Fans can get creative. Sometimes, fans can create an adapation that surpasses anything that professional studios can do. Sometimes, though, the creativity is willing, the skill level isn’t quite there. Or maybe there’s a time crunch. It’s not an issue for fans who are building up their skills, be it writing or drawing. Animation, though, is skill- and time-intensive. For those fans without the skills, there is another way.
Machinima, technically, is the use of any pre-existing computer graphics engine to create images. The most popular graphics engines used by fans just happen to be video games. Rooster Teeth wasn’t the first, but may be the best known thanks to Red Vs Blue, a series using Halo about the men on enemy armies defending a critical box canyon from the other side. Several video game engines have been used, including Quake, Halo, and The Sims 2 and later versions. What the games have in common is a sandbox mode that allows for free play and being very customizable by players.
Example time. First, though, let’s take a look at a TV series to be adapted. COPS is on its thirty-second season, having started in 1989 and only off the air for a couple of seasons while switching networks. COPS is a reality show, with camera crews riding along with American police officers on patrol. The series made an appearance on an episode of The X-Files, effectively becoming a crossover when the camera crew started following Agents Scully and Mulder. The draw of the show was that it was unscripted. While edited, the show wasn’t staged for viewers.
How does one recreate a reality show, especially one that relies on the unpredictability of life? Enter Grand Theft Auto V, the life of crime simulator from Rockstar Games, with the mod LSPDFR, allowing players to be the police on patrol. Jeff Favignano has been using this combination, plus other mods, to produce his own series of role play, styled after COPS.
While he has monetized his YouTube channel, the work is still by a fan. There’s also the limitation of the game engine. The goal Favignano has is to approach the events generated in game with proper police procedures. As far as GTA V allows, he succeeds. Each episode of his LSPDFR is stylized as an episode of COPS, with a few call outs in each. Surprisingly for GTA V, there aren’t many shoot outs. Favignano aims to end each call peacefully, only escalating when the characters in-game do.
The adaptation works well, until the game’s engine starts going wrong. The pathing AI often sends traffic the wrong direction, through a crime scene, pushing past or sometimes through police vehicles and officers. When things do go off, it’s the game, not Favignano. However, even the game acting up adds to the feeling of the original TV show, where a pursuit and its aftermath weren’t predictable.
Fans will create. It’s the nature of fandom. Today, there are ways to express creativity that weren’t dreamt of even thirty years ago. The results are varied, but do get to the heart of the original works.
Mysteries make for an interesting choice of adaptation. Fans read them to follow the clues and solve the mystery. The twists, turns, and red herrings work because they lead to the climax, but lose their effect once the unknown is made known. The exceptions are the classics of the genre, novels where the craft of the writing becomes the focus of interest on later readings. Sometimes, the mystery is so well crafted that it takes a second or third to follow the detective’s thought processes.
What typically happens is that the character gets adapted instead of the stories, usually as a TV series. This gives the series’ writers room to create new mysteries without spoiling the original books while still keeping to the limited time an episode has. This is essentially what happened with The Dresden Files, a series of novels that cross the detective genre with urban fantasy turned into a short-lived TV series.
Among the classic writers of the mystery genre is Agatha Christie, creator of both the British amateur detective Miss Jane Marple and the Belgian professional detective Hercule Poirot. Both characters have been adapted to a number of movies and TV series. Miss Marple may be the archetype that inspired Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote, a kindly elderly woman who helps friends and relatives. Poirot, in comparison, is more direct and tends to poke and prod at suspects with his questioning, similar to Columbo except the readers don’t know who the killer is from the beginning. One of the more well known Poirot mysteries is his tenth, Murder on the Orient Express, released in 1934, a murder on a train car stuck in the snow.
What should have been a simple train ride home for Poirot gets interesting. The head of the company gets Poirot into the last cabin on the train in a car with fourteen other passengers. One turns up dead when the train gets stuck in a snowy mountain pass, leaving thirteen suspects in what is essentially a locked room. There car in front is the dining car; in back, the owner’s private car. One or more passengers had to have killed the dead man and Poirot sets out to solve the mystery.
Along the way, Poirot discovers that the dead man had a dark secret of his own that led to the murder. The clues point to any of the suspects and are contradictory. The victim was stabbed multiple times by someone who is both strong and weak, both left- and right-handed. With time limited – the train could be dug out, giving the killer or killers the opportunity to escape before being found. Poirot relies on his ability to read people by asking questions to throw each suspect off with the aim of getting them off-balance enough to make a mistake. He does solve the mystery; the clues, while seemingly at odds with each other, do make sense at the end. Christie built the crime and suspects with the end in mind, with the clues laid out for readers to follow.
In 2017, the latest adaptation of the novel came out. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also starred as Hercule Poirot, the adaptation had a strong cast, with Johnny Depp as the murder victim and Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odam Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Sergei Polunin as the suspects. The film kept the setting in 1934, the year the novel was released.
The film opens with a scene that wasn’t in the book. Poirot, in Instanbul, wraps up a theft mystery, showing the audience who he is and what he is capable of. For those who aren’t familiar with the character, the first scene serves as the intro. The scene also gets a quick bit of action in before settling in for the setting up of the titular murder and the introduction of the suspects.
The movie also spends time introducing the setting. Train travel in 1934 is different from today. There’s an element of luxury, even for those travelling second class, that doesn’t exist on Amtrak or Via. When air travel was still in its early days, the Simplon Orient Express gave passengers a comfortable way across Europe into Turkey. The trains also segregated passengers by cost of fares, with first class being the most luxurious. Today, if Poirot was needed urgently in England as he was in Murder, the British government would have just flown him. In 1934, the Orient Express was the fastest way to travel.
