis Productions – Serenity, based on the movie*; Battlestar Galactica, based on the rebooted series; Demon Hunters, based on videos by Dead Gentlemen Productions; and Supernatural, based on the CW TV series. A stand-alone version of the Cortex rules, the Cortex System Role Playing Game, came out in 2008, after Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Demon Hunters had been released.
The works adapted share some common features. Both Serenity and Battlestar Galactica are science fiction set far from Earth and have characters who spend much of their time in spaceships. Demon Hunters and Supernatural both deal with supernatural threats. All four original works have a devoted fan base, one that is likely to play RPGs. At the same time, each of the original works has its own tone. Serenity, the movie, was based around a government cover-up that affected one of the core characters. Battlestar Galactica showed the last of humanity escaping a relentless enemy intent on exterminating every last human. Demon Hunters is a comedy. Supernatural is the story of the Winchester brothers fighting against destiny, Hell, and Heaven.
Fortunately, game mechanics don’t always set the tone. While there are games where the mechanics were written to support the tone of the game, a more generic system can be adapted to the desired result. The Serenity RPG presents the game in terms of the players being the crew of their own small ship trying to make a living while staying true to themselves. Battlestar Galactica focused on survival in an environment that is inherently deadly, with the push to find the lost planet, Earth. Demon Hunters focused on comedy, with additional writing from Dead Gentlemen contributors and bonus orientation DVD. Supernatural placed the focus on the players being a small group of supernatural hunters that banded together. Each release added rules needed for the setting. Serenity and Battlestar Galactica had rules for starships, with Galactica having expanded rules for dogfighting in space. Demon Hunters added rules for creating demons and spending plot points to summon the Purple Ninja. Supernatural also had rules for creating the supernatural and exploiting their weaknesses.
What helped Cortex be flexible enough for the range of adapted works is its simplicity. The core mechanic involves using dice – the full range of regular polyhedrons – for attributes, skills, traits, and complications. Players roll the dice from appropriate attribute, skill, and, if any, trait against a difficulty number set by the GM, modified by dice from the character’s applicable complications, again, if any. Skill lists can be modified by setting; where Pilot would be a given for a Colonial Warrior to have in Battlestar Galactica, a group of hunters in Supernatural might just have the one character who can fly a small plane. Adding setting-specific rules, such as details about the Cylons, builds on top of the existing core rules, allowing for specialization.
Cortex worked well for settings that focused on action. However, not all settings focus on action. Gaming has seen a movement to expand towards a more narrative-driven focus, moving away from the hobby’s wargaming background. The intent is to tell stories, not chop down opponents. While Cortex might not have been able to take advantage, its successor, Cortex Plus, was developed to do just that.
Cortext Plus developed into three streams – Cortex Plus Drama, focusing on the relationships between characters; Cortext Plus Action, looked at what the characters did; and Cortex Plus Heroic, which combined the Drama and the Action. The core die mechanic remained but was heavily modified as needed. The game also added more details for characters, including character distinctions that could help or hinder depending on the circumstance. Traditional hit points fell by the wayside. Instead, characters could suffer from stress or complications imposed on them. If either got too high, the character would be forced out of the scene, either because of injuries, exhaustion, or escaping.
The first Cortex Plus game released was the Smallville Roleplaying Game, licensed from the Smallville TV series. The RPG used the Cortex Plus Drama system, reflecting how what the characters on the show were driven by their relationships with each other. Instead of rolling attribute and skill, players rolled value and relationship, adding in relevant resources and assets, and keeping the best two dice rolled. Players wouldn’t always be rolling against the GM; sometimes, two characters could work at cross purposes, coming into conflict. Character creation was a group effort; relationships between player and non-player characters were set up in the first session. The main drawback with the game was that a large number of players meant that the relationship map grew complex, It also meant that all the players had to show up for the first session, something not all groups can handle. That said, the system reflected the show; the values, replacing attributes, went to what motivated the characters. Clark Kent’s highest rated value, Justice, and lowest, Power, were true to his appearance on the show.
