Last week’s Lost in Translation featured a discussion about fan adaptations, including a rationale on what works would get analyzed. This week, a look at a Star Trek fan audio productions.
Radio serials were the forerunner of today’s TV series. Families would gather around the radio and tune in favourite series. In the Thirties, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had his own, live, show that had a large audience. Orson Welles had Mercury Theatre on the Air, the production that scared the US with War of the Worlds. The key is to engage the audience’s imagination. Unlike theatre before, movies concurrent with radio, and television afterwards, radio relies on just one sense, hearing. The cast and crew have to create an immersive setting while just using audio. Sound effects become key. The more real the situation sounds, the more the audience buys in. Creative use of sound can also create the mood desired. Welles’ War of the Worlds has a memorable scene where one plaintive voice calls out over radio, “Is there anyone out there?” over and over while the background sounds fade out one by one as the Martian advance, leaving the audience in horror of what’s happening even if they don’t realize why*.
Even with television ubiquitous these days, radio plays still abound. National Public Radio (NPR) adapted the original Star Wars trilogy into radio serials shortly after each movie was released. BBC Radio 4 still airs radio dramas on Saturdays. With the proliferation of portable devices capable of playing .mp3 files, from dedicated .mp3 players to cell phones to tablets, audio plays join music and audio books as something to listen to when the eyes are busy elsewhere.
Fan works, however, exist at the forbearance of the person or company owning the original material. Fan fiction tends to get overlooked; unless the fanfic is notorious, a blind eye is usually turned. There is also no barrier to entry when it comes to fan fiction; all that is needed is a means to write, available with all computers or even pen and paper. Some rights holders encourage fan fiction, with limitations, because of the creativity the endeavor encourages. With original visual works, like TV series and movies, the closer a fan work is to matching, the closer the work gets to being an infringement. Full video also has expenses; while the cost of professional-quality recording and editing equipment has dropped, creating sets and costumes still have material costs. If the fan production charged a fee for viewing, the work becomes a copyright and trademark infringement and corporate attack lawyers will have cease-and-desist orders issued before the first payment can be processed. There are ways around, including donation in kind, where a fan can help by providing equipment, costumes, or props that are needed.
Audio works don’t have the range of expenses a video would. Where a video would need props, sets**, and costumes, audio just needs the sound effects of those elements. The actors don’t even need to be in the same city or even continent, thanks to the Internet and cloud storage. Each actor just needs a good microphone and a way to record, which even the Windows operating system had since version 3.1. The audio production, though, needs to use sound to build the sets, so details that get taken for granted by audiences, such as subtle creaks in an old castle or the rumble of a starship’s main drive through the hull, have to be added to help the listener create the image in his or her mind. One wrong detail, even if it’s just getting a sequence of beeps on a starship’s viewscreen out of order, can break the suspension of disbelief and lose listeners.
Strength of writing is also important. Getting the audio details correct does go towards satisfying an audience, but if characters aren’t acting as expected or the plot is dull, listeners won’t tune in. Some original works, including Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, and Harry Potter, have settings broad enough that new stories can be created in them without ever interacting with the original characters. In the case of Star Trek, a fan work could focus on the crew of a different starship, exploring different sectors at any point in the history of the setting. The precedent already exists with Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. With Harry Potter, the novels already show a glimpse of a larger wizarding world; setting an audio series at a different wizard school isn’t farfetched. There’s room to play, and that sort of room allows for creative interpretations. Let’s take a look at a fan-made Star Trek audio series.
Starship Excelsior began its first season in 2007. Set on board the Sovereign-class starship, the USS Excelsior, hull code NCC-2000C, the series is in its fourth season. The main plot of the first three seasons picks up to dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation and ties them together as the crew of the Excelsior investigates an anomaly that leads into dark revelations that threaten the survival of not just the Federation, but the entire galaxy. The fourth season starts a new arc as the Excelsior begins an exploration mission, with a mixture of lighter and darker episodes, though some still harken back to the earlier episodes.
The cast of characters consists of the Starfleet officers assigned to the Excelsior. The ship’s captain, Alcar Dovan, received the command after the previous commander, Rachel Cortez, died in action. Dovin joined Starfleet to explore, not to engage in military action, but he has excelled at surviving in battles, something he has grown to hate. His first officer, Alecz Lorhrok, is an unjoined Trill, chosen to be the exec by Dovan. The by-the-book operations manager, Neeva, is an Orion, dealing with the difficulties of being one of the few of her people in Starfleet. The chief of security, Asuka Yubari, was severely wounded in the special forces, moved to intelligence, then was assigned to the Excelsior. The helmsman, Bev Rol, also served in intelligence, where he lost his idealism. The ship’s surgeon, Doctor Melissa Sharp, wanted to be a researcher, away from patients, but found her career stalled as a result of her beliefs before signing up on the Excelsior. The characters all have their own motivations, from Dr. Sharp’s opposition to military engagements to Rol’s atonement for past misdeeds. They clash, they argue, they laugh, they are fully formed, brought to life by actors who could easily get into professional voice work if they so choose.
The writing of the series is tight and takes into account Trek canon. As mentioned about, the major plot of the first three seasons centred around two dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation, one involving the Borg. The first three seasons are also one continuous story, as opposed to being episodic. Missing an episode means missing plot and character developments. The fourth season has more single-story episodes, but still has an arc to it. Listeners can easily get attached to the characters and worry about their survival and success. There are times when the writers’ fannish tendencies*** show up; Dovan’s exclamations owe a lot to Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, with a nod to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld with a colour that Bolian vision can see that humans can’t.
