Lost in Translation has noted a few times that television may be the better medium for adapting novels, particularly series of novels. Provided it doesn’t fall victim to poor ratings, the adaptation can take the time needed to present the story at a proper pace instead of trying to cram everything into two to three hours. Let’s take a look at such an adaptation, Syfy’s adaptation of the James SA Corey series of novels, The Expanse.
With Leviathan Wakes published in 2011, The Expanse tells the story about life in the Solar System after being colonized. While Earth is still the birthplace of humanity, Mars and the Asteroid Belt are homes for a large number of people. Things start with relations friendly between the three locations, with a coalition of Earth and Mars treating the Belt as a protectorate. Underneath the friendliness lies friction, not enough to start a war, but enough to take a good excuse to launch one.
Leviathan Wakes is told from two perspectives. One is from the view of James Holden, the executive officer, or XO, of the Canterbury, an ice hauler working between the Belt and Saturn. The other is from Detective Miller’s, a Belter born and raised on Ceres station working for Star Helix, who has the law enforcement contract on the asteroid. The two stories start far apart; but as events happen, they start to intermingle.
Miller’s assignment on Ceres has him and his partner, Havelock, trying to find out what happened to the local organized crime gangs, the griega, as solo operators and young punks muscle in on the action without repercussion. Since the case is stalling out, Miller’s boss gives him, and only him, a new assignment – a missing person to be retrieved who may not want to be retrieved, Julie Mao.
Over on the Canterbury, Holden registers a distress signal, forcing the Cant to respond. He takes engineer Naomi, mechanic Amos, medic Shed, and pilot Alex in a shuttle over to check out the Scopuli. The ship is dead, no power, no life, no bodies, yet still transmitting. The Cant picks up an engine signature, but before Holden can get his crew out of the Scopuli, the unknown ship fires nuclear missiles at the Canterbury, destroying her with all hands except the rescue party.
Leviathan Wakes switches point of view between Holden and Miller. Holden and his crew try to stay alive while getting the blame for starting a war between Mars and the Belt, eventually picking up the Rocinante. Miller gets more obsessed with finding Julie Mao. Both run into senior members of the Outer Planets Alliance, with Holden meeting Fred Johnson and Miller running into Anderson Dawes. The storylines intertwine, as Holden searches for the reason why the Cant was destroyed and Miller gets closer to finding Julie at the cost of his career. On Eros, the two meet. As bad as the storylines were getting when they were apart, they get worse after the meeting. The common element is Julie Mao.
In 2014, Syfy picked up the license for The Expanse and began airing the ten episode first season at the end of 2015. The series stars Steven Strait as Holden, Dominique Tipper as Naomi, Wes Chatham as Amos, Cas Anvar as Alex, and Thomas Jane as Miller. Today is just a look at the first season and how it adapts Leviathan Wakes.
Season one takes its cues from Leviathan Wakes. The events in the book are portrayed on screen. However, the series does away with the having just two perspectives. The story is still split between Holden and Miller, but other details are added in. With a novel, hinting at what’s happening outside the perception of the main characters works. Leviathan Wakes has Holden and Miller on the outside and trying to peer into a complex set of relationships between governments, corporations, and private citizens. Television, though, doesn’t work as well with hinting. Showing what is just mentioned in the background, such as a suicide ramming run by a Belter ice hauler against a Martian warship, adds to the impact. There are many cogs and gears happening behind the story in The Expanse; showing some helps make the setting real, even if it means pulling in details from the other novels and the short stories and novellas.
The series keeps to the pace of the novel. Turns out, ten episodes isn’t enough to adapt the entire novel. Instead of rushing through to cram Leviathan Wakes into one season, the first season ends about midway through the book at a spot that works for a natural end point. It’s a cliffhanger ending, to be sure, but the end point works for the both the story and the season. The characters are in a safe enough spot after everything that has happened, though the main mystery is still not shown.
Season one also keeps the the mix of genres of the novel, a mix of space opera, noir, and horror. The tension remains steady through the series, with things ramping up for the two-part season finale. The depth of the setting is on full display, as the Belt, Mars, and Earth find their reasons to begin hostilities. The TV series keeps the dynamic feel of the setting by showing it beyond what is hinted at in Leviathan Wakes.
The first season of The Expanse shows how television can adapt a novel far better than a movie or even a series of movies. Television allows for the quieter moments, the scenes that are focused on the characters, both of which are heavily used in Leviathan Wakes. Horror works best when the audience’s imagination is allowed to take over; hinting at what’s lurking is better than showing it outright. When the payoff comes, the audience experience the full horror of what’s happening.
The danger of a television adaptation is that it may not be completed. Syfy aired three seasons of The Expanse. Amazon picked up the series for the fourth season coming soon. With A Game of Thrones being a massive hit for HBO, it was only natural for other channels to find their own version. Syfy went with a space opera with political machinations running in the background. However, costs, especially for a series set in space, have a price, and that means the risk of being dropped despite viewership. The Expanse takes a massive story and presents it at a proper pace. The characters are easily recognizable, the setting’s details come through, and the plot is unmarred by the translation to the new medium. With the number of books released, Amazon and whoever comes afterward, has enough to work with for years.
