Continuing with the month of remaking films featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Lost in Translation will take a look at the first movie in colour to be riffed on the series, 1986’s Robot Holocaust, with Norris Cuff as Neo, Nadine Hart as Deeja, Joel von Ornsteiner as Klyton, Jennifer Delora as Nyla, Andrew Horwath as Kai, and Angelika Jager as Valaria.
The Great Robot Rebellion of ’33 resulted in the destruction of New Terra and the coming of the Robot Holocaust. Humanity in a nameless destroyed city that looks suspiciously like New York City has been subjugated by robot overlords, resulting in needless gladiatorial duels to the death. During one, Klyton, a free robot, picks the pouches of spectators, but is caught by Neo, an outsider. Neo interrogates Klyton using his robot telepathy, discovering that the Dark One, also known as “the Darkwan”, forces the strongest humans to fight, taking the victor away for an unknown fate.
At the Power Station, Valeria, chief servitor of the Dark One, has a feeling that something is off back in the destroyed city. Deeja, in the city, challenges the authority of the robot overseer. As a result, the Dark One authorizes cutting off of fresh air in the city. Most of the humans fall, but Deeja, her father, and Neo are unaffected. Deeja and Neo are told to fall as if they can’t breathe, and Deeja’s father negotiates with Valeria to get the air restored. The Dark One orders his minions to bring Deeja’s father to the Power Station.
With the quest set – rescue Deeja’s father, who developed a way to offset the poisonous air – Deeja, Neo, and Klyton take a small group of rebels through what were once subway tunnels, starting in mutant-filled Central Park. Along the way, the group runs into a band of Amazons led by Nyla and their prisoner, Kai. Neo challenges Nyla to a duel. Nyla is defeated and the price of defeat is to lead the group to the Power Station.
Quests wouldn’t be quests without a trip through a sewer. The sewer Nyla leads them to is the home of sewer worms, dangerous creatures that feed on the flesh. While the first idea was to send Klyton as bait to lure the sewer worms out where they could be seen, Neo chooses option B – chopping their way through. The brief violence does provide action, and the group gets by the death trap.
The next stage is an abandoned oasis. From there, the band of rebels head back to the city, where they are attacked by mutants. One of the band is killed, but they rest survive, thanks to Klyton’s force field. The rebels do find the Power Station. Posted on the approach are the remains of the winners of previous gladiatorial duels, dead, their bodies left as a warning. Neo finds a ring and takes it. The group looks for an alternate entrance and finds an old subway emergency exit.
The Dark One isn’t unprepared. Even the emergency exit is trapped. Pit traps, angry robots, giant spiders, and the unending anticipation of being attacked dog the group. The rebels penetrate deep into the Power Station and confront the Dark One. However, it is Valeria, forsaken by the Dark One, who is the instrument of the villain’s destruction.
As with Danger!! Death Ray, one main issue is budget. Budget isn’t a cure-all; a large budget is by no means a measure of success. Just look at Battleship, a $US200 million misfire. But too small a budget creates limitations that hamper the production. With Danger!! Death Ray, budget limitations meant using toys and models. With Robot Holocaust, the victims of the budget restriction are sets and costuming. The movie looks cheap, which doesn’t help the suspension of disbelief.
However, the biggest asset Robot Holocaust had going for it was being made in the Eighties. Going back to the History of Adaptations, the Eighties were the first decade to have more popular original movies that adaptations. Anything went; follow the leader wasn’t working as expected. The Terminator, while not in the popular list, caught people’s attention as a science-fiction/horror film, leading to 1991’s Terminator 2, which did get on the popular list in the Nineties. Movie goers are willing to cut films slack in areas provided that they make up for in others. /Robot Holocaust/, though, didn’t do that.
The script as filmed feels very much like someone’s Gamma World. The elements are there for the game – post-apocalyptic world with robots controlling humans in one settlement, another settlement run by Amazons, a third that are no better than barbarians, and a stranger with mental powers that affect even robots. The characters wind up going through several underground structures that would be called dungeons if the scriptwriters had played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons instead. There’s even a mutant plant creature. The problem with adapting a tabletop roleplaying game, among many, is that many games, particularly those published before 1986, don’t have a definite setting, and Gamma World is one of those. There are certain assumptions, such as an apocalypse occurred outside the memory of the elders and that mutants are running around, but Gamemasters were encouraged to destroy their hometown and remake it within the game’s paradigm.
Even if the film wasn’t based on a Gamma World campaign, its setting has a lot of backstory, leading to the use of a narrator. Film has a limited amount of time; few people are going to sit in a theatre for six hours to watch one movie. Even today’s television binge watchers take breaks every couple of hours for food and hygiene. Film is not a good medium when a setting needs explanation. Star Wars managed to use an opening crawl to good effect, but George Lucas was deliberately invoking the serial movies of old. Robot Holocaust doesn’t have that luxury. Worse, even with the opening narration, Neo’s robot telepathy is still out of the blue and doesn’t get much screen time after the first use. The movie’s setting may have been better served in a longer format, one that allows for a proper exploration of what is possible, such as television or a book. As it is, the audience is being expected to accept a lot with no real support from the movie.
Can Robot Holocaust be remade? The elements for a decent movie are lurking within the MST3K fodder of the original film. The format, though, will need to be changed. Robot Holocaust puts a lot on the audience in a short time, barely acceptable when the film was made. A low budget movie to begin with, Robot Holocaust, as presented on MST3K comes across as a student film, along the lines of Dead Gentlemen Productions’ Gamers and Demon Hunters, both of which were done while the group was in university. Today, though, the power of what major studios had in the Eighties can be had by amateur filmmakers off the shelf at little cost, thanks to open source software and improvements on technology. The Four Players is another good example that shows the ability of amateur film making today. It should be possible to remake Robot Holocaust.
The big question on remaking Robot Holocaust is the format. The big problem the movie had is focus. There is a lot happening in the background that gets the short shrift because of the lack of time available in a film. The movie moves slowly, but it may be better served as a TV series. The characters would get more screen time, allowing the audience to get to know them better and building on the relationships between them in a more believable manner. The opening credits of the potential series could show the apocalypse, leaving more time for plot and character development in the episodes. The events of the movie can be covered in the first season, but the focus becomes the quest and the building of trust between the rebels.