The audio sets are also built well. The sounds that are expected from a Starfleet vessel are all there, from the rumbling of the engines to the beeps of consoles and PADDs to the alarm klaxons. Even if someone was just tuning into the middle of an episode, the effects would be enough to tell them where the story was set. The result is a series that is very much Star Trek, though in the darker realms of the franchise.
Of special note, Starship Excelsior ran a Kickstarter campaign to create an episode for the fiftieth anniversary of /Star Trek/’s first airing. The campaign was more than successful, letting them rent a proper recording studio and fly their audio engineer in from Toronto. More than that, the success allowed the series get Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Robin Curtis (Saavik, The Search for Spock), Joanne Linville (the Romulan Commander in “The Enterprise Incident”), and Jack Donner (Subcommander Tal, “The Enterprise Incident”) to reprise their original characters in a new story that still ties into the Starship Excelsior storyline. “Tomorrow’s Excelsior” is a one hour, forty minute story where Uhura and Chekov must save Starfleet, the Federation, the galaxy, and the future while avoiding war with the Romulans, with a solution that fits well with their characters. The series took care in emphasizing in the Kickstarter campaign that all money raised would be put into the production of the episode, with the main costs being getting the actors they wanted. The episode is available for free from Starship Excelsior‘s website.
* Creative use of sound continues even today. Alien, a science fiction horror movie, removed background music, leaving the audience no cues on what was about to happen.
** Even with green screening and CGI available, some physical elements are still needed, if only to give the actors something to play off.
*** To be fair, even professional works will have this sort of thing. The Serenity from Firefly had a cameo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, appearing overhead on Caprica.
With two exceptions, Lost in Translation has looked at professionally done work. The first exception, The Four Players, was to show just how far off Super Mario Bros. was from the mark. The second, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, demonstrated an eye to detail needed to maintain a parody of not one but two science fiction series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. The reason for analysing the professional work is two-fold. The main reason is that hte professional work is more available to a general audience. Movies get released to the silver screen, then is made available on DVD/Blu-Ray, digital streaming, video on demand, and other methods. TV series get rerun via syndication and released much like movies.
The other reason is that fan work is variable. Quality runs the gamut from rookies learning how to write and use the equipment to professional-level capabilities that may make the professional work look inadequate. Sometimes, the fan work can lead to getting a paid position; a number of fan droid designers, inspired by R2-D2 in Star Wars were hired to develop build robots for The Force Awakens. At the other end, fanfiction has a reputation for being barely comprehensible, whatever the truth of the matter is.
For the most part, the fans are creating because of a love of the original work. Each fan brings in a different interpretation of the original, seeing different elements despite the shared experiences. Sometimes the interpretation is brilliant, a new look at the original. Other times, the interpretation comes out of left field and has almost no connection to the original at all. it is easy to spot when something is mean-spirited; there’s almost no eye to detail, just characters wearing the names and acting so far out of character, it’s easier to find points that are related to the original work because they just stand out.
As mentioned, Lost in Translation has reviewed two fan adaptations. However, the goal with fan production is to show either how well the adaptation works or to show how far a professional adaptation missed the mark. There is little to gain by picking apart a lacking fan adaptation; there are too many issues and it’s just not fair to a potential budding fan to rip apart a work. Few fans are deliberately trying to make a bad interpretation; lack of experience is a leading cause. Thus, Lost in Translation will point out and analyze the fan adaptations that are a good reflection of original works. It is a bias, but good adaptations do not necessarily mean for pay. Professional quality can come from all quarters.
Going back a bit, I mentioned that there are works where the audience remembers not the original but a later version, whether it is an adaptation or a sequel. Among the works analyzed here at Lost in Translation, Frankenstein, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Superman: The Movie are perfect examples of the phenomenon. Adding to this short list, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is the best known despite being a sequel to 1979’s Mad Max. The first movie in the series, Mad Max, was a little-known film from Australia starring a then-unknown Mel Gibson. The Road Warrior, released in 1981, had a bigger impact on film audiences. While both movies featured the same actor as the same character in the same setting, The Road Warrior took the action into the post-apocalyptic wastes.
Mad Max, the original movie, showed Max, a Main Force Patrolman, similar to a highway patrol officer, takes on a gang. The apocalypse hasn’t yet happened, but the signs of it coming were there. The second movie was as pure an action movie as could be made, with just enough dialogue to establish the situation, told as a story by the young feral boy that rode with Max. A settlement that grew around a gasoline refinery is under threat from Lord Humungus and needs someone to help them transport their gas and the survivors away before the assault begins. Max finds the settlement and is pressured into helping. The plan is to send out a semi rig with a tank trailer to run past Humungus’ gauntlet. Once the rig leaves the settlement, the chase is on, not letting up until the end of the film.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, released in 1985, uses the same narrative frame as The Road Warrior, a young survivor of the events telling the tale as an adult. Once again, Max is pulled into a situation beyond his control and his humanity has to reassert itself to help the child survivors of an airplane crash. Beyond Thunderdome featured Tina Turner as Aunty Entity, co-ruler of Bartertown with designs on becoming the sole ruler, and had hits for her with the movie’s theme song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” and “One of the Living“.
The Road Warrior breaks past the cult classic barrier to be known, by reputation and mood if nothing else, by general audiences. The Reboot episode “Bad Bob” featured a Mad Max-style game, having the cartoon’s cast reboot into characters right out of the movie. The Road Warrior has become shorthand whenever anyone needs to refer to a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with war bands fighting over scraps while the average person is trapped between a rock and a hard place. Pop culture osmosis may have built up the movie into something bigger than it was originally, leading to a thirty-year gap before the next entry in the Mad Max franchise.