The original novel spends time setting up the characters. The murder doesn’t happen right away. Instead, Christie showed the passengers interacting with each other and with Poirot. Clues were placed, though not necessarily called out. Branagh did the same thing; anyone unaware of who the victim is would be wondering which passenger is going to be killed. With a strong line up of actors, it’s impossible to tell who the murderer and who the victim is. Normally, at least on television, the presence of a major guest star means that the guest will either be the victim or the murderer. With a large, all-star cast, that sort of guesswork can’t be used. Disaster movies from the 70s, such as The Towering Inferno used the same approach.
One thing the novel had that the movie couldn’t include was the passenger list with the assigned cabins. With a novel, a reader can bookmark the page to refer back to. A movie can’t really do that, even on DVD. Film is a visual medium, so instead of a passenger list, the characters had to be memorable, either because of the actor’s portrayal or because of details called out.
Barring the opening scene, the movie plays out faithfully to the book. Minor changes come up, more because of the nature of the medium than a deliberate choice to veer away from the written word. Branagh has an eye for details; if he is taking pains to have a believable Belgian accent, he’s not going to make a change to the story without a good reason. The ending felt different, but that could be a matter of interpretation. The murder happened as it did in the novel. The aftermath, though, was added to provide closure to the film. There was also a sequel hook, with a murder in Egypt. Branagh will release Death on the Nile in 2020.
With a celebrated character like Poirot, getting that role portrayed well is key to get buy-in from existing fans. Branagh didn’t disappoint. Along with getting the accent correct, he managed to portray Poirot as the egotist he is, with humanity. The genius of Sherlock Holmes with the humanity of John Watson. The opening scene establishes Poirot’s perfectionism, tempered by humour. Branagh was ideal in the role. The rest of the cast, though, wasn’t slacking, either. The sheer amount of talent in the movie turned in a performance that should have been noticed by the Academy.
Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express remained faithful to Christie’s original novel, not just with plot, but the era. Changes from the book occurred because of the change in medium, all without affecting the story. The result is a lush movie with an eye to detail that carries through to the adaptation.
Adaptations can pop up anywhere. They’re popular. Studios love them because of the low risk involved. Audiences love them from familiarity. For all the complaints that there’s too many adaptations, the problem isn’t quantity but quality. No one complains about well done adaptations, just the sheer volume, yet adaptations have been ruling the box office since the box office began.
Adaptations can occur in two ways. First, there is the planned adaptation. Movies, TV series, and even Broadway musicals take time to create and produce, giving lead time for advertising the works. The other way is the surprise adaptation – a TV series with a seasonal take on A Christmas Carol, allusions to Shakespeare, recreating The Maltese Falcon, or even destroying Earth for a hyperspace bypass lane. These are seldom announced more than a week in advance in a TV series, and comes as a surprise for the audience. The surprise is greater when the adapting work is a car ad.
Let’s jump back a bit. Some time back, Lost in Translation analyzed the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon from the 80s. Six youngsters – Hank, Sheila and her younger brother Bobby, Diana, Eric, and Albert aka Presto – go on a D&D-theme roller coaster ride at a fair and wide up transported into a magical realm where they must battle against Venger, the Force of Evil, and Tiamat, Queen of the Evil Chromatic Dragons. Over three seasons and twenty-seven episodes, the heroes battled evil while trying to find a way home. The series ended without resolution, the kids still trapped in the magical realm.
Recently, Renault Brazil released an ad that resolved that cliffhanger after 34 years. Have a look.
The car ad is a live action adaptation of the /D&D/ cartoon. The characters are recognizable, not just from magical items and costumes, but their look. The ad has all the main characters, the kids, Uni, Venger, Tiamat, and Dungeon Master. Even the setting reflects the look of the realm in the cartoon.
With older works, especially ones originally aimed at children, there’s the temptation to use the “wink-and-a-nod” approach, treating the original as a source or even the butt of jokes. Land of the Lost, the 2009 movie starring Will Farrell, is a prime example. The ad makers, though, treated the source seriously. The ad comes across as the climax of the two-part series finale, complete with sequel hook for the inevitable movie. All of the kids get a chance to show their abilities. Better, they got home. A car ad provides closure for a thirty-four year old story.
What did the ad’s makers get right? The cast is recognizable. The first shot is of Hank, which may trigger a sense of recognition of the older fans of the original series. When he pulls back on his magical bow and takes aime at Tiamat, there’s no mistaking what’s going on. Next, production values. CGI has come a long way since the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie. Tiamat has a presence on screen, and her five heads are accurate to the chromatic dragons of D&D. Uni has a cartoon quality, but does look like she did in the series. The costumes, combined with casting, mean that everyone is recognizable. The characters are live action version of their animated originals.
The only real problem the ad has is brevity. Its length works in its favour; the cost of a 1:45 ad, even with the special effects needed, isn’t going to empty a bank account. At the same time, though, it does leave fans wanting more. The ad is just a snippet of the long-awaited series finale, with a sequel hook. Some advertising campaigns have led to a series of ads, though very few have had an ongoing storyline. The best known series of ads with a story was for Taster’s Choice coffee, featuring Anthony Stewart Head and Sharon Maughan as their characters’ romance bloomed over twelve installments. So a revival of the D&D cartoon as live action car ads is a very slim possibility. As it stands, though, the ad is enough to reignite the fandom.
Last week, Lost in Translation did a quick overview of sports movies. It’s time to look at a specific example, a movie about a quintessentially Canadian sport, Men With Brooms.