Like Danger!! Death Ray, budget did play a role in the quality of Robot Holocaust, but the budget wasn’t the cause of the movie’s problems. Remaking /Robot Holocaust/ needs to take into account the needs of a post-apocalyptic plot, and that does require time that most films don’t have the luxury of investing in background. If Robot Holocaust is made, it will need a new format.
Over the next few weeks, Lost in Translation will look at how to remake some not so great movies by examining where they went wrong and how to fix it. And what better source of not so great movies than Mystery Science Theatre 3000? Movies that get featured on MST3K aren’t necessarily awful. The crew looked for films that could be riffed, so a dull film would get passed over. This means that there are nuggets in the featured films that could lead to a good movie. Up first, Danger!! Death Ray, originally released in 1967.
A spaghetti spy movie, Danger!! Death Ray is also known as Il Raggio infernale, or, The Infernal Ray, and starred Gordon Scott as Bart Fargo, international spy, Ted Carter as Frank, Maureen Delphy as Lucille, Albert Dalbes as Carver, Sylvia Solar as Mrs. Carver, Max Dean as Al, and Tor Altmayer as Professor John Carmichael. The film opens in a European country, following agents of a sinister organization, including Frank, heading to a demonstration by Professor John Carmichael of his new invention, a high powered laser he calls a “death ray”, though meant for peaceful purposes. The death ray is effective, cutting through thick steel in minutes. Satisfied that the device works, the agents kidnap Carmichael and escape in a hail of gunfire. The agents rendezvous with a helicopter, which then takes Carmichael to a submarine waiting offshore.
Elsewhere, Bart Fargo is trying to rest after his latest mission. His unnamed agency sends two couriers to give him his new orders, the recovery of both Professor Carmichael and the death ray. Fargo leaves for the mission with the promise of a proper vacation and a proper bonus afterwards. The flight is a flight, though Fargo does run into Mrs. Carver travelling under an assumed name. He does maintain his cover as a businessman. On the ground that night, Fargo starts his investigation, looking around the docks for signs of the sinister organization.
Fargo does find one of the organization’s hideouts. However, the men at the hideout are alerted to the investigation. Fargo does get the drop on them, sneaking in from a trapdoor. A fight breaks out, and as Fargo gets information from one of the thugs, a higher level agent knifes him. Fargo chases the knife thrower, X-3, to his base of operations where he learns the next step in the investigation is in Barcelona.
On the slow sub, Frank gets radioed by the knifed X-2 that an American has tracked them down. Carmichael laughs and points out that Frank just gave away the location of the upcoming rendezvous to a complete stranger. However, that allows Frank to prepare things in Barcelona for the interloper.
Fargo arrives in Barcelona under the watchful eye of one of the organization’s agents. In an odd coincidence, Fargo also sees Mrs. Carver from the first flight. However, work comes first and he somehow gets to a Moroccan restaurant that is another of the sinister organization’s safe houses. Fargo, though, successfully fights off the waiters and wounds his watcher. The gunfire, though, draws the other agents in, starting a foot chase through Barcelona. Fargo ducks into Lucille’s apartment. She helps hide him by distracting the pursuers when they break into her studio. Some small talk later, Fargo leaves.
At Fargo’s hotel room, his watcher arrives with room service and a pistol. The intent, kill Fargo while he’s in the shower. Fargo, though, realized that the bellboy wasn’t one and was ready. A short fight ends with Fargo removing the watcher’s disguise. The watcher isn’t done, though, and tries to tackler Fargo at the window. Fargo moves at the last moment, and the watcher goes for a short flight.
Fargo picks up the trail of Frank and Al, and, in what passes as the car chase, follows him. After a few minutes, the kidnapper decides to use an oil slick sprayer. Fargo can’t avoid the slick and drives off the cliff into the sea. The agents wait to see if Fargo surfaces before leaving. However, Fargo did survive by swimming away, and shows up a Lucille’s soaked.
Lucille takes him up on his earlier offer of dinner. At the restaurant, Al spies Fargo and heads off to ambush him at his hotel room. Fargo isn’t slowed down from his dinner date and is ready for Al’s attack. Again, Fargo wins the fight and interrogates Al. Mrs. Carver from the earlier flight tries to enter the hotel room. Fargo is surprised to see her again, but his prisoner is alarmed and bolts.
The next day, Fargo and Mrs. Carver go out for a day on the sea in a boat. Mrs. Carver signals the kidnapper, then dives off the boat. The kidnapper attacks with a machine gun. Fargo rolls off his boat before it explodes. He returns to his hotel and bursts into what he thinks is Mrs. Carver’s room, only to find that she’s not there and it’s not her room. Back in his own room, Al has returned, looking for help and protection from the organization. In return, Al tells Fargo everything he knows, that he should go to a villa thirteen miles out of town that night.
At the villa, Fargo sees Mrs. Carver and, after following her at a discreet distance, finds X-1, her husband, Carver. Fargo goes with Carver to talk. But Lucille has followed Bart to the villa. During the chat between Fargo and Carver, Mrs. Carver has summoned the rest of the agents. Lucille, still unaware of what’s really going on, stumbles into the situation and becomes a hostage. Carver has his people take them both to the villa. As Fargo is being bundled into a car, Al appears to rescue him. With some blatant bribery, Fargo gets Al to take him to the other villa.
With Fargo on the way, Carver’s people are getting ready. However, they aren’t aware that Al has switched sides, and Fargo gets inside while hidden in the back of a car. The stealthy approach works for a bit. Fargo manages to stash several guards, including one in drag, in a closet. But one thug doesn’t go down so easily, and Carmichael’s kidnapper shows up. Fargo wins, but Mrs. Carver shoots Al, mortally wounding him. Al gets his final words out to Fargo, who then takes the dead man’s machine gun. Fargo kills Mrs. Carver and chases Carver back into the house.
Inside, Carver reaches his basement control room. He keeps an eye on Fargo through closed circuit cameras and tries to kill the spy using remote guns. Fargo gets past the sentry guns down to the control room, but Carver has one more ace up his sleeve, a working death ray. However, the death ray has one critical flaw as an anti-personnel weapon – it doesn’t traverse well. Fargo can dodge the lethal beam and shoot Carver. The death ray is recovered, and Lucille and Carmichael are rescued.