There are movies that are essentially vehicles to showcase the star. It’s not a new phenomenon; the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road to … series of movies are a good example. Unless the star is more than a flash in the pan, the films become forgettable. When the star has true talent, the movie can transcend the purpose of cashing in on the star’s popularity. In the Eighties, Michael J. Fox broke out during the run of Family Ties, becoming a favourite of audiences. During the show’s run from 1982 to 1989, he appeared as a guest star in several other TV series and TV movies before making the jump to the silver screen with Back to the Future.
Fox, though, didn’t rest. The Eighties were an odd time, where the usual game of Follow-the-Leader played by studios didn’t work. Popular works begat backlash works which also become popular. Fox, though, was bankable, with a natural charm that appears throughout his career, and he was willing to work. He followed up Back to the Future with Teen Wolf, also released in 1985.
Teen Wolf is, in short, an Eighties teen comedy, covering all the problems a teenaged boy would have in the decade – trying to deal with puberty, trying to date the popular girl, trying to deal with bullies, trying to be the team star. The twist, though, is that Fox’s character, Scott Howard, is a werewolf.
Scott has the usual problems. He has a crush on Pamela, played by Lorie Griffin, the popular girl dating the star of the rival basketball team, Mick (Mark Arnold). Scott is on his school’s basketball team, the Beavers, but they’re not a great team. The 5’4″ or 163cm tall Scott is the second best player on the Beavers, and he has problems sinking foul shots. Said foul came from Mick, who tends to bully those he sees as lessers. Scott is also oblivious, not recognizing the crush his friend Boof (Susan Ursitti) has for him. As for puberty, Scott is going through a change even his health class couldn’t help him with. Scott’s best friend, Stiles (Jerry Levine), is there to help, sort of.
The changes come slowly, bit by bit. Fingernails turn into claws and back. Eyes glow. In a pile trying to retrieve a loose ball, Scott growls, sending everyone on both teams back. The changes aren’t all a pain. Scott’s basketball game improves. But the inevitable happens and he changes at a game. Instead of mass panic and a riotous mob, the home team cheers because Scott in his wolf form gives the Beavers their first win.
The usual reactions in a werewolf movie – fear, panic, mobs rising up to strike the lycanthrope down – are avoided. Scott is popular. He’s the star basketball player. He can stand up to the people trying to keep him down. And he gets the popular girl. Technically, she gets him, but only for what she can get from him.
As Scott embraces his wolf side, he starts getting an ego to go with his popularity. He starts alienating everyone, Boof, his teammates. His father (James Hampton), though, gives him The Talk, the lesson on being himself. Turns out, Scott was never bitten. His lycanthropy is genetic. His father is a werewolf. In the championship basketball game, Scott leaves the wolf out, playing as himself, and using his head. Mick, in trying to get Scott to wolf-out, fouls out, his fourth foul on Scott. The movie ends as it begins, with Scott having to make a foul shot.
Outside the supernatural element, Teen Wolf is a very typical teen comedy from the decade. Lycanthropy stands in for puberty, and the goal is laughs. If it wasn’t for Michael J. Fox, the movie would be forgotten. Fox’s natural charm carries the film, giving it more exposure than it would’ve had. As a result, the movie spawned a cartoon series in 1986 and a sequel, Teen Wolf Too with Jason Bateman, in 1987. That should’ve been it, but almost thirty years after the movie’s release, MTV produced a TV series based on the movie.
The TV series, also called Teen Wolf, first aired in 2011 and ran six seasons, ending in 2017. Given that the series has a total run time that is two magnitudes longer than the original movie, changes are expected, just to fill the time. Let’s just look at season one, which covers about the same amount of time in-film as the original movie, from the start of the sports season to city championships.
Tyler Posey takes over the Scott role, now called Scott McCall. Instead of basketball, he plays lacrosse, and wants to make the first line. Stiles (Dylan O’Brien) is still Scott’s best friend, but instead of being the party loving slacker of the movie, he’s more a geek. The popular girl is Lydia (Holland Roden) instead of Pamela, and while she plays up the mean girl aspect, she hides an intellect as she manipulates the lacrosse team captain, Jackson (Colton Haynes), for social position. Scott doesn’t have a crush on her; instead, Stiles does, and he sees through her facade. Scott’s love interest is the new girl in town, Allison (Crystal Reed).
The new series uses today’s expectations of urban fantasy and the supernatural, with Scott being bitten by a werewolf to gain the curse. His transformation happens slowly over the first episode, with him suddenly getting better at lacrosse and making the first line. But with better health and agility comes a few other problems, like anger issues, claws, and fangs. Scott also gains the attention of Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin), a werewolf in town trying to find who killed his sister.
Jackson is suspicious of Scott; no one improves that much at lacrosse over the summer. He suspects steroids at first, but digs too deep over the course of the first season. Scott has to juggle his new love life, his friends, Derek, and, new to the series, werewolf hunters. To make matters worse, the leader of the hunters is his new girlfriend’s father (JR Bourne), making the typical problems look tame.
