Very few TV series manage to reach seven seasons. The history of television is littered with series that couldn’t finish even one full season, shows that could get three before being cast adrift, and even a show that didn’t finish it’s own first episode. Series that reach seven seasons have a strong following. The even rarer series that can go for ten seasons tend to be staples of second-run syndication, even when the series is still running. However, there is one series that made it through ten seasons but never became a network darling.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was created by Joel Hodgson and first aired on KTMA in November of 1988. The premise was simple, as the opening theme says. A poor schmuck gets sent to a satellite in Earth’s orbit and is subjected to bad movies by his employers/kidnappers to find out just how much pain the human brain can take. However, the poor schmuck knows how to build robots, who help him get through the cheesy movies by riffing with him.
The Comedy Channel, one of the companies that became Comedy Central, picked up the show the following year. With the bigger budget compared to the KTMA days, the show became how it’s best known, with Joel Robinson (played by Hodgson) not only riffing with the bots Tom Servo (first played by Josh Weinstein*, later by Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (first played by Trace Beaulieu, later by Bill Corbett), but also participating in invention exchanges with the Mads, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) and Dr. Lawrence Erhardt (Weinstein), and doing skits as a break from the movie.
The riffing was the show’s main draw. The production crew looked for cheesy movies, ones that were bad not not necessarily boring, from the films available through syndication. While science fiction and fantasy films make up the bulk of the series, the show wasn’t restricted to just those genres until it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel in 1997. Thus, movies like The Girl in Lover’s Lane and Mitchell appeared along with The Magic Sword and Space Mutiny. If a movie wouldn’t fill the show’s running time, film shorts were added, from old serials to educational films. As long as the writers could find the funny for riffing, the films were added to the line up.
The cast changed during the run of the series. When Weinstein moved on, Dr. Erhardt was replaced by TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). Joel was replaced by Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) in season 5 during Mitchell, resulting in a new opening theme. When the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank were replaced by Forrester’s more evil and more capable mother, Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl), who then brought on the Observer, aka “Brain Guy” (Corbett) and had Professor Bobo (Murphy) stowaway on her rocket ship after the apes accidentally destroy the Earth in the future.
While continuity was flexible, there were call backs to previous episodes, including Nelson playing Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate in several episodes. However, when the Sci-Fi Channel picked up the series, execs insisted on an on-going plot arc, despite the draw being the riffing. The crew did what they could, creating a chase where Pearl tried to catch up to the Satellite of Love. The final episode aired in August 1999 after increasing conflict between Best Brains, owner of MST3K, and the Sci-Fi Channel led to the show being cancelled after ten season, eleven if the KTMA year is included.
The show became a cult classic through word of mouth and the budding public-use Internet. The show had a wide reference base, everything from Gilligan’s Island and SCTV to Shakespeare and Proust. Tapes of the show were circulated, letting fans bring in more people into the joy of MST3K, even if the show wasn’t otherwise available in an area, like Canada**. Thanks to the magic of Internet streaming, Shout! has made the library available online through subscription, in addition to releasing the series slowly on DVD.
The cast members of MST3K continued with riffing with their own projects. Hodgson created Cinematic Titanic, working with Beaulieu, Weinstein, Conniff, and Pehl. Rifftrax was started by Nelson and included Corbett and Murphy. The demand for quality riffing was there. Several people answered the call, but, ultimately, the fans wanted one thing – more MST3K.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return was a Kickstarter project started by Hodgson and Shout!, looking for $2 million to produce three episodes. The Kickstarter ending with over $5.75 million, enough for fourteen episodes and surpassing the Veronica Mars movie efforts. Backers received several benefits, including early access and their names listed in the credtis. With the eighteen years since the end of the series and almost thirty since the beginning, Hodgson, now the executive producer of the series, went with a new cast. Taking the place of Joel and Mike is Jonah Heston, (Jonah Ray). Like Joel and Mike before him, Jonah is also subjected to cheesy movies as Clayton’s daugher and Pearl’s granddaughter, Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Max, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt) not only try to find the breaking point of a human but also try to commercialize the experiments to pay for the new base, Moon 13.
For this analysis, I’m only taking into consideration the first three episodes. Once more are reviewed, there may be an update. Fourteen 90+ minute episodes take time to watch and digest properly. However, all the episodes are available on Netflix. The decision to work with Netflix instead of a more traditional broadcaster or cable station gave the production crew more control over how the series was made. No fights with a station executive who never watched MST3K on what the show should do.
The first episode of a rebooted/remade series is critical in getting viewers to keep watching. Miss the tone, flub the casting, make one big misstep, and the audience leaves. It’s possible to take a show in a new direction; the rebooted Battlestar Galactica demonstrates how it can be done. But MST3K, at its heart, is a comedy. Fortunately, Hodgson is well aware of that, being the creator. The first episode of a show also has to set up the series for new viewers. It’s possible that someone watching The Return has only heard the word of mouth about the original and has never been able to watch an episode.
Thus, we get a longer than usual introductory segment in the first episode of The Return, including a pre-credits scene featuring cameos by Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray talking up the new host, Jonah, before Kinga lures him to the dark side of the moon. The opening credits again tells the full story.
Keeping to Kinga’s desire to make the experiments commercially successful, the show not only keeps to the established format of the original but also brings in elements of late night talk shows, including a band, the Skeleton Crew, and ad bumpers, which also serve as a break point for the audience. The first episode features the Danish monster movie, Reptilicus, which doesn’t have the production values that early Japanese kaiju films had. The riffing comes fast and furious and pulls from a wide reference base but doesn’t overwhelm the action on screen. The host segments include the invention exchange at the beginning and features a rap about the monster legends throughout the world. But the first episode is meant to wow viewers both old and new. The following episodes would be the real tell for the series. Fortunately, the cast and crew are up to the task. The level and quality of riffs remain strong, and the host segments are entertaining.
Naturally, some changes were made from the original, including those noted above. There are new voices for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughan), Crow (Hampton Yount), and Gypsy (previously played by Jim Mallon and untility infielder Patrick Brantseg, now played by Rebecca Hanson). Gypsy also received a modifiction that lets her travel on the ceilings of the Satellite of Love, allowing her to drop in on host segments and in the theatre. Jonah’s host segments include laser-cut wood carvings to illustrate scenes, giving him his own twist. The main puppets now have a team of puppeteers instead of just the one actor doing both voice and manipulation. Thanks to the expanded budget from the Kickstarter, the door sequence is more involved, yet still retains its charm.
Overall, The Return is a return home to the Satellite of Love. Even with the changes in cast, the new series is still MST3K. Joel Hodgson took efforts to find out what fans enjoyed, choosing movies that reflect the fan-favourite episodes. The result is a series that welcomes back the fans of the original series while bringing in new viewers.
* Better known today as J. Elvis Weinstein.
** Rights issues were the main problem. MST3K had limited rights licensed to them for the movies, and thus couldn’t pass that along to foreign broadcasters. The only way for anyone outside the US to see the show was through the passing of the tapes, which was encouraged in the end credits of each episode. The other option was to see the movie without the riffing, a dire state of affairs for some features.
Correction: I originally had Michael J. Nelson credited as Professor Bobo, when I should have have Kevin Murphy. Apologies to all involved.
Apologies, but the past week became hectic and odd. Lost in Translation will return next week.
The world’s best known secret agent has had a long history. Created by Ian Fleming and first published in 1953, James Bond has appeared in 57 books, including 43 by other authors, at least 29 movies, including those made outside the Eon continuity, and in comics. Bond has been portrayed by six different actors in the main franchise alone. With the sheer number of works available, the 007 movies provide a range of adaptations, from the close but not quite approaches of the early films to the in-name-only later works. One film even manages to adapt the novella as smaller portion of its longer running time.