While curling originated in Scotland, it spread quickly with the settlers in the New World, especially where there was winter three to ten months of the year. Most Canadian small towns have a curling rink. But what is curling? It’s a sport where two teams of four compete over ten ends to get the highest score. To score, a team must have at least one rock or stone nearest to the button, the middle of the target. For each rock nearer to the button than the opponent’s closest, the team scores a point.
Curling gets its name from what each team member must do to get a stone as close to the button as possible. By giving the stone a bit of spin, the curler gets it to arc around the opponents’ rocks, taking some out by hitting them. The curler’s teammates can straighten the path of the stone by sweeping a path using a broom, letting the rock travel farther.
Curling competitions are called bonspiels, where a number of teams compete over the course of a weekend, with the top teams meeting in a playoff to determine the overall winner. There are typically no referees or officials, with the players respecting the Spirit of Curling to maintain sportsmanship. One of the biggest fouls in the game is burning a rock, or touching one while it’s in motion. The expectation is that the team that burned the rock will own up to it.
It may be easier to watch a few ends to understand the game, but the above should act as a primer. Curling is a team sport, and teams are made of people with their own goals and motivations, some of which may cause conflict with teammates. There is story-telling potential in the sport. Which brings us to Men With Brooms.
Released in 2002, Men With Brooms was written by, directed by, and starred Paul Gross, best known as Constable Benton Fraser on the TV series Due South. Billed as a romantic comedy, it was originally intended to be about the other Canadian sport, hockey, but worries about politics surrounding the sport and the size of a hockey team led to changing the focus to curling. From there, the script fell into place.
Men With Brooms opens with the death of Don Foley, played by James B. Douglas, as he and his younger daughter Amy (Molly Parket) retrieve a curling rock from the river near Long Bay, Ontario. The heart attack, though, plays into Don’s goals of getting the curling team he coached back together to win the Golden Broom. The team came close ten years before, but the skip, Chris Cutter (Gross), walked off the ice in the finals, never to return, after being so caught up in wanting to win he failed to call a burned rock. Don wants the team to reform and put his ashes, now in the recovered curling stone, on the button to win the Golden Broom.
The rest of the team – Neil Bucyk (James Allodi), James Lennox (Peter Outerbridge), and Eddie Strombeck (Jed Rees) – are convinced. They all have some problems in their lives, though. Neil is in a loveless marriage to Linda (Kari Matchette). James owes money to people who can afford to send a hardy knee-breaker to recover the cash. Eddie and his wife, Lilly (Jane Spidell), are desperate to have a baby. And Chris has an ex-girlfriend, Don’s eldest daughter Julie (Michelle Nolden), who still hasn’t worked out her anger from when he disappeared. Eva is also now an astronaut; she pushed herself after Chris left. Chris’ old drinking buddy, Amy, is a single parent and attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. Life in Long Bay has not been kind.
The reformed team is enthusiastic, but rusty. For their first match as a team, they take on a team of retirees, one of whom needs a walker. Team Cutter loses the match and they realize that they need help. There’s only one man in town who knows how to coach a winning team. Unfortunately, Chris is estranged from his father, Gordon (Leslie Nielsen). Chris does approach his father, all he wants is a coach, not reconciliation. Gordon agrees, and starts a training regimen for the men.
The team enters the Golden Broom bonspiel. Teams from such metropolises as Kingston, ON, Moose Jaw, SK, and Come by Chance, NF have all arrived in Long Bay to compete for the Golden Broom. Among the teams, though, is the one skipped by Alexander “The Juggernaut” Yount (Greg Bryk), who once represented Canada in the Olympics. The luck of the draw puts Cutter and Yount in the first match. The score is close, but in a later end, a rock is burned by Cutter’s rink with only three men noticing – Chris, Gordon, and Yount. Gordon gives Chris the chance to call it, but Chris refuses. Yount’s rink goes on to win the match. Chris leaves the rink to go to the bar.
Some of Chris’ problems get worked out. Amy and Julie have come to an understanding and Amy has realized that she is in love with Chris. Julie finds out that the unusual happened and both the designated astronaut and his backup have been scrubbed, letting her join the mission. Chris heads to his mother’s grave, where he finds his father, and the two reconcile.
Chris returns to the bonspiel, but Neil has been dragged away by his wife to the country club. Gordon steps in. The Cutter rink stages a comeback, but in the penultimate game, Gordon throws out his back and is unable to continue. The team is down one man and may have to play the final game as a three-man team. However, James’ girlfriend of the moment, Joanne (Polly Shannon), who has gotten to know Neil, retrieves him to finish the bonspiel.
The final game pits the Cutter rink against the Yount Rink one more time. It’s a tough match for the Cutter rink as the Juggernaut lives up to his name. In the final end, though, the score is close and comes down to the final rock, thrown by the skip, Chris. It’s an impossible shot, having to curl around then rebound to land on the button, but Chris gets the rock, the one with Don’s ashes, to go where he wants. Problem is, the rock gets burned by Eddie and only Chris sees it. Chris calls the official over and explains what happened. Yount, impressed that Chris called the burned rock when he could have won, allows the stones to be reset to give Chris a second throw. However, the first throw was impossible. To do it again is unthinkable. And Chris decides that there is another way. A brute force throw sends the final stone with Don’s ashes down the ice, smashing through any other rock in the way, shattering the thrown stone so that pieces of it land with the ashes on the button.