The first Cortex Plus Action game released was based on the TV series, Leverage, which was about a group of five con artists and thieves using their skills to help the average person who is being run over roughshod by the powerful and corrupt. Leverage used the same attributes that were in the Cortex games above, but instead of skills, characters had roles. The roles came directly from the TV series – Mastermind, Grifter, Hitter, Hacker, and Thief. Every character would have a key role, a minor role, and roles that would make things interesting for them. Each attribute and role had a die type assigned, which would be added to the player’s dice pool when it came time to raise the stakes. Characters also had distinction, which could work for or against them in the dice pool. For example, if Parker, the thief of the Leverage crew, needed to break into an office on the 34th floor of an office tower, she could decide to repel down the side of the building from the roof. To do this, Parker’s player would her Strength die, her Thief die, and could add her “Crazy” distinction and her “No – Really Crazy”, giving her four dice, though only the highest two would be added together. Parker’s player could decide that “Crazy” merited the usual d8 for the distinction, but then say that, because she’s going down facing the ground, “No – Really Crazy” would add just a d4 and provide a plot point.
The Leverage RPG added rules to reflect the show’s episode structure, which included flashbacks to show the characters setting up twists to defeat the Mark. The game allows for players to set up their own flashbacks, allowing them to get an advantage when needed. This allows the crew’s thief to place a convenient smartphone in a drawer where the crew’s hacker can grab it later without the players spending two hours of gaming working out all the contingencies before committing their heist. The Leverage RPG works to keep the story flowing; there’s no real need to spend hours on a plan when the players just need to work out a general idea of what they want to do.
The next Cortex Plus game out was also the first to use the Heroic approach. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game featured the characters from Marvel Comics and was the fourth licensed game based on the Marvel Universe. The game pulled in ideas from both Smallville and Leverage, adapted to reflect the needs of the new setting. Instead of Smallville‘s values and Leverage‘s attributes, Marvel Heroic used affiliations, or how well a character worked with others. There were three types of affiliation, each getting a different die type – Solo, for characters like Daredevil and Wolverine, who worked best on their own; Buddy, for characters like Spider-Man who often works with another hero; and Team, for the likes of Captain America and Cyclops, who work most often with a large group, such as the Avengers or the X-Men.
Marvel Heroic also uses the stress system from Smallville, again, modified. Instead of taking six different types of stress, Marvel Heroic characters only have three sources – physical, mental, and emotional. It is possible for Spider-Man to keep up his constant wisecracking to force an opponent to break down and give up, a result that the previous three Marvel-based games didn’t have a mechanic for. Skills were replaced by specialties, though their use is similar. The mechanics remain the same; a player builds a dice pool and takes the best two results and add them together.
The most recent game from Margaret Weis Productions was the Firefly RPG. The license for the Serenity RPG had expired, but the company had worked with Fox to get the license for the TV series*. The Firefly RPG uses Cortex Plus Action, modified from its first incarnation as the Leverage RPG and taking some ideas from Marvel Heroic. Firefly has attributes, but only three; Mental, Physical, and Social. The skill list is shorter than Serenity‘s, but are broader. The game introduced rules for spaceships, since the TV series was set on one. Players could not only create their characters but their own ship, turning the vessel from a stat block into something that the players and their characters could care about. The game also modified the distinctions. Instead of just giving a bonus die for the player’s dice pool, distinction had some extra mechanical bits that helped players distinguish their characters. The rule book also uses scenes from the TV series to illustrate how the mechanics work, giving players a way to follow the action.
With four licensed games using Cortex and another four using Cortex Plus, how did the adapting fare? At its core, Cortex is a simple, flexible system, in the same vein as the Cinematic Unisystem rules used by the Buffy RPG. This allowed the developers to tailor the mechanics to the adapted setting by changing skill lists and adding and removing talents and complications. It is possible for characters from one of the published games to be used in another; it would be odd to see a member of the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch on board the Rising Star, but less so if that same member met the Winchesters.
With Cortex Plus and its different streams, adapting the mechanics to the setting was a design goal. This means that characters from the different games wouldn’t interact as easily – Spider-Man has no relationship ties to anyone from Smallville, for example – but the games reflect the TV series they’re meant to portray. Smallville is a super-powered soap opera while Leverage is a series of heist mini-movies, and their games reflect those realities. The key is to choose the correct Cortex Plus stream to reflect the core of a work. So far, the developers have been able to do just that.