The biggest problem the movie has is budget. The sinister organization’s helicopter and submarine are obviously either models or toys, and the ocean is suspiciously tub-like. Fargo’s car at the end of the “car chase” is also either Airfix or Matchbox. The European locations look good, but should be expected from an Italian studio. While increasing the budget won’t necessarily make things better automatically, having actual equipment that doesn’t look like it came from the toy box of the director’s kid does help with the look.
The film’s editing needed a lot of work. Scenes needed to be tightened up. Elements that should have been removed, like the tossing of Fargo’s watch communicator into the pool at the end of the film. Part of the problem may be related to budget; you get the editing quality you pay for. However, proper cutting would take out some of the slower portions and remove the bizarre moments altogether.
Also related to the limited budget is the music. /Danger!! Death Ray/ has two main themes, “Badupadupadada” and, to use the name given by Mike and the Bots, “Watermelon Man“. While there is some other music, these are the two tunes heard the most, and they don’t always fit the scenes they’re in. “Badupadupadada” is a light, jazzy piece. “Watermelon Man” is more frenetic and does work for some of the action sequences, such as they are. However, music in movies has evolved. Variations of a theme isn’t as common, and even in films where variations are in use, the composer will adjust the score, the beat, and even the key to reflect the tone of the scene. A great example of this comes from the /Star Wars/ prequels; “The Imperial March” appears as a leitmotif in Anakin’s scenes, either as an undertone to hint at his coming fall or as a somber moment when the character edges down the path to the Dark Side. Danger!! Death Ray isn’t that subtle.
As mentioned above, Danger!! Death Ray is a spaghetti spy film; an Italian version of a 007 film much like how a spaghetti western is an Italian version of a Hollywood western. The form is there, but not necessarily understood. Bart Fargo is a pale imitation of James Bond, but without the charm that made 007 films popular. Again, the budget is not helping matters. The same year Danger!! Death Ray came out, Sean Connery starred as Bond in You Only Live Twice, which featured SPECTRE stealing rockets from both the Russians and the Americans and had 007 flying Little Nellie, an autogyro kitted out with more weapons than most modern jet fighters. The only gadgets that appeared in Danger!! Death Ray were Fargo’s watch radio and the oil slick sprayer used in the “car chase”.
With all the problems pointed out above, what can be done to remake Danger!! Death Ray and improve on it? The core story is decent enough, though needing some fixes. The big one – no one creates a death ray for peaceful purposes, or, if they do, it’s not called a “death ray”. The sinister organization can call it that; Carver, as the villain, could do so with great glee. But Carmichael should be calling it something else, like a mining laser or an anti-ballistic laser. Or, given that lasers are more common now than in 1967, call it something else, like a microwave-based maser, particle accelerator, or meson ray; something that sounds good but isn’t generally known.
Keep the general plot; it works as a good base even if the original result wasn’t. Tighten the script, let Fargo get hit a few times. Bond and Bourne have taken punches, and it adds to the tension if the hero isn’t guaranteed a win every time. Shorten the opening kidnapping; the chase does start to drag, though demonstrating the death ray is needed, as is the actual kidnapping. The stakes need to be set early. Show Fargo investigating, though that could be part of the edits for both TV and MST3K. Don’t let the action drag; the trailer for the original sums up most of the action as it is, and while movies can’t be all action all the time, slowing the movie to a crawl doesn’t keep the audience’s interest. The car chase should be a chase, not a tail. Action movies have changed in the past fifty years.
Tone of the movie is critical. The original was a Bond knock-off, but the 007 films have had a wide range, from camp to deadly serious. Spy thrillers have changed, too; 007 can get away with action sequences that other spy movies can’t, thanks to the franchise’s history. However, there is room for a film between Bond and George Smiley, one where car chases and shootouts happen without necessarily being over the top. It’s a delicate balance on what the audience will accept. Having the remake be deliberately silly won’t work; the original’s big conceit is the death ray itself. The rest of the film is more workman-like. Pick a tone and keep to it. That said, the security at the second villa is far more believable today, thanks to computers. Remote cameras, remote guns, central control system, all that is in use today.
Danger!! Death Ray is not a good movie, but it has the potential to be remade as one. The effort needed isn’t that great, either. The key will be budget. The film has to look more professionally made, including decent editing and using proper effects instead of toys. It could be done.
Can*Con once again ran 2017, over the weekend of October 13-15. One panel of particular interest to Lost in Translation was “Adaptation: Turning Your Novel into a Script, and Vice-Versa”, presented by Canadian science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, whose work has been adapted, including the recent ABC TV series Flashforward. He has also contributed to Star Trek Continues, having written the tenth episode, “To Boldly Go, Part 1”.
Sawyer started with the differences between traditional publishing and scriptwriting. The big differences is pay rate. Traditional publishing pays roughly six cents per word. The pay rate for a forty-four minute teleplay, approx six thousand words, works out to about six dollars per word. However, an author who has been paid for a novel will see the book published and out to an audience. There is no guarantee that a script will be filmed; only one percent of scripts that have been paid for ever get produced. Likewise, if an novel has been optioned for an film adaptation, it still may not be made. The situation is worse outside Hollywood; Canadian studios acquire works instead of producing their own.
There’s also a difference between script and prose. The written word in a novel, novella, or short story allows for the inner life of a character. The reader has access to the character’s inner thoughts. With film and television, that approach seldom works. Blade Runner was saddled with a narration by studio execs to try to explain what was happening, but the narration fell flat with audiences. The problem lies in the language and grammar of the different media.
Novels tend to follow one viewpoint character in a scene. A scene takes as long as needed to show an emotion change. An author can paint the scene, taking as long as needed to give the reader. The example Sawyer gave was him getting up, looking out the window to see the weather, then going through his morning routine before arriving at Can*Con and the panel, then seeing his old friend in the front row! All one scene, with the emotional charge going from positive to extra-positive.
Film, though, cuts from character to character, with the viewpoint being that of the camera and, thus, the audience. The average scene, that is, the length of time allowed for an emotional change, is one minute. Film starts the scene as close as possible to the emotional change and ends as soon as possible after. There is no time spent building up. The example above would start with Sawyer entering the room where the panel is held and ending after he sees his friend.