The film plays with curling and bonspiels. The match with the retirees allows the film to explain curling to anyone in the audience who doesn’t know the game, using Joanne as the audience stand-in to ask questions. That match is played mostly straight, using the game to show the relationships within the Cutter rink and how rusty they are. The Golden Broom bonspiel, though, is treated as a major event, along the lines of an NBA final and the Olympics, despite the largest town represented, Kingston, having a population of about 137 thousand. Come by Chance has a population of 228. The Juggernaut’s entrance would fit more at a WWE event than curling. Despite that, the gameplay is what one would expect from curling. Even when the Cutter rink starts using straw brooms instead of the more modern carbon fibre, it’s an odd choice but represents the type of broom Gordon used when he was younger.
Outside the gameplay, the sport is used to bring the characters together, first to reunite them after ten years, then to fulfill Don’s dying wish. The conflicts between characters come out on the ice, adding to the drama. Curling isn’t just the sport being played, but a metaphor for what the characters are going through. After the win, each member of Cutter’s rink has an improvement in their lives, even the divorce.
The ads around the rink are typical for the sport, especially in smaller towns. Instead of the big name advertisers that would buy ads at, say, the Super Bowl, like Apple, there are local shops and smaller grocery chains. This level of realism grounds the movie, allowing the more comedic aspects to shine through.
Curling is an odd sport of choice to adapt to film. While the game has about the same pace as baseball, it’s not as widely known. /Men With Brooms/ took some time to show the audience the ins and outs of the game so viewers could follow the action on the ice. However, the small team size makes for a more intimate drama, even in a romantic comedy. Men With Brooms uses the sport to build from, using curling’s more laid back approach as a springboard for comedic elements while still portraying the game as it is played.
In the world of entertainment, sports covers a large segment. People will tune in to watch their favourite team play their favourite sport. Monday Night Football has aired since 1970. Hockey Night in Canada predates that, with the first match airing in 1952. Baseball’s Major League Game of the Week began in 1953. The Olympics generate billions for the networks showing the Games. Every game is its own narrative, from tight, close games that need extra time before there is a winner to blow outs. The draw for the audience is the nature of the sport, the competitors, and the competition. To quote ABC’s Wide World of Sport, it’s, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
Sports are big business, with millions of fans, a potential audience for studios to try to attract. The temptation is too much to resist, so studios don’t even try. Resistance is futile. Can sports be adapted to a medium that requires plot and characterization? American coverage of the Olympics, both summer and winter, adds a narrative for American competitors, but most sports broadcasts focus on what’s happening on the field of play.
One issue is that most sports aren’t one and done, especially team sports. To determine the finalists for playoffs, each time needs to meet the others at least twice, once in the home city, once at the opposition’s. The number of games in a season is limited by the amount of days available and how much exertion is needed during a game. Baseball, with its 162-game season, is one of the longer seasons, though the sport doesn’t require as many rest days as, say, hockey, which has 82 games in a season. With a season, losing a game is just a setback, not the end of the world. The ebb and flow of a season can also provide more drama for a movie or TV series. Injuries, trades, and rivalries both internal and external, personal and team can cause complications.
Another issue when adapting a sport to a fictional form is that there’s only so much time available in both film and TV. Baseball and football can last at least two to three hours. Hockey, soccer, and basetball, both being more fast paced, still can take up to two hours to play a full game, including intermissions and stoppages in play. During the season, the audience may prefer to watch an actual game than a fictional version. Fortunately, in film and TV, editing is a thing, and the key scenes can be shown without necessarily showing the slower moments.
TV series go the season route. Dragging out a game for multiple episodes won’t keep an audience. The passage of time and the build up to the big game, whether it’s a key match against a rival team or the make-or-break game to get into the playoffs, creates tension over the season. However, even series not focused on a sport may have an episode focused on a game. Baseball tends to be the sport of choice, with WKRP‘s “Baseball” and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” being prime examples. Other sports do get featured, though; Jack of All Trades had a football episode, combined with Thanksgiving, with “One, Two, Three: Give Me Lady Liberty”*.
The goal of a sports adaptation is to feature the sport. If what happens on screen doesn’t resemble what the audience expects, the adaptation is not going to perform well either in ratings or at the box office. The nature of the adaptation – comedy, drama, action – will determine just what the audience will accept. A comedy can have the more bizarre plays happen; dramas tend to build off the more spectacular and intense plays.
The key to adapting a sport to film or television is to focus less on the game’s play and more on the characters involved. If an audience wanted to just watch a game, there are multiple ways of doing so. For fiction, the story is the draw. Underdogs competing against all odds. The last hurrah of an aging player. The rivalry between star players. Those are draws for a sports-based movie or TV series. The adaptation must present a narrative, something that a game doesn’t provide.
Sports is big business. Audiences for sports can get huge, both domestically and internationally. Studios can’t ignore the potential audiences for sports adaptations. But studios do have to make sure that the draw of both the sport and the fiction are balanced.
It’s almost a truism that video game adaptations are horrible, The early entries set the tone. The problem for most of these adaptations is that what works for game play doesn’t work as a narrative, especially with older games. Pac-Man was about gobbling dots and running away from ghosts; characterization is minimal; Super Mario Bros. is about travelling through a series of death traps to find a missing princess. Naturally, there are exceptions.
Meanwhile, educational software exists to teach a subject, not necessarily be memorable. Oregon Trail, one of the earliest educational computer games, first released in 1971, is memorable because of the difficulty of getting across the continental US in the mid-1800s. The difficulty was what the game was teaching. Gamification helps students learn concepts, from history to typing to geography. While Oregon Trail is memorable, it really only appeared in schools. Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, however, was commercially available and not only became a hit, it became a franchise.
