Category: Lost In Translation

 

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

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 ProductionsSerenity, 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 NinjaSupernatural 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 HeroicFirefly 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.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

No post today.  Lost in Translation will return next week.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

After last week’s look at works that adapt characters instead of stories, it’s a good time to examine such a work.  Today, Deadpool.

The character Deadpool was created in 1990, with his first appearance in New Mutants #98, written by Rob Liefield and Fabien Nicieza.  Deadpool’s main ability is much like Wolverine’s, a heightened healing factor, though with the Merc with the Mouth, it’s offset by cancer.  The two characters are linked through the Weapon X project, the one that gave Wolverine his adamantium skeleton and Deadpool his accelerated healing.  This combination has seriously unhinged Deadpool to the point where he thinks he’s a comic book character.  His appearances are marked by his ability to break the fourth wall and talk to the readers directly.  In his video game appearances, he has cheered on the player.

Deadpool’s first cinematic appearance was in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  The problem there, though, was that his mouth was sewn shut, so he couldn’t speak.  He was also decapitated in the movie, though a post-credit sequence shows him picking up his head and telling the audience to “Shh.”  Ryan Reynolds, who plays the Merc with the Mouth, admitted that it was wrong, so was eager to play him again, this time properly.  Thus, the Deadpool movie released shortly before Valentine’s Day, 2016..

Deadpool set out to correct the problems with the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Where the character had his mouth sewn shut previously, this time around, he talks non-stop, to the point of providing narration even into the post-credit sequence.  The core plot hinges around Wade Wilson, Mr. Pool himself, trying to get the experiment that turned his Ryan Reynolds good looks into something that repulses people reversed.  The man responsible, Francis, credited as Ajax*, played by Ed Skrein, provided the a treatment that halted the spread of cancer through Wilson’s body, but didn’t remove it.

However, the core plot isn’t the only part of the story.  There’s a romance as well, with Wade getting engaged to Vanessa, played by Morena Baccarin.  Vanessa is the reason why Wade went into the Weapon X program – he didn’t want to leave her mourning him.  This connection, though, puts Vanessa in danger near the end of the movie.

The movie is a superhero comedy that, instead of taking refuge in audacity, revels in it.  Deadpool is also one of the most comic book movies made, alongside Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  The film opens with the cinematic version of a two-page splash page.  The credits that appear wouldn’t be out of place in one of Marvel’s lighter titles, like What The–?!, credits like “A Moody Teenager” – Negasonic Teenage Warhead played by Brianna Hildebrand, “A CGI Character” – Colossus voiced by Stefan Kapicic, and “A British Villain” – Francis.  Deadpool himself narrates the story, stopping the action several times to address the audience directly.  Not only does he break the fourth wall, at one point, he does so while breaking the fourth wall during a flashback.

Deadpool is an origins movie, though the character’s background isn’t as well known as Superman’s or Spider-Man’s.  The movie retells Deadpool’s background.  However, remember that cinematic superhero universes are a thing.  The movie isn’t accurate, but given it’s Wade narrating it and he believes he’s a comic book and, for the film, a superhero movie character, variances are allowed.  Deadpool is structured much like a comic book.  The opening shot, as mentioned above, acts as the two-page splash.  Flashbacks fill in details.  Narration adds extra information.  The opening splash is revisited several times, once in the regular narrative flow, and at least once with a flashback.

The writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, pulled together the information on Deadpool’s origins and focused on his personality.  Deadpool is more about the character than getting details of his history correct and presents Wade as the unhinged mutant seen in the comics.  Any problems from X-Men Origins: Wolverine were erased, even called out and ridiculed by Wade himself.  To emphasize that he believes he’s a character in a movie, Deadpool often comments on the film.  A scene at the X-Men’s mansion has him commenting that, “It’s a big house.  It’s funny that I only ever see two of you [Colossus and Negasonic].  It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.”

The main potential point of failure was not getting Deadpool translated over to film.  The movie managed to take the character concept and bring it from the pages to the silver screen while still keeping the core that made Deadpool popular.

* The name Ajax is used once.  Even the DVD subtitles refer to him as Francis.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Most of the works analyzed here at Lost in Translation have been the a partial or full adaptation of the story in an original.  While the degree of success may change from work to work, the intent was to take the whole of an original work and move it to another or, in the case of remakes and reboots, the same medium.  However, not every adaptation aims for that goal.  A small few don’t use the story so much as the main character or characters.  The most recent analysis featuring a character being adapted is the 2007 Nancy Drew film.