The above is why Lost in Translation looks at adaptations as translating a work from one medium to another. Each medium has its own way of storytelling. With film, the screenwriter, despite creating the work, has little say in what happens with it. Directors and actors have far more influence. The script is sparse, terse and tells instead of shows. There is only the bare bones – setting, telling the general action, and dialogue.
Changes in storytelling in film and television have changed over the years. Today, most shows have an A- and a B-story, allowing for internal cliffhangers by switching between the two stories. This hasn’t always been the approach; TV shows of the past have only had just the A-storyline. Star Trek is a great example of the differences. The original series seldom had a B-story, with the exception of “The Guardian of Forever”. The Next Generation, though had both A- and B-stories, and sometimes included a C-story. Film isn’t quite as bad, mainly because the cast is smaller and tends to follow one main character, but it’s not unknown there, either.
The current three-act approach for film comes from Syd Fields’ paradigm, published in 1979. The approach is artificial, but has been in use since the book’s publication. With television, the act breaks are the commercial breaks, allowing for cliffhangers just before the ads. Some TV movies take advantage of the commercial breaks; Special Bulletin used the structure of news coverage of a terrorist group threatening to set off a nuclear weapon to slip in ads the same way a news department would, making the ad breaks feel natural while still upping the tension.
Film, also using the three-act structure, has a different timing from TV. In a 120 minute film, the first act and last act are each thirty minutes. The middle act is the longest at sixty minutes. The beginning is done quickly; get the characters, setting, and situation introduced to get the to good part as fast as possible. The ending is also quick, wrapping up fast once all the action is done. The second act is where the character has an epiphany, usually at the midpoint.
The paradigm, at least for television, may be changing, thanks to season arcs, Netflix, and binge watching. Shows like the Battlestar Galactica reboot and A Game of Thrones have shown that television does not need to be episodic. The individual episodes may still follow the three-act structure, but the season and the series are akin to novels for television. With that change, the structure of how an episode is made may evolve.
Of note for potential NaNoWriMo participants, pantsers don’t do well as scriptwriters. The process requires knowing where things are heading, with the treatment, or the beat-by-beat outline, taking forty percent of the time. The treatment is followed by two drafts followed by a polish, all done within fourteen days if for television. Every point in the story must be known.
Along with Fields’ paradigm, Sawyer suggested Robert McKee’s Story for additional reading. He also pointed out that many scripts are available online for legal download, in part so that members of Writer’s Guild of America and the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can vote on best screenplay without revealing who they are. These screenplays will let aspiring writers see how movies have been written and how works have been adapted.
Lost in Translation has examined the passage of time on technology and how that affects adaptations and remakes. However, technology isn’t the only thing to change over time. Society and culture aren’t static. What was one scandalous may now be commonplace. What was once de rigeur is now out of fashion. What was once common practice is now forbidden by regulations.
Older contemporary works are seen as period pieces today. The social mores of Jane Eyre have long given way, so adaptations place it during its time. Prohibition limits The Great Gatsby to the 1920s. Changing the setting of either requires work to make the stories believable in the new era. Today’s world isn’t as class-based as the Victorian era and the excesses of the Twenties fall flat in today’s borderline recession.
Some works don’t have that nice delineation in their era. Their themes are considered timeless. But the details have begun to date them. Adaptations that don’t take into account the changes are going to fall flat. Take Catcher in the Rye, a novel commonly assigned in high school English classes. The novel was written in the Forties and reflected education and teenage isolation of the time. While teenage worries of finding a place in the world is still a concern, the details of the novel date the work. Today, Holden wouldn’t have flunked out of four schools; at some point, his learning disability would have been diagnosed long before the story began. He wouldn’t have been able to leave school without permission without an Amber alert being issued. And there is no way he could have walked into a bar to order any alcohol without ID; bars risk losing their license and both the establishment and the bartender risk large fines. While the book appears to be contemporary, it isn’t, and any adaptation, assuming the Salinger estate allows one, needs to be able to adjust for these changes.
It’s not necessary to go back that far. Even works from the Eighties needs to adjust. The 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice had to account for how much the War on Drugs had changed since the TV series began airing in 1984. The police have become far more militarized, with military-surplus gear, in the intervening time. And not all changes are obvious. Subtle changes have happened over the past few decades.
Contemporary novels aren’t the only works affected. Science fiction has always been about the issues of the time the works were written. Let’s take two episodes from the original Star Trek, “Let That Be Your Final Battlefield” and “Day of the Dove”. With “Let That Be Your Battlefield”, the message was that discriminating because of skin colour was destructive, as the last two survivors from a planet where the only difference between peoples was whether they were black on the left side or the right side. Today, while the message is still needed, the approach would be less of a sledgehammer, like in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Far Beyond the Stars” which showed how discrimination hurt people. The message of “Day of the Dove” was that it is possible for foes to set aside differences and come to peace. In the original Trek, the Klingons represented the Soviet Union while the Federation acted as a stand-in for the US at a time when the Cold War was in full force and almost turned hot after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the Cold War is in the past and, for the most part, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been dropping since the Eighties.
A quick fast forward to 1978 to the original Battlestar Galactica provides another example. At the time, women were beginning to try to break into the combat arms of various military services. The first American woman to be a combat pilot was Jeannie Leavitt in 1993. In the episode “The Lost Planet of the Gods”, to replenish the losses in shuttle pilots during the evacuation of both the Twelve Colonies and Carillon, the Galactica opened flight training to all, including women. In the episode, thanks to a disease picked up on a planet, the Galactica‘s fighter corps was down to just Apollo and Starbuck, forcing the new shuttle pilots to upgrade their skills to fly Vipers, the starfighters. On a mission to escort a medical shuttle to the planet to find a cure for the disease, Apollo and Starbuck lead the new pilots, but each needs to break off, one to check the planet for a safe landing zone, the other to check on a Cylon fighter trailing the squadron. When Starbuck leaves, he places Lieutenant Deitra, played by Sheila DeWindt, a black woman, in charge. Deidra gets four on-screen Cylon kills over the two-part episode and returns in a later episode. Today, though, the idea of not having women in any combat arms, especially in an advanced society, is considered backwards, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot showed women, including Kara Thrace and Sharon Valerii, as pilots with no fanfare about their gender.