The original Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego was created and released in 1985 by Brøderbund as a way to teach geography and research skills to children aged 8 to 12. The player, who was considered to be an agent for the Acme Detective Agency, had to decipher clues left by Carmen and her henchmen to figure out where they were and what they were about to do, all based on real world geography. Each successful case brought the player closer to Carmen herself. The names given to characters were all based on puns, starting a trend that continues through the franchise. The original game sold well for Brøderbund, leading to sequels including Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego in 1986, Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego in 1988, and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego in 1989, the last one adding history to the education provided.
As seen with many adaptations, if a work gets popular, someone will want to adapt it into a different medium. With Carmen, the core premise – a detective tracking down a master criminal – lends itself to adaptation far better than eating dots. However, the game is meant to be educational, so the first network to pick it up was PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. The result was a TV game show for kids the same age as the computer game aimed for with Lynne Thigpen as the Chief and Greg Lee as the host, and the theme song by Rockapella. The players were agents for the Acme Detective Agency, tracking Carmen and her henchmen around the world. similar to the original game, though in a competition. The game show ran from 1991 to 1995, winning several Daytime Emmy awards and a Peabody before becoming Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego from 1996 to 1997.
While the game show aired, a series of eight books based on the video games were published. Written by John Peel, the books were a series of “choose your own adventure” novels using the titles of the video games. Peel kept to the tradition of puns for the names of his crooks as, once again, the reader became the Acme Detective Agency agent assigned to track Carmen and her henchmen as they left clues around the world.
By the mid-Ninties, Carmen was a household word. The inevitable happened and DiC studios produced an animated adaptation for Saturday mornings on Fox. The creators, aware of the violence in the other series Fox aired, such as X-Men, were concerned, but DiC created Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego without relying on or using violence to solve a problem. Replacing the player were siblings Zack (voiced by Scott Melville) and Ivy (Jennifer Hale), a pair of Acme agents charged with tracking down Carmen, voiced by Rita Moreno, and her army of henchmen. This time, instead of just being a master thief working for VILE, Carmen is a former Acme agent and steals for the challenge of the theft. This series would be the first where Carmen had a voice instead of just being glimpsed. With the new series, a new theme song based on a work by Mozart. The cartoon won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program in 1995.
Through every iteration, while Carmen has been the subject of the work, she wasn’t the star. For the games, the main character was the player, chasing Carmen and her crew. With the adaptations, it was the same thing, Carmen was the thief to be caught and not the lead character. However, with no Carmen, there’s no adaptation. The eternal chase is a valid approach to entertainment, ranging from Road Runner cartoons through to The Pink Panther movies, which focused on a bumbling detective searching for a thief. The format can get stale when overused. No one is hoping that Wile E. Coyote catches the Road Runner; that’s the end of the series. A villain who always gets away can get old, especially over a long run; see also, Batman and the Joker.
However, it is possible to turn the eternal chase around, focusing on the pursued instead of the pursuer. The gentleman thief, motivated by the challenge or by a personal code of morals and honour, has appeared in literature, film, and television. Arsène Lupin, Danny Ocean and his team in Ocean’s Eleven, Leslie Charteris’ The Saint, the Leverage crew, and Hitomi, Rui, and Ai from the manga Cat’s Eye show the range of gentleman and gentlewoman thieves in entertainment. The draw is competence porn, watching an expert do their job well, while still being able to root for the hero even if the hero is breaking the law.
With a show aimed at children, there’s a fine line to tread. There are few people who want to be responsible for telling kids that it’s okay to steal. Carmen Sandiego, though, is a master thief. Every adaptation has kept her as a master thief. It’s one of the character’s defining elements, along with the red hat and trench coat. At the same time, Carmen is the draw. It’s a delicate balance. Enter Netflix.
In 2019, Netflix, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DHX Media teamed up to bring Carmen Sandiego back to television with the series Carmen Sandiego. Carmen (Gina Rodriguez), with the help of white hat hacker Player (Finn Wolfhard) and siblings Ivy (Abby Trott) and Zack (Michael Hawley), is turning the tables on VILE, stealing artifacts from them to return to their rightful owners. Carmen is still being chased, but she’s now the lead, not the pursuers. She is still a master thief, one who steals without hurting anyone, even if they are from VILE.
The first two episodes go into who in the world is Carmen Sandiego. After a successful theft under the eyes of Interpol agents Chase Devineaux (Rafael Petardi) and Julia Argent (Charlet Chung) in Poiteiers, France, Carmen gets tracked down by former classmate and VILE thief, Gray (Michael Goldsmith). She and Gray were in the same class at VILE’s academy for thieves, along with four other recruits. At the time, Carmen was known as Black Sheep, a temporary code name until graduation. While Gray and her other classmates were recruits, Carmen grew up on VILE’s island. Coach Brunt (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) took Carmen in as a baby and encouraged her in learning about the world and how to steal. Despite her age, Carmen was one of the top thieves despite not being a student. VILE’s head council votes to accept her as a student.
As she grew up, Carmen engaged in a number of pranks, culminating with the annual water balloon bombing of VILE’s accountant, Cookie Booker, voiced by Rita Moreno. In one of the bombings, Cookie dropped her smartphone without noticing. Carmen did notice and grabbed it to add to her small stash of items. Any sort of cell phone is verboten for students to have on VILE’s island, though, so when it rings, Carmen is startled and answers it to get to be quiet. At the other end of the line is Player, a white hat hacker from Niagara Falls. While Player was just trying to let someone know of an exploitable hole in security, he and Carmen build a friendship over the phone over the years. She teaches him about different cultures through people passing through the island and he teaches her about the nature of white hat hackerism.