Speaking of the developers, Cam Banks, has licensed Cortex and Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. The end goal is to create a game, Cortex Prime, that takes in all the prior work mentioned above and produce not just the rules but settings that aren’t necessarily licensed works. His studio, Magic Vacuum Design Studio is running a Kickstarter, with stretch goals that will include a number of pre-made settings with the new game.
* The Serenity and Firefly licenses had an inherent problem – different studios held the licensing rights. Fox has the rights for Firefly, but Universal had the rights for Serenity. This split meant that information in one work could not appear in the licensed game of the other. Players, however, aren’t restricted and can pull in characters and ideas from both works, but any work needed to stat up something not covered by the game fell to the GM.
No post today. Lost in Translation will return next week.
After last week’s look at works that adapt characters instead of stories, it’s a good time to examine such a work. Today, Deadpool.
The character Deadpool was created in 1990, with his first appearance in New Mutants #98, written by Rob Liefield and Fabien Nicieza. Deadpool’s main ability is much like Wolverine’s, a heightened healing factor, though with the Merc with the Mouth, it’s offset by cancer. The two characters are linked through the Weapon X project, the one that gave Wolverine his adamantium skeleton and Deadpool his accelerated healing. This combination has seriously unhinged Deadpool to the point where he thinks he’s a comic book character. His appearances are marked by his ability to break the fourth wall and talk to the readers directly. In his video game appearances, he has cheered on the player.
Deadpool’s first cinematic appearance was in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The problem there, though, was that his mouth was sewn shut, so he couldn’t speak. He was also decapitated in the movie, though a post-credit sequence shows him picking up his head and telling the audience to “Shh.” Ryan Reynolds, who plays the Merc with the Mouth, admitted that it was wrong, so was eager to play him again, this time properly. Thus, the Deadpool movie released shortly before Valentine’s Day, 2016..
Deadpool set out to correct the problems with the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Where the character had his mouth sewn shut previously, this time around, he talks non-stop, to the point of providing narration even into the post-credit sequence. The core plot hinges around Wade Wilson, Mr. Pool himself, trying to get the experiment that turned his Ryan Reynolds good looks into something that repulses people reversed. The man responsible, Francis, credited as Ajax*, played by Ed Skrein, provided the a treatment that halted the spread of cancer through Wilson’s body, but didn’t remove it.
However, the core plot isn’t the only part of the story. There’s a romance as well, with Wade getting engaged to Vanessa, played by Morena Baccarin. Vanessa is the reason why Wade went into the Weapon X program – he didn’t want to leave her mourning him. This connection, though, puts Vanessa in danger near the end of the movie.
The movie is a superhero comedy that, instead of taking refuge in audacity, revels in it. Deadpool is also one of the most comic book movies made, alongside Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The film opens with the cinematic version of a two-page splash page. The credits that appear wouldn’t be out of place in one of Marvel’s lighter titles, like What The–?!, credits like “A Moody Teenager” – Negasonic Teenage Warhead played by Brianna Hildebrand, “A CGI Character” – Colossus voiced by Stefan Kapicic, and “A British Villain” – Francis. Deadpool himself narrates the story, stopping the action several times to address the audience directly. Not only does he break the fourth wall, at one point, he does so while breaking the fourth wall during a flashback.
Deadpool is an origins movie, though the character’s background isn’t as well known as Superman’s or Spider-Man’s. The movie retells Deadpool’s background. However, remember that cinematic superhero universes are a thing. The movie isn’t accurate, but given it’s Wade narrating it and he believes he’s a comic book and, for the film, a superhero movie character, variances are allowed. Deadpool is structured much like a comic book. The opening shot, as mentioned above, acts as the two-page splash. Flashbacks fill in details. Narration adds extra information. The opening splash is revisited several times, once in the regular narrative flow, and at least once with a flashback.
The writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, pulled together the information on Deadpool’s origins and focused on his personality. Deadpool is more about the character than getting details of his history correct and presents Wade as the unhinged mutant seen in the comics. Any problems from X-Men Origins: Wolverine were erased, even called out and ridiculed by Wade himself. To emphasize that he believes he’s a character in a movie, Deadpool often comments on the film. A scene at the X-Men’s mansion has him commenting that, “It’s a big house. It’s funny that I only ever see two of you [Colossus and Negasonic]. It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.”
The main potential point of failure was not getting Deadpool translated over to film. The movie managed to take the character concept and bring it from the pages to the silver screen while still keeping the core that made Deadpool popular.