Even today’s works will be affected in the future. As a wise green Muppet once said, “Always in motion is the future“. Most works will be based on current culture and issues. Creators can try to predict, but the most surprising thing about these predictions is that there is a success rate. What speculative fiction can do is explore the potential issues, from treatment of artificial intelligences to the problems of extraterrestrial colonization, and get people to think about them. The idea of firsts – first man in space, first woman to become a fighter pilot, first black man to command a mission on the International Space Station – will fall eventually as the firsts are achieved, yet today, they are important to track.
Culture is changing. The only constant is change. Adaptations, including remakes and reboots, will have to either keep the original work in its original time or make the effort to adjust the work to reflect the changes. Both approaches have challenges, and it is possible that an original cannot be easily updated.
Comic adaptations of works have grown over time. From the time of Classics Illustrated, comics were used to adapt a work to a format readers would be more familiar with. Adaptations of popular movies allowed readers to re-live the thrills at a time when home video was non-existent. Today, though, the comic format allows creators to continue a work from another medium. It’s not a new phenomenon; DC Comics published a four-part series of graphic novels continuing the story of Village in The Prisoner: Shattered Visage in 1988. Today, though, getting the information out on adaptations is far easier thanks to the Internet and cross-medium works are far more common.
The benefit is that a work can find a format that works best to gather and keep an audience. Movies are expensive to make and market, and even if profitable, they may not have enough of a following to justify a follow up work. Television, while not as expensive as film and able to spread costs over a number of episodes, are still subject to whims of ratings; a niche series may not have the critical mass to survive a season. Comic books don’t have the expense burdens a film would and can be sustained with a far lower number of readers than a TV series can with low audience numbers.
Even series that have had a good run can take advantage of the switch to comics. Fans will want more, especially just after a series has ended, and the series’ creator can explore areas that the show couldn’t, either because of expense or network limitations. Such is the focus of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation comic series. The Buffy TV series, itself an adaptation, ran for seven years, a good run. The series had a definite end, with Sunnydale sinking into a Hellmouth to seal it and an army of Slayers defeating demons trying to overrun the Earth. But Buffy’s story wasn’t done.
Buffy and her friends still had the army of Slayers, and that issue was worth exploring. Creator Joss Whedon continued the story in the comic series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, published by Dark Horse Comics. A new threat hangs over the world, and Buffy and her army need to discover what it is before the Apocalypse happens. Or, the same old same old for the Scoobies. And the series wouldn’t be Buffy if personal issues came up. Not only does Buffy have an army of young girls with supernatural abilities to try corral, her sister Dawn has run into some problems, and her own personal life is falling apart. Again, nothing new for Buffy. The fans, though, expect Buffy and her friends to have to deal with personal issues while saving the world. Skipping that skips the essence of the TV series.
The comic series does deliver. The characters’ behaviour reflects their growth over the run of the TV series, from teenagers in high school to young adults trying to figure out what their place is in the world while dealing with weirdnesses most people never have to worry about. The graphic format allows for effects that would be difficult to achieve on television, either because of time needed, the expense, or because of the laws of physics. Dawn, as part of a curse, grew to be several stories tall; showing this on screen would require green-screening and filming her scenes twice, once with her and once with the regular sized cast. When TV episodes need to be completed within a week, that’s extra time that could be better used, especially if the curse is season long. In another scene, Buffy and Angel wind up changing settings page to page; if filmed, that would mean setting up in multiple locations for only several minutes of film. It’s doable for an episode, but would mean making extensive use of sets instead of location shots to minimize travel time. In a comic, both are easily done. Dawn can be drawn far larger than the rest of the cast without any camera effects or multiple takes and the new settings that Buffy and Angel use are needed in each panel anyway, whether they stay in one location or jump every panel to somewhere new.
Buffy Season Eight picks up after the destruction of Sunnyvale. Buffy and her Slayer army have found a home in Scotland with room for the young women to train. Dawn gets cursed while studying at university. A new threat and old adversaries return. Worse, the threat is one that Buffy herself creates. However, the draw isn’t the situation, it’s the characters. How the Scoobies react to the new threat and old problems is the key, and the comic shines there. The TV series was always more than just being about a student staking vampires, and the comic continues with the idea that the heroes are people, too, even the vampires.
Comic continuations come with their own shortfalls. Page limits mean a comic can be read in five to ten minutes, unlike a forty-two minute television episode. Comics are released monthly, unlike television’s weekly schedule. Artwork may not resemble the characters*, though that was not an issue with the Buffy comics. Sometimes, the limitations of one medium that will force a creator to come up with a work around that results in a better product will be avoided. While the limits of the medium can’t be helped, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight avoids most of the shortfalls, though does get self-indulgent at times. Some subplots linger too long, while others get ignored. However, what one reader finds dragging, another will find enthralling.
Overall, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight works as a continuation. The situation that develops in the comic builds from what was shown in the TV series. The characters grew from their experiences; the Xander of the comic is not the Xander of season one, but the Xander of the end of season seven after everything he went through. The hints of what Buffy was doing as seen on Angel were expanded. Like gravity, continuity is a harsh mistress, but fans have expectations. The continuation comic meets these expectations.
* When creating a comic based on a live-action property, the actors still have control over their likenesses unless there’s a clause in their contracts allowing for comic tie-ins. Marvel Comics ran into the problem in the Eighties with both their Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica comics, where they didn’t have the rights.to the likenesses.
Every once in a while, there will be a film adaptation that perfectly highlights a key point at Lost in Translation. For the perfect adaptation that still fails at the box office, there’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. For the by-the-checklist approach, Battleship. And for adaptations that miss audience expectations, there’s Jem and the Holograms.
Jem, though, wasn’t a bad movie nor a bad adaptation. The movie just wasn’t what audiences wanted to see. Audiences wanted the cartoon adapted, not just the dolls. While the movie did pull characters from the animated adaptation, the direction it took went against the nostalgia the older audience had for the cartoon, and the older audience would be the group taking the target audience to the theatre.