Approaching the project will take time. Several ways of tackling the franchise exist. First is to go movie by movie. With over twenty movies in the main franchise, that will take time. a similar method would be to group the films by the actor playing Bond. That gives the Sean Connery and Roger Moore eras a longer analysis, and doesn’t take into account the one George Lazenby outing. I could also group three movies together, based on the order being used.
The order, though, is another question. There’s the order of the books, starting with Casino Royale. Using this order means jumping around in the film continuity, such as it exists, and several of the movies have titles that come from other aspects of the character instead of story titles, such as The World Is Note Enough. Movie order may be easier – the films may be better known now by the general audience than the books.
Much like the History of Adaptations, the Bond project won’t be week by week. Instead, the goal will be to have an entry each month, with the intervening weeks being saved for other analyses. This will give me time to read the novels and watch the movies again without being rushed. Right now, though, I’m taking suggestions on the approach. Would the best approach be reviewing one movie at a time or grouping the movies together? What order would be best, the books or the films? And should I touch the non-franchise films? Please answer in the comments below.
This will be a big project, but I hope that it will show the range of adapting styles used in cinema.
With students now done with the school year, why not look at an adaptation set in a school? Like fingerprints, no two fictional schools are the same. Some are prestigious, accepting only the best and the brightest. At the other end, there is St. Trinian’s, a school for girls that takes in juvenile delinquents known for terrorizing rival schools and even the locals.
St. Trinian’s started as a panel cartoon gag strip by Ronald Searle. The first St. Trinian’s appeared in 1941, but, with the Second World War looming, Searle enlisted and was stationed in Singapore, where he was taken prisoner by the Japanese. After the war, he resumed the St. Trinian’s strip, though his time as prisoner meant that the cartoon took a darker turn. Searle wrote the strip between 1946 and 1952, compiling the collections in five books. The girls of St. Trinian’s were delinquents, as the various cartoons showed. Field hockey matches against the school were bloody, closer to guerilla warfare than actual sport. The older girls dressed provocatively, modifying their uniforms for effect. However, the teaching staff wasn’t much better, and shared their young charges’ interests is smoking, drinking, and gambling.
Two years after the last of the St. Trinian’s strips, a film adaptation was made. Directed by Frank Laudner and written by Laudner, Sidney Gilliat, and Val Valentine, The Belles of St. Trinian’s brought the wretched hive of scum and villainy to the British silver screen. With the St. Trinian’s strip consisting of gag-a-day cartoon panels, a plot had to be created for the movie. However, given the nature of the school, even a wild plot would fit.
The movie opens with the Sultan of Makyad looking for a boarding school for his young, impressionable daughter, Fatima. Fatima’s governess suggests St. Trinian’s as she knows the headmistress there. The Sultan agrees as his race horse, Arab Boy, is in Barchester County, the same location as the school, and would be able to visit both his horse and his daughter at the same time.
In Britain, the back-to-school trains are busy as students head off to their boarding schools. The screaming from the girls never ends, terrifying everyone in between them and St. Trinian’s. Streets clear out as everyone, from storekeepers and shoppers to hens and the police constable, hide from the returning menace. The girls of St. Trinian’s are well known in the county and are avoided. The police superintendent wants something solid to pin against the school to shut it down, but the Ministry of Education hasn’t sent inspectors after losing two assigned to the school.
However, St. Trinian’s is facing a problem that would see the school closed – a lack of funds. Headmistress Millicent Fritton, played by played by Alastair Sims in drag, returns from her much needed summer vacation only to be told by her accountant that the school has too many outstanding bills to pay and nowhere near enough money to pay them. To add to Millicent’s headaches, her twin brother bookie Clarence, also played by Alastair Sims, returns with his daughter Arabella, played by Vivienne Martin. Bella is upset about being expelled unfairly; after all, her class mate destroyed the library and was allowed to stay. Millicent explains that the library was insured. Clarence, though, isn’t so much interested in Arabella’s education as he is in getting information about Arab Boy.
The school’s sixth form, led by Arabella, and fourth form, including Fatima, take the time to find out more about Arab Boy. In a trial run, the horse wins with a large margin, impressing both sets of girls. Arabella is concerned, though; her father could wind up paying out too much money if Arab Boy wins. The fourth form, though, sees a chance at winning big, and call in Flash Harry, played by George Cole. With their limited funds, even at ten-to-one odds, the fourth form girls wouldn’t get much, unless they can get some of the £100 cash that Fatima’s father gave her.
Millicent, while appearing somewhat doddering, knows exactly the type of people – students and staff – she has at the school, and had put away Fatima’s money for safekeeping. The fourth form girls explain the situation but get nowhere. Millicent, though gets an idea. St. Trinian’s needs £4000, but only has £400. Ten-to-one odds would pay the bills and keep the school open another year. She calls on Flash Harry and lays down the bet.
The sixth form, though, wants Arab Boy to lose. Their plan is to steal the horse until after the race is over. However, Florrie, another girl of St. Trinian’s overhears, and taunts the fourth form with the news. Florrie eventually does tell the younger girls the details after being subjected to a makeshift rack. When Arabella and her form go to steal the horse, they find Arab Boy already gone.
Arab Boy’s whereabouts are discovered the next morning by the sixth form; the horse was enjoying the morning sun through the window of the fourth form’s dorm. This triggers a war between the fourth form, the sixth form, and the teaching staff, who just want to be paid. The fourth form smuggle the horse out the window while the teachers distract the sixth form with a frontal assault.
The film takes pains to keep authenticity with the comic strip. The uniforms worn in the film are modelled after the ones drawn Searle. Several scenes come directly from the strip, including Florrie’s torture and the field hockey match, where the referee, the opposing team’s coach, and the opposing team are taken off the field one by one on stretchers. The opening and closing credits include a a parade of St. Trinian’s drawings by Searle. The result is a movie that incorporates the essence of the cartoon strip while fleshing it out for the needs of a longer work.
The Belles of St. Trinian’s was popular, enough so to have three direct sequels and a continuation of sorts in 1980 with The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s. In 2007, the film franchise was given a reboot with St. Trinian’s, with an eye to updating the setting while still keeping to the roots. The new movie was based on both Searle’s work and The Belles of St. Trinian’s, with Rupert Everett taking on the Alastair Sims roles as both Headmistress Camilla Fritton and her art dealer brother, Carnaby.
The movie begins with Carnaby driving his daughter, Annabelle, played by Talulah Riley, to her new school, St. Trinian’s. Annabelle is horrified at what she sees on the way on to the grounds – burnt out car, a shrunken head, and other dire warnings. The school itself has seen better days. Carnaby is transferring Annabelle from her old school, the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, because he thinks he can get a good discount on his daughter’s tuition. He does manage to haggle Camilla down to £2300, which really doesn’t help her out. Annabelle has no choice but to start school at St. Trinian’s.
Head Girl Kelly, played by Gemma Arterton, gives Annabelle a quick tour of the school and introduces the new girl to the different cliques — the chavs, the geeks, the emos, the posh totties, and the first years. Annabelle doesn’t fit in right away with any of the cliques. Later in the evening, she is the victim of a prank pulled by the entire school. She tries to get her father to come pick her up, but he blows her off. Frustrated, Annabelle slaps her cell phone hard enough with her field hockey stick to shatter a bust down the hall. The act of destruction is seen by Miss Cleaver, played by Fenella Woolgar, who, instead of punishing Annabelle, recruits her for the field hockey team.
In London, the new Minister of Education, Geoffrey Thwaites, played by Colin Firth, wants to make his mark on the position. Formerly in charge of prisons, Geoffrey wants to bring the same approach he used there on schools, by taking the worst school in the nation and forcing it to reform. One of his aides has flashbacks to when he was undercover at St. Trinian’s, showing the PTSD he picked up from the time in country. But, since St. Trinian’s is the worst school, both in academics and in behaviour, that is where Geoffrey will start his reforms.