In 2015, Mad Max Fury Road was released. Once again, Max, now played by Tom Hardy, gets swept into events. He’s first taken captive by Immortan Joe’s War Boys to be used as a blood bag for a sick warrior named Nux. When Immortan Joe’s top Imperator, Furiosa, goes rogue on a trip to Gastown, he realizes the she has taken his five “brides” and sends his War Boys to stop her. Max is strapped on the front of Nux’s car, still connected to him to provide blood. The chase begins, letting up enough to give the audience a chance to catch its collective breath. Max slowly regains his humanity again and helps Furiosa and the “brides” escape from Immortan Joe to find Green Place. Immortan Joe calls in two other warbands, led by the Bullet Farmer and by the People Eater. There was more dialogue than in The Road Warrior, but the focus is on the action.
Fury Road keeps to several themes found in The Road Warrior, including survival, the fight against would-be tyrants, the need for family, and the dangers of ecological collapse. The new film also adds the empowerment of women, with Furiosa an equal to Max throughout the film and the catalyst for the action. Visually, Fury Road is lush, with the desert wastes beautiful and oppressive, as much a character as the cast. The stunts start with what shown in The Road Warrior and amp up from there. The Doof Warrior, played by iOTA, and the Doof Wagon bring in music for the action, being Immortan Joe’s flamethrowing guitarist and taiko drummers on a vehicle that’s essentially a high-speed mobile stage.
Helping to keep the feel is the core crew. George Miller has been involved with the franchise from /Mad Max/, meaning Fury Road is more of a sequel. Yet, because of the thirty-year gap and the change of actor as the eponymous character, the movie also works as a reboot. Elements from The Road Warrior, which did set the tone for the franchise, appear. At the same time, Fury Road is its own movie. Yet, it keeps the themes, tone, and general feel. Max is lost, physically and metaphorically, and needs to rediscover what it means to be human. Fury Road is a perfect entry to the series, demonstrating everything that made The Road Warrior popular while detailing the setting. The movie is a note-perfect reboot.
Apologies, but no post today. I have been debating on doing fan-made adaptations, so expect a column about that in the coming month. I’ll also remind everyone that Lost in Translation now has a Facebook page.
The Sixties were a time of upheaval of the status quo against the backdrop of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Television was starting to come into its own as a medium, especially with colour technology becoming affordable. 007 made the jump from the books to the silver screen and audiences wanted more. To help fill the demand, MGM worked with Ian Fleming to develop a TV series along the lines of the Bond movies, resulting in 1964’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Fleming’s participation ended when a connection between the TV series and Goldfinger was discovered; Napoleon Solo was named after a character in Fleming’s novel, a gunsel that got on the wrong side of Bond.
Fleming’s touch remained. U.N.C.L.E, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, is a multinational agency keeping the peace by working behind the scenes. Alexander Waverly heads up the agency from its hidden base in New York City. His top agents include suave American Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn, and dour Russian Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. The original plan was to have Vaughn be The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – it’s even in the name, Solo – but McCallum’s Illya worked well with Solo that they became a team in the series. Solo would be the more visible of the two, taking a Bond-like approach to investigation, while Kuryakin took advantage of the distraction. UNCLE had an opposite number, THRUSH, an agency bent on world domination. Like UNCLE, THRUSH also recruited from around the world. The difference between the two agencies is simple, their goals. With competing goals, UNCLE and THRUSH clash often, with Solo and Kuryakin responsible for shutting down several seasons worth of plots.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had several advantages while filming. MGM wanted to get its money worth out of its sets, so the studio allowed the series to reuse existing sets from other movies. To add to the unusual for television look that the series had, action scenes had a personal touch as a camera man jumped into the middle, long before handheld cameras were available. Ensuring that the series felt world-spanning, guest stars weren’t limited to just Hollywood. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became a weekly cinematic spy thriller, with a memorable theme tune by Jerry Goldsmith. Rounding out the globetrotting spy series, the titles were always an Affair; the first episode was called “The Vulcan Affair”, setting the tone for the rest of the run.
In 2015, Warner Bros. released Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The fifty years between the original and the remake saw a number of changes in the world, including the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. The nature of terrorism changed; instead of trying to get a message out even just fundraising, today’s terrorists are driven by ideology to the point where fear is the only end to the means. The likes of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army have given way to Daesh. At the same time, a black and white approach to fiction has been replaced with nuance and shades of grey; no one expects heroes to be shiny anymore. Updating The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would mean losing much of what made the series work in the Sixties.
To Ritchie’s credit, he realized that and made the movie as a period piece, set in 1963. He makes use of cinematic techniques of the era, including split screen montages, to cement the mood. The opening credits cover history between the end of World War II and the beginning of the action in 1963, including the Cold War between the US and the USSR, the nuclear escalation between the two nations, the splitting of Germany between East and West, and the building of the Berlin Wall. The plot starts with Solo, now played by Henry Cavill, crossing the border between West and East Berlin, entering the Soviet sector. His goal, extract Gabby, played by Alicia Vikander, a mechanic whose biological father is a top nuclear researcher. However, the KGB has sent someone to prevent Gabby’s extraction, Illya Kurakin, played by Armie Hammer. The extraction is difficult; Illya is as good an agent as Solo, and is only lost while crossing over no-man’s land between the two Berlins.