As the season progresses, Scott learns to control his wolf side, tracks down the alpha werewolf who bit him, and finally opens himself to Allison, but several lives are turned upside down along the way. Allison had no idea of her family’s secret until her Aunt Kate (Jill Wagner) shows her. Jackson and Lydia are injured with potentially fatal consequences.
The main difference from movie to TV series is seriousness. The original was a teen comedy. The TV series is a teen drama, but it takes its beats from the movie. The slow reveal of Scott’s abilities, the sports focus in the early part of season one, even the bowling scene from the movie makes an appearance, though altered for who the new characters are. Scott still has his problems, but his ego isn’t one of them. His problems start with typical ones for teenagers, made worse because of his curse. Nothing goes smooth for him. Like Fox’s Scott, Posey’s problems don’t go away when he’s a werewolf.
Season one of Teen Wolf takes the ideas from the movie and brings them to today, with today’s views on urban fantasy and the supernatural. Werewolves are again something the public fears because of the danger they represent. They’re not superstars on the field of play gaining adoration. The TV series is a product of its own time, not of the Eighties, even if it borrows from that decade. The result is the same story, a teenager trying to cope with life and changes, just told in a different way, more serious, with more depth.
Batman, the character, has been around for eighty years since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27. Over that time, he has been in a number of different media, including serials, television, animation, film, and games. The character has been portrayed in a number of ways for 80 years, allowing for a Batman for everyone’s tastes.
Cutting to the chase, one of the more recent adaptations is also a spin-off. The LEGO Batman Movie features the Batman from The LEGO Movie, itself also an adaptation. The LEGO Movie is also a hard movie to follow up on, having not only been entertaining and thought provoking, but also a cinematic way to play with LEGO. Batman in The LEGO movie was both a parody and a kid’s view of the character, dark, gritty, and very, very serious. Will Arnett played the character straight, despite the absurdity, much like Leslie Nielsen in Airplane and Adam West in the 1966 Batman TV series.
The LEGO Movie well enough to garner a sequel and Batman was popular enough to get a spin-off. This time, set in LEGO Gotham, the movie features Batman and characters associated with him. Emmett, Wildstyle, and Unikitty aren’t around; this isn’t their movie. Instead, LEGO Batman has Will Arnett, Michael Cera as Dick Greyson, Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred Pennyworth, and Zack Galifianakis as the Joker. Even the minor characters were voiced by an impressive cast, including Mariah Carey and Billy Dee Williams as Two Face.
LEGO Batman opens with black, like all important movies, followed by the type of music that makes studio execs and parents nervous. Batman even narrates that, then provides a quote that becomes important to the main theme of the movie.
The big opening features the Joker with every villain from Batman’s rogues gallery planting a bomb underneath Gotham City that, if it explodes, would send the city into the endless void beneath the city. The Joker offers Gotham a deal – provide the mayor and Batman, the city goes unexploded. As time ticks down, the mayor arrives, but there’s no sign of Batman, worrying the Joker. However, the master of disguise that Batman is has already arrived, in the form of the mayor. Batman breaks out a new song and proceeds to defeat the A-list, B-list, C-list, and D-list villains, leaving the Joker for last.
All the Joker wanted was for Batman to acknowledge him as his greatest enemy. Batman steadfastly refuses, calling Superman his greatest enemy and saying he needs no one and the Joker means nothing to him. The Joker does get away as Batman dives to defuse the bomb and saves the city once again.
Later that night, Bruce Wayne arrives at James Gordon’s retirement party. Gordon is stepping down as Police Commissioner, allowing his daughter, Barbara, take over the role. Barbara is a graduate of Harvard for Police and has cleaned up cities like Bludhaven through physical abilities and spreadsheets. It’s love at first sight for Bruce, who is so smitten he accidentally adopts Dick Greyson without realizing it. Barbara, though, hasa plan to clean up crime that doesn’t involve Batman.
Joker, meanwhile, enacts his latest plan to get Batman to admit he’s the greatest enemy. All he needs is the Phantom Zone ray. The plan is somewhat convoluted as he surrenders not just himself but every Bat-villain into Barbara’s custody, sending all of the villains to Arkham Asylum. Batman and Barbara both know that the Joker is up to something, but Batman believes the best place to keep him is in the Phantom Zone.
After a theft where Batman uses Dick, now using Robin as a code name, as an expendable minion, steals the projector from Superman”s Fortress of Solitude. Breaking into Arkham is a little more difficult than expected, but Batman sends the Joker to the Phantom Zone. Barbara takes the opportunity to lock Batman and Robin away.
In the Phantom Zone, the Joker gathers several LEGO versions of filmdom’s villains – Sauron, Voldemort, King Kong, Dracula, Godzilla, even “British robots” that like to yell “EXTERMINATE!” With this lot, the Joker will force Batman to admit that they need each other.
The movie is a character study of Batman, using every incarnation of him, comic, cartoon, and film. LEGO Batman makes references to events from the Christopher Nolan movies, the Tim Burton movies, and the Leslie H. Martinson movie. The character is recognizable and covers similar ground, but takes a deeper look into what becoming a loner does to him. LEGO Batman is driven by two things, a desire to keep others feeling what he did when his parents were shot and a desire to not go through those emotions again. It’s when he is forced to confront what he has become that he realizes that he can’t protect his friends, and he needs them.