When it’s time for the final exams, Carmen aces all but one test. The one she failed, she believes Shadow-san (Paul Nakauchi) deliberately set her up to fail. She’s told she’s not allowed to go with her classmates on their first mission, but Carmen wasn’t always one for rules. Carmen sneaks on board VILE’s helicopter, stowing away. The catch is that she wasn’t there for the briefing or the planning session, where the way to the crime scene was by parachute. Carmen hitches a ride with Grey on the way down, though and runs off to try to find VILE’s target, an archaeological dig that has unearthed the Eye of Vishnu.
Talking with the archaeologist lets Carmen discover that there is something more valuable than money, knowledge. Before she can get too far into a discussion, though, her classmates arrive. They knock out the workers onsite, but are spotted by Carmen and the archeologist. The orders the new VILE thieves have include the command, “No witnesses.” Carmen, though, can’t let that happen and fights against her former classmates.
Carmen loses the fight and is brought back to VILE’s island. She’s forced to repeat her final year. During this time, though, Carmen plots a way to get off the island with the help of Player. Her goal, to not just escape, but to take the hard drive Cookie delivers once a year. Barring the helicopter, Cookie’s boat is the only way off the island. Carmen steals the hard drive, steals Cookie’s red hat and coat, and gets her name.
Back in the present, Carmen deals with her former classmate and friend Grey. Chase has managed to keep up with the two despite the damage he’s done to his car during the pursuit. Instead of Carmen, he gets Grey. Back at the crime scene, Julia discovers that nothing of value was stolen even though Carmen was seen with a sack holding something. Julia doesn’t have proof, but given that the vault holding the Eye of Vishnu also contained several other stolen objects, and that the owner of the building, a numbered company, was also the registered owner of a number of other locations that Carmen has hit, she believes that Carmen isn’t the usual thief and may have a goal of getting stolen items returned to their rightful owners. Why else would a thief be so brazen to wear red and let herself be seen by Interpol agents?
Over the rest of the episodes, Carmen maintains her private war against VILE. She’s not the only one after them; a secretive group called ACME, headed by the Chief (Dawnn Lewis) is trying to find proof of VILE’s existence. Carmen is the only link they have and Chase is the only Interpol agent who can identify her. ACME recruits Chase and Julia to find both Carmen and VILE. Chase is driven to arrest the infamous thief to the point where he is oblivious to senior VILE personnel when he’s in the middle of them. Julia is the brains of the partnership. but she isn’t able to maintain the pursuit to the degree Chase can. Both become valuable gumshoes for ACME.
The biggest change in the new Carmen Sandiego is that Carmen, the draw of the franchise, is finally the lead. The games, from first release in 1985 to the Google Earth game, and even in the animated series, Carmen was the pursued, but the main characters were the detectives after her, from the game’s player to stand-ins for them. The series doesn’t ask where Carmen is but who Carmen is. VILE is still the villain and ACME is back as the primary agency hunting. Dawnn Lewis’ Chief is modelled off Lynne Thigpen’s from the game show.
The series is aimed at the same age group the original games, the PBS game show, and even the DiC animated series were. This time around, though, there’s a few extras for the parents of the new audience, people who played the games or watched the shows in the Eighties and Nineties. Little references here and there, ones that can be shared with the younger generation, pop up in the course of the series, including a They Might Be Giants one in the first episode.
The new Carmen is still an educational series, focusing on geography and cultures around the world. The lessons tie into the plot of the episode, giving the reason why VILE has the evil scheme and why Carmen wants to stop them. The presentation of the facts come from both Carmen and Player, who share an interest in cultures not their own. Accents are genuine, though presented as to be understood by the young audience. The characters are diverse; Interpol, ACME, and VILE are all equal opportunity employers.
The pun-based names have been eased back a bit, but they still exist, if a bit more subtle. Grey had to be dissuaded from calling himself Graham Crackle. Cookie Booker, the accountant and bookkeeper, cooks VILE’s books. Paper Star (Kimiko Glenn) throws star-shaped origami shuriken. Dr. Saira Bellum (Sharon Muthu) is on VILE’s head council and is their technical expert and inventor. Chase is dogged in his pursuit of Carmen. The spy and snitch Mime Bomb is a mime (and, thus, has no voice actor).
The new Carmen solves the big problem of the eternal pursuit; if the pursued is caught, what happens to the series? With Carmen as the lead, the audience doesn’t have to deal with the main characters constantly being eluded despite all their efforts. The series allows the audience to root for Carmen, so the tension isn’t will this be the episode where she gets caught but how close will she get to being caught before she escapes. Carmen herself is shown to be competent and capable, so any gumshoe who gets close enough to see her let alone try to arrest her will be a worthy challenger. Chase, for all his shortcomings, is still a capable agent. Julia shores up the skills Chase is missing. Combined, the two give Carmen a challenge.
The series, while being its own work, gives nods to previous versions. The new Carmen received advice from Cookie, played by the first actor to give the character a voice. Carmen also steals her signature red hat and coat from Cookie, further cementing the hand off to the new generation. Player is a nod not just to the people who played the games but to the kid seen at the beginning of episodes of the DiC series. The theme music from the DiC series makes an appearance as elevator music. The new Carmen has more violence, with her and VILE agents battling it out. Most of the time, though, the VILE agents initiate the fights against Carmen and her team. Carmen is a thief, not a thug.
Carmen Sandiego is its own work, but it builds upon the franchise in such a way to be part of it instead of separate. Placing Carmen as the lead allows for the series to tell new stories while still bringing the elements that are expected of it.