Gabby’s father turns out to be a bigger problem than expected. He’s disappeared, and both the CIA and the KGB want him found. Both agencies bring their top agents together. Kuryakin and Solo recognize each other and are ordered to put aside their differences to work together and Gabby. The trail goes to Rome, Italy, where Gabby’s uncle and his wife have a shipping company. Both CIA and KGB expect that Victoria, the wife, played by Elizabeth Debicki, is the force behind the operation involving a nuclear missile. However, Gabby is already working for someone, a Mr. Waverly, played by High Grant, who is several steps ahead of both Solo and Kuryakin.
Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more of an origins movie, though one that keeps the action going. Many of the bits that made up the TV series didn’t appear, but since neither Solo nor Kuryakin were UNCLE agents, they couldn’t get to UNCLE HQ through Del Florio’s, nor could they use either the pen radios* nor the modified Walther P-38s** that appeared in the TV series. Another missing element, though the people Victoria was working with were never mentioned, is THRUSH. The movie also introduced backstories for both Solo and Kuryakin, something that never came up in the TV series.
That said, the movie did keep to the feel of the TV series. While Hammer as Kuryakin worked for the Illya of the movie, Cavill’s Solo came from Vaughn’s portrayal. The film avoided a gritty look while still keeping the approach of the TV series, a mix of serious and lightness. Given the trend to make grim-and-gritty versions of older series, avoiding the temptation to do that with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a good move. Solo and Kuryakin aren’t grim killers, nor do they traipse around, usually, and their portrayals in the movie reflected the teamwork seen in the original.
For those who have seen the original series, some of the twists, particularly involving Waverly, could be seen coming. Given that the last episode was first run in 1968, it has been almost fifty years since a new episode*** and even a syndicated run is now limited to specialty channels. The movie reintroduces the characters and the setting for new audiences, bringing them into the world of the 1963 UNCLE. By the end of the movie, UNCLE is a new agency, with Waverly bringing in top agents from around the world, leaving room for further affairs. The movie brings back the core of the original TV series with few missteps.
* The TV series began with a cigarette case radio, but changed to the pen radio after concerns about children wanting a toy based on the prop.
** Known as the P-38 UNCLE, the pistol used by UNCLE agents had an attachable stock, barrel extension, silencer, and telescopic sight, and was never available commercially.
*** Barring the reunion TV movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair in 1983.
Lost in Translation has looked at the difficulties inherent in adapting a television series to a movie before. However, challenges exist to be met. Let’s take a look at one of the challenges, expanding the audience to pull in more than just the core fandom.
Movies are expensive to make, with the 2015 Jem and the Holograms being an outlier at only US$5 million to make and today’s blockbusters regularly exceeding US$200 million. An adaptation cannot afford to turn away potential audiences, but word of mouth by fans can also break a movie. This is one reason why superhero movies start at the origin; while fans are well aware of how a character got his or her abilities, the average person might not.
Television deals with the problem of getting new viewers up to speed every week. Continuity lockout harms a TV series, preventing new audiences from jumping into the show. Streaming can help, with older episodes available on the network’s website, but that’s a recent technology. In the past, streaming and even video tapes weren’t available to the general audience. Television worked around that, with characters painted with broad strokes and creative use of opening credits. With the broad strokes, characters can be described using short phrases, such as the angry guy, the jokester sidekick, and the long-suffering spouse, all of which is easy to portray in a two-minute clip.
Opening credits, though, can set up the situation faster. While not in use as much today, the expository opening theme outright states what’s going on. Classic examples of such opening credits include Gilligan’s Island, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Powerpuff Girls. Handy, efficient, and not used much in film since the Sixties* as technology progressed enough to overlay titles on action sequences, allowing the film to get to the plot right away.
At the same time, if opening credits aren’t going to be used, how can a film get a new audience up to speed without having fans yawn at old information? Time is limited in a film; few people will sit through a five hour movie. For this analysis, let’s take a look at Mystery Science Theatre 3000. MST3K had a ten year run with three different broadcasters, starting at KTMA in Minneapolis, then moving to Comedy Central and ending at the SciFi/SyFy Channel. During its run, the show used an expository theme song to let audiences know what its premise was. The opening theme was flexible enough to account for a cast change, going from Joel to Mike and even adjusting for a network required ongoing plot. The short version – evil mad scientist inflicts terrible movies on a victim trapped on an orbiting station; the victim builds friends out of spare parts to help make fun of the terrible movies.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie, released in 1996 and riffing on This Island Earth, didn’t make use of the opening theme the TV series had. Instead, the movie opened in Deep 13 with Dr. Clayton Forrester, played by Trace Beaulieu outright telling the audience what will happen. Normally, the adage is “Show, don’t tell,” but this time, the telling was just part of the equation. It’s what is going on while Dr. F is telling the audience what to expect that shows what the movie will be about. As Dr. F monologues, he’s walking through his lab, showing that he’s not all that effective at being an evil mad scientist. Up on the movie-budget upgraded Satelite of Love, Mike Nelson, played by Michael J. Nelson, is in the middle of a 2001: A Space Odyssey parody, running on a giant hamster wheel with Gypsy(Jim Mallon) and Cambot observing when Tom Servo(Kevin Murphy) arrives to warn him about the latest nutty thing Crow T. Robot(Trace Beaulieu). Crow, who has seen one too many World War II prison camp movies, has decided the best way to escape the SOL is to tunnel out. In these two scenes alone, the situation is introduced, the characters are shown for they are, and the movie has started. It took a little longer than the TV series’ opening credits, but here, the audience is brought into the movie, ready to put aside any suspension of disbelief and establishing the film as a comedy.