The LEGO Batman Movie has its “kid playing LEGO” moments, following the style of The LEGO Movie. Many of the sound effects are just the voice actors providing them, such as, “Pew pew pew!” At the same time, the movie has depth that many of the Batman movies don’t get into, such as the effects of fighting crime while dressed as a bat. LEGO Batman isn’t a parody but a pastiche of all previous incarnations, but while treating the plot like an amusement, the psychology of Batman isn’t there for comedy. His motives are examined, his ego and bravado a shield.
Despite, or maybe because of, its origins, The LEGO Batman movie may be the best representation of the character on film. The character, despite being a toy, has depth, as does the Joker. They both have a need that Batman manages to deny for both, and only when he can break past the denial can the city be saved.
Last month, Lost in Translation analyzed the Renault Brazil live action D&D cartoon ad. Turns out, it’s not the only ad to adapt a cartoon. Today, Lost in Translation will look at the potential ads have for adaptation and take a look at another cartoon adapted into a live-action ad.
Let’s start with the actual adaptation, a car ad based on /Wacky Racers/. First airing in 1968, Wacky Races was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that ran for seventeen episodes. Inspirations for the cartoon may have included The Great Race, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. The plot for each episode was simple – ten racers try to get to the finish line. Characterization was done in broad strokes; no one character, with two exceptions, got much screen time. The exceptions were Dick Dastardly and Muttley, who could be considered the stars of the series. Dastardly’s goal was to win, by hook or by crook. Dick Dastardly is so fixated on cheating that he never realizes that his schemes require him to race ahead of the pack to set things up. He could win if he never stops to cheat.
In 2014, French director Antoine Bardou-Jacquet and production company Partizan teamed up to create an ad for Peugeot, a live action version of Wacky Races with the Peugeot 208 added. Clocking in at 1:16, it’s about a tenth of the length of a typical Wacky Races short. Most of the characters from the cartoon are in the ad. Missing, though, are Pat Pending and his Converticar, Rufus Roughcut and Sawtooth in the Buzz Wagon, and Lazy Luke and Blubber Bear in the Arkansas Chug-a-bug. Given the length, the ad would’ve been too busy with those three cars in it.
The ad plays out like a Wacky Races short, with the characters trying to win. Dick Dastardly, naturally, tries to cheat and gets hoist on his own petard yet again. There’s no dialogue; there’s no time for it. Instead, the characters are portrayed through body language. This is where the nature of the original work helps. The characters are broad, so if the look is right, the body language follows. With Dastardly and Muttley, the laughs are critical, and the ad gets those right. The ad works as an adaptation because it gets to the core of the cartoon, the race.
This is where advertising has an edge when it comes to adaptations. Ads have a running time between thirty seconds and two minutes. With time shifting technologies like the VCR and DVR, audiences can fast forward past ads. Advertisers need to make the audience want to stop and watch. Getting the details right will catch the attention of viewers. Getting an adaptation’s look right gets that attention. But that’s just the first step.
A good adaptation gets people talking and sharing links. It’s how both the Renault Brazil and the Peugeot ad got into the sights of Lost in Translation. It’s not just getting the look right, but getting the core right. With Wacky Races, it’s easy enough; the original didn’t have that much depth beyond racing with odd cars and odd characters. But even with a work that has depth, the ad doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. It just has to resonate enough for viewers to fill in what’s missing. Renault Brazil’s ad did that; it used the D&D cartoon’s popularity in Brazil to fill in the missing details. Miss what makes the original tick, though, and the differences will be jarring. Even if an audience stops zipping through ads to see what’s going on, the right look won’t save a bad adaptation. Worst case, the ad drives away the folks the advertiser was trying to hook.
Here’s where the time limitations help. In longer form adaptations, such as movies, the time available may be too much for the original work to fill without having to add details. In advertising, there may not even be enough time to get everything in. The ad has to cut to the essence. The Renault and the Peugeot ads did just that by getting to the action without wasting time for explanations. The audience fills in the gaps. Viewers unaware of the original work still get a fun ad to watch. The ads have no need for filler.
All adaptations all the time won’t work in advertising. The goal is always to be fresh or fresh enough to draw attention without bringing ridicule to the product being marketed. The more competitive the market, the more creative ads need to get. If every car was marketed through a live-action cartoon, one company would just have to show their cars in a different light to stand out. However, ads do have a good chance of getting an adaptation right because of their limitations. They have to do a lot in the short time allotted.
Lost in Translation has covered how TV viewing habits have changed since Philo Farnsworth created the cathode ray tube TV in 1927. Television has gone from a three-to-five local over-the-air channels to the Big Three networks and PBS plus local indies to cable bringing in distant channels clearly to Pay TV and having fifty-seven channels and still nothing on, to now with the infinite channels. There’s the rub.
In the past, viewers just needed a television. Sure, at one point, TVs were luxuries, but they became an appliance much as a washer or an over. Televisions replaced radios and fireplaces as the place families gathered in front of. As the cost of TVs came down, it was possible to have a spare one in a bedroom for late night viewing. Add in the silicon chip, broadband Internet delivery, and the decreasing costs of computers and even cellular phones with increasing capabilities, it is possible for the viewing audience to have multiple ways to view content.