For the most part, when a work gets adapted, it’s because the adapter wants to bring the story over to the new medium.  With movies, the studio wants to bring in the fans, and the safest way is to remake the story in the original work and place it on screen.  Tinkering can cause a backlash, especially with the speed of today’s social media.  Warner Bros. would have been crucified if they had altered the Harry Potter films in any way from how the novels presented not just the characters but the setting.

With some works, though, chosing an iconic moment to tell is difficult.  This becomes especially true for long running series.  The tendency for non-comics media versions of superheroes to go off in their own directions has been discussed before; the short version is that the needs of the new medium, either a film with limited time to delve into the intricacies of the character and plots or a TV series with time to fill, will cause the adaptation to veer in a new direction.  Even Marvel Studio’s offerings and Fox’s X-Men films, based on story lines in the comics, have their own take.

It’s not just superheroes, though.  Supers are noticeable because of their popularity in theatres.  Other long running series have been adapted.  The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories ran from 1930 until 2003, with 175 titles released in that time.  With all the titles available, the 2007 movie still created a new mystery for her; the character is better known than any one of her published books.  Even James Bond, with Ian Fleming writing 12 novels and 2 collections of short stories, has been adapted as a character.  While the first three Sean Connery movies, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger stayed close to the original novels, though with some changes, later works, including The Man With the Golden Gun and Octopussy, both with Roger Moore, and the entirety of the Pierce Brosnan run, featured new stories about Bond*.

That’s not to say that anytime a character with a series gets an adaptation, the work is automatically a character adaptation.  The 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve and 2013’s Man of Steel are both about the same character, but they also both retell the character’s story, just through different interpretations.  Likewise, the 2011 remake of The Mechanic told the same story, just with a different approach, an action movie instead of a character piece.

The flip side to the above is that a work doesn’t have to focus on just one character to be a character adaptation.  The exemplar here is The Addams Family from 1991.  The movie showed the Addamses coping with life among the mundanes.  Each character was recognizable, not just in appearance but in action and personality.  The movie extrapolated from both the original one-panel comics and the 1964 TV series to explore what they would do outside the comfort of their home.

At what point does an adaptation become more about the character or characters than the original story?  The main difference is having a new plot created for the character, as with Nancy Drew, The Addams Family, and the sequels to the Tim Burton Batman film.  This approach works well when the character is better known than any of his or her existing stories, which tends to happen with older characters.  Pop culture osmosis means that a younger generation will know of the character in general without having experienced the original work first hand, if at all.  Nancy Drew is a teenage girl detective who can get herself in and out of trouble.  The Addamses, as the song says, “They’re creepy and they’re kooky.”  James Bond is a suave British agent with a license to kill.

Another way to tell that a work is a spin-off.  Spin-offs are works that are related to an original or even an adaptation, based on a character or situation that was minor in the original but got attention from the audience.  The Ma & Pa Kettle series of movies came about after the hard luck characters in The Egg and I became breakout hits despite being supporting characters.  The Angel spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed the tortured vampire to LA after leaving Sunnydale.  After Cheers ended, Frasier followed the character to Seattle.  In each of these cases, the character’s/characters’ story continued.  Note that not all spin-offs are popular.  There are times when a studio misreads the audience’s desires; this was the case with the Friends spin-off, JoeyFriends was popular, lasting ten seasons.  When it wrapped up, fans still wanted more, so NBC spun off the character of Joey.  The new show didn’t maintain the ratings the parent show had, and only lasted two seasons.

Like full works, characters can also be adapted.  While adapting a character for a new medium is part of the process of adaptation, it is possible for a character to be adapted without the rest of his or her story.  The degree of success lies in how well the adapters – whether studio executives, comic artists and writers, or even fanfic authors – understand the character and can portray that understanding to the audience.

* Special mention here for the Timothy Dalton outing, The Living Daylights, which re-told the short story of the same name, then expanded on it.  The full 007 series deserves to have its own project as it covers not just simple adaptation, but character adaptation and expansion into a franchise.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Time again to try to fix an adaptation.  Previous attempts to figure out what went wrong and how to fix the problems include the Dungeons & Dragons movie, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, and the 1998 American Godzilla movie.  This time out, the 2015 Jem and the Holograms film.

