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.
The Adaptation Fix-It Shop is open again. The Shop looks at adaptations that have major problems and tries to rebuild the concept. Previously, the Fix-It Shop rejiggered the 1998 Godzilla as a action/comedy monster hunting flick and separated the two movies trying to get out from Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li.
Today, I delve back into Dungeons & Dragons.
The first inclination is to drop a meteor swarm* on it and call it a day.
The first inclination, while satisfying, is wrong. While Dungeons & Dragons had many problems. Its 2005 direct-to-video sequel, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God, was a far better movie and a far better adaptation, just lacking the effects budget the first movie had. The sequel works as a template on how to fix the the original. There’s also the issue of the original movie having decent set pieces that just didn’t work with all the others.
Let’s get some of the problems out of the way. Role-playing games add an extra twist to adapting that most media doesn’t, as mentioned before. While most novels, comics, TV series, and even video games have a plot, RPGs leave that up to the players. Characters are the same; in an RPG, the players create them. Settings may or may not be included, depending on the game. Dungeons & Dragons, in most editions, has The World of Greyhawk as a default setting, but with little information beyond names like Drawmij, Mordenkainen, and Zagyg. Other settings were produced and sold, and Dungeon Masters (DMs) were given world-building tips, much like Way with Worlds, to help create their own. That leaves game mechanics, which did appear in the movie.
Wrath of the Dragon God showed that it is possible to do a D&D movie. Wrath had a lower budget, but made up for it with more attention to game elements and easing those elements into the narrative. The sequel created its own setting and characters, using ideas presented in the Third Edition core rulebooks, and building on them for the plot. Wrath is proof of concept; a D&D movie can be made that isn’t bad.
With the above in mind, what can be done to repair the Dungeons & Dragons movie? The core plot is about five adventurers who band together to stop an evil wizard from overthrowing the queen. It’s a good plot, one not used too much lately in movies. The devil’s in the details, though. In a D&D game, evil wizards capable of succeeding in overthrowing a monarch tend to be capable of tossing fireballs without breaking a sweat. While a group of adventurers can defeat a much higher level opponent if they team up and work together, an evil wizard should be portrayed as smart enough to have lieutenants, henchmen, and minions in between him and any resistance. In the movie, the villain was powerful enough to command dragons and beholders, one of either can be a difficult foe for a group of adventurers.
It could be that the plot needs far more time to resolve properly than a movie can provide. Stopping anyone from taking over a kingdom can be a full campaign spread over several months of play. The same thing happened with the Dragonlance animated film; a ninety minute animated movie wasn’t enough to cover a novel. Even with the expanded DVDs of the Lord of the Rings movies, a lot had to be left out just to get the story told. Epic fantasy just doesn’t fit in a tidy 90-120 minute time slot. Three ways around the problem; the first, look at going to television. TV allows for 13-20 45-minute chunks of time, providing far more time to properly tell a story. The anime Record of Lodoss War lasted thirteen episodes, each one being 25 minutes long, and it was based on an RPG campaign.
Second method involves multiple movies. There’s a risk inherent to the approach; if the first movie isn’t a draw, the story ends incomplete. This seems to be the fate** of The Mortal Instruments. The City of Bones underperformed at the box office. leading to the sequel to be first pushed back and then cancelled, leaving the story unfinished. The goal for the repaired Dungeons & Dragons, under this workaround, is to keep the production costs down without looking cheap to maximize the box office returns. It will be a balancing act to keep the effects looking good while still not breaking the budget.
The third approach is to cut through the backstory and start in media res. The evil wizard is making his move and the adventurers have to act and act now! Details can be filled in as flashbacks and the Seven Samurai-like gathering of the heroes avoided or truncated. The key events are the discovery of the plot, the investigation into how the plot will be enacted, and the stopping of the plot and the wizard. The heroes have a time limit.
While a TV series may be the best approach, to properly fix the movie would be to keep the format***. Multiple movies aren’t a guarantee; unlike Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t based on a series of bestselling books. Even Star Wars was filmed to be a stand-alone work if it didn’t do well. That leaves option three, cutting out or cutting down unnecessary events and trimming the gathering of the heroes. The goal, now, is to get something that feels both epic in nature and still personal. To elevated, and the audience doesn’t have a character to follow. Too close, and the saving of the kingdom becomes overwhelming.
The wizard’s plot to take over the kingdom needs a bit of work. Summoning a flight of evil dragons is epic, but one dragon could turn the heroes into cinders without effort. Controlling one is enough and keeps the menace of both the dragon and the wizard intact. A quest to retrieve a means to call a good dragon to counter the wizard’s will allow the dungeon half of the title to appear. The wizard’s motive is power and riches, something the kingdom has in plenty.