The nostalgia factor is one of the draws for adaptations, especially for older works. It’s easy enough to take a currently popular work and adapt it; the Harry Potter films were successful because they drew from the books’ readers while they waited for the next book in the series to be written. Adaptations of older works don’t normally have an obvious audience that current works do. There are exceptions; episodes of every Star Trek series are easily found and Star Wars has expanded its fandom by expanding its universe. Word of mouth, the way Trek fandom spread in the early days and how Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew, is hard to measure. DVD sales and tracking online streaming might work, but with all the different ways to watch old shows today, TV ratings don’t always reflect the audience numbers. Likewise, an older work that was popular in its time might not bring in the audience it once did. Tastes change, and what was once popular may have faded away.
In-name-only adaptations are a problem. These adaptations happen when a studio understands that a work is popular without understanding why. The 1998 Godzilla demonstrates the problem. Godzilla has a long cinematic history, and the draw is the kaiju himself. Iterative changes to his appearance isn’t a problem; a massive makeover is. The 1998 film could easily have been its own monster movie, but needed the draw of the Godzilla name. Not helping matters is that movies featuring giant monsters are in a small niche. An original monster movie, once the staple of B-movies, has a limited audience. Studios either have to build on an existing name or franchise, or create an original while keeping special effects costs down*. Both are risky at a time when studios are notoriously risk adverse.
Studios can take advantage of the nostalgia factor. Curiosity will draw in fans of the original, provided that the adaptation doesn’t drift too far away from the concept. The Jem film adaptation is a good example of what happens when the adaptation drifts too far from the work fans are most familiar with, resulting in a two week run in theatres. At the same time, it is possible to have an adaptation that does break from the original and still do well at the box office; 21 Jump Street being a good example. The key to using nostalgia as a draw is making sure either that fans of the original won’t feel like they are being made fun of or that the new builds on the old.
However, relying on nostalgia alone to draw an audience is risky. The original’s name isn’t enough. Thanks to the success of the film adaptation of the Harry Potter series and, to a lesser degree, The Hunger Games, audiences are more demanding about faithfulness to the original. The worst thing a studio can do today is to use the name of an older, serious work and turn it into a comedy. That move will alienate fans of the original, the fate of such adaptations as The Land of the Lost and CHiPs. The former adaptation was turned into a comedy vehicle for Will Farrell, losing the core of what drew audiences to the original. The latter took a police procedural along the lines of Dragnet, Adam-12 and Emergency** showing a work day for a pair of California Highway Patrolmen and, again, turned it into a comedy with almost no resemblance to the original except for names.
Name recognition is a key reason why studios are adaptation prone. An original work will require effort from the studio to raise interest in an audience. A known name, whether a popular actor or a popular original work, gets attention. That’s not enough, though; the new adaptation now has to stand out in the crowd of adaptations. Audiences are less accepting of changes for the sake of change. They want the characters they know and love.
There are workarounds for the studio. The first is to take a work with name recognition but not well known. While contradictory, the idea is to find an original work with a core concept that is known but not the details. The studio has more leeway in how the work is adapted as a result. The 21 Jump Street film adaptation went this route. The TV series was known in the Eighties, but because it was on the then-fledgling Fox network, the series wasn’t well known to audiences, and is best known for having a young Johnny Depp in the cast. The core concept – police officers undercover in a high school – is broad enough to make the jump from television to silver screen. In contrast, CHiPs was on NBC, one of the three networks available and ran in syndicated reruns even while still airing new episodes, bringing in a larger audience. The approach wouldn’t work with The X-Files; the series found an audience in the science fiction fandom and had a more dedicated following.
Second, the studio could take a popular older original and update it for a more modern take. Society and technology are always changing. What was once ground-breaking has turned quaint or has led to new issues that weren’t even on the horizon when the original first appeared. The classic “woman trying to make her way in a man’s world” sitcom from the Sixties and Seventies, such as That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show looked at issues important at the time. Today, while many of those issues are moot, new ones have taken their place, allowing for an update of the sitcom. The catch here is that many of those sitcoms are tightly tied to the main actors. Workcoms, sitcoms set at a workplace, fare better here. Dynamics have changed, but interpersonal relationships still exist. Taking an older workcom and bringing it to today isn’t difficult and allows for several of the original actors to return. The original WKRP in Cincinnati was set at a low-rated radio station with an unusual group of personalities; the remake, The New WKRP in Cincinnati kept the station, brought back several characters, and introduced new ones, all perfectly plausible in the industry. The main problem The New WKRP had was quality; the original set too high a bar and was in syndicated reruns when the new series aired through first-run syndication.
Finally, the studio could go back to an original’s core concept and present a new take that still works with the idea. The Battlestar Galactica reboot series is a prime example. Both the original and the rebooted Galactica featured the last of humanity escaping the destruction of their home on a ragtag fleet. The original, though, was a family drama as the fleet was shepherded by Commander Adama to find Earth; while the Cylons were bent on destroying the Galactica, the series maintained a hopeful tone for the survivors. The reboot, however, took a harsher look and didn’t focus on just the Adamas; the show put in doubt humanity’s survival and demonstrated how the different aspects of society clashed in the crisis. Both series were popular, but the reboot garnered more attention and is now the one audiences will remember.
Audience expectation has to be managed. The studio needs to know what the audience expects from an adaptation. Just taking an original and adapting it because it’s popular or it’s a comic book isn’t enough. Adapting is popular with studios because of the built-in audience, but ignoring why that audience followed the original will lead to disaster.
* The low budget approach is how the SyFy monster movies work, including Sharktopus, the Sharknado series, and Lavalantula. They typically feature a known name and cheesy special effects that are part of the charm of the movies.
** Technically, Emergency was more a paramedic procedural, but it did show how the Los Angeles Fire Department’s program worked.
Continuing from two weeks ago, franchises lead to two other forms of adaptation. The first is the cinematic universe, where the work is adapted to a new medium with its own continuity based on the original but allowed to go in its own direction. The main advantage is that there is no continuity lockout for the general audience, at least at first, and catching up means watching the previous installments instead of trying to find forty to eighty years of stories.