The biggest problem the 2015 Jem had was obvious – it wasn’t the cartoon.  Not that it wasn’t animated; the movie only shared names with with cartoon, going in its own direction, one that the potential audience wasn’t interested in.  The obvious solution is to build a time machine, go back to 1986, and prevent the cartoon from airing.  Of course, doing that means there’s no reason to adapt the series as a movie, thus the film is never made, so there’s no reason to go back in time.  Depending on the theory of temporal mechanics, this could destroy the universe from paradox; create two timelines, one with the cartoon, the other without; or have some grumpy man in a blue police call box step in grumbling how amateurs shouldn’t mess with the space-time continuum.

Given the complexities of time travel, the obvious solution isn’t workable.  Given that the audience was expecting something like the cartoon, what could have been done?  Simplest, and doable barring problems with rights, is to just adapt the first five episodes of the series as the movie, with the music and technology updated to reflect what’s possible now.  The episodes, “The Beginning”, “Disaster” (aka “Setbacks”), “Kimber’s Rebellion”, “Frame Up”, and “Battle of the Bands”, are one story, each but the last ending with a cliffhanger and set up the premise well.  Along with Jerrica/Jem, the Holograms, and the Misfits, there’s a corrupt corporate executive in Eric Raymond as the villain.

“The Beginning” introduces everyone, sets up the relationships, shows the need that the Starlight Foundation has, brings in the love interests, and puts Jerrica in the position of having to fight to keep control of her father’s company.  Even Synergy is brought in before the first commercial break, to introduce Jem.  The difficulty may lie in the updates.  Holographic technology is better understood now, but miniaturization will still let Synergy use Jem’s earrings as projectors.  The fashions are dated, but with the likes of Lady Gaga performing today, outrageous outfits shouldn’t be a problem.  The music needs a careful hand; Jem and the Holograms should have a different sound from the Misfits.  In the cartoon, the Misfits had a harsher tone in their music, with Jem being softer for the most part, as the song “Click/Clash” demonstrates.  Given that the sequel hook had Kesha as Pizzazz, the difference between the two bands would happen.

The last of the first five, “Battle of the Bands”, provides a natural climax, as Jem and the Holograms face off against the Misfits in a battle of the bands that will determine who owns Starlight Music and will live in Starlight Mansion, with the added threat of the life of one of the Starlight Girls in the balance, thanks to Eric.  A race against time for the final act should pump up the audience, with the added benefit that the Holograms succeed thanks to Jerrica’s thinking and actions.

Casting the above is easy – keep the same cast, just let the actors playing Jem and the Holograms get a little older.  They had chemistry with each other and deserve a proper shot.  Ke$ha as Pizzazz had promise, and Juliette Lewis as Erica Raymond nice flipped the villain’s gender without losing any of the sliminess of the corrupt exec.

That isn’t to say that the 2015 Jem movie is bad.  Unlike the other movies featured in the Adaptation Fix-it Shop, Jem‘s biggest sin was not being what people wanted.  The movie did get a number of items correct.  The writers understood that while the Misfits were rivals, Eric Raymond was the villain.  He used the Misfits for his own ends.  The movie also remembered Eric’s thug, Zipper, who played a supporting role in the first five episodes of the cartoon.  The fan videos that appeared deserves a look just for how the creative crew managed to fit them in.  The Jem movie deserved better than a two-week run in theatres.  It may have been better served by airing on a family programming channel instead, where the expectations of the audience who will be paying for the fare would be low to non-existent.  As it stands, the movie made only half its $5 million budget, a rounding error for Universal in a year that included Jurassic World.

The 2015 Jem and the Holograms wasn’t a bad movie.  It was just not what people wanted, and fixing that happens not on screen, but in marketing.  Sometimes, misreading the audience leads to missteps.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

A while back, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2015 Jem and the Holograms film.  Today, let’s look at the cartoon that people were expecting to be the base of that film.

As mentioned in the movie review, the Eighties saw rules and regulations over children’s programming relaxed, allowing toy manufacturers to create animated series that were effectively ads for the toys.  Hasbro saw success with both Transformers and G.I. Joe, thanks to the collaboration with Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions.  With the boys’ line of toys comfortable, Hasbro turned to its girls line.

