Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the live-action Jem and the Holograms movie. The film lasted all of two weeks in theatres before being pulled because of poor attendance. Despite reviews, including the postmortem done here, the movie wasn’t the problem. If Jem hadn’t been tied to a popular cartoon*, the movie may have had a fighting chance, or may have become a cable channel’s movie of the week. With the Adaptation Fix-It series, Lost in Translation tries to figure out what went wrong and suggest corrections. The only correction that the Jem movie needs requires time travel.
Audience expectations are a risk with adaptations, more so than original movies. With original works, marketing can give potential audiences a sense of what to expect. When the marketing campaign backfires, it’s either because the advertising spoils the film for audiences** or misrepresents what the film is. When it comes to an adaptation, especially one based on non-traditional media like toys and theme park rides, the potential audience may already have preconceived notions of what the final work should look like. Deviation, especially when social media lets negative word of mouth to travel fast, could mean a quick end to the adaptation’s shelf life.
The best way to meet expectations is to be slavishly faithful to the original or to the definitive version. As seen many times here at Lost in Translation, sometimes that level of detail just isn’t possible. Technical issues and running time can prevent a full adaptation. There are works where there isn’t a definitive version. What the adaptation makers need to do is manage the audience’s expectations. This can be done through casting or through advertising.
Michael Bay’s Transformers took advantage of casting. Word of mouth was hesitant at best about a live action version of the Hasbro toy line. There have been a number of Transformers cartoons over the past thirty years, resulting in a number of continuities. Yet, when Optimus Prime spoke with the voice of Peter Cullen, the actor who first played the Autobot leader, fans were mollified. Bay’s casting reassured fans that the director was making the effort. Likewise, casting Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films kept to the vision of JK Rowling, who had pictured the actor in the role as she wrote the books.
Beware stunt casting, though. Studios will do what they can to pull an audience into a theatre, including stunt casting, or the hiring of a popular actor to draw in that person’s fans, whether or not that person fits the role. It can work, provided the actor in question has the chops. When the actor isn’t as capable, the stunt casting falls flat. Two examples reviewed by Lost in Translation are Battleship and The Dukes of Hazzard. Both films cast popular singers, Rhianna and Jessica Simpson, respectively. Rhianna’s role felt like it was expanded because she was cast in it, to give her more screen time. Simpson was placed in a major role and was not a good fit as Daisy.
If a proper adaptation isn’t possible and casting may be difficult for a any number of reasons***, the next best method is to provide an advertising campaign to show the new direction the adaptation is heading. Advertising is meant to entice an audience, give it a taste of the spectacle offered. The risk here is that the potential audience will see the new direction and be turned off from it. The Miami Vice movie wound up with this problem. Audiences wanted something similar to the 80s TV series and not the update for the the New Aughts. Same thing occurred with the 2014 Robocop; the original movie’s broad satire was missed despite the new film’s nastier, much closer to home, bite.
Adaptations come with a built-in audience. That is the main reason why adaptations have dominated popular film lists, with two decades the exception. In an industry as risk adverse as movie making, having a near-guaranteed draw is an easy decision to make. What some studios haven’t realized is that a shallow adaptation, one that uses the name of a work without getting into the substance, tends to leave audiences cold. The above ideas don’t replace making the effort to capture the core of a work, but can offset audience fears of the treatment.
* The animated Jem and the Holograms was the top rated syndicated cartoon when it was on, according to Nielsen ratings, more popular than Transformers, G.I. Joe, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, all on during Jem‘s run.
** At least one romantic comedy has had its entire plot shown in a trailer, with the decision of who the heroine chooses left unrevealed. Given the nature of the film, audiences could guess who the lucky guy would be with better accuracy than flipping a coin.
*** These reasons include the death of a key actor, budget considerations, and even age.
Sentient races (which I’m adapting in the “species” sense) are almost certainly going to be very adaptable. They are going to learn, change, grow, alter, and evolve – even as individuals. The child of today is nothing like the adult of tomorrow, just as the engineer of today is not the engineer of 200 years ago.
Adaption is, in many ways, the very definition of intelligence: taking in, processing, and using information. The ability to be aware, to think, is what sentience is. Without it, one’s really a machine, even if a biological one.
So if you’re writing sentient races (or species, ugh, I keep hating to differentiate-yet-not here), they’reprobably going to be adaptable. (more…)
You’ve got your story idea. You want to make it big. You hear the call of Hollywood. What’s next? As seen here at Fan To Pro, Hollywood might not be your first step. The vagaries of the business and the sheer competition just to be noticed can be off-putting. And, as can be seen in the line up of upcoming movies, Hollywood isn’t taking many chances on original work without a big name behind it.* There are other options, though.
Make it big elsewhere
Since the trend these days is in adaptations, reboots, and remakes**, you need to make it big somewhere else. Ideally, you’ve already had a hit that can be remade or rebooted, but that’s something very few people can really do, since both involve already being part of the Hollywood system. That leaves creating something that can be adapted. Write a best-selling book or create a popular game, video or otherwise. The skies the limit. About the only medium not adapted yet is the webcomic***, but it’s just a matter of time.
Ideally, you’ll have a strong plot, memorable characters, drama, comedy, and a heart-warming moral. Given some of the upcoming adaptations, like Battleship, they’re not needed. However, without a major toy company publishing your game for several generations, those elements help. There are other items to consider, though. For one, think about how the work could be adapted in the future. If a Hollywood studio were to release it as a PG-13 film, would your work suffer? Not all works have gone that route, but age ratings may play a part in getting noticed. For a movie, the ideal rating is PG-13, allowing younger viewers in while still keeping an older audience’s attention.
However, not all works become a movie. Some become television series, a longer format that allows for a more intricate plot and greater details. Going with the traditional broadcast networks still requires an eye to the age ratings; certain words aren’t allowed before the watershed and others just aren’t allowed at all. However, cable specialty channels aren’t as handcuffed. What can only be hinted at on a broadcast network can be shown cable. The need for Nielsen ratings isn’t as great, either. Cable channels look at subscriber numbers, and if a show brings in new subscribers just to see that show, the channel is happy.
Adapt somewhere else
However, the competition is still stiff and the gatekeepers’ decision making makes about as much sense as a cat with a Ouija board. Still, you want your work adapted. Look outside the US. Many countries have a thriving entertainment industry and are looking to fill time slots and tax deductions. Take a look at how other countries approach entertainment and give your work the needed slant. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a lot of Canadian content, as expected. A story with a Canadian slant could get their interest.
As an added bonus, making it big elsewhere may get Hollywood interested. Many popular TV shows in the US were adapted from foreign works, including All in the Family (Til Death Do Us Part), The Office (The Office), and Three’s Company (Man About the House). Movies have also been imported and remade; for a while, Japanese horror movies were getting Hollywood remakes.
And, sometimes, even getting noticed is impossible, even with the ideal work. All is not lost. Comic books, video games, tabletop games, all of these media have adapted works, even between themselves.**** With such cross-adaptation, Hollywood may even notice.
Hopefully, this will help get a work adapted well by the Hollywood machine. Never hurts to try.
Next week, a surprise.
* Possibly not even then. George Lucas had to guarantee the distribution costs of Red Tails, the movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, because no studio would even bite at the movie otherwise.
** Without this trend, there would be no Lost in Translation.
*** Technically, Order of the Stick has been adapted into a board game, but that’s outside Hollywood.
**** Oddest one could be the DC Comics adaptation of TSR’s Gammarauders board game.