Two weeks ago, Lost in Translation covered the difference between adaptations and parodies. The short version is that the two have different goals that can be at odds. Naturally, there are exceptions. Young Frankenstein took the 1931 Universal class Frankenstein and, while keeping the beats, turned it into not just a parody of the original, but also a sequel and a correction of the main flaw Victor Frankenstein had, being a deadbeat father. Airplane!, though, is an entirely different kind of parody altogether.
During the Seventies, the disaster movie took off. Spearheaded by Airport in 1970, based on the book by Arthur Hailey, many disaster movies came out during the decade, each with a star-studded cast. Airport itself spawned three sequels, Airport 1975, Airport ’77, and The Concorde – Airport ’79. Other disaster flicks of the decade include 1974’s The Towering Inferno and Earthquake and 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. Audiences were drawn to mass destruction on film.
Naturally, when something gets popular, it gets parodies. David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker decided to take improv act Kentuck Fried Theater and turn it into a movie, The Kentucky Fried Movie, One segment of the film was “That’s Armageddon” which parodied the disaster movie genre, though using a tower on fire instead of an airplane. While ZAZ didn’t direct the film – that was left to John Landis – they wrote the script. With a successful film under their belt, they decided to parody an old film, taking one they had recorded overnight. The lucky film was Zero Hour!.
Adapted from the CBC teleplay Flight Into Danger, Zero Hour!, written by Hailey, told the story of Ted Stryker, played by Dana Andrews, a World War II fighter pilot who lost his squadron on a bombing mission five weeks before the end of the war. The target was shrouded in fog and the strike force came in too low. Stryker survived, but six of his fellow pilots never made it back. Eleven years later, Striker is having problems holding down jobs to the point where his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell) leaves with their son, Joey (Raymond Ferrell), to fly across Canada to Vancouver. Stryker catches up at the airport, buying a ticket on the cross-Canada flight.
Cut to the cockpit, where the pilot and co-pilot (Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch and Steve London) are discussing the flight. A fog is covering the Prairies from Regina to Calgary, but since the flight is going to Vancouver, that shouldn’t be a problem. A four-engine DC-4 should be able to get from Ottawa to Vancouver without having to stop to refuel. Once the passengers are settled in, the plane takes off.
Ted tries to talk to his wife, but Ellen’s mind is made up. To help pass the flight, Ted asks the stewardess, Janet Turner (Peggy King in her first movie role), if Joey can visit the cockpit. With the pilots’ permission, Ted and Joey take a look around. While there, Janet gets the pilots dinner orders, both of them going for the grilled halibut. With Joey welcome in the cockpit, Ted goes back to speak to his wife to find out what went wrong between them.
The first hint that something’s wrong comes after the plane has flown into a thunderstorm. A woman starts complaining about severe stomach aches. Janet fetches her some Dramamine to help, then calls the pilot on the intercom. She believes the woman has severe airsickness, but she’s never seen it this bad. The pilot asks Janet to find a doctor on board. After asking a few passengers, Janet finds Dr, Baird (Geoffrey Toone) and asks him to take a look at the sick woman. As Baird examines the woman, Joey gets the same symptoms. The problem is severe; the doctor wants the plane on the ground as soon as possible. The problem is that the fog is thick all the way to the Rockies; there’s nowhere to land except Vancouver. With some questions, the source of the illness is traced to the fish. Everyone who ate fish is going to become violently ill, including the pilots.
The co-pilot is the first of the flight crew to be affected by the illness. The pilot toughs it out with some help from Dr. Baird, but soon is not able to continue flying the plane. He manages to turn on the autopilot to keep the plane on course, but someone needs to land the craft. Janet goes walks along the aisle, looking for someone who can take over. To keep the passengers from panicking, she says that the co-pilot is ill, but the pilot just needs someone to handle the radio. The only passenger on the flight who has any flight experience and hasn’t had the fish is Ted, and he’s hesitant because of what happened in the war.
On the ground, the airline realizes there is a problem in the air. Harry Burdick (Charles Quinvlivan) takes charge and calls in Martin Treleaven (Stewart Hayes) to help talk the replacement pilot down. Problem is, Treleaven flew with Ted during the war and is well aware of Stryker’s record. Both men have to put aside the past to work together to get the plane down. Emergency crews and gear are on standby, in case Stryker misses the runway or even the airport. Ted, though, gets it together, fights through his PTSD, and makes the worst landing Treleaven has ever witnessed. At the end, though, the plane is down with no loss of life.
The plot to Airplane! is the same, beat for beat. ZAZ added to the script, embellishing scenes in the Zero Hour! and adding scenes to parody the Airport series of films. Changes were made, the biggest being moving the setting south to the US with a Los Angeles to Chicago flight. This change meant that the airline had to change from Cross Canada to Trans America. Characters were renamed. Ted Stryker became Ted Striker (Robery Hayes). Ted’s wife Ellen because his ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julie Haggerty), a stewardess on the flight. The stewardess Janet became Randy (Lorna Patterson). Dr. Baird turned into Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen); Burdick, Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges); Treleaven, Rex Kramer (Robert Stack). Airplane! expanded the flight crew to three, due to the needs of the Boeing 707 replacing the DC-4, thus having Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves), Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and Victor Basta (Frank Ashmore). The changes of the crew name allowed for some word play during take-off. One thing that didn’t change with the flight crew was including a sports figure. “Crazy Legs” Hirsch was a receiver with the LA Rams at the time of shooting Zero Hour!. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for the LA Lakers and was dragged out of the cockpit where his uniform.