Given the nature of the series, MST3K has some extra challenges most TV shows don’t have. Most shows use commercial breaks to generate revenue and drop in a minor cliffhanger. When adapted, the show changes to match the format of the big screen, keeping the plot moving through the beat structure of film. MST3K, though, used commercial breaks in part to have the characters react via skit to what they saw and in part to give the audience a respite from the featured movie**. A feature film, though, doesn’t have real commercial breaks; audiences would riot. MST3K: The Movie had to use other means to get to the skits, including a broken film and Mike and the bots just walking out of the theatre to find Servo’s interociter. The result was the same, a break from the film to let the characters react to what they saw and a break for the movie audience from This Island Earth, a slow-paced film that had far too much telling and too little showing, with the alleged main character just along for the ride.
Of course, the movie wasn’t only for new audiences. Long-time viewers could find in-jokes throughout the film, including the use of “Torgo’s Theme” from Manos, The Hands of Fate as Mike uses the external graspers. The movie didn’t rely as much on callbacks as the TV show did, making it a good introduction to new viewers. Any callbacks in the movie, such as “Torgo’s Theme” can give a veteran fan an in to circulate the tapes*** to a new fan. Continuity is important, but a new viewer, especially watching the movie of the TV series, needs to be able to understand what’s going on without needing a ten-page synopsis of the show.
Other movies adapted from a TV series reviewed here at Lost in Translation made an effort to introduce the characters to a new audience. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made sure that the audience knew that Kirk and McCoy were still friends, despite whatever had happened prior to the movie, and that Kirk and Spock were friends, but something happened to the latter before he rejoined the crew of the Enterprise. Likewise, with Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the opening scenes establish who Eddy and Patsy are, two women who refuse to grow up, with Eddy rolling out of her car drunk after a fashion event.
Introducing the characters and situation isn’t a problem for just TV series adapted into film. Other media have the same problem, letting the audience know what’s going on and who the main characters are. With television, though, the medium is similar to film, both being visual, that it can be too easy to forget that the characters need to be re-introduced. Failure to do so locks out a portion of the potential audience, leaving them outside and not watching. Without the extra audience, the film could flop at the box office.
* There are exceptions, such as the entire 007 film run, and even Die Another Day turned the traditional Bond titles into a plot-relevant sequence.
** The series riffed on older B-movies, serials, and shorts, where the quality of the featured film was guaranteed to be bad but with hooks for the riffs. Alien from L.A. was but one film, but represented the type of work found on MST3K, bad but watchable with people having fun with it.
*** The series encouraged fans to circulate tapes of the episodes because of the limited access early audiences had. Not all cable companies carried Comedy Central at the time, and international audiences had to deal with a complex web of rights and licenses that the MST3K crew didn’t have to worry about.
The short version, adaptations continued to dominate the silver screen. With studios risk adverse, they want to maximize audiences. It’s still not a guarantee of success, but adapting a popular work is one way to draw in a crowd. Couple adapting with popular actors, and studios see a sure thing. The New Teens are looking a lot like the Fifties, where popular adaptations far outnumbered popular adaptations. Let’s break down the top ten films by box office, using the numbers compiled by Box Office Mojo. Remember that popularity isn’t necessarily a sign of quality, just of what is popular.
1) Finding Dory – sequel to the Disney/Pixar original work, Finding Nemo. A surprising entry, given the strength of what follows.
2) Captain America: Civil War – second sequel to Captain America: First Avenger, an adaptation.
3) The Secret Life of Pets – original.
4) The Jungle Book – Disney’s live action remake of its animated adaptation of the story by Rudyard Kipling.
5) Deadpool – adapted from the Marvel character and the most comic book movie ever made*.
6) Zootopia – An original Disney animated movie.
7) Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice – adapted from characters and situations seen in DC Comics.
8) Suicide Squad – another DC Comics adaptation.
9) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – an original movie in the Star Wars franchise.
10) Doctor Strange – adapted from the Marvel comic.
Note that Rogue One and Doctor Strange are still in theatres. The Star Wars prequel could finish 2016 higher in the list and also dominate the 2017 list.
For all the complaints people have about adaptations, audiences went out to see them more than original works. The breakdown has two completely original works, two sequels/prequels to original works, and six adaptations or sequels to adaptations. It’s telling that most of the original works are animated, especially from Disney, who used to plumb animated features from fairy tales. Studios just aren’t going to give up the potential income from popular adaptations, no matter the outcry. At this point, original works will need top talent just to get a budget from studios. Depending on the work, an original may need to go to television just to get noticed. For balance, let’s look at the bottom ten.
10) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – fictionalized adaptation of the memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker
9) Assassin’s Creed – adaptation of the video game.
8) Snowden – a biopic of Edward Snowden.
7) Mechanic: Resurrection – sequel to the remake, The Mechanic.
6) Manchester by the Sea – original.
5) Free State of Jones – loosely based on a historical event.
4) Blair Witch – remake of The Blair Witch Project.
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – sequel to a movie based on Rice Broocks’ God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in An Age of Uncertainty.
2) Keanu – original.
1) Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life – adapted from Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts.
Note that Assassin’s Creed is still in theatres after being released on December 21. Manchester by the Sea opened in limited release November 18 and had a full release December 16 and is still in theatres.
The bottom ten has four adaptations, two sequels to adaptations, one original work, and two movies based on real events, including the Snowden biopic. Being at the bottom isn’t necessarily a sign of quality. Manchester by the Sea has been nominated for a number of awards, including Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay, and has been listed on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of the Year. What the bottom ten show is that adaptations run the gamut of popularity and that we’re still in an era where adaptations outnumber original works. However, with two exceptions, every decade in the history of movies shows that trend. The exceptions were the Eighties and Nineties.