Naturally, content providers expand to take advantage of the new capabilities. Cable had tiers of service, but audiences just needed the one provider. In many areas, there wasn’t a choice of cable companies due to how the signal was delivered. Cities that had multiple providers often had a physical separation between the areas covered. Take Ottawa of the Seventies and Eighties; the city had two providers, Ottawa Cablevision and Skyline Cablevision. To choose one over the other meant deciding on which side of the Rideau River to live on. The two services had separate cables underground to deliver the TV signal, so each provider had a slightly different line up of channels. Viewers still had to pay the cable bill, but the signal was clear.
With the Internet becoming as necessary as a phone line was in the past, new ways of delivering content came about. Netflix, originally a mail-order DVD rental service, saw that streaming over the Internet could be lucrative. The company was right. Its main competitor, Blockbuster, didn’t make the change over, leading to the demise of the video rental powerhouse and leaving Netflix alone in the field. Netflix started with just providing the movies it was renting through mail-order, but expanded to become a creator as well, with notable series such as Stranger Things, the One Day at a Time remake, and Blazing Transfer Students REBORN.
With the success of Netflix, everyone wants their own streaming service. That’s already bad news for Netflix. Amazon is just a competitor here, trying to get access to the same content Netflix has while creating their own. When content creators get into distribution, the usual middlemen get cut out. In this case, with Disney and CBS having their own streaming services means content that Netflix has now may not be available in the future. Disney’s streaming service, Disney +, is going to have Disney movies and not just the animated works. Disney owns ABC, ESPN, Marvel Studios and Star Wars, a huge draw that can suddenly go exclusive to just Disney +. CBS All Access has every show CBS owns, including Star Trek: Discovery, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and Elementary. NBCUniversal is planning on its own streaming service.
As it stands right now, Netflix is joined by not just Amazon and CBS, but Hulu, Sling TV, DirecTV, Playstation Vue (and Playstation is planning on getting into film and television productions), and YouTube TV. If other studios and networks start getting into the streaming game, it’s going to get harder to find the gems. As it stands right now, word of mouth is the most effective way of a production getting known. Audiences won’t be able to afford every streaming service available. YouTube TV costs $40 per month, and another $10 per month for YouTube Red and its original works. Few people can afford all the streaming services, and no one has the time to watch them all.
The result will be a balkanization of television. Audiences will be split, trying to find the streaming service that provides what they want without too much cruft. With audiences split, advertisers have to work out where their targets have gone. In the old three-channel universe, once ratings came out, it was easy to find what a demographic was watching. Recorders, video or digital, allowed audiences to skip ads, leading to new techniques to get the message across. With subscription fees, though, audiences may not be as tolerant of ads as in the past. The problem there is that advertising paid for shows’ production. Subscription fees may not cover the full amount.
To illustrate the effects, let’s take three popular TV series and the viewers for their last episodes. M*A*S*H, with “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (airdate 28/02/1983), had 106 million viewers, a record broken by the 2010 Super Bowl and not matched by any TV series. Seinfeld‘s finale, “The Finale” (airdate 14/05/1998), had 76 million viewers. The Big Bang Theory‘s last episode, “The Stockholm Syndrome” (airdate 16/05/2019), only had 18 million viewers. M*A*S*H came from the end of the three-channel universe, just as cable television and Pay TV was starting to catch on. Seinfeld saw an expansion of offerings plus recording technology allowing for time-shifted viewing. The Big Bang Theory comes from the expansion into the infinite channel universe, where there is heavy competition for attention. The numbers “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” saw may never happen again outside special events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics. There may be more viewers now than in 1983, but there’s also more choices.
The challenge for television today, as it has been since the industry started airing, is to find an audience. Advertisers want viewers, too. If they can’t find any, they’re not going to buy air time. No ads, no money for production. At the same time, because of the sheer amount of choice now, all TV content creators, traditional networks and streaming services alike, need to create content that will draw in audiences. While streaming services have access to a number of second run and syndicated series and movies, if one starts creating original content or adapting new series, like Amazon and Good Omens, then the others will have to follow just to keep pace.
As the balkanization happens, audiences aren’t going to keep up. Much like cable in the Seventies and Eighties pulled together a number of stations and subscription channels, there’ll be room for a service that curates the disparate streaming services for audiences. Internet service providers have filled this role before, but as the smaller ISPs have been swallowed by the bigger ones, they’re now adding their own services, adding to the balkanization.
Then there’s the indies. Smaller studios who would normally be shut out can now carve a niche online, getting a small but wanted audience. While not a streaming service, these indies, including fan-creations, will just add to the fragmentation of television. The wide range of choice is a blessing for indies, a chance to compete with the majors on a playing field getting levelled.
As the balkanization grows, the best hope an audience has is word of mouth and happy accidents. There’s not enough time to watch everything or even everything that looks interesting. Each member of the audience has a different definition of “interesting,” too. There’s no more catering to the lowest common denominator. The audience is fragmented, just like television. TV has to provide compelling programming to remain competitive with all other forms of entertainment.