Now that the villain’s plot is more or less set, a way to stop or at least neutralize him is in place, it’s time to get the heroes going. Two rogues, a mage apprentice, a dwarf fighter, and an elf ranger discover the scheme and work together to recover the MacGuffin of Good Dragon Summoning before the evil wizard can overthrow the queen. Let’s use a plot point from the original movie, the apprentice discovers that her mentor is part of the evil scheme. Instead of discovering this after stopping two half-competent thieves, she does this and then discovers them looting the lab. This gives her leverage; help her stop the evil wizard or be turned over to her mentor. The rogues, being greedy but decent people, help because while the kingdom, a magocracy, benefits only wizards with non-magical types on the edge of society, having an evil wizard in charge is a change for the worse.
A mage and two rogues aren’t an effective combat force. Earlier editions of D&D saw magic-users who could die if their cat familiar played too rough. Rogues do their best fighting when their opponents can’t see them. The group takes stock and heads to the best place to find someone who is good in a fight, a seedy tavern. “You all meet in a tavern” is a cliché, but works to get players together fast. By choosing a dive where brawls are known to occur nightly, the group can invoke the cliché without engaging it. They’re looking for the last man standing, who turns out to be the dwarf fighter. They explain what’s happening, tell the dwarf there will be lots of fighting, and work out the next step, which is to somehow summon a good dragon. The dwarf knows someone, a ranger, and leads the group to the elf. At this point, the group is as connected as it can get, and time’s wasting.
The dungeon is the location where each character can show off their abilities, though this needs to be subtle. It’s also a chance to bring in some classic monsters that wouldn’t necessarily fit into the plot, though the choices need to be careful. As tempting as it is to toss in a rust monster to scare the dwarf fighter, the creature can look a little silly. The rust monster was based off a toy that Gary Gygax used as a miniature. But, if the rust monster can be brought in and made fearsome, it is iconic to the game and easier to avoid or defeat than a beholder.
The MacGuffin of Good Dragon Summoning now in their hands, the heroes rush back to the capital, but dark clouds loom overhead. The wizard finishes controlling his dragon and sends it out to wreak havoc on the city. The heroes must now use the MacGuffin to call a good dragon while fighting off the wizard’s lieutenants and minions. It’s close, but the good dragon arrives and attacks the evil one. The heroes slip into the city as the wizard closes in on the queen, leading to the final fight. Pyrotechnics go off as the heroes battle the villain while the dragons fight in the background, reflecting the fortune of the heroes. Ultimately, the heroes win, the kingdom is saved, and triumphant music plays.
Plot aside, that leaves the effects, another point of failure. By reducing the number of dragons, that should give the effects team both the time and money to focus on just two instead of two flocks. The dungeon can be built on a set instead of on location, unless a decent catacomb can be found for less. Some set pieces from the original are lost, including the Thieves’ Guild maze, which was a high point of the film. That maze, though, just duplicates the dungeon, and can be let go. The final battle needs to reflect spells that are in the game, and the mage apprentice should run out of spells or be down to utility types like light or mage hand.
Will the above work? It depends on the cast, crew, and budget. Wrath of the Dragon God did show that a D&D movie is possible, provided that the plot can handle the effects budget available. A less ambitious plot could help, as could reducing the time spent on subplots that lead nowhere.
Next week, the June news round up.
* Ninth level magic-user spell that summons a meteor shower on an area that used to have opponents in it.
** A TV series, Shadowhunters, is in the works, however.
*** Besides, D&D has already had a TV series, albeit animated.
Last month, I introduced a new feature here at Lost in Translation, the Adaptation Fix-It Shop, where I try to salvage works that so missed the mark that audiences start wondering what was really being adapted. This month, I bring Battleship into drydock.
Battleship had major problems from the outset. The movie was a victim of the Save the Cat approach to scripts that the check boxes were visible onscreen. The director did make some attempts to link the movie to the game with the alien shells given the shape of the pegs used and the grid calling. The core problem with the movie starts with the script*. There are several good ideas in the movie that just get pushed aside because studios either can’t or won’t take the risk of a film that doesn’t follow Save the Cat.
In a discussion with other Crossroads Alpha contributors, a couple of ideas came up on how to adapt Battleship, the game. The first was to go the route of The LEGO Movie. The movie would look like a dumb version of a war movie, with the ships looking the way they do in the game. The reveal in the last third of the movie is that everything up to that point was a game between two brothers, older and younger. The tactics of one side, being blatant and wrong, is just the kid brother not having the experience that the older one has with the game.