The second form is the expanded universe. Unlike the cinematic universe, the expanded universe allows for works beyond the original medium to build up the setting. Different aspects can be explored that couldn’t be delved into in the original, either because of where the focus was or time limitations. Continuity lockout can become a problem, but there are ways to avoid it. Expanded universes are typically associated with franchises; popularity and demand allow for the original to expand. While Star Wars has the enduring popularity to support a universe far beyond the original movie, Manos, The Hands of Fate does not.
Franchises have a number of ways to manage expanded universes. Going back to Star Wars, Lucasfilm managed levels of canon, from the core movies to the books and games to the older animated series. If a work in the expanded universe contradicts a movie that came out later, then the older work is either considered wrong or considered true, from a certain point of view. The only exception may be the work done by West End Games; WEG worked with Lucasfilm to fill out the Galaxy Far Far Away for use in the RPG. Paramount, though, treats the Star Trek expanded universe differently. The only canon sources are the TV series and the movies; all other works have no influence, at least officially. Even the animated series is generally non-canon, except when it is canon, like “Yesteryear”. At one point, Paramount forbade different licensees from collaborating, probably after FASA worked with John M. Ford, author of The Final Reflection*, on the Klingons and their history and culture.
The advantage expanded universes have is that they can provide information that otherwise doesn’t appear in the original work. Going back to Star Wars, the names of the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina didn’t come from the movie; they came from the action figures from Kenner. The credits don’t list the names, and the only alien who rates a name was Greedo, who didn’t get to see another scene afterwards. The rest, including Hammerhead and Walrus Man, had their names on Kenner’s packaging. Even R5-D4, the astromech that blew a gasket after being bought by Luke and Lars, was just “this R2 unit” in the movie and only got a name in other media.
Whether ideas from the expanded universe make their way into the main works depends on the franchise. As mentioned, Paramount places restrictions when it comes to Star Trek; FASA’s explanation of the differences between Klingons from the Original Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture never appeared in any Trek series since, not even when the difference was pointed out in Deep Space Nine‘s “Trials and Tribble-ations”. Lucasfilm, though, maintains control on what gets placed into the expanded works, so it is possible to see an items from a comic to make an appearance in a TV series. In fact, Lucasfilm provided the WEG sourcebooks to Timothy Zahn when he began his Heir to the Empire series, and Brian Daley’s Han Solo books introduced the Z-95 Headhunter, which has appeared since Han Solo at Star’s End was published in video games and in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Continuity, especially when the different expanded works can share information, becomes an issue if not managed well. Fortunately, there are ways around the problem. If it’s equipment, like the above mentioned Z-95, then just have it appear without explanation. This works best with gear that isn’t too specialized. Audiences are familiar with the idea of new technologies appearing in real life, from cars to phones, so something like that happening in the expanded universe adds a layer of verisimilitude. Characters, though, do come with extra baggage. Their previous appearances will have shaped them, How the character is handled may depend on the medium. Comics have a history of footnotes referring to past issues, but other media may either have to either ignore the background and just present the character as is or take time for a flashback. With novels, an author can spend a page filling in readers without losing the flow. Movies and even television can’t spend that much time unless the information is plot-relevant. But if information isn’t plot-relevant, does it need to be brought up? Introduce the character properly and the personality will let the audience in the know feel comfortable with the portrayal and the rest of the audience isn’t left scratching their heads.
The benefit of an expanded universe comes down to income. If a work is popular, fans will pay for more about it. However, fans will also recognize when the expanded work is sub-par and will avoid it. Creative types who are engaged to work on the expanded universe, though, are likely to be fans of the original, so will put in an honest effort. The catch, though, is that as the original’s universe expands, new fans may come in through one of the expanded works and may not be aware of the origins.
Expanded universes aren’t for every franchise. The setting of the original has to allow for the expansion. With Star Wars and Star Trek, there is a vast setting beyond what was seen in the original works. The 007 expanded universe – video games, comics, and novels by authors other than Ian Fleming – keeps the focus on James Bond; adding a new 00 agent wouldn’t have the impact and the new character may be better served in his or her own original work instead. Likewise, not every franchise creator wants to expand. The Harry Potter universe is popular, but, outside the movie and video game adaptations, there isn’t much beyond the original books except for the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. JK Rowling isn’t interested in expanding to the degree Lucasfilm has, and she maintains control of the Potter-verse.
The line between adaptation and expanded universe is much like the line between adaptation and franchise, very fine and mostly exists from perception. The main differences is that the expanded universe can influence future works even in the original medium and that fans are aware that there is more than what is presented in the original. This pushes the expanded universe from adaptation to continuation, and will be noted in future reviews.
* However, Ford’s creation of the Klingon “Black Fleet” in the afterlife appeared in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery. As an expanded universe grows and matures, new writers will incorporate ideas from even areas that aren’t canon if the ideas are good.
Apologies. Unfortunately, an emergency came up that prevented getting a post ready for today. Lost in Translation will return next week.
With superhero movies becoming a mainstay in theatres, the question arises, what is the border between adapting and expanding a franchise? Lost in Translation has already touched on the question, but as comics get adapted for both film and television and movie series get TV series and comics, the line between adaptation and franchise gets blurred.
The difference between a tie-in work and an adaptation is academic. The 007 movie franchise started with one adaptation, Dr. No, but grew from there. Likewise, Marvel’s cinematic universe started with just one film, Iron Man, and expanded when the movie succeeded at the box office. Tie-in works aren’t limited to going from books to movies; Star Trek, Star Wars, and Murder, She Wrote all have long-running series of novels with a goal of continuing the story begun in the original works.
The main difference between an adaptation and a franchise tie-in is perception. Tie-in works are seen as part of the monetization of a work, expanding the influence into other media. However, very few adaptations are made without an eye on turning a profit. Even the notable flops weren’t meant to fail at the box office. Studios and publishers aren’t charities; they exist to be profitable. That distinction between franchise and adaptation isn’t really a distinction.
Even licensing isn’t a factor in the difference. Reboots, a type of adaptation, are often done by the rights holder; Paramount rebooted Star Trek into Star Trek: The Next Generation to great success. Warner, DC Comics’ parent company. has rebooted the Batman movie franchise several times. In DC’s case, being owned by a movie studio does add a level of separation, but that doesn’t hold for Paramount and Star Trek.