* The name Ajax is used once. Even the DVD subtitles refer to him as Francis.
Most of the works analyzed here at Lost in Translation have been the a partial or full adaptation of the story in an original. While the degree of success may change from work to work, the intent was to take the whole of an original work and move it to another or, in the case of remakes and reboots, the same medium. However, not every adaptation aims for that goal. A small few don’t use the story so much as the main character or characters. The most recent analysis featuring a character being adapted is the 2007 Nancy Drew film.
For the most part, when a work gets adapted, it’s because the adapter wants to bring the story over to the new medium. With movies, the studio wants to bring in the fans, and the safest way is to remake the story in the original work and place it on screen. Tinkering can cause a backlash, especially with the speed of today’s social media. Warner Bros. would have been crucified if they had altered the Harry Potter films in any way from how the novels presented not just the characters but the setting.
With some works, though, chosing an iconic moment to tell is difficult. This becomes especially true for long running series. The tendency for non-comics media versions of superheroes to go off in their own directions has been discussed before; the short version is that the needs of the new medium, either a film with limited time to delve into the intricacies of the character and plots or a TV series with time to fill, will cause the adaptation to veer in a new direction. Even Marvel Studio’s offerings and Fox’s X-Men films, based on story lines in the comics, have their own take.
It’s not just superheroes, though. Supers are noticeable because of their popularity in theatres. Other long running series have been adapted. The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories ran from 1930 until 2003, with 175 titles released in that time. With all the titles available, the 2007 movie still created a new mystery for her; the character is better known than any one of her published books. Even James Bond, with Ian Fleming writing 12 novels and 2 collections of short stories, has been adapted as a character. While the first three Sean Connery movies, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger stayed close to the original novels, though with some changes, later works, including The Man With the Golden Gun and Octopussy, both with Roger Moore, and the entirety of the Pierce Brosnan run, featured new stories about Bond*.
That’s not to say that anytime a character with a series gets an adaptation, the work is automatically a character adaptation. The 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve and 2013’s Man of Steel are both about the same character, but they also both retell the character’s story, just through different interpretations. Likewise, the 2011 remake of The Mechanic told the same story, just with a different approach, an action movie instead of a character piece.
The flip side to the above is that a work doesn’t have to focus on just one character to be a character adaptation. The exemplar here is The Addams Family from 1991. The movie showed the Addamses coping with life among the mundanes. Each character was recognizable, not just in appearance but in action and personality. The movie extrapolated from both the original one-panel comics and the 1964 TV series to explore what they would do outside the comfort of their home.
At what point does an adaptation become more about the character or characters than the original story? The main difference is having a new plot created for the character, as with Nancy Drew, The Addams Family, and the sequels to the Tim Burton Batman film. This approach works well when the character is better known than any of his or her existing stories, which tends to happen with older characters. Pop culture osmosis means that a younger generation will know of the character in general without having experienced the original work first hand, if at all. Nancy Drew is a teenage girl detective who can get herself in and out of trouble. The Addamses, as the song says, “They’re creepy and they’re kooky.” James Bond is a suave British agent with a license to kill.
Another way to tell that a work is a spin-off. Spin-offs are works that are related to an original or even an adaptation, based on a character or situation that was minor in the original but got attention from the audience. The Ma & Pa Kettle series of movies came about after the hard luck characters in The Egg and I became breakout hits despite being supporting characters. The Angel spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed the tortured vampire to LA after leaving Sunnydale. After Cheers ended, Frasier followed the character to Seattle. In each of these cases, the character’s/characters’ story continued. Note that not all spin-offs are popular. There are times when a studio misreads the audience’s desires; this was the case with the Friends spin-off, Joey. Friends was popular, lasting ten seasons. When it wrapped up, fans still wanted more, so NBC spun off the character of Joey. The new show didn’t maintain the ratings the parent show had, and only lasted two seasons.
Like full works, characters can also be adapted. While adapting a character for a new medium is part of the process of adaptation, it is possible for a character to be adapted without the rest of his or her story. The degree of success lies in how well the adapters – whether studio executives, comic artists and writers, or even fanfic authors – understand the character and can portray that understanding to the audience.