Adaptations aren’t going away any time soon. People are still getting out to see them in theatres. At this point, quality is important; repeat audiences are driving the numbers for several films. For now, expect more original works in unexpected media, like animation or television.
* I’d say “shamelessly the most comic book movie,” but the movie lives in audacity, contributing to its popularity.
The Eighties were a weird time in entertainment. Popular original works outnumbered popular adaptations for the first time in movie history. Regulations about advertising to children were relaxed, leading to animation adaptations of toys and anything that a toy could be made from. The latter meant popular movies became fodder for cartoons, even if the film wasn’t originally meant for children, like Rambo and Robocop. Lost in Translation has already looked at one animated adaptation from the era, Back to the Future. Another series, though, was more successful.
The Real Ghostbusters ran from 1986 until 1991, undergoing a title change to Slimers and the Real Ghostbusters in its third season. Despite being tied to the film, Ghostbusters, a court case between Filmation and Columbia/Sony forced the adaptation to change its name as Filmation had the name first, leading to adding The Real to the title. The Real Ghostbusters was licensed out to DiC, who farmed out the animation to several Japanese studios, giving the series a unique look. While Columbia had the rights to the movie by virtue of being the production company, the studio didn’t have the rights to the actors’ appearances, leading to main characters who had a passing resemblance to the original cast. One episode, “Take Two”, goes as far to explain the differences – the movie is an in-universe adaptation of the characters’ lives. Venkman even goes so far to remark that Bill Murray doesn’t even look like him.
The cast was small, cosnisting of five voice actors total. Arsenio Hall, best known now for his talk show, was starting out in his career when he voiced Winston Zeddmore, the guy the Ghostbusters hired when business picked up during Gozer the Gozerian’s invasion of New York. Maurice Lamarche, who has played roles such as the Brain on Pinky and the Brain, played Egon Spengler, scientist and inventor. Lorenzo Music, best know for playing Carleton the Doorman on Rhoda and Garfield the cat* in the cartoon based on the comic strip Garfield, portrayed Peter Venkman, scientist and all-around smarmy dude. Laura Summer got her first work as a voice actor playing Janine Melnitz and almost every other woman in the first two seasons. Frank Welker, who has made a career out of being a non-human voice, including Megatron in the original Transformers, among others, played Ray Stantz, scientist and inventor, Slimer, and a large number of other ghosts and supernatural creatures. Summer was replaced by Kath Soucie with the name change to Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters, but, for the purpose of this review, the renamed series will be treated as a separate work to come later.
Adapting Ghostbusters to a weekly format wasn’t a problem. The nature of the movie allowed for further adventures for the team. Ghostbusters was a business; the team could easily continue busting ghosts in an adaptation. Indeed, the “ghost of the week” plot carried the series. The series also treated the events of the movie as occurring in-universe. Peter did get slimed by Slimer at the hotel and the team did fight Gozer the Gozerian in the form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man The goal to adapting well is to bring the core of the original, in this case, Ghostbusters into the new medium, even with all the restrictions on the adaptation. A number of elements of the movie just wouldn’t fly. Venkman’s lecherousness was toned down, but didn’t completely disappear; his casual cruelty was removed. Janine kept her crush on Egon until executive orders in Slimer forced the writers to excise it. Repeatable violence isn’t allowed, but very few children would have access to backpack-sized unlicensed nuclear accelerators*. The Ghostbusters also only shot at ghosts to pull them into their traps, reducing the potential harm further. The action could thus match what was shown on screen, complete with slime.
The main characters, despite not being allowed to look exactly like the original actors, did have enough details in common to make it easy to see who was who. Egon had glasses and the hair style, along with Lamarche’s Harold Ramis impersonation. Peter kept some of Bill Murray’s smarmy charm**. Summer recreated Janine’s accent. Ray still had his weight. Winston was still the workman of the group, the one who was more down to Earth. Equipment matched what was shown on screen. And to add to the accuracy, the design of Slimer in the 2016 reboot movie was partially based on his appearance in the cartoon.
As mentioned above, the series could have kept to a “ghost of the week” plot, mirroring the jobs the Ghostbusters had in the movie prior to the containment system shutdown and the fight against Gozer. The writers, though, went beyond that. The first episode, “Ghosts R Us”, had a trio of ghosts working a scam to drive the Ghostbusters out of business. The team fought Samhaim, the spirit of Hallowe’en, in “When Hallowe’en Was Forever”, written by J. Michael Stracynski of Babylon 5 and Thor fame. Even with “ghost of the week” plots, not every ghost was busted. Several were able to move on after completing a task that kept them tied to the land of the living.
Going beyond the above, the writers delved into myth, legend, and classic literature. Samhaim was but one character based on myth and legend. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appeared in “Apocalypse — What, Now?” Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was adapted as “The Headless Motorcyclist”, updating the legend for modern times. The team accidentally busted the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come in “Xmas Marks the Spot”.***
Then there’s the adaptation within the adaptation, “Collect Call of Cathulhu”(sic). Written by Michael Reeves, the episode goes beyond just using the trappings. The episode acts as an introduction to the Cthulhu mythos as created by HP Lovecraft and other writers. Guest characters are named after other writers who had contributed to the Mythos; Clark Ashton after Clark Ashton Smith and Alice Derlith after publisher August Derlith. Lovecraft himself is name-dropped as the creator of the Mythos, with his writings in Weird Tales cited in-character by Ray. Cultists of Cthulhu appear, along with Spawn of Cthulhu and a Shoggoth. The episode even quotes Lovecraft, specifically “The Nameless City” – “That is not dead which can eternal lie,/And with strange aeons even death may die.” The episode climaxes with the awakening of Cthulhu, a being that, to quote Egon, “makes Gozer the Gozerian look like Little Mary Sunshine”, and the Ghostbusters fighting to just stop the Elder God, using the Mythos as a guide.