The second Battleship idea built on top of the above. Instead of two brothers playing, it would be a game between a navy vet and his young grandson. As the vet tells his stories of service, the young boy imagines them in terms of the game and other toys. The movie would be about how the characters bond over the game and how a young child uses what he knows, in this case, the game and his other toys, to try to understand the grown-up world.
Both of the above ideas make use of the game as the basis of the adaptation. In the first, the game is in the background, hinted at until the reveal. The second uses the game first as a narrative frame and then as the action. Both ideas could still use the pegs as the shells fired by the ships’ guns and as torpedoes. The resulting movie would be far ahead of what was made and could easily be done using Battleship‘s $200 million budget.
With the concept of adapting the game of Battleship not just possible but capable of thriving, what do we do with what was released? Tossing away $200 million, even in a hypothetical situation, is never a good idea. Is there anything in the movie that can be salvaged before we scupper the film and turn it into a coral reef?
There were several great ideas lost in Battleship. Let’s start with the premise of the film as released – an alien invasion needs to be stopped and the only ship capable of doing so is a World War II era battleship, either due to the older technology or having guns powerful enough to penetrate the alien hulls. Ignoring that I’ve just described the Battlestar Galactica remake**, the idea of a veteran being brought out of retirement for one last mission is a common theme in fiction. In this case, it’s possible to keep the designated screw-up, as required by Save the Cat in the story, but the USS Missouri needs to be brought in far sooner than the last quarter of the movie. The titular ship should not be treated as a Chekhov’s 16″ gun. There’s enough potential drama having the Missouri‘s crew teaching the young screw-up about naval tactics and a cat-and-mouse hunt in the Pacific that introducing and then killing off the screw-up’s older brother/mentor is unnecessary. If the new movie is to continue to be an adaptation of the game, have the battleship take command of a small fleet of survivors that include a small patrol or torpedo boat, a destroyer or frigate, a submarine, and an aircraft carrier. The extra ships don’t need to be that involved, but the aircraft carrier could send out planes for reconnaissance.
The alien invasion in Battleship showed signs of being thought out by scriptwriters. There seemed to be at least one invader working against his fellows, helping the humans. There was a colour difference, red instead of purple, and the alien looked directly at scientist Cal Zapata, played by Hamish Linklater, but did nothing to stop him. This may have been the remnant of a plotline butchered by a Save the Cat rewrite. The problem is that a movie doesn’t have enough time available to flesh out this subplot. Battleship spends little time on the aliens, something that kept the invaders as a menace. Having intra-invader conflict, though, becomes opaque; the audience doesn’t have enough information to go on because of how little time is spent with the aliens. Rectifying the problem means changing to a format that supports a longer narrative arc, such as television or comics. Combining this plot arc with the bringing from retirement arc described above does a disservice to both. The focus of a Battleship adaptation should be on the battleship. Switching over to the aliens draws attention away from where it should be. Thus, for the alien invasion with internal conflict, the story should be its own, with humanity fighting and working to make allies with the opposing alien faction.
Finally, the greatest waste in the move Battleship was the subplot featuring Lt. Colonel Mick Canales, played by Colonel Gregory D. Gadson. Col. Gadson is on active duty with the US Army, having served in several wars, including Operation Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He lost both legs below the knee in 2007 when a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad. Lt. Col. Canales’ character arc involved getting used to having lost his legs. When the alien invasion begins, Canales takes two civilians with him to obtain needed gear. The idea of an injured war vet returning to duty despite his injuries deserves its own film. This time, instead of being a supporting subplot, the wounded vet takes charge of a resistance cell, becoming the focus. The idea could work both as a movie and as a longer format, again, like television. If a TV series, the show could combine this element with the alien in-fighting element above without losing focus on either. The cell could and should discover that the aliens aren’t monolithic and do have a weakness.
From one leaking scrap heap of a movie, five potential great stories can be made. If there’s a lesson, it’s this: Even the most disappointing release can have nuggets that can form the core of something great.
* Not necessarily the scriptwriter. Writers are seeing more and more changes done to their work to the point where the final product is nothing like the original script, but, due to Writers Guild regulations, they can’t have their names removed.
** The movie’s USS Missouri had a few things in common with the Galactica at the beginning of the remake mini-series, including being a museum crewed by her original crew and having technology that wasn’t hackable by modern methods. If the game had been called Carrier and the movie featured the USS Hornet, Universal could have grounds for a lawsuit against itself.