* Special mention here for the Timothy Dalton outing, The Living Daylights, which re-told the short story of the same name, then expanded on it. The full 007 series deserves to have its own project as it covers not just simple adaptation, but character adaptation and expansion into a franchise.
Time again to try to fix an adaptation. Previous attempts to figure out what went wrong and how to fix the problems include the Dungeons & Dragons movie, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, and the 1998 American Godzilla movie. This time out, the 2015 Jem and the Holograms film.
The biggest problem the 2015 Jem had was obvious – it wasn’t the cartoon. Not that it wasn’t animated; the movie only shared names with with cartoon, going in its own direction, one that the potential audience wasn’t interested in. The obvious solution is to build a time machine, go back to 1986, and prevent the cartoon from airing. Of course, doing that means there’s no reason to adapt the series as a movie, thus the film is never made, so there’s no reason to go back in time. Depending on the theory of temporal mechanics, this could destroy the universe from paradox; create two timelines, one with the cartoon, the other without; or have some grumpy man in a blue police call box step in grumbling how amateurs shouldn’t mess with the space-time continuum.
Given the complexities of time travel, the obvious solution isn’t workable. Given that the audience was expecting something like the cartoon, what could have been done? Simplest, and doable barring problems with rights, is to just adapt the first five episodes of the series as the movie, with the music and technology updated to reflect what’s possible now. The episodes, “The Beginning”, “Disaster” (aka “Setbacks”), “Kimber’s Rebellion”, “Frame Up”, and “Battle of the Bands”, are one story, each but the last ending with a cliffhanger and set up the premise well. Along with Jerrica/Jem, the Holograms, and the Misfits, there’s a corrupt corporate executive in Eric Raymond as the villain.
“The Beginning” introduces everyone, sets up the relationships, shows the need that the Starlight Foundation has, brings in the love interests, and puts Jerrica in the position of having to fight to keep control of her father’s company. Even Synergy is brought in before the first commercial break, to introduce Jem. The difficulty may lie in the updates. Holographic technology is better understood now, but miniaturization will still let Synergy use Jem’s earrings as projectors. The fashions are dated, but with the likes of Lady Gaga performing today, outrageous outfits shouldn’t be a problem. The music needs a careful hand; Jem and the Holograms should have a different sound from the Misfits. In the cartoon, the Misfits had a harsher tone in their music, with Jem being softer for the most part, as the song “Click/Clash” demonstrates. Given that the sequel hook had Kesha as Pizzazz, the difference between the two bands would happen.
The last of the first five, “Battle of the Bands”, provides a natural climax, as Jem and the Holograms face off against the Misfits in a battle of the bands that will determine who owns Starlight Music and will live in Starlight Mansion, with the added threat of the life of one of the Starlight Girls in the balance, thanks to Eric. A race against time for the final act should pump up the audience, with the added benefit that the Holograms succeed thanks to Jerrica’s thinking and actions.
Casting the above is easy – keep the same cast, just let the actors playing Jem and the Holograms get a little older. They had chemistry with each other and deserve a proper shot. Ke$ha as Pizzazz had promise, and Juliette Lewis as Erica Raymond nice flipped the villain’s gender without losing any of the sliminess of the corrupt exec.
That isn’t to say that the 2015 Jem movie is bad. Unlike the other movies featured in the Adaptation Fix-it Shop, Jem‘s biggest sin was not being what people wanted. The movie did get a number of items correct. The writers understood that while the Misfits were rivals, Eric Raymond was the villain. He used the Misfits for his own ends. The movie also remembered Eric’s thug, Zipper, who played a supporting role in the first five episodes of the cartoon. The fan videos that appeared deserves a look just for how the creative crew managed to fit them in. The Jem movie deserved better than a two-week run in theatres. It may have been better served by airing on a family programming channel instead, where the expectations of the audience who will be paying for the fare would be low to non-existent. As it stands, the movie made only half its $5 million budget, a rounding error for Universal in a year that included Jurassic World.
The 2015 Jem and the Holograms wasn’t a bad movie. It was just not what people wanted, and fixing that happens not on screen, but in marketing. Sometimes, misreading the audience leads to missteps.
A while back, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2015 Jem and the Holograms film. Today, let’s look at the cartoon that people were expecting to be the base of that film.