The banks, though, have other ideas. St. Trinian’s is £500 000 in debt, and after having had six final notices ignored, a representative hand delivers the final final notice, giving Camilla four weeks to raise the money, or else have the school turned over to the bank. Making matters worse, Carnaby tries to convince Camilla to just let the school shut down so it could be sold. The girls of St. Trinian’s, though, have mastered the art of electronic surveillance and learn about the looming debt. Kelly comes to the conclusion that, since the adults look to be useless, the girls will have to save the school. If they don’t, they’ll have to go to normal schools.
The Minister arrives in the morning, hoping to find the excesses at St. Trinian’s during the field hockey match between the school and Cheltenham, where his daughter, Verity (Lucy Punch), is the star player and terror. He is surprised to see his former flame, Camilla, as headmistress, though. The match is viscious, with casualties on both teams. Geoffrey takes advantage of the chaos to sneak around. He discovers the various unauthorized extracurriculars the St. Trinian’s girls have, including the religious education teacher crucified, the distillery for knock-off vodka and the pay-per-minute chat line run by the posh totties. However, he’s caught and is shown the way out, though a third story window.
The different cliques have to work together to keep the school open. They enlist the help of Flash Harry, played by Russell Brand, who is their main contact with other criminal elements. He gives the girls a crash course in crime, but Kelly comes up with the master plan – the theft of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” from the National Gallery. A field trip to the Gallery lets the girls find the security systems and map out how to get in and out. The biggest challenge, though, is getting into the museum. That problem is solved by the new teacher, Miss Dickinson (Lena Headey), who has been trying to get a School Challenge team together. The finals would be held at the Gallery. All the girls need to do is get a team to the finals to get in with security distracted.
However, Geoffrey is still a threat. He returns to St. Trinian’s with the press in tow. His goal is to expose the school’s nefarious activities on camera. The girls are ready for him and go to Code Red, even with ten-year-old twins Tara and Tania (Cloe and Holly Mackie) testing their homebrewed explosives. There is no sign of the problems he found earlier, with a nun teaching the religion class. Worse, Geoffrey flings Camilla’s dog out of the school and into a mulcher in front of cameras, leading him to be the headline, not the St. Trinian’s.
The posh totties become the School Challenge team. While they aren’t necessarily the brightest girls, though they do get the occasional flashes of brilliance, they are the most photogenic. Through means mostly foul, they defeat their opponents, impressing the show host, Stephen Fry. In the finals, they will face Cheltenham. But this does let them get the break-and-enter team a way in.
With The Belles of St. Trinian’s, the memory of Searle’s strip was still fresh, only having ended two years prior to the film’s release and the fifth complilation, Souls in Torment having been released in 1953. The reboot, though, came out fifty-five years after the last published St. Trinian’s cartoon. Times had changed. What was once shocking for movie audiences became quaint. Technology offered more opportunities for mischief. However, St. Trinian’s made efforts to keep to the essence of both Searle’s work and the 1954 film.
First, the uniforms, while updated to take advantage of modern fabrics and sensibilities, were still recognizably St. Trinian’s. The older girls modified the outfits, but even in Searle’s work, they did the same. The definition of scandalous has changed over time, so the uniforms reflected the modern meaning.
The 2007 St. Trinian’s also showed more dead girls than the 1954 film, keeping in line with the strip. Movie ratings systems grew more granular over time, allowing for a difference between a younger teen audience and an older teen audience. A St. Trinian’s girl floating in a fish tank isn’t as unsettling to the older audience. The school itself is far more chaotic in the reboot, reflecting Searle’s work a little closer. The school grounds also showed the dangers more, from the burning car to the various warnings with graffiti.
/St. Trinian’s/ also carries on the tradition set by The Belles of St. Trinian’s, having a male actor play the headmistress and her brother. Alastair Sims’ version of Headmistress Fritton was more dowdy and just getting into the sorts of activities her girls were familiar with. Everett’s Headmistress Fritton encouraged her girls to explore themselves and become the threat the merciless world needs. Both versions cared about the school and the students.
Finally, to show the plan to both the girls and the audience, Polly (Lily Cole) created an animation. The animation is in Searle’s style, though with charicatures of the cast. It’s a nice nod to the original, with some Easter eggs to be found, without confusing new audiences. The animation also furthers the plot, showing the obstacles during the heist.
St. Trinian’s took on the challenges of being both a reboot and an adaptation with two sources, one of those being an adaptation as well, with the added difficulty factor of updating a setting that, while not tied to its time, was shocking for its era. The smoking may have gone, but the attitude remained. In the reboot’s favour, it returned the focus to the students. St. Trinian’s updated the source while remaining true to both the cartoon strip and The Belles of St. Trinian’s.
With the recent death of Adam West, it’s past due to take a look at his most endearing role, the 1966 Batman TV series and feature film.
Lost in Translation covered the origin of Batman back while analysing Batman Fluxx. Created in 1939 in the pages of Detective Comics, Batman represents the crossover from mystery men to costumed crimefighters, with a dash of Zorro. Since then, the character has evolved, going from grim hunter of criminals who used pistols to master detective who refuses to kill. Batman’s rogues gallery includes some of the most colourful villains in comics, including the Joker, the Riddler, and Catwoman, all of whom emphasize different aspects of the hero in their clashes.
Superhero adaptations have tended to lag about a decade behind the events in the comics themselves. The general audience isn’t as familiar with current events in titles, either having read the books when younger or just picking up on the better known storylines after the fact. Studios want a wide net when adapting, so minutiae in continuity, always a pain with comics, is often the first to be trimmed. Thus, during a time when DC Comics was turning Batman into the dark detective he’s best known as now, Fox and producer William Dozier were going a different direction, one more in tune with the Batman of the Fifties.
Today, the 1966 Batman TV series is seen as pure camp. Adam West starred as the Caped Crusader, with Burt Ward as Robin, the Boy Wonder. Together, they fought crime that the Gotham City Police Department was unable and incapable of handling. Deep underneath Stately Wayne Manor, the Batcave contained crime fighting equipment that predated many techniques now in use, including DNA analysis.
The series was a comedy, one without a laughtrack. For the first two seasons, Batman aired twice a week, with the first episode ending on a cliffhanger, typically a death trap where Batman and Robin faced certain doom, a doom that would be resolved at the beginning of the second episode. The villains, guest stars all, threatened the safety of the citizens of Gotham City and only Batman and Robin could stop them, usually in a climactic fight in the villain’s hideout filmed with a dutch angle.
Despite, or possibly because of, the series being a comedy, West played Batman serious, which heightened the comedic aspects but also gave the series and the character gravitas. The TV series didn’t shy away from why Bruce Wayne became Batman. Likewise, Ward, Stafford Repp (Chief O’Hara), Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon), and Alan Napier (Alfred) all approached their roles as if the series was a drama. The odd situations and brightly coloured villains stood out in the contrast.
Batman attracted guest stars. Regular villains included Caeser Romero’s Joker, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman, all playing against type. Romero kept his signature mustache, not quite hiding it under the Joker’s white make up. Other actors who appeared on the series include Victor Buono as King Tut and Vincent Price as Egghead. Even if they couldn’t get a role as a villain, other actors appeared during the weekly wall-climbing sequence, commenting on the oddness of two costumed crimefighters walking on their walls.
After the first season, the studio wanted to sell the series to foreign markets. To help with the sales, the studio made the Batman the Movie. The goal of the film was to introduce the series and its stars. To further intrigue audiences, the movie included four villains – the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman. With one exception, all were played by their regular actors. Julie Newmar wasn’t available for filming, so Lee Meriweather filled in. With four key villains, it wasn’t just Gotham City in danger, but the entire world, as they scemed to kidnap the delegates to the United World Headquarters.