The fashion doll industry is dominated by one company, Mattel.  Mattel’s Barbie line dominates the doll aisles at stores.  Hasbro decided to try to get a piece of the action by introducing its own line of fashion dolls, Jem and the Holograms.  The initial line in 1986 featured Jerrica Benton, her rock star alter ego Jem, her younger sister Kimber, and foster sisters Aja and Shana, all of whom made up the band.  A rival band, the Misfits, also received dolls – Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer.  To round out the line, Jerrica/Jem had a boyfriend doll, Rio.  The dolls and fashions were inspired by the music videos of the time, with wild coloured hair and pastel tones.  The initial dolls came with music cassettes with two songs each from the Holograms and the Misfits.

The doll line lasted two years before Hasbro discontinued it due to lack of sales.  Mattel’s introduction of the Barbie and the Rockers line the same year Jem and the Holograms debuted didn’t help matters.  However, by the time the Jem line wrapped up, twenty-four dolls were released, including two releases each of the Holograms, the Misfits, and Rio and three sets of Jem and Jerrica.

To help with sales, Hasbro went with the Marvel/Sunbow team up that had success with G.I. Joe and Transformers.  Christy Marx, who had written scripts for both prior cartoons. became the story editor for the new series, Jem and the Holograms.  The series revolves around Jerrica Benton, Starlight Music, and the foster home, Starlight Girls.  Jerrica starts the series as co-owner of Starlight Music, her late father’s company, along with Eric Raymond.  Eric, though, sees Starlight as a means to an end, getting rich, and is using the company to line his pockets.  To this end, he backs the Misfits, a punk band made up of Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer.  Jerrica discovers Eric’s duplicity and tries to find a way to take full control of Starlight Music.  The answer is a contest highlighting new bands.

Jerrica, though, doesn’t have one immediately available.  She discovers, though, that her father had been working on a secret project and tracks it down to an abandoned drive-in theatre.  Inside, her father’s computer, Synergy, reveals itself and its advanced holographic capabilities to Jerrica, allowing her to become Jem.  Her sisters Kimber, Shana, and Aja, join Jerrica and become the Holograms.  The contest boils down to one between Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits.

Pizzazz wants to win.  She’s in music for the fame and has no scruples in how she gets it.  She’s perfect for Eric’s purposes, sabotaging Jem’s public appearances.  However, the key element is performance, and Jem and the Holograms edge out the Misfits, letting Jerrica get the money to fully own Starlight Music and fund the Starlight Girls.  Thus ending the first five episodes of the series.  Eric is arrested and the Misfits are looking for a new label as a result.

The series continues in a similar vein.  Eric gets out thanks to being able to afford the best lawyers money can buy.  The Misfits become rivals to Jem and the Holograms, trying to sabotage the latter group’s efforts any time they can.  Eric continues to try to retake Starlight Music, using evvery avenue of attack he can, at least until he starts up Misfits Music with the Misfits.  Meanwhile, Jerrica’s relationship with her boyfriend Rio Pacheco becomes complicated thanks to Jem.  As much as Jerrica wants to tell him the truth,. Synergy insists that her technologies remain secret.  The lives of the Holograms are no less complex.  Kimber has her own love triangle develop between a British singer and an American stuntman, while she tries to live in the dual shadow of her sister and her alter ego.

In the third season, a new band appears.  The Stingers, comprised of lead singer Riot and musicians Rapture and Minx become a rival to both Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits.  Working with Eric, the Stingers take over Mistfits Music and rename it Stinger Sound.  The third season ran shorter than the first two, in part because the Hasbro had discontinued the toy line.  No toys, no need to advertise.  However, the cartoon was a ratings success.

Each episode featured two or three songs, either as a montage related to the scene it appears in or as a more traditional 80s music video.  The Misfits appear in most of the episodes, one key exception being the anti-drug “Alone Again“.  Some of the draw for the series was the music; the show revolved around two bands, after all.  Each band had a distinctive sound, with the Misfits having a harsher tone than Jem and the Holograms.

Ultimately, while the series was popular, that popularity didn’t translate into sales.  The sheer size of the line of dolls, which included three of the Starlight Girls, Synergy, and two friends of Jem, Danse and Video, may have spread what sales there were.  Availability was an issue in some areas, where the cartoon aired but the dolls weren’t in stores.  Mattel’s Barbie and the Rockers may have also eaten into the sales, having a known name despite the lack of cartoon.  From this view, Jem and the Holograms failed on what it was supposed to do, sell dolls.  However, a cartoon that still draws in viewers over twenty-five years later, that is truly outrageous.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Lost in Translation has analyzed the two American-made Godzilla movies, both the 1998 version and the 2014.  The history of Godzilla and Gojira are expanded in those, but the short version is that title kaiju began as a message about the horrors of the atomic age, espeically the atomic bomb.  As the franchise progressed, Godzilla became the defender of the Earth, though not necessarily of humanity has he rampages through Tokyo leaving massive collateral damage in his wake.  The 2014 Hollywood version changed the message, from the dangers of the atomic era to the dangers of climate change.