Star Wars is huge. It began as a massive blockbuster that broke box office records and became a massive franchise. Now in the hands of Disney, the Star Wars franchise has a number of tie-ins and spin-offs, including games of all sorts, novels, animated series, and, now, spin-off movies. The spin-offs are a way to keep the Star Wars name in theatres, with each one coming about a year after the major releases like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The spin-offs fill in gaps in the storyline and keeps people talking about the franchise. Let’s take a look at the most recent spin-off, Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Solo delves into the history of the franchise’s favourite scruffy nerfherder, Han. A few points, though. Han wasn’t the first character to appear in a tie-in novel – that honour belongs to Luke and Leia in Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1978 – but Brian Daley featured him and Chewbacca in a trilogy of novels beginning in 1979: Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. The three books were later collected as The Han Solo Adventures and were referenced by AC Crispin in The Han Solo Trilogy. The Daley books were the source of the Z-95 Headhunter, first appearing in Stars’ End and then returning in the X-Wing series of video games and in the CGI series The Clone Wars. Of the main characters of the series, Han has had the most done with his background in the Expanded Universe.
The big problem is that there is so much written about Han that a movie risks contradicting what has come before. Canon in Star Wars comes in a hierarchy, with the movies being primary, the animated series coming next, then the tie-in works third. However, West End Games’ RPG tends to be referenced for terms and equipment, so the hierarchy can be fluid. Daley’s works have been around for almost the length of the franchise, a background influence on subsequent work. It’s a tough line for Solo to follow.
As for the movie, Solo is one part coming of age, one part gangster flick, one part Western, one part pulp, one part heist movie, one part origins story, and all space opera. The movie shows Han crawling out of the dregs of Corellia, meeting Chewbacca, meeting Lando, and getting the Millennium Falcon. The seeds of what Han will become in the original trilogy are planted, showing why he got involved with a senile old man, a farm boy, and two droids trying to escape Tatooine. One of the highlights of the film is showing how Han made the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs, and why a unit of length is used instead of a unit of time.
The casting is one of the movie’s strengths. Alden Ehrenreich has the difficult job of being a young Harrison Ford, but pulls off not just the looks but the mannerisms, while still being young and not quite cynical yet. Joonas Suotame plays Chewie, Han’s partner after being rescued from Imperial enslavement. Donald Glover becomes Lando Calrissian, channelling Billy Dee Williams and dominating any scene he’s in. New characters include Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Han’s mentor; Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s love; L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s first mate and droids’ rights activist; and Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), head of the Crimson Dawn crime ring. Everyone named there has a story arc, some successful, others not.
The strong cast leads into one of the movie’s problems. Han gets overshadowed at times in his own story. The story is still his, but it’s not until midway through the film that Han starts to stand out. Lando in particular tends to take over scenes, thanks to both the nature of the character and to Donald Glover’s portrayal. The interplay between Lando and L3 deserves its own feature, movie or TV series, with Glover and Waller-Bridge reprising the characters. This is of no fault on the part of Ehrenreich; Lando is almost the opposite of Han, suave and sophistcated. A film should make audiences want to see more of a character, but not instead of what’s being shown.
Solo also came out at a time when diversity awareness in movies is acute. Star Wars has had issues with reflecting the audience. In 1977, a sausage fest was understandable and excusable for being an artifact of the times. Today, though, audiences are more aware of diversity. The more recent films in the franchise are showing a greater range, including more women and persons of colour both in lead roles and in the background, moving away from the only woman in the film being a princess. Solo, though, is about a white man at a time when films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are breaking records. This isn’t to say Leia and Rey are slouches. They aren’t. Leia took over her own rescue and Rey is creating her own path in becoming a Jedi. It’s more timing working against Solo. If the movie had been Calrissian instead with the same cast, it’d avoid the backlash and counter-backlash.
The biggest problem Solo has is that it is a good popcorn movie. There’s some insight to the character, but it’s not deep. The movie doesn’t go from action piece to action piece. It’s well written, well directed, well acted. It is a solid film. Many studios would be happy if their movies held together as well as Solo. But with Star Wars, solid isn’t enough. Star Wars has always been about the amazing, and Solo just falls short. Expectations weren’t managed, but doing so with the Star Wars franchise is impossible. Fans are expecting mind-blowing, and Solo wasn’t quite there. The movie is worth seeing, but expectations need to be adjusted.
The dominance of adaptations at the box office has created a backlash, people from in the industry and outside observing who keep predicting that adaptations have run their course and will soon be replaced by original works. Yet, the past few years have shown otherwise. In 2018, though, the top ten money making films were adaptations, sequels, or sequels of adaptations. As long as adaptations are making money, there’s no reason for a studio to take a risk on an original work that doesn’t have a built-in fandom. Hollywood is risk adverse right now. But where does the backlash come from?