The movie kept to the tone of the TV series. Helping there was being filmed between seasons, with the same cast and crew. Lorenzo Semple Jr*, who had also written several of the episodes, wrote the script for the movie, keeping the tone consistent. With the added time allowed by a film, 105 minutes instead of two 24-minute episodes, the story could be given time to unfold and the Bruce Wayne side of Batman could be explored. Just like the TV series, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara were stymied by the villains and had to turn to Batman and Robin to save the day. The film includes some now-classic lines, including, “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”
The third season of the series saw several changes. The first was going to a more episodic approach, with each episode self-contained. No more cliffhangers to be resolved at the beginning of the next episode. The other major change was the introduction of Batgirl, played by Yvonne Craig. Barbara Gordon, the Commisioner’s daughter, joined the Dynamic Duo in their crusade against crime to keep Gotham City safe. Eartha Kitt stepped into the role of Catwoman when Julie Newmar was again unavailable. The episodes felt a little more rushed as the plot needed to be wrapped up at the end instead of allowing for the usual two parts. However, the change in approach gave the actors a bit of a break; the episodes were still meant for a half-hour time slot, which now aired once a week. There were some two- and three-part episodes, but they were still aired one part a week.
The TV series reflected an older version of Batman, one that was more camp than the current version. Yet, the actors treated the characters seriously. The commentary with the movie by Adam West and Burt Ward showed that, even with the problems they faced – Ward especially – they still realized that they were playing Batman and Robin. The series was a comedy; the roles were still important to them and to the actors playing the villains. This approach is why the series is still beloved even today.
The movie of the series is a perfect example of adapting properly. In its favour, the goal the studio had was to give international audiences a taste of what the TV series offered. Changing that focus would have created problems for keeping the new audience. The movie’s budget also allowed to film on location instead of in studio and for the use of new bat-gadgets, including the Bat-copter and the Bat-boat. Footage of both would appear in the following seasons as needed.
Combined, the Adam West TV series and movie are an important part of Batman lore. Later adaptations would still pay homage to the work. Batman: The Animated Series introduced one of Bruce Wayne’s childhood heroes, the Grey Ghost, voiced by West himself. Elements of the TV series can be seen even in Tim Burton’s Batman of 1989. DC Comics even released a continuation comic for the series, Batman ’66. Adam West has left a legacy that will be remembered fondly.
Since the dawn of television, the medium has been seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Film was seen as more prestigious. Today, though, the situation has reversed. While film adaptations are still desired by fans, television may be the better medium, allowing for greater depth. What happened?
In the US, television became dominated by three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. While there were other options, including the public broadcaster PBS, those three networks aired the bulk of TV series. The nature of ratings meant that, on average, a network could expect a third of the viewing audience for any given time slot. To attract a broader audience, the network would need a show with broad appeal, something that attracted families during the early evening and something that brought in adults later in the night. An inexpensive family drama could survive longer than an expensive high-brow science fiction series that needed special effects and dedicated sets. Broadcasters also could let a series find an audience. Even a 20 share meant that the network could sell the show to sponsors.
Film, however, was where the glamour was. Movies had an edge on television just on relative longevity alone. In the Fifties, colour was the norm for film, shown on a large screen. The stars were larger than life, thanks to the Hollywood glam machine. Even as televisions became more affordable, a weekly night out at the movies wasn’t a hardship. Studios still had limitations, though. The “voluntary” Hays Code, taking effect in 1930, put limits on what could be shown, leading to writers leaving what happened off-screen to the audience’s imagination. Beginning in the late Fifties, with Some Like it Hot, directors and studios started ignoring the Code, or, in the case of foreign film makers, weren’t bound by it in the first place. As a result, the MPAA introduced a classification system in 1968 that would let audiences decide for themselves what they were comfortable with.
Early television couldn’t compete with film. Television sets were small, with grainy black and white pictures, and very dependent on the strength of the broadcast signal. Movies were backed by studios with a good distribution system, shown on large screens that directors took full use of. Actors used television as a stepping stone towards a career in film. Better televisions were available, and colour became the standard for TV in the Sixties, but film still got the lion’s share of attention.
Then came the 500-channel universe. As cable grew, the choices available went from local and nearby broadcast stations to specialty channels available through subscription. Audiences could find a niche they wanted. Advertisers could target their market with more precision. Sports fans had several channels available to them, as did lovers of classic films and science fiction aficionados. With the expanded range available, specialty channels didn’t have to worry about the lowest common denominator. Networks, though, took time to learn the lesson. With the expanded competition, though, the quality of even the lowest of the low still had to improve. Add in time-shifting technologies as video cassette recorders and digital recording, viewers no longer had to plan around their favourite shows.
Film ran into new problems. The competition in television meant that there was less time for the weekly movie outing. The economic woes meant that nights out became rarer, especially after the Great Recession of 2007. Coupled with rising ticket and popcorn costs at theatres, who were trying to find ways to stay afloat despite record blockbusters, a movie night became a luxury. Not helping was the ballooning costs of making movies. Comedies were starting to cost as much as special effects laden science fiction movies; The Hangover 3 cost as much to make as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Studios now need films to be popular not just in the US, but also around the world. This need means aiming for the lowest common denominator, one that transcends international borders.
In contrast, televisions main problem is filling all the hours. Stations, broadcast and specialty alike, will still fill time by airing old programming. Sports stations will show classic games of the past; science fiction stations show older series that still have a following, like Star Trek; movie channels will show classic films of yesteryear. The stations will also create new programming as well. The quality may not be great, but even Sharktopus brings in an audience. Budget is a concern, but specialty channels can create TV series that brings in subscribers.
For adaptations, this reversal of roles means that television is the better medium, especially for long form works like novels. HBO’s success with A Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and AMC’s similar success with The Walking Dead, based on the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, showed that it is possible to create a series that resonates with audiences. Naturally, there were follow-the-leader adaptations, especially in fantasy with MTV adapting Terry Brooks’ Shannara series as The Shannara Chronicles. Television allows for greater depth over a season than possible in a two hour film, allowing the adaptation to take the time it needs to present the characters properly.
Film still has its glamour, though. Movies have budgets that television can only dream of. The same budgets, though, mean that most studios aren’t going to take huge risks. Deadpool, an R-rated superhero raunchy comedy, would never have been made if the X-Men franchise didn’t get past the first movie. With television’s lower budgets, a failed pilot isn’t as much of a loss as a blockbuster dud, and the expectation of TV pilots is lower.
The reversal of roles between film and television is recent and the root is economic. Adaptations of longer works, including series of novels, television has become the medium of choice. Film’s competitive edge has eroded, and television is coming into its own.
Budget can be a reason why a remake is made. A low budget movie that picks up a cult following will be noticed by studios, and cult classics grow audiences over time. Studios, being risk adverse, prefer to make movies with a guarenteed audience. What happens when a film made on the cheap gets a budget? Let’s look at the Roger Corman classic, Death Race 2000.
As a producer, Roger Corman is known for being tight with money. He also seldom loses money on a movie. With Battle Beyond the Stars, he kept costs down by using film students for crew and an out-of-business hardware store for a studio. With Death Race 2000, the budget was a modest $300 000. Yet, the film endures.
Based on the short story, “The Racer”, by Ib Melchior, Death Race 2000 is set in the 1975 future of 2000, where the US economy has collapsed after defeating the Soviet Union and China in the Cold War. Mr. President, the head of the Bipartisan States of America, has ruled the country from afar for 25 years, using bread and circuses to keep the masses happy. The biggest circus is the Transcontinental Road Race, where drivers compete from New York to Los Angeles to score the most points and the fastest time. Scoring comes from killing pedestrians, with women worth ten points more in all categories, children under 12 worth seventy points, and seniors worth one hundred.