However, the 1998 and 2014 versions were not the first American adaptations.  Prior to them, the animation studio Hanna-Barbera licensed the character in 1978 from Toho to create the Godzilla cartoon.  What better way to entertain young children on a Saturday morning than watching a giant monster rampaging through the cities of the world?  Considering that local stations, particularly in the UHF band, had more control over their time slots than today and had more hours to fill with local programming, both weekend afternoons and late-night and overnight hours, the very same young children watching the Godzilla cartoon would be able to watch an older Godzilla movie later the same weekend.

The series followed the crew of the Calico, a research vessel travelling the world’s oceans.  While Captain Carl Majors was in charge of the ship, Dr. Quinn Darien was the head of the unspecified research project.  Quinn had two members of her team, Brock, her research assistant, and Pete Darien, her nephew.  Rounding out the team is Godzooky, Godzilla’s young nephew.  When the crew of the Calico is in a tight spot, they summon Godzilla himself.

A typical episode would have the Calico in a location by the ocean making a new discovery, usually related to the giant monster of the week.  The crew investigates, with Pete and Godzooky often told to remain behind because of the danger.  If they were told, eventually they disobey and follow.  The giant monster is found and Godzilla is summoned.  The first fight between titans is a draw as the newcomer’s abilities either force Godzilla to back down or allows it to run away.  The team tracks the giant monster and summons Godzilla one more time for the final fight.  The draw of the show, though, is the battle between giant monsters, and the cartoon does deliver.

While the crew of the Calico was created for the cartoon, Godzooky is based on an existing character in the Godzilla mythos – Minilla.  First appearing in Son of Godzilla, Minilla, known as Minya in some dubs, is the son of Godzilla.  Both Minilla and Godzooky share some traits, including blowing smoke rings instead of fire and being young giant monsters.  Godzooky was in the cartoon to appeal to the kids; he is very much a lovable pet who gets into trouble but is too cute to be angry with for too long.  He is also very much child-like in that he wants to help even if he isn’t able to be effective.

The animation of the rest of the cast is along the lines of Hanna-Barbera’s own Jonny Quest.  Techniques developed with the various Scooby-Doo series can be seen, particularly as the crew runs as a group.  Godzilla is very much in line with his cinematic appearances.  However, one of the draws of the movies, the casual destruction of cities as Godzilla stomps through, was reduced or completely removed, thanks to Broadcast Standards and Practices..  BS&P had strict guidelines on what could and could not be shown, and things like breathing fire on people and crushing buildings and cars underfoot were against the guidelines.  As a result, Godzilla tended to use laser beams from his eyes more this is atomic breath, which was turned into a flame breath.

While Toho licensed the character, they didn’t license Godzilla’s roar.  The studio worked around that limitation by hiring Ted Cassidy, best known as Lurch on The Addams Family and Ruk on the Star Trek episode, “What Little Girls Are Made Of”, to give voice to Godzilla.  Cassidy’s work, combined with the animation of the title character, gave weight to the monster, keeping the fierceness associated with Godzilla.

Given that the cartoon was meant for a younger Saturday morning audience, Hanna-Barbera succeeded in what they set out to do.  Godzilla lasted two season, and ran until 1981 on NBC.  While not the best adaptation it could have been, the studio’s limitations, imposed from within by format and target audience and from outside by Broadcast Standards and Practices, meant that the production was going to hit diminishing returns.  It’s not a perfect adaptation, but the Godzilla cartoon did remember the key elements to the kaiju‘s fame.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers‘s history starts in Japan.  Toei, developed Sentai, a series about masked heroes fighting monsters, in the Sixties.  After a deal with Marvel to bring over some of the comic company’s heroes resulted in mecha getting added to sentai series, Toei continued to add giant robots, creating Super Sentai.  The sixteenth series, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, caught the attention of Haim Saban, owner of Saban Entertainment.  Saban worked out a deal to get the footage from Zyuranger to which he’d use the action scene and create new stories to go with them.  Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted in 1993.