As mentioned in the movie review, the Eighties saw rules and regulations over children’s programming relaxed, allowing toy manufacturers to create animated series that were effectively ads for the toys. Hasbro saw success with both Transformers and G.I. Joe, thanks to the collaboration with Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions. With the boys’ line of toys comfortable, Hasbro turned to its girls line.
The fashion doll industry is dominated by one company, Mattel. Mattel’s Barbie line dominates the doll aisles at stores. Hasbro decided to try to get a piece of the action by introducing its own line of fashion dolls, Jem and the Holograms. The initial line in 1986 featured Jerrica Benton, her rock star alter ego Jem, her younger sister Kimber, and foster sisters Aja and Shana, all of whom made up the band. A rival band, the Misfits, also received dolls – Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer. To round out the line, Jerrica/Jem had a boyfriend doll, Rio. The dolls and fashions were inspired by the music videos of the time, with wild coloured hair and pastel tones. The initial dolls came with music cassettes with two songs each from the Holograms and the Misfits.
The doll line lasted two years before Hasbro discontinued it due to lack of sales. Mattel’s introduction of the Barbie and the Rockers line the same year Jem and the Holograms debuted didn’t help matters. However, by the time the Jem line wrapped up, twenty-four dolls were released, including two releases each of the Holograms, the Misfits, and Rio and three sets of Jem and Jerrica.
To help with sales, Hasbro went with the Marvel/Sunbow team up that had success with G.I. Joe and Transformers. Christy Marx, who had written scripts for both prior cartoons. became the story editor for the new series, Jem and the Holograms. The series revolves around Jerrica Benton, Starlight Music, and the foster home, Starlight Girls. Jerrica starts the series as co-owner of Starlight Music, her late father’s company, along with Eric Raymond. Eric, though, sees Starlight as a means to an end, getting rich, and is using the company to line his pockets. To this end, he backs the Misfits, a punk band made up of Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer. Jerrica discovers Eric’s duplicity and tries to find a way to take full control of Starlight Music. The answer is a contest highlighting new bands.
Jerrica, though, doesn’t have one immediately available. She discovers, though, that her father had been working on a secret project and tracks it down to an abandoned drive-in theatre. Inside, her father’s computer, Synergy, reveals itself and its advanced holographic capabilities to Jerrica, allowing her to become Jem. Her sisters Kimber, Shana, and Aja, join Jerrica and become the Holograms. The contest boils down to one between Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits.
Pizzazz wants to win. She’s in music for the fame and has no scruples in how she gets it. She’s perfect for Eric’s purposes, sabotaging Jem’s public appearances. However, the key element is performance, and Jem and the Holograms edge out the Misfits, letting Jerrica get the money to fully own Starlight Music and fund the Starlight Girls. Thus ending the first five episodes of the series. Eric is arrested and the Misfits are looking for a new label as a result.
The series continues in a similar vein. Eric gets out thanks to being able to afford the best lawyers money can buy. The Misfits become rivals to Jem and the Holograms, trying to sabotage the latter group’s efforts any time they can. Eric continues to try to retake Starlight Music, using evvery avenue of attack he can, at least until he starts up Misfits Music with the Misfits. Meanwhile, Jerrica’s relationship with her boyfriend Rio Pacheco becomes complicated thanks to Jem. As much as Jerrica wants to tell him the truth,. Synergy insists that her technologies remain secret. The lives of the Holograms are no less complex. Kimber has her own love triangle develop between a British singer and an American stuntman, while she tries to live in the dual shadow of her sister and her alter ego.
In the third season, a new band appears. The Stingers, comprised of lead singer Riot and musicians Rapture and Minx become a rival to both Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits. Working with Eric, the Stingers take over Mistfits Music and rename it Stinger Sound. The third season ran shorter than the first two, in part because the Hasbro had discontinued the toy line. No toys, no need to advertise. However, the cartoon was a ratings success.
Each episode featured two or three songs, either as a montage related to the scene it appears in or as a more traditional 80s music video. The Misfits appear in most of the episodes, one key exception being the anti-drug “Alone Again“. Some of the draw for the series was the music; the show revolved around two bands, after all. Each band had a distinctive sound, with the Misfits having a harsher tone than Jem and the Holograms.