Not everyone in the Bipartisan States are happy with the status quo. The Resistance, led by Thomasina Paine, played by Harriet Medin, wants to end the race, and plans on kidnapping the top racer, two-time Transcontinental winner, Frankenstein, played by David Carradine. Frankenstein earned the name after being rebuilt race after race, having parts destroyed or removed through accidents and deliberate actions by other racers.
Four other racers join Frankenstein in the starting line up. Machine Gun Joe Viturbo, played by Sylvester Stallone, is Frankenstein’s main rival and is determined to show who is the better driver in the race. Matilda the Hun, played by Roberta Collins, is a neo-Nazi who has named her car “The Buzzbomb”. Calamity Jane, played by Mary Woronov, takes the Western motif to the hilt, decking her car out with bull horns, perfect for ensuring a kill. Rounding out the line up is Nero the Hero, played by Martin Kove, decked out as a Roman gladiator. Each driver also has a navigator; Frankenstein has Annie, played by Simone Griffeth, and Machine Gun Joe’s moll is Myra, played by Louisa Moritz.
The race starts well, at least for the drivers. The Resistance would prefer to keep things bloodless, but even they start taking matters further. Nero the Hero is taken out in the first stage by the old “Bomb in a Fake Baby” trick, robbing him of not only his car, his navigator, and his life, but also of the seventy points the baby would have been worth. The Resistance tries to take credit for the kill, using a pirate broadcast, but the BSA claims that the French sabotaged the race instead. The Resistance also takes out Matilda the Hun and Calamity Jane. Matilda falls for a Wile E. Coyote-style detour. Calamity is forced off the road by the Resistance and hits a land mine.
During the second stage, the Resistance uses its mole to lure Frankenstein astray so that he could be replaced. Thomasina’s great-granddaughter, Annie, tells Frank about a retreat for old senators that is ripe for points. Frank breaks through the ambush, though. Knowing that Annie is part of the Resistance lets him trust her enough about the trick he has up his sleeve. Frankenstein’s plan is to win the race so that he can meet Mr. President and set off his hand grenade. Frank shares a goal with Annie, the ending of the Transcontinental Road Race; he is the latest Frankenstein, with the others having died instead of being put back together.
The movie is presented as a major sports event, a violent version of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The result is a darkly satirical comedy about the nature of sports and entertainment, where sex and violence are draws. The goal wasn’t to shame the audience, but heighten awareness while still reveling in what the movie rails against. Everything is over the top, taking Ib Melchior’s deadly serious short story and turning it into a satire. The script is kept tight, and what appears to be a continuity error near the end is really a clue that scene is not what it appears.
The 2008 remake, Death Race, approaches the events in a different manner. The movie opens with the background. The US economy has crashed, hard, with jobs scarce and crime levels growing higher and higher. To combat the crime problem, all prisons in the US are now privately owned and may well be the most stable companies around. One prison, Terminal Island Penitentiary, capitalizes on their inmates by broadcasting the “Death Race”, a three-day, three-stage event forcing prisoners to race against each other in cars armed and armoured to the teeth. The race consists of three laps, the first where the weapons are unarmed, the second where pressure plates can be driven over to activate weapons and defenses, and the third for the carnage.
Two racers at the prison have a deadly rivalry. Machine Gun Joe Mason, played by Tyrese Gibson, is set to kill Frankenstein, voiced by David Carradine. The race is close, with Frankenstein in the lead but getting chewed up by Machine Gun Joe’s truck with Frank’s defensive systems not working. Frankenstein wins, more from the force of the explosion his car makes as it crosses the finish line than anything else. Ratings and, more importantly, profits go up. However, the warder, Claire Hennessey, played by Joan Allen, needs a new Frankenstein.
Elsewhere, former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames finishes his last day at a steel mill as it shuts down due to the economy tanking. Jensen gets his meager last pay just before the SWAT team appear to quell a riot that didn’t happen until the SWAT team arrived. The problem with private prisons is that they need a constant influx of prisoners; the SWAT team may have been trying to drum up potenital inmates. Jensen, though, makes it home to his wife Suzy and newborn daughter Piper. However, a masked intruder breaks in, knocks Jensen out, and kills Suzy, framing Ames for the murder. Jensen is sentenced to life imprisonment at Terminal Island.
After a run-in with Aryan Brotherhood member Pachenko, played by Max Ryan, Jensen is called to the Warden’s office. Warden Hennessey has a deal for Jensen – race as Frankenstein and win one more race, and he can go free. Jensen agrees, and is introduced to Frankenstein’s pit crew. The head of the crew, Coach, played by Ian McShane, shows Frankenstein’s car to Jensen, going over the weapons and defenses available.
The day of the first stage arrives. The navigators arrive by prison bus from Terminal Island’s women’s penitentiary. Other than Machine Gun Joe, each driver has a woman as navigator, for the ratings. Machine Gun Joe, though, has a man; speculation is that’s because either he goes through so many navigators that viewers were turned off by the deaths or he’s gay. Once inside his car, Jensen takes off teh Frankenstein mask, revealing himself to Case, played by Natalie Martinez. Case isn’t surprised; Jensen is her third Frankenstein. During the race, three drivers and navigators are killed. Hector “The Grim Reaper” Grimm, played by Robert LaSardo survives a wreck, but while ranting after escaping his vehicle, is run down by Machine Gun Joe. Travis Colt is taken out by Jensen. Frankenstein’s defensive systems once again failed, but Jensen gets creative. He has Case put the napalm on the ejector seat, then fires it out so that the bottle breaks and the liquid inside cover Colt’s car. Case then tosses the cigarette lighter at Colt’s car. Jensen is well ahead and is set to win until Pachenko catches up to him. Jensen recognizes the gesture Pachenko makes as the same one his wife’s killer had made. Distracted, he doesn’t see Machine Gun Joe until too late. Frankenstein finishes sixth, last among the surviving drivers.
Warden Hennessey isn’t impressed by Jensen’s finish. She calls him in and ups the stakes. Hennessey promises that if Jensen loses, his daughter will be adopted out and he will never see her again. Jensen promises that things will get more vicious in the next stage. In the garage, Frankenstein’s put crew checks the oil sprayer and finds that it is working properly. Jensen starts putting the puzzle together and confronts Case. For her part, Case admits she sabotaged the defenses; she was promised her own release papers for preventing Frankenstein from leaving the Death Race.
When the second stage starts, Jensen has his own plans. First, he gets Pachenko to crash, then breaks the Aryan’s neck. He then gets back into his car, determined to win. Hennessey, though, wants a ratings boost. She’s already seeing record numbers of viewers tuning in, but wants to wring the Death Race for every dollar she can. A new vehicle enters the race – the Dreadnought, built on a semi-rig tanker and better armed and armoured than any of the other cars. The Dreadnought scores three kills of its own before Jensen convinces Machine Gun Joe to work with him to stop the truck.
Hennessey, not so happy with the destruction of her truck but pleased with the new paid subscriptions to the Death Race, makes Jensen a new offer – stay as Frankenstein and live a life of comfort. Jensen wants his daughter back, so no deal. When the third stage begins, Jensen and Joe have an escape plan, using a weakened part of the prison’s outer walls. However, Hennessey won’t let Jensen go easily and has a bomb planted under his car. The race goes as Jensen planned. He, Case, and Joe destroy the wall and escape across the only bridge in. Hennessey sends the signal for the bomb to explode, which it then fails to do. Coach had found the explosive, removing and disarming it.