Even when not using classic literature for plots, the series has references to works that would be unexpected in a TV series aimed at a younger audience. In “Ragnarok and Roll”, the spell used to begin Ragnarok is the Elven inscription of the One Ring from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphisis is referenced in “Janine Melnitz, Ghostbuster” as Janine reads out some of the jobs that have come in; “And some guy named Samsa says he’s possessed by the ghost of a giant cockroach.”
The Real Ghostbusters puts an effort into continuing the story from the movie, even while explaining away the differences. The series sets itself up as an alternate continuity where the original movie is a movie about the animated characters. The characterization builds from what was shown in the movie and expands on what was originally shown. The Real Ghostbusters is a worthy adaptation, taking into account the limitations imposed on it by the medium and expanding the ghosts thanks to not needing special effects beyond ink and paint.
* In an interesting twist, Bill Murray would later voice Garfield in the movies based on the strip.
** And if a child did have one, repeatable acts would be a minor concern.
*** While almost every TV series has had an episode based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, few had the Ghosts of Christmas running a gambit to teach a main character about the meaning of the season while still having Scrooge around.
As a source of adaptations, sitcoms are rare. They are often too tied to the time they aired and are considered to be fluff. Over the course of Lost in Translation, only two adaptations based on a television comedy have been reviewed, The Naked Gun and The Beverly Hillbillies. The rest of the adaptations, barring the animated series, have a focus on action and drama, from Doctor Who to The Equalizer. Action series and dramas provide more conflict that works on the silver screen. The Naked Gun added bigger budget action sequences to the comedy, taking advantage of the medium.
That’s not to say that a popular series won’t have fans clamouring for a movie, even if the series isn’t known for action, more so if the TV show reaches cult status. Welcome to Absolutely Fabulous, a British series about two women, Eddy and Patsy, who aren’t so much trying to recapture their youth as continue it. AbFab first aired in 1992 on the BBC and was based on a sketch two years prior on French & Saunders, starring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, who plays Eddy.
Eddy runs her own public relations firm, representing an eclectic group of clients. Her best friend, Patsy (played by Joanna Lumley), works as a magazine editor and enables much of Eddy’s behavior. Eddy’s daughter, the long suffering Saffron (Julie Sawalha), is the reality anchor Eddy needs. Too bad Saffy is still in high school when the series starts. Saffy does get some support from her grandmother, Eddy’s mother (June Whitfield). Rounding out the core cast is Eddy’s assistant, Bubble (Jane Horrocks), who tends to be in her own world most of the time, most likely without the chemical aide that Eddy and Pasty prefer.
The core of the series was Eddy and Pasty misbehaving, breaking the taboos on what women were expected to do, and their stubborn refusal to learn a lesson. Patsy is a long-time party girl who lives on air, alcohol, and cigarettes. Eddy does eat, but allows herself to be encouraged by Patsy. Somehow, they get out of their scrapes, but Eddy and Patsy are not role models.
Twenty-five years after the original French & Saunders sketch, Absolutely Fabulous: The Move began filming. The movie opened in the United Kingdom in July 2016 and reunited the core cast. To get the script written, Dawn French made a bet with Jennifer Saunders that a script wouldn’t be ready by the end of 2014. Saunders won the bet.
The movie picks up with Eddy and Patsy attending a fashion show and over-indulging; nothing having changed except them being older. Saffron has married and since divorced, and, with her thirteen year old daughter, Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), is visiting her mother’s oversized home. Saffron is still cynical about her mother and still doesn’t get along with Patsy. Lola is indifferent to the undercurrants happening. Eddy has a problem; her income isn’t matching her outgo. Her ex-husband, Marshall (Christopher Ryan), has decided to transition to being a woman* and needs the money. Eddy is pinning her hopes on selling her memoir, but the meeting at the publisher reveals that the book is filled with “blah blah blah” thanks to Bubble, who was supposed to transpose what Eddy dictated.
Patsy, while assisting with the setup of a fashion show, makes a discovery that could help Eddy. Kate Moss needs a new PR rep. What should be a simple insider secret becomes a well known, thanks to Eddy having trouble with her smartphone. When Kate Moss arrives at the fashion gala, there’s a race between Eddy and rival PR person, Claudia Bing (Celia Imrie), to get to her. The result is Kate being knocked into the Thames, disappearing into the water.
Eddy is blamed for Kate’s death as the world goes into mourning over the loss of the supermodel. Paparazzi camp outside Eddy’s house, hoping to get a photo of the killer. With some help, Eddy and Patsy escape the cameras and start their own investigation into what happened to Kate. They realize that things float, so they find a boat, find Bubble, and go back to the scene of the crime. To trace where Kate’s body went, Eddy and Patsy push Bubble into the Thames, but lose her in the dark.
Now responsible for the apparent deaths of two people, Eddy and Patsy do what they think best – flee the country. Without money, though, they need a way to pay for their flight from justice. Fortunately for them, Lola has a credit card from her father. Eddy and Patsy take Lola with them to Cannes. Once in southern France, Eddy and Patsy work out a way to get the money they need and start looking for one of Patsy’s old flames, Charlie (Barry Humphries).