Ultimately, while the series was popular, that popularity didn’t translate into sales. The sheer size of the line of dolls, which included three of the Starlight Girls, Synergy, and two friends of Jem, Danse and Video, may have spread what sales there were. Availability was an issue in some areas, where the cartoon aired but the dolls weren’t in stores. Mattel’s Barbie and the Rockers may have also eaten into the sales, having a known name despite the lack of cartoon. From this view, Jem and the Holograms failed on what it was supposed to do, sell dolls. However, a cartoon that still draws in viewers over twenty-five years later, that is truly outrageous.
Lost in Translation has analyzed the two American-made Godzilla movies, both the 1998 version and the 2014. The history of Godzilla and Gojira are expanded in those, but the short version is that title kaiju began as a message about the horrors of the atomic age, espeically the atomic bomb. As the franchise progressed, Godzilla became the defender of the Earth, though not necessarily of humanity has he rampages through Tokyo leaving massive collateral damage in his wake. The 2014 Hollywood version changed the message, from the dangers of the atomic era to the dangers of climate change.
However, the 1998 and 2014 versions were not the first American adaptations. Prior to them, the animation studio Hanna-Barbera licensed the character in 1978 from Toho to create the Godzilla cartoon. What better way to entertain young children on a Saturday morning than watching a giant monster rampaging through the cities of the world? Considering that local stations, particularly in the UHF band, had more control over their time slots than today and had more hours to fill with local programming, both weekend afternoons and late-night and overnight hours, the very same young children watching the Godzilla cartoon would be able to watch an older Godzilla movie later the same weekend.
The series followed the crew of the Calico, a research vessel travelling the world’s oceans. While Captain Carl Majors was in charge of the ship, Dr. Quinn Darien was the head of the unspecified research project. Quinn had two members of her team, Brock, her research assistant, and Pete Darien, her nephew. Rounding out the team is Godzooky, Godzilla’s young nephew. When the crew of the Calico is in a tight spot, they summon Godzilla himself.
A typical episode would have the Calico in a location by the ocean making a new discovery, usually related to the giant monster of the week. The crew investigates, with Pete and Godzooky often told to remain behind because of the danger. If they were told, eventually they disobey and follow. The giant monster is found and Godzilla is summoned. The first fight between titans is a draw as the newcomer’s abilities either force Godzilla to back down or allows it to run away. The team tracks the giant monster and summons Godzilla one more time for the final fight. The draw of the show, though, is the battle between giant monsters, and the cartoon does deliver.
While the crew of the Calico was created for the cartoon, Godzooky is based on an existing character in the Godzilla mythos – Minilla. First appearing in Son of Godzilla, Minilla, known as Minya in some dubs, is the son of Godzilla. Both Minilla and Godzooky share some traits, including blowing smoke rings instead of fire and being young giant monsters. Godzooky was in the cartoon to appeal to the kids; he is very much a lovable pet who gets into trouble but is too cute to be angry with for too long. He is also very much child-like in that he wants to help even if he isn’t able to be effective.
The animation of the rest of the cast is along the lines of Hanna-Barbera’s own Jonny Quest. Techniques developed with the various Scooby-Doo series can be seen, particularly as the crew runs as a group. Godzilla is very much in line with his cinematic appearances. However, one of the draws of the movies, the casual destruction of cities as Godzilla stomps through, was reduced or completely removed, thanks to Broadcast Standards and Practices.. BS&P had strict guidelines on what could and could not be shown, and things like breathing fire on people and crushing buildings and cars underfoot were against the guidelines. As a result, Godzilla tended to use laser beams from his eyes more this is atomic breath, which was turned into a flame breath.
While Toho licensed the character, they didn’t license Godzilla’s roar. The studio worked around that limitation by hiring Ted Cassidy, best known as Lurch on The Addams Family and Ruk on the Star Trek episode, “What Little Girls Are Made Of”, to give voice to Godzilla. Cassidy’s work, combined with the animation of the title character, gave weight to the monster, keeping the fierceness associated with Godzilla.
Given that the cartoon was meant for a younger Saturday morning audience, Hanna-Barbera succeeded in what they set out to do. Godzilla lasted two season, and ran until 1981 on NBC. While not the best adaptation it could have been, the studio’s limitations, imposed from within by format and target audience and from outside by Broadcast Standards and Practices, meant that the production was going to hit diminishing returns. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but the Godzilla cartoon did remember the key elements to the kaiju‘s fame.