Outside the prison, police try to chase the escapees, but find themselves outgunned and outmatched. Hennessey orders helicopters to pursue Jensen. When his car is finally stopped, it’s Case in the Frankenstein costume. She’s taken back to prison. Hennessey can at least announe that Frankenstein has returned, and opens a celebratory gift sent to her. Coach detonates the bomb, killing Hennessey.
There are some key differences between Death Race 2000 and Death Race. While each film take a look at the nature of sports and television, the changes to both elements necessitate a different approach. In 1975, the concept of pay-per-view didn’t yet exist. Most people watched television via broadcast, not cable. The three-channel universe in the US meant that the choice in what to watch was limited. In 2008, cable reigns, especially for sports. While some major events, like the NFL’s Super Bowl and Major League Baseball’s World Series, are available over national networks free of charge, others, especially for sports with smaller followings, can only be seen on specialized cable stations and even pay-per-view. The more violent sports, like wrestling and mixed martial arts, are pay-per-view only. Violence is movies is far more visceral. Death Race 2000 was almost cartoon-like in its violence while Death Race went for being grittier.
Also gone from the remake was the satirical humour. Much like the Robocop remake, Death Race plays the situation seriously. The remake, though, has several new targets for satire. First is the use of privately owned prisons. A government-run prison doesn’t have to worry about a profit/loss statement at the end of the day; a privately run one has to make a profit, and there’s only so much that a prison can charge to hold a prisoner. Death Race takes the concept of prisoner labour to an extreme, but one that must be on the minds of some CEOs. Would the general public pay to watch prisoners fight in a gladiatorial arena?
The other new target for satire is the new nature of television. Pay-per-view means that after a certain number of subscribers, any more is pure profit. Cut the costs in producing an event, and that minimum needed subscribers drops. Too many cuts, and the audience will be turned off. But if labour costs can be reduced or even removed? Sponsors will be happy to provide equipment at a discount if the producer can show good numbers. Thus, the MOPAR billboard and the Ford vehicles in Death Race.
Budget is another huge difference between the films. Each car in Death Race 2000 was a shell built on top of the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle. Beetles had the two requirements Corman was looking for – they had the engine in the back and could be found cheaply. The Beetle was not an expensive car even when new, and was the most popular import in the US. The latter made finding used ones easy. With Death Race, the two main cars – Frankenstein’s and Joe’s – were current Ford models. Even in a movie decrying bloodsport, manufacturers are willing to take the risk of a bad association if it means free advertising.
Another difference comes from the nature of storytelling on film. In the 70s, slow reveals of the main character’s real purpose isn’t unknown. The audience is assumed to be capable of thinking while watching. Death Race, though, provides all the needed information up front about the main characters. The audience knows right away why Jensen is racing. The audience can sit back and enjoy the spectacle, something that Death Race 2000 satirized.
Death Race also removed the points system. It worked for a cross-country race that encouraged drivers to hit-and-run pedestrians. The remake, though, kept the race in a contained area. Finishing first was the only way to win. Since the hit-and-run was removed, weapons could be mounted on the cars. It wouldn’t be sporting to just shoot an unarmed pedestrian, even one taunting a driver like a bullfighter taunts a bull. But if everyone is armed, then it’s fair game. The defensive systems – oil sprayer, smokescreen generator, and napalm – help cars in front from being sitting ducks. Video game elements like the pressure plates to activate weapon systems fit in with the audience, both the one in-universe and the one watching the movie.
Both movies reflect their time period. In 1975, the US had just gone through Watergate and the Nixon impeachment, showing the cracks in the American system of government. In 2008, the housing bubble had just popped, creating Crash 2.0, leaving people trying to pay for a house that was no longer worth what they had paid for it while struggling to keep a job as corporations cut labour costs to stem the hemorrhaging of money. Each movie’s satire reflects the era, which makes a direct comparison difficult.
That said, Death Race 2000, much like Deadpool, has no problems being silly when it needs to be. Sometimes, a point can be made better when the viewer is laughing. Death Race made the decision to keep things serious, possibly as a nod to the original short story by Melchior. The difference in tone means that people are swearing instead of yelling, “Chrysler!” Staying serious also indicates that the film sees the elements being satirized as grave problem, underlining the nature of the issues.
The two movies take different approaches over most of the same topics. Death Race 2000 is over the top, making it an easier watch even with the nudity and violence. Death Race keeps the violence and uses up-to-date film making techniques to get the audience into the middle of the action. Death Race almost pulls it off, and may have been better off without the original lurking in the audience’s mind.
Technological progress has a way of making older works show their age. In many adaptations, updating the technology to modern ideas of the near future doesn’t harm the work. But what happens when an iconic item becomes outdated?
Case in point, the 1965-70 TV series, Get Smart. Created by Mel Brooks with Buck Henry, Get Smart was a parody of the spy thrillers of the time, including 007 and The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and featured outlandish gadgets that never quite worked properly. The series starred Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99, two agents of CONTROL who fought against the machinations of KAOS, run by Siegfried, played by Bernie Kopell, and his right-hand man, Shtarker, played by King Moody. Max’s boss, the Chief of CONTROL, played by Edward Platt, suffered as Max investigated nefarious schemes, but admitted that CONTROL wouldn’t be half as effective without 86. The opening of the first episode provides a perfect example of how technology changes the intent of a scene. As a stage production is about to start, a phone begins to ring, and Max excuses himself to go to the lobby to answer his shoe. In 1965, this is an unusual situation, something that is absurd. Today, even with warnings and request to turn off all phones, someone in the audience will still take a call.
Get Smart, though, was more than the gadgets. Like many good parodies, like Airplane!, the characters took the situations seriously. That’s part of the humour, the dichotomy between the absurdity of the situation and the seriousness of the characters. With a TV series, the characters also have to be engaging enough for people to keep watching week after week. Max knew his spycraft, even if there were times he stumbled into saving the world or times that 99 came through in the clutch.
As the series progressed, the relationship between Max and 99 grew closer, resulting in a wedding and adding a domestic side to the series. Still, even with the domestic episodes, the series was still a spy spoof, with all the comedic aspects of the core coming through. The in-laws are in town? Great time for KAOS to wreak havoc, just to see how Max and 99 handle both.
There were several attempts at revivals. The first was the theatrical release, The Nude Bomb, with Don Adams returning as Max and 99. Edward Platt’s death in 1974 meant that a new actor, Dana Elcar, had to be brought in as the Chief. The movie took advantage of not being on television and went risque. A second made-for-TV movie, Get Smart, Again reunited Adams and Feldon. A short-lived revival TV series in 1995, also called Get Smart, brought back Adams and Feldon, with Max now the Chief of CONTROL and his son Zack, played by Andy Dick, a field agent. Even Inspector Gadget could be seen as Get Smart aimed at children, with Adams voicing the eponymous character, who was a walking gadget malfunction, who bumbled around while his niece Penny did the hard work.
In 2008, Warner Bros. released Get Smart, a remake/reboot starring Steve Carell as Max, Anne Hathaway as 99, and Alan Arkin as the Chief of CONTROL. Instead of being a period piece, the movie was set in the current era. The movie changed things up, with Max being a very thorough analyst who wants to be a field agent. His briefings run 600+ pages and gets down into what the subjects of investigation like to eat. In a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, his notes on one potential threat is shown on screen; “The Claw” was another villain from the TV series.
Max’s arrival at work takes him through a museum dedicated to espionage, with one section set aside for CONTROL. In the section, several of the old gadgets from the TV series are on display, including the old cone of silence, Max’s car, and the shoe phone. The entrance to CONTROL itself is through a set of doors, much like the opening credits to the TV series, complete with the classic theme song playing. The gags through the doors change, as should be expected, but the sequence does hammer home the idea of being in CONTROL’s headquarters. Max’s briefing is dry but thorough, but that thoroughness prevents him from becoming a field agent; the Chief needs him as an analyst.