In London, Saffron discovers that Lola has disappeared. With the help of her new boyfriend, police inspector Nick (Robert Webb), she starts trying to trace where her daughter has gone. Her investigation leads her to a drag queen karaoke night** to find Christopher (Glee‘s Chris Colfer), Eddy’s stylist. Christopher gives up Eddy’s location.
In Cannes, Charlie’s a bust, but Eddy finds a different way to get the money they need. Duchess Lubliana (Marcia Warren), the richest woman in the world, is alone and has bad eyesight. The new plan is put into effect; Patsy, as Pat Stone, marries the Duchess to gain access to her money.
However, the police discover where Eddy and Patsy have escaped to. Because of the enormity of the crime, even the French police are willing to assist their British counterparts, leading to a car chase that ends in Bubble’s pool. Bubble is alive, having floated to France after being pushed into the Thames by Eddy and Patsy, and has been staying in her home. The police and Saffron catch up to Eddy and Patsy. Eddy gives a soulful confession to Saffron. Then Bubble reveals that Kate is still alive.
Watching AbFab: The Movie is like returning to family; a dysfunctional family, but one that is familiar. With Jennifer Saunders writing the script and the return of most of the original cast, the stage is set. With most characters, growth is expected. Edina is not most characters. The entire point of Eddy is that she is stuck in her 20s and refuses to mature while the normal people around her – mostly consisting of her daughter, Saffron – do grow up. The plot is very much something that Eddy and Patsy would get themselves into. Eddy and Patsy still have not learned from their mistakes. Saffron has changed, but dealing with her mother has left her cynical and trying not to make the same mistakes with her own daughter. The movie is more than just an extended episode of AbFab, but doesn’t lose what made the TV series a cult favourite.
* This makes Marshall the second regular character to be transgender. The first is Patsy, who has a bit of jealousy because Marshall will at least find shoes in his size.
** The drag queens in the scene are real and brought their own costumes and make up. One was dressed as Patsy, and had her mannerisms down pat.
The Universal monsters have become iconic since their first appearances. Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera (1925) brought the tragic character on screen. Bela Legosi as Dracula (1931) provided the baseline for future cinematic vampires. Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932). Claude Rains as The Invisible Man (1933). Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolfman (1941). But the most endearing character may have been Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, in the 1931 Frankenstein. Karloff portrayed the Monster as a child, with a wonder about him as he discovers the world around him, turning the character from the vengeful being in Mary Shelley’s novel to a tragic victim hunted down by villagers.
The success of Frankenstein led to sequels, including Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Classics beget spoofs, much like the Abbott and Costello movie. With a film that has permeated pop culture, further parodies were due. Thus steps in Gene Wilder. Because both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein had scared him as a child, Wilder had an idea for a script that rewrote the ending of both movies. He had set it aside when his new agent, Mike Medavoy, suggested that Wilder team up with Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman for a movie, actors that Medavoy also represented. Wilder reworked a scene from his script and submitted it.
The resulting movie, Young Frankenstein (1974), was co-written by Wilder and Mel Brooks, with Brooks directing it. Wilder starred as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced “Fron-ken-steen” as he tried to distance himself from his grandfather Victor. Boyle played the Creature, portraying the Creature with the same child-like approach that Karloff used. Feldman played Igor, pronounced “Eye-gor”, the grandson of Victor Frankenstein’s assistant. Frederick is a famed neurologist, teaching at a university, when he is found by a lawyer for his grandfather’s estate.
Frederich makes the trip to Transylvania, meeting Igor and Inga, played by Teri Garr. Igor takes Frederick and Inga to the Frankenstein castle, which has been maintained by Frau Blucher, played by Cloris Leachman. Blucher is excited for Frederick’s visit; it’s a chance for Victor’s experiment to live again. The movie then follows the beats of the original movie, from the theft of a suitable body for the Creature to raising the body up to be hit by lightning to even the Creature meeting the little girl. All through this, though, are bits of humour, which is the true draw of the film. Young Frankenstein diverges from the original when Frederick makes the decision to take care of the Creature, unlike Victor’s attempts to subjugate his Monster. Frederick’s efforts lead to a song and dance number that goes wrong, leading to angry villages with torches and pitchforks. Even with that, everyone gets a happy ending, from Frederich and Inga to the Creature and Elizabeth, Frederich’s former fiancée played by Madeline Kahn, and even the angry villagers.
The beats aren’t the only factor at play. Young Frankenstein was filmed in black and white, making it an outlier where every other movie being made that decade was in colour. But it’s not just being in black and white that adds to the mood. The credits, the cinematography, the music, all were done in the style of the original movie. Brooks even had the original lab equipment on hand, thanks to Kenneth Strickfaden, who built the equipment for the original movie. Young Frankenstein maintains the mood of the original, thanks to lighting, while still being funny, a difficult task pulled off with style.
Beyond just aesthetics, the cast raised a good movie into a comedy classic. Wilder, Boyle, and Feldman worked well together. Wilder admitted in a bonus feature on the Young Frankenstein DVD that several roles were good until their actors took them, whereupon the roles became great. Kahn was originally thought of as Inga, but she preferred Elizabeth. Garr read for Inga in a German accent. Kenneth Mars took the role of Inspector Kemp and elevated what was written in the script. Leachman as Frau Blucher dominates her scenes. Even Gene Hackman in his role as the Blindman is more than what was written for the scene.
While Young Frankenstein is a parody, it builds off the original, using /Frankenstein/ as the base to hang the jokes on while still keeping the mood. Young Frankenstein works as a sequel of the original as much as it does a parody. The effort put in by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks pays off.