The original Power Rangers, Jason Lee Scott, Kimberly Hart, Zack Taylor, Trini Kwan and Billy Cranston, were recruited after the sage Zordon ordered his robot aide, Alpha 5, to find “five teenagers with attitude.”  Zordon needed a team to stop Rita Repulsa, an alien sorceress who escaped imprisonment after 10 000 years.  To help fight Rita and her monsters, the Rangers received Zords, mecha that can combine into the MegaZord.  The Rangers defeat Rita’s monsters regularly, but the sorceress has a new plan – defeat the Rangers with one of their own.  She kidnaps the Green Ranger, Tommy Oliver, and turns him against the others.  Tommy does break free of the brainwashing and aids the others against her.  The series sold a number of toys, from action figures to Zords.  The effects at times were weak, the result of being a weekly series in Japan.  However, the series had a following.  The franchise is now in its twenty-fourth season with Power Rangers Ninja Steel.

As is the way of Hollywood, a popular TV series will be adapted.  Despite being in its twenty-fourth season, the studio went back to the beginning, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.  There is a tendency for film makers to turn a children’s series darker and grittier to the point where the feel is off.  With a series featuring martial arts, the potential for a grimdark remake existed.  Instead, the movie took a different approach, acting as an origin for the Rangers.

The movie starts at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era with a battle going badly for the Power Rangers.  Red Ranger Zordon, played by Bryan Cranston, orders Alpha 5, voiced by Bill Hadar, to send a meteor on his position.  This desperate act of self-sacrifice is to protect the Earth’s Zeo Crystal and the Rangers’ Power Coins from Rita Repulsa, played by Elizabeth Banks.  The meteor wipes out the dinosaurs, and buries not only the Zeo Crystal and the Power Coins, but sends Rita deep into the ocean.

Millions of years later, Jason Scott, played by Dacre Montgomery, makes a bad decision in trying to steal a mascot and winds up injuring his leg, destroying a potential career in football, placed under house arrest, and sent to detention.  While serving detention, he meets Billy Cranston, played by RJ Cyler, and Kimberly Hart, played by Naomi Scott.  Billy is in detention for blowing up his lunch box.  Kimberly is there because she forwarded an image of her cheerleader friend throughout school.  Jason becomes Billy’s friend after stopping a bully from tormenting him, though the feeling isn’t immediately reciprocated.  Billy is a genius with electronics and is able to fool the tracker Jason wears as part of his house arrest.

In return for the help, Jason drives Billy up to a gold mine.  Billy’s father had been trying to locate something hidden at the mine, and Billy continued the search after his death.  He sets up the explosives and detonates them, getting the attention of Kimberly and two other classmates, Trini Kwan, played by Becky G, and Zach Taylor, played by Ludi Lin, are also at the mine and are drawn to the explosion.  While Jason, Kimberly, Trini, and Zach argue about why they are all at the mine, Billy realizes that the rock wall is collapsing.  The collapse reveals five unusual rocks, red, blue, pink, yellow, and black.  Each of the teens grabs one and, with sirens approaching, runs away.  Eventually, they all make it into Billy’s van.  Jason tries to out run a train to escape both mine security and the police.

Out on the ocean, a fishing boat drags in its last haul of the day.  Within the net of fish is the body of a woman.  The boat’s skipper calls in for the police to meet the boat at the docks.  The body isn’t quite so dead, though.  Rita survived, frozen in the ocean until pulled on board.  When one of Angel Grove’s finest arrives to investigate, he is surprised that the body not only isn’t dead but is trying to kill him.

Jason wakes up the next morning surprised to be alive and unsure of just how he got home.  He gets out of bed, then notices that he isn’t wearing his knee brace.  The red stone he discovered at the mine is still with him, even if he leaves it in another room.  Jason also discovers that he has superhuman strength.  He returns to the mine, where he sees the wreckage of Billy’s van.  The other teenagers have also returned.  More or less as a group, they explore the mine and discover a long buried spaceship deep under the rock.  The ship’s caretaker, Alpha 5, rounds up the group and brings them to the central chamber to meet Zordon, who is now part of the ship’s computer matrix.  Zordon welcomes the new Power Rangers and warns them that Rita will be at full strength again in eleven days.  The new Rangers need to train and to learn to morph.