Is the perception that adaptations and franchise tie-ins are different correct? Lost in Translation has been looking at how works are adapted, and every franchise has to start somewhere. There would be no Wonder Woman breaking box office records if William Moulton Marston hadn’t created the character for All Star Comics number 8. The difference between Disney getting Marvel to create a line of Star Wars comics and DiC creating The Real Ghostbusters under license from Sony or Saban licensing BattleTech from FASA for an animated series is how far out from the ownership of the adaptation is from the original work. Disney owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm; Sony didn’t own DiC nor did FASA own Saban. But the result, a new work based on an existing one, is still an adaptation.
Ultimately, what all the above means is that the field of available works to review at Lost in Translation has grown. There is still the same process when translating a work from its original medium to a new one, with the same problems to overcome.
And a quick reminder that Lost in Translation is on Facebook!
With apparent* remake fever, studios are adapting everything. Netflix recently announced a two-season origins story for Catch 22‘s Nurse Ratched. High brow, low brow, nothing seems to be off limits. The question, though, is why not get some of the old low budget titles? Sure, they may not have the draw that /Catch 22/ has, but being unknown will pique some curiosity. Consider it a bonus if the remake is better than the original. In this spirit, let’s look at remaking the one and only Danish kaiju movie, Reptilicus.
It is safe to say that Reptilicus has issues. Movies don’t get featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 if they don’t. Reptilicus was the first movie featured on MST3K: The Return. It was ripe for riffing, thanks to a slow start, an odd character that seemed to be there solely for comic relief, and special effects that showed a low budget. Yet, the movie had potential, which is critical when remaking a work.
As a Danish-American production, two versions were made. The American version substituted one actress from the Danish version and removed one of the title monster’s abilities because of how it looked on screen. The movie begins in Lapland with the discovery of the tail of an ancient creature frozen in the ice. The tail is shipped to the Danish Aquarium in Copenhagen, where scientists study the remains. An mishap allows the tail to thaw, leading to the monster, dubbed Reptilicus, regenerating like a starfish. Once fully regenerated, the monster menaces Copenhagen and the North Sea. The military is called in, but is limited in what they can do. Using explosives means that parts of Reptilicus could lie unseen and able to regenerate into a new monster. Only two ways will work to destroy the monster – fire and poison. However, the military finds out these details too late, after having blasted off the creature’s foot. The movie ends on a shot of the foot lying underwater.
Reptilicus start off slow, in the way of far too many B-movies, with serious men being serious scientists explaining the plot before it starts. However, the square-jawed science hero isn’t in this movie; the scientists are older with families. The slow start also helps delay the other big problem of the film, Reptilicus itself. It is very much a rubber monster, shot on different film stock than the rest of the movie. The movie tries to avoid showing the creature too much, knowing that it really isn’t that threatening. Instead, the destruction in the monster’s wake is shown.
However, in trying to not focus on the monster, the movie does get a few good shots in, including the panicking of the crowd. One scene has a drawbridge that starts rising before people could cross it. Several bicyclists drive off the edge into the water below before they could stop. The Danish military gets several good scenes as they try in vain to stop Reptilicus. The movie has potential. It was just the execution where Reptilicus had problems.
In the hypothetical remake, the first thing to work on is Reptilicus itself. Special effects have come a long way since rubber puppets in 1961. The monster can be more threatening and appear in the same frame as its hunters today. However, it may be best to keep its ability to fly out of the remake; the American version in 1961 removed it because it was too silly. Given the location, a sea monster would work well; long, snaky, a threat to shipping and the coast. Its ability to regenerate could be kept, though it’d take some work to make it believable today. Monster movies can get away with some biological weirdnesses, but too weird and the suspension of disbelief snaps.
In terms of plot, the monster has to be on screen sooner. The draw of monster movies is the monster as it wreak havok in a major metropolitan area. The lack of collateral damage was one of the problems with the 1998 Godzilla. With better effects, Reptilicus can appear sooner and with the destruction such a monster is capable of. Ships and buildings can be destroyed on screen. Get Reptilicus right, and the initial investigation won’t have to carry the first half of the film.
The scientists can stay. They provide the explanations the audience needs. The monster’s ability to regenerate can be shown on screen, but having someone in a white lab coat mention the process, especially to military leaders, never hurts. Show and tell instead of just telling. The discovery of the remains of Reptilicus and the mishap that lets it thaw are key moments in the film, so they need to be kept. Since it should be easier today to show more of the monster onscreen, the remains can be a near-complete carcass instead of just the tail.
The end of the film will need work. The monster was finally defeated in the movie when a sedative was fired into its mouth by the general using a bazooka. Combined with the poor effects of the monster, the scene didn’t work. The concept is good, but getting it to look right on screen will be tough. The restriction on method in-story was that Reptilicus was in the city; fire bombing the monster would not look good on the military. The collateral damage would be too high. But a difficult shot with a weapon meant to be used against large targets like tanks and bunkers. Accuracy is difficult, and the bazooka has been superceded by the rocket launcher, a weapon that really doesn’t do sedatives. A grenade launcher may work better – gas grenades can be filled with what’s needed with some handwaving – but the accuracy is still an issue. Grenades aren’t really precision weapons. The end may involve someone running up to Reptilicus to toss the modified gas grenade into the monster’s mouth. It would make for a satisfying bit of action after seeing Reptilicus trash Copenhagen.
One of the problems with remakes lately is the Hollywood-ization factor. Studios, not wanting to risk losses on a film, populate casts with either the latest and greatest or the pretty, with no thought on what the roles need. Reptilicus features high level personnel at both the aquarium and the military. The head of research isn’t going to be a twenty-something; likewise, the general isn’t going to be a model. It’ll take a director willing to push back somewhat to make sure that the actors for these roles fit.
Reptilicus has the potential to be a good remake. All the original movie needed was a bigger budget for the monster, something that a studio can provide today. The core of the original is a monster movie; the draw is the monster rampaging. Keep the focus on Reptilicus and avoid the temptation to add subplots and the remake will draw an audience.
* I say “apparent” because the past few decades have been teeming with popular original work. As seen in the History of Adaptations, that wasn’t always the case.