First, there’s the memory of the time when all the popular movies were original. Let’s examine that time, though. I went through the History of Adaptations series to see when adaptations overtook original works and discovered that there were only two decades, the Eighties and the Nineties where that happened. The rest of film history, adaptations performed better at the box office than original works. While money may not be the best way to judge a film’s impact – see Ingagi from the Thirties – it’s how films are tracked. Consider the age of the people complaining about the lack of original films; there’s a good chance that they grew up in the two decades where original works were more popular. The Eighties, though, were an odd decade. Entertainment was varied. Film, music, television, all were pushing boundaries. In all three media, follow-the-leader acts didn’t works as well as previous or later decades. Audiences weren’t interested in more of the same and had a wide variety to choose from.
Another issue with the memories of popular original movies is that some of the works the “originals'” were based on fell into obscurity. The Ten Commandments is obviously adapted from the Bible, but Cecil B. Demille remade his 1923 version in 1956 using technology not available for the first movie, tech such as sound, colour, and widescreen. Ben Hur, though, wasn’t directly from the Bible. Instead, the film was a remake of a 1925 movie which itself was an adaptation of an 1880 novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Saturday Night Fever, from 1977, was adapted from an article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, publish in 1976 in New York Magazine. Even The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an adaptation of a stage production, The Rocky Horror Show. What might be remembered as original may really be an adaptation.
Next, the sources of today’s adaptations may be off-putting to some parts of the general audience. In the Twenties and the Fifties, adaptations tended to be taken from literary sources, novels and plays. In 2018, though, half the top ten movies were comic book adaptations. High brow versus low brow. And while the adaptations were well done, unlike previous efforts, comics aren’t considered high or serious art by the general populace. If studios could make the money comic book movies get by adapting literary fiction, there wouldn’t be a lit-fic shelf left empty by Hollywood producers. Some producers do try, though. Baz Lurhmann has adapted some staples of high school English reading lists, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. While there is a built-in audience, that audience consists of high school students who don’t even want to deal with Coles Notes/Spark Notes. Low-brow works don’t get respect; they appeal to the common person.
There is adaptation fatigue. Every once in a while, people want to see something different, something outside their usual experience. When the choices are adaptation or adaptation or remake of an adaptation, it’s natural to start wondering if Hollywood can ever make something original. It’s a fair thought, at least for the silver screen. Television, despite a number of successful adaptations like A Game of Thrones and Good Omens, is now the source of original works. The competition for viewers today is strong, between the 5000-channel lineup of cable to streaming services to YouTube channels for the very niche interests. A well done adaptation gets attention, but so does a well done original. Want original? Check your TV listings.
The question isn’t “Can Hollywood make something original?”, it’s, “What would it take for Hollywood to make an original movie?” If an original work can get the same money as a blockbuster adaptation, studios will start to work on their own takes before the groundbreaking film finishes its first week in theatres. Until then, adaptations will rule movie theatres.
Fans can get creative. Sometimes, fans can create an adapation that surpasses anything that professional studios can do. Sometimes, though, the creativity is willing, the skill level isn’t quite there. Or maybe there’s a time crunch. It’s not an issue for fans who are building up their skills, be it writing or drawing. Animation, though, is skill- and time-intensive. For those fans without the skills, there is another way.
Machinima, technically, is the use of any pre-existing computer graphics engine to create images. The most popular graphics engines used by fans just happen to be video games. Rooster Teeth wasn’t the first, but may be the best known thanks to Red Vs Blue, a series using Halo about the men on enemy armies defending a critical box canyon from the other side. Several video game engines have been used, including Quake, Halo, and The Sims 2 and later versions. What the games have in common is a sandbox mode that allows for free play and being very customizable by players.
Example time. First, though, let’s take a look at a TV series to be adapted. COPS is on its thirty-second season, having started in 1989 and only off the air for a couple of seasons while switching networks. COPS is a reality show, with camera crews riding along with American police officers on patrol. The series made an appearance on an episode of The X-Files, effectively becoming a crossover when the camera crew started following Agents Scully and Mulder. The draw of the show was that it was unscripted. While edited, the show wasn’t staged for viewers.
How does one recreate a reality show, especially one that relies on the unpredictability of life? Enter Grand Theft Auto V, the life of crime simulator from Rockstar Games, with the mod LSPDFR, allowing players to be the police on patrol. Jeff Favignano has been using this combination, plus other mods, to produce his own series of role play, styled after COPS.
While he has monetized his YouTube channel, the work is still by a fan. There’s also the limitation of the game engine. The goal Favignano has is to approach the events generated in game with proper police procedures. As far as GTA V allows, he succeeds. Each episode of his LSPDFR is stylized as an episode of COPS, with a few call outs in each. Surprisingly for GTA V, there aren’t many shoot outs. Favignano aims to end each call peacefully, only escalating when the characters in-game do.
The adaptation works well, until the game’s engine starts going wrong. The pathing AI often sends traffic the wrong direction, through a crime scene, pushing past or sometimes through police vehicles and officers. When things do go off, it’s the game, not Favignano. However, even the game acting up adds to the feeling of the original TV show, where a pursuit and its aftermath weren’t predictable.
Fans will create. It’s the nature of fandom. Today, there are ways to express creativity that weren’t dreamt of even thirty years ago. The results are varied, but do get to the heart of the original works.