While their training, while painful, is difficult, the new Rangers do learn.  Alpha 5 presents holographic versions of Rita’s Putties, the minions she uses as the first wave.  Morphing, though, is another matter.  None of the Rangers are able to morph at first.  Even after Alpha 5 shows the Rangers their Zords, mecha that took the shape of the dominant life form of the Cenozoic Era, the teens aren’t able to morph.  The closest any of them get is Billy, who morphs into his blue armour while breaking up a fight between Jason and Zack.

Rita keeps busy while the Rangers train.  She collects gold to recreate her monster Goldar, who will be able to dig to retrieve Earth’s Zeo Crystal, dooming the world and giving her the ability to destroy other planets.  Rita isn’t picky about where she gets her gold, either.  Some of her victims have their gold fillings removed.  She senses the other Power Coins and realizes that new Rangers have been discovered, in part because she had been the Green Ranger under Zordon’s leadership until she turned her back on her oath.  Rita breaks into Trini’s home to have her send a message to the others to be at the docks.

Trini tells her fellow Rangers about Rita.  Despite not being able to morph yet, Jason decides that this is the best time for them to take down Rita.  Rita, though, is more than ready for them and easily defeats the group.  She knows one of them has the location of the Zeo Crystal and threatens to kill the Rangers one by one until she gets it.  Billy, who managed to work out where the Crystal is, doesn’t want to lose any of his new friends and gives her the key words without completely giving away the location.

It takes a tragedy to turn the Rangers from a group of teenagers into a proper team.  The death of a teammate makes them realize that each of them would gladly sacrifice their life for the others.  The Morphing Grid unlocks and instead of Zordon returning, the dead teammate does.  The team morphs for the first time and heads out to fight Rita once again.  Rita, though, sends her Putties against them at the ship.  The fight is difficult, but when Zach brings out his Zord to even the odds, the others follow suit.  The Putties defeated, the Rangers ride out to save Angel Grove from Rita and her monster.

Unlike the TV series, the movie has the advantage of being written as one whole instead of having to incorporate existing footage from Zyuranger with a new script.  The formular of the series – Rita hatches a scheme, sends out her Putties and her monster of the week, Putties get defeated, monster forces the Rangers to call their Zords, Rita makes her monster grow, and the Rangers summon the MegaZord – is in the movie, but the movie isn’t just the formula.  Instead, the formula provides a scaffold to build on, and gets reshaped in the process.  The heart of the movie is the team and how the Rangers come together.

Each Ranger has a problem to overcome.  Jason’s is that he is impulsive and prone to self-sabotage.  Kimberly was a mean girl who had to face up to what she did.  Zach is worried about his mother and being alone if anything happens to her.  Trini is discovering that she is a lesbian and feels that she’s an outsider even in her own family.  Billy is on the autistic spectrum and is well aware of the problems he faces as a result.  By being able to move past their problems and open up to each other, they turn from a group of teenagers to a team of Power Rangers.  Each of the Rangers’ problems comes from a real place.  None of them are sensationalized.  Billy’s autism is one of the more realistic portrayals around, as is Trini’s feeling of being an outsider because of her sexuality and Kimberly’s reaction to what she had done to her friend.

The casting worked.  As mentioned above, RJ Cyler’s portrayal of Billy was believable.  Elizabeth Banks as Rita channelled J-horror movies, with her early movement similar Ringu`s Sadako.  Rita went from evil sorceress to frightening villain.  Bryan Cranston’s Zordon had wisdom fighting against desire, a mentor who demanded much but knew exactly what the stakes were.  The movie also used colour as a symbol.  When the Rangers first meet and while they`re still trying to morph, the colours are muted, dark, and murky.  When they become a team, the colour turns bright and full.  In part, this helps show off the Zords and the Rangers colour-coded armour, but it also works to show the transition from teenager to hero.

Power Rangers takes Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and expands on it, giving the Rangers depth of character and showing them becoming heroes.  Rita’s villainy also expands, showing just how evil the sorceress is.  Yet, the movie never forgets its heritage and embraces it.  Power Rangers is a well-done adaptation of a beloved franchise’s beginnings.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Lost in Translation is taking this week off but will return next week.   You can also follow Lost in Translation over at Facebook.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Spunky girl detectives can be traced back to one source – Nancy Drew.  The character first appeared in 1930 with the publication of The Secret of the Old Clock, sending the titian-haired sleuth into fame.  The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series ran for 175 books from 1930 until 2003, with more books under new series since  then, along with a series of video games from Her Interactive.