KAOS escalates its total war against CONTROL, first bombing CONTROL’s HQ then going after field agents. Max and 99 are the first to respond after the bombing, investigating the ruins of the headquarters to find the perpetrators. Max’s quick thinking and knowledge of the fire suppression systems lets 99 go deeper into the headquarters, but that same quick thinking and knowledge leaves the Chief with a dent in his forehead. Because of the shortage of field agents, Max’s request to become one is approved, with the idea that KAOS won’t know who he is.
The Chief pairs rookie 86 with experience field agent 99 and sends them to Russia to investigate Ladislas Krstic (David S. Lee), the munitions supplier for KAOS. The flight to Russia, though, has Siegfried’s heavy, Dalip, played by Dalip Singh aka the Great Khali. Max and 99 use a hidden escape from the plane, though Max wasn’t able to get his chute on in time. Dalip follows, taking the now spare chute. Agent 99 does what she can to get rid of Dalip and prevent Max from plummeting to his death.
At Krstic’s manor, the pair discover the location of stolen nuclear material and bomb-making facility, a bakery in Moscow. Max and 99 head directly there, sneaking in and looking for the yellow cake uranium. Max finds it plus actual yellow cake at a birthday celebration, and plants explosives. During this, though, Siegfried, played by Terrance Stamp, finds him and takes him prisoner. The two men try to get the details of what each other know, with Max getting details about Siegfried’s plans to bomb the president. Siegfried leaves Shtarker, played by Ken Davitan, in charge to finalized preparations, which gives Max a chance to escape.
The bakery explodes. During the chaos, Max and 99 run into Dalip again. Fighting the KAOS heavy gets nowhere, so Max uses his knowledge from analysing tape after tape to convince Dalip to stop fighting and help them escape. He’s mostly successful, but he and 99 do get away from the exploding bomb factory/bakery and return to Washington to report in. The Chief sends Agent 23, Max’s idol played by Dwayne Johnson, to make sure that the facility is gone. Problem is, Agent 23 reports that there’s no sign of the uranium. All evidence that there’s a cover up points to Max, who is taken into custody. While in his cell, he hears a coded message for him relayed through Ryan Seacrest; the bomb is in Los Angeles.
Max executes an escape from CONTROL’s prison cells. The escape leads through the espionage museum. Max takes the suit, the gun, the shoe phone, and the car. The roaring escape ends not far from the museum as the car runs out of gas. He tries to commandeer a car, driven by Bernie Kopell in a cameo, but that car is rear-ended. Max does find a car and heads to L.A, where he finds the Chief, 99, and 23. Agent 86 works out who the double agent is and reveals his identity. In the process, he prevents the bomb from exploding and ends the KAOS plot to kill the president.
In a Get Smart adaptation, several elements are expected. The gadgets, as mentioned above, are important, not only in being used but not working correctly. The cone of silence received an upgrade but still didn’t work properly. The shoe phone, though, is outdated thanks to cell phones. Yet, the movie managed to work it in, thanks to call forwarding. Even the new gadgets, like Max’s Swiss Army knife, don’t work right.
Casting was also key. Steve Carell played Max much as Don Adams had, straight, allowing the absurdity of what was happening carry the comedy. Anne Hathaway has a more-than-passing resemblance to Barbara Feldon, and there are several scenes where Hathaway is a dead ringer for Feldon. Terrance Stamp took a darker tone to Siegfried, but Ken Davitan’s Shtarker blunted the darkness by being a comedic sidekick and punch-clock villain. Even Fang, Agent K-13, had a counterpart in the remake – a puppy that Max wanted to adopt but only if he became a field agent.
The writers were able to work with the original material well. The original series had a number of catch phrases that would recur, most of them Max’s but some from 99 and even Siegfried. It’d be easy to just have Max spout them; instead, the script worked the catch phrases in organically. Siegfried did get his, “This is KAOS. We don’t ‘ka-fricking-boom’ here,” thanks to Shtarker. Max had, “Missed it by that much,” “Would you believe?” and “Sorry about that Chief,” in situations where it made sense. The last phrase came up after Max hit the Chief with a fire extinguisher. Even 99 got in a, “Oh, Max.” Anyone not familiar with the lines wouldn’t have seen these shoehorned in while fans of the original series could laugh.
Even some of the TV series’ gags were reused. Along with the malfunctioning gadgets, other staples that appeared included Agent 13. In the TV series, the agent, played by Dave Ketchum, would appear in the oddest, tightest locations. Bill Murray played 13 in the film, appearing inside a tree near CONTROL’s safe house near the Washington Memorial, his complaints about his assignment and the problems of being stuck in the tree echoing Ketchum’s 13 and his issues. The movie is also book-ended by scenes of Max arriving and leaving CONTROL, much like the opening and closing credits.
Updating Get Smart meant having to change update the sensibilities of the times. The nature of spy thrillers has changed since 1965, with the tone turning darker as the nature of the business and the tools of the trade became more known to the general audience. Adding to the difficulty, Get Smart was a comedy set at work, where work was a top secret organization dedicated to the security of the US. Overlooking that aspect would have lost part of the nature of the series. The movie, though, kept both the spy spoof and the work-com aspects, with enough scenes showing how dysfunctional CONTROL’s office is and still making fun of bureaucracy at all levels. Inter-agency rivalries were added, with the Chief butting heads with the directors of the other agencies, including the CIA and the Secret Service.
The movie remake of Get Smart had a difficult task in front of it; paying homage to a series and a character that is iconic. The result, though, shows that the challenge was met. Get Smart was a well done adaptation that managed to update the setting without losing the core of the original TV series.
In previous examinations of works adapted to gaming, Lost in Translation focused on just one original work being turned into a game. This time around, multiple original works are being adapted into just one game system, the Cortex and its successor, Cortex Plus.
The ideal works to adapt as tabletop role-playing games provide a larger setting, one where the original provides for a larger setting than what the main characters there experience. This is the case in three previous game adaptations examined, Star Trek, Star Wars, and 007, where players can take on similar roles as the main characters in both franchises. Even the Buffy RPG could delve into both past and future, allowing players to take up the mantle of the Slayer in a different time. At the same time, if players want, they can still take the roles of the existing characters. RPGs need to keep that flexibility and allow for new characters with similar capabilities as existing ones.
The Cortex system debuted in its early form with the Sovereign Stone Game System, which was based on Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Sovereign Stone novels. Since then, the Cortex system was refined and was used as the base for a number of licensed games published by Margaret Weis Productions – Serenity, based on the movie*; Battlestar Galactica, based on the rebooted series; Demon Hunters, based on videos by Dead Gentlemen Productions; and Supernatural, based on the CW TV series. A stand-alone version of the Cortex rules, the Cortex System Role Playing Game, came out in 2008, after Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Demon Hunters had been released.
The works adapted share some common features. Both Serenity and Battlestar Galactica are science fiction set far from Earth and have characters who spend much of their time in spaceships. Demon Hunters and Supernatural both deal with supernatural threats. All four original works have a devoted fan base, one that is likely to play RPGs. At the same time, each of the original works has its own tone. Serenity, the movie, was based around a government cover-up that affected one of the core characters. Battlestar Galactica showed the last of humanity escaping a relentless enemy intent on exterminating every last human. Demon Hunters is a comedy. Supernatural is the story of the Winchester brothers fighting against destiny, Hell, and Heaven.