Mysteries make for an interesting choice of adaptation. Fans read them to follow the clues and solve the mystery. The twists, turns, and red herrings work because they lead to the climax, but lose their effect once the unknown is made known. The exceptions are the classics of the genre, novels where the craft of the writing becomes the focus of interest on later readings. Sometimes, the mystery is so well crafted that it takes a second or third to follow the detective’s thought processes.
What typically happens is that the character gets adapted instead of the stories, usually as a TV series. This gives the series’ writers room to create new mysteries without spoiling the original books while still keeping to the limited time an episode has. This is essentially what happened with The Dresden Files, a series of novels that cross the detective genre with urban fantasy turned into a short-lived TV series.
Among the classic writers of the mystery genre is Agatha Christie, creator of both the British amateur detective Miss Jane Marple and the Belgian professional detective Hercule Poirot. Both characters have been adapted to a number of movies and TV series. Miss Marple may be the archetype that inspired Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote, a kindly elderly woman who helps friends and relatives. Poirot, in comparison, is more direct and tends to poke and prod at suspects with his questioning, similar to Columbo except the readers don’t know who the killer is from the beginning. One of the more well known Poirot mysteries is his tenth, Murder on the Orient Express, released in 1934, a murder on a train car stuck in the snow.
What should have been a simple train ride home for Poirot gets interesting. The head of the company gets Poirot into the last cabin on the train in a car with fourteen other passengers. One turns up dead when the train gets stuck in a snowy mountain pass, leaving thirteen suspects in what is essentially a locked room. There car in front is the dining car; in back, the owner’s private car. One or more passengers had to have killed the dead man and Poirot sets out to solve the mystery.
Along the way, Poirot discovers that the dead man had a dark secret of his own that led to the murder. The clues point to any of the suspects and are contradictory. The victim was stabbed multiple times by someone who is both strong and weak, both left- and right-handed. With time limited – the train could be dug out, giving the killer or killers the opportunity to escape before being found. Poirot relies on his ability to read people by asking questions to throw each suspect off with the aim of getting them off-balance enough to make a mistake. He does solve the mystery; the clues, while seemingly at odds with each other, do make sense at the end. Christie built the crime and suspects with the end in mind, with the clues laid out for readers to follow.
In 2017, the latest adaptation of the novel came out. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also starred as Hercule Poirot, the adaptation had a strong cast, with Johnny Depp as the murder victim and Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odam Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Sergei Polunin as the suspects. The film kept the setting in 1934, the year the novel was released.
The film opens with a scene that wasn’t in the book. Poirot, in Instanbul, wraps up a theft mystery, showing the audience who he is and what he is capable of. For those who aren’t familiar with the character, the first scene serves as the intro. The scene also gets a quick bit of action in before settling in for the setting up of the titular murder and the introduction of the suspects.
The movie also spends time introducing the setting. Train travel in 1934 is different from today. There’s an element of luxury, even for those travelling second class, that doesn’t exist on Amtrak or Via. When air travel was still in its early days, the Simplon Orient Express gave passengers a comfortable way across Europe into Turkey. The trains also segregated passengers by cost of fares, with first class being the most luxurious. Today, if Poirot was needed urgently in England as he was in Murder, the British government would have just flown him. In 1934, the Orient Express was the fastest way to travel.
The original novel spends time setting up the characters. The murder doesn’t happen right away. Instead, Christie showed the passengers interacting with each other and with Poirot. Clues were placed, though not necessarily called out. Branagh did the same thing; anyone unaware of who the victim is would be wondering which passenger is going to be killed. With a strong line up of actors, it’s impossible to tell who the murderer and who the victim is. Normally, at least on television, the presence of a major guest star means that the guest will either be the victim or the murderer. With a large, all-star cast, that sort of guesswork can’t be used. Disaster movies from the 70s, such as The Towering Inferno used the same approach.
One thing the novel had that the movie couldn’t include was the passenger list with the assigned cabins. With a novel, a reader can bookmark the page to refer back to. A movie can’t really do that, even on DVD. Film is a visual medium, so instead of a passenger list, the characters had to be memorable, either because of the actor’s portrayal or because of details called out.
Barring the opening scene, the movie plays out faithfully to the book. Minor changes come up, more because of the nature of the medium than a deliberate choice to veer away from the written word. Branagh has an eye for details; if he is taking pains to have a believable Belgian accent, he’s not going to make a change to the story without a good reason. The ending felt different, but that could be a matter of interpretation. The murder happened as it did in the novel. The aftermath, though, was added to provide closure to the film. There was also a sequel hook, with a murder in Egypt. Branagh will release Death on the Nile in 2020.
With a celebrated character like Poirot, getting that role portrayed well is key to get buy-in from existing fans. Branagh didn’t disappoint. Along with getting the accent correct, he managed to portray Poirot as the egotist he is, with humanity. The genius of Sherlock Holmes with the humanity of John Watson. The opening scene establishes Poirot’s perfectionism, tempered by humour. Branagh was ideal in the role. The rest of the cast, though, wasn’t slacking, either. The sheer amount of talent in the movie turned in a performance that should have been noticed by the Academy.
Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express remained faithful to Christie’s original novel, not just with plot, but the era. Changes from the book occurred because of the change in medium, all without affecting the story. The result is a lush movie with an eye to detail that carries through to the adaptation.