Nancy plies her trade as an amateur sleuth in the fictional town of River Heights, where she lives with her lawyer father, Carson Drew, and their housekeeper, Hannah Gruen.  Nancy’s mother died long before her adventures started, leaving Hannah in the role of a surrogate mother.  Carson’s work leaves him away from home for extended periods, giving Nancy a sense of independence that allows her to investigate.  However, Nancy isn’t alone.  She has her cousins, the feminine Bess Marvin and the tomboy George Fayne, and her beau, Ned Nickerson, along to help her.  Nancy is self-sufficient, capable of not only getting into trouble but getting herself out on her own.

Behind the scenes, the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories was created as the distaff side for the Hardy Boys for the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  Ghostwriters using the pen name Carolyn Keene wrote the stories based on plot outlines created by Edward Stratemeyer and his daughters.  The early years saw new books published four times a year; these releases were always anticipated and sold well.

With a long history, Nancy inevitably would wind up on the silver screen.  Warner Bros. released a series of four movies in 1938 and 1939.  Nancy has also appeared on television, with a series in 1977 starring Pamela Sue Martin.  Hollywood is attracted to popular characters, and Nancy Drew has maintained her popularity over the years since her first appearance.

With such a long history, adapting the character poses some problems.  The biggest is the changes in culture since 1930.  The racism of the Thirties just does not fly today.  The expectations of young women have changed.  No longer are teenaged girls expected to go to college to get degrees in Home Economics; instead, women are breaking through barriers in all walks of life.  An adaptation would have to work out how to balance what is acceptable in entertainment today while still keeping the core of the character.

"What Women Can Do", Georgia State College of Agriculture, 1924

Welcome to a woman’s destiny in 1924, via the Georgia State College of Agriculture bulletin, “What Women Can Do”.

With this in mind, it’s time to look at the 2007 adaptation by Warner Bros, simply titled Nancy Drew.  The movie starred Emma Roberts as the titian haired sleuth, with Tate Donovan as Carson Drew and Max Theriot as Ned Nickerson.  The story starts in River Heights at the tail end of one of Nancy’s cases, inside a church as she talks a pair of crooks into surrendering to the police after they caught her.  The commotion, though not only draws out the town to root for Nancy but also brings Carson out from work, which happened to be in court at the time.  As a result, Carson gets Nancy to promise to no sleuthing while they are in Los Angeles.

However, Carson forgot that Nancy arranged for the housing arrangements in LA.  She found a haunted mansion once owned by the famed actress Delilah Dreycott, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances twenty-five years prior.  The mystery draws Nancy in, despite her promise to her father to not sleuth.  What should be a simple investigation, though, leads to threatening phone calls and the discovery of Delilah’s illegitimate daughter, Jane Brighton, played by Rachel Leigh Cook.  After meeting Jane, Nancy changes the direction of her investigation into finding the late actress’s will to help Jane and her daughter.  As expected, Nancy does get kidnapped after finding the will, but she escapes on her own, and is able to reveal the mastermind behind the plot.

Emma Roberts as Nancy was able to carry the movie on her own, portraying the girl detective as competent and capable.  While her classmates in LA made fun of Nancy’s fashion choices, the look was based on illustrations in the books, updated for today.  Outside Los Angeles, Nancy wouldn’t look too out of place, eccentric but not decades out of date.  The movie’s story was original but used elements from the books, including Nancy’s penchant for getting captured by the villain’s henchmen and for escaping.  The movie also showed Nancy as a capable young woman, independent but still her father’s daughter.  Just as important, Nancy’s hair was titian, not blonde nor brunette.

The movie also tossed in a few Easter eggs for fans.  Several of Delilah’s old films took their names from the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, including Mystery of the Lilac Inn.  Nancy had a blue ragtop roadster, a Nash Metropolitan, the same colour as it had in the books.  Bess and George made quick appearances at the beginning of the movie while it was still in River Heights, and it was possible to tell the cousins apart just by their clothes.  Ned appears both at the beginning and comes back in the middle of the movie with the roadster.

While the movie wasn’t based on any one book in any of the various Nancy Drew series, it was based on an amalgamation of Nancys through the years, updating her while still keeping her true to her nature.  Nancy Drew was aimed at the same audience that the books are, but made sure that the clues were there to be seen by viewers as well as Nancy herself.  The result is a work that takes pains to bring a character up to date without losing what made her so popular in the first place.

 

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