Fortunately, game mechanics don’t always set the tone. While there are games where the mechanics were written to support the tone of the game, a more generic system can be adapted to the desired result. The Serenity RPG presents the game in terms of the players being the crew of their own small ship trying to make a living while staying true to themselves. Battlestar Galactica focused on survival in an environment that is inherently deadly, with the push to find the lost planet, Earth. Demon Hunters focused on comedy, with additional writing from Dead Gentlemen contributors and bonus orientation DVD. Supernatural placed the focus on the players being a small group of supernatural hunters that banded together. Each release added rules needed for the setting. Serenity and Battlestar Galactica had rules for starships, with Galactica having expanded rules for dogfighting in space. Demon Hunters added rules for creating demons and spending plot points to summon the Purple Ninja. Supernatural also had rules for creating the supernatural and exploiting their weaknesses.
What helped Cortex be flexible enough for the range of adapted works is its simplicity. The core mechanic involves using dice – the full range of regular polyhedrons – for attributes, skills, traits, and complications. Players roll the dice from appropriate attribute, skill, and, if any, trait against a difficulty number set by the GM, modified by dice from the character’s applicable complications, again, if any. Skill lists can be modified by setting; where Pilot would be a given for a Colonial Warrior to have in Battlestar Galactica, a group of hunters in Supernatural might just have the one character who can fly a small plane. Adding setting-specific rules, such as details about the Cylons, builds on top of the existing core rules, allowing for specialization.
Cortex worked well for settings that focused on action. However, not all settings focus on action. Gaming has seen a movement to expand towards a more narrative-driven focus, moving away from the hobby’s wargaming background. The intent is to tell stories, not chop down opponents. While Cortex might not have been able to take advantage, its successor, Cortex Plus, was developed to do just that.
Cortext Plus developed into three streams – Cortex Plus Drama, focusing on the relationships between characters; Cortext Plus Action, looked at what the characters did; and Cortex Plus Heroic, which combined the Drama and the Action. The core die mechanic remained but was heavily modified as needed. The game also added more details for characters, including character distinctions that could help or hinder depending on the circumstance. Traditional hit points fell by the wayside. Instead, characters could suffer from stress or complications imposed on them. If either got too high, the character would be forced out of the scene, either because of injuries, exhaustion, or escaping.
The first Cortex Plus game released was the Smallville Roleplaying Game, licensed from the Smallville TV series. The RPG used the Cortex Plus Drama system, reflecting how what the characters on the show were driven by their relationships with each other. Instead of rolling attribute and skill, players rolled value and relationship, adding in relevant resources and assets, and keeping the best two dice rolled. Players wouldn’t always be rolling against the GM; sometimes, two characters could work at cross purposes, coming into conflict. Character creation was a group effort; relationships between player and non-player characters were set up in the first session. The main drawback with the game was that a large number of players meant that the relationship map grew complex, It also meant that all the players had to show up for the first session, something not all groups can handle. That said, the system reflected the show; the values, replacing attributes, went to what motivated the characters. Clark Kent’s highest rated value, Justice, and lowest, Power, were true to his appearance on the show.
The first Cortex Plus Action game released was based on the TV series, Leverage, which was about a group of five con artists and thieves using their skills to help the average person who is being run over roughshod by the powerful and corrupt. Leverage used the same attributes that were in the Cortex games above, but instead of skills, characters had roles. The roles came directly from the TV series – Mastermind, Grifter, Hitter, Hacker, and Thief. Every character would have a key role, a minor role, and roles that would make things interesting for them. Each attribute and role had a die type assigned, which would be added to the player’s dice pool when it came time to raise the stakes. Characters also had distinction, which could work for or against them in the dice pool. For example, if Parker, the thief of the Leverage crew, needed to break into an office on the 34th floor of an office tower, she could decide to repel down the side of the building from the roof. To do this, Parker’s player would her Strength die, her Thief die, and could add her “Crazy” distinction and her “No – Really Crazy”, giving her four dice, though only the highest two would be added together. Parker’s player could decide that “Crazy” merited the usual d8 for the distinction, but then say that, because she’s going down facing the ground, “No – Really Crazy” would add just a d4 and provide a plot point.
The Leverage RPG added rules to reflect the show’s episode structure, which included flashbacks to show the characters setting up twists to defeat the Mark. The game allows for players to set up their own flashbacks, allowing them to get an advantage when needed. This allows the crew’s thief to place a convenient smartphone in a drawer where the crew’s hacker can grab it later without the players spending two hours of gaming working out all the contingencies before committing their heist. The Leverage RPG works to keep the story flowing; there’s no real need to spend hours on a plan when the players just need to work out a general idea of what they want to do.
The next Cortex Plus game out was also the first to use the Heroic approach. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game featured the characters from Marvel Comics and was the fourth licensed game based on the Marvel Universe. The game pulled in ideas from both Smallville and Leverage, adapted to reflect the needs of the new setting. Instead of Smallville‘s values and Leverage‘s attributes, Marvel Heroic used affiliations, or how well a character worked with others. There were three types of affiliation, each getting a different die type – Solo, for characters like Daredevil and Wolverine, who worked best on their own; Buddy, for characters like Spider-Man who often works with another hero; and Team, for the likes of Captain America and Cyclops, who work most often with a large group, such as the Avengers or the X-Men.
Marvel Heroic also uses the stress system from Smallville, again, modified. Instead of taking six different types of stress, Marvel Heroic characters only have three sources – physical, mental, and emotional. It is possible for Spider-Man to keep up his constant wisecracking to force an opponent to break down and give up, a result that the previous three Marvel-based games didn’t have a mechanic for. Skills were replaced by specialties, though their use is similar. The mechanics remain the same; a player builds a dice pool and takes the best two results and add them together.
The most recent game from Margaret Weis Productions was the Firefly RPG. The license for the Serenity RPG had expired, but the company had worked with Fox to get the license for the TV series*. The Firefly RPG uses Cortex Plus Action, modified from its first incarnation as the Leverage RPG and taking some ideas from Marvel Heroic. Firefly has attributes, but only three; Mental, Physical, and Social. The skill list is shorter than Serenity‘s, but are broader. The game introduced rules for spaceships, since the TV series was set on one. Players could not only create their characters but their own ship, turning the vessel from a stat block into something that the players and their characters could care about. The game also modified the distinctions. Instead of just giving a bonus die for the player’s dice pool, distinction had some extra mechanical bits that helped players distinguish their characters. The rule book also uses scenes from the TV series to illustrate how the mechanics work, giving players a way to follow the action.
With four licensed games using Cortex and another four using Cortex Plus, how did the adapting fare? At its core, Cortex is a simple, flexible system, in the same vein as the Cinematic Unisystem rules used by the Buffy RPG. This allowed the developers to tailor the mechanics to the adapted setting by changing skill lists and adding and removing talents and complications. It is possible for characters from one of the published games to be used in another; it would be odd to see a member of the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch on board the Rising Star, but less so if that same member met the Winchesters.
With Cortex Plus and its different streams, adapting the mechanics to the setting was a design goal. This means that characters from the different games wouldn’t interact as easily – Spider-Man has no relationship ties to anyone from Smallville, for example – but the games reflect the TV series they’re meant to portray. Smallville is a super-powered soap opera while Leverage is a series of heist mini-movies, and their games reflect those realities. The key is to choose the correct Cortex Plus stream to reflect the core of a work. So far, the developers have been able to do just that.
Speaking of the developers, Cam Banks, has licensed Cortex and Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. The end goal is to create a game, Cortex Prime, that takes in all the prior work mentioned above and produce not just the rules but settings that aren’t necessarily licensed works. His studio, Magic Vacuum Design Studio is running a Kickstarter, with stretch goals that will include a number of pre-made settings with the new game.
* The Serenity and Firefly licenses had an inherent problem – different studios held the licensing rights. Fox has the rights for Firefly, but Universal had the rights for Serenity. This split meant that information in one work could not appear in the licensed game of the other. Players, however, aren’t restricted and can pull in characters and ideas from both works, but any work needed to stat up something not covered by the game fell to the GM.
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