The tone of the movie changed, as would be expected of a parody. Except, ZAZ had cast serious actors for the roles, not comedians. Airplane! was the film that launched comedy careers for Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges; prior to the movie, both were known for serious, dramatic roles. Even the music, composed by Elmer Bernstein, ramped up the seriousness. The sheer dramatic tone provided a contrast to the gags happening. And gags did happen, in the background, in the foreground, off to the side, and in front of the camera. The script was changed, mostly by giving different answers to questions, questions such as, “Can you face some unpleasant facts?”
One role that got expanded was that of Johnny, who was essentially a gofer. ZAZ and Landis handed the role to Stephen Strucker and let him do what he wanted. The result, Johnny went from extra to manic character who was in his own movie, one where there wasn’t an airplane without a flight crew doomed to crash. The new Johnny also provided contrast to the ultra-serious nature of the plot.
Not every scene in Airplane! came from Zero Hour!. Scenes at the airports, both in LA and Chicago, were added. These came from the Airport series, where the scenes set up the in-flight character drama. The young transplant patient, Lisa Davis (Jill Whelan), and the singing nun (Maureen McGovern) came directly from Airport 1975. The additional scenes allowed for more gags, including the argument over what the red and white zones are for and Kramer fighting his way through religious missionaries. In the air, the added characters allowed more parodies, including of coffee ads and of a scene from 1958’s Crash Landing.
Not every scene was a spoof, though. Some were played straight. Near the end, as Ted is bringing the jet in on its final approach, there’s a shot of an older fire truck with firefighters watching the sky with a dalmatian. That had to be tossed in, right? The truck is out of date, and dalmatians aren’t used for firefighting except as mascots these days. That shot, though, came right out of Zero Hour!, the only difference being the breed of dog. The final approach and landing, outside Johnny’s antics and additions to dialogue, were beat-for-beat and almost word-for-word from Zero Hour!, including how the plane crashed on to its belly and skidded.
The popularity of Airplane! and the nature of the jokes wound up killing off the disaster movie for a decade and a half. When the genre began a revival in the Nineties, the focus was more on natural disasters, not airplane crashes. Arthur Hailey, having written Airport, not only created the disaster movie trend in the Seventies, became its end through the spoofing of Zero Hour! The drama of those films could not be taken seriously because of Airplane!
Given the nature of Airplane!, it would be expected that major changes would be done to Zero Hour!. What’s surprising is how intact the original movie is, turning Airplane! from parody to comedic remake. In Airplane!‘s favour, Zero Hour! was a black and white film relegated to late night TV slots, the periods where few people watch or even record. There was room for an update of the original, going from propellor aircraft to jet, though ZAZ still kept the prop sounds. More people are familiar with Airplane! than the movie it remade. Without Zero Hour! to build on, Airplane! wouldn’t be as well known or loved today.
Lost in Translation hasn’t looked at many parodies in the past, just four. Parodies are unusual cases when it comes to adaptations. Without an original work, a parody couldn’t exist, yet the nature of parodies means that changes happen. The goal of the parody is humour, not accuracy.
There are three of types of parodies. The broadest is the genre or style parody, where the goal is to have fun with a number of works, not just one. A good example of this sort is Blazing Saddles, parodying the Western genre as a whole. Another example is Top Secret!, a parody of both spy movies set during the Second World War and of movies starring Elvis Presley. Genre parodies take the tropes of the genre and twist them around, holding them up in a new light. A successful parody can even shape how future regular films in the genre use the tropes. This sort of parody is generally not an adaptation. No specific work is used as the base; these parodies draw from several works, pulling out common themes.
Narrowing in, the next type of parody does use a specific work, but no specific story from the work. This happens when the original is a series or franchise. Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, The Orville, and Quark all parody Star Trek. Star Wreck and The Orville use The Next Generation as the base while Quark, because it first aired in 1977*, only had the original Trek to work from. All three have different takes on Star Trek; all three have their own plotlines separate from but similar to Trek. Licensing tends to be the issue with these parodies. If not official, the creators don’t have access to likenesses from the original. Details get changed to keep lawyers happy. Once the parody gets going, it also takes on its own life, with characters developing away from the ones they were based on. This sort of parody may explore ideas from the original work, but for humour instead of the original intent. The Trek episode, “The Enemy Within”, where a transporter accident separated Kirk into two beings, one good, one evil, explores the nature of humanity, the yin and yang inherent in all of us. The Quark episode, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ficus”, takes the idea of the characters being separated into good and evil and uses it for humour, with Ficus, the Spock equivalent except being a plant, not affected at all. Ficus was unaffected because, “there are no good or evil plants, there are just plants.” For this type of parody, the focus is humour, not accuracy, but will use themes from the original.
Galaxy Quest falls under this sort of parody, but instead of using Star Trek episodes as the base, it uses the the industry and the fanbase as the source. Again, licensing and likenesses are a key factor. Because Galaxy Quest deals with the life of the actors long after their show was cancelled, care needs to be taken to not say or imply anything that could be misconstrued. At the same time, the movie also took pains to get the fandom right. Galaxy Quest used ideas from Trek‘s fandom to create its own narrative, yet still be a parody of the TV series. In particular, Guy was well aware of the redshirt effect and was desperate to not suffer the same fate. Galaxy Quest is not a typical parody, but still falls under the narrower form.
Finally, there are the parodies that use the original work’s story. These are rare and tend to happen with older works that have fallen into the public domain. Wayne and Shuster’s “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” is a good example here. The sketch takes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and turns it into a film noir mystery. The few parodies that use a work that falls under copyright get around the issue in one of two ways. First, the original work is used as a base, building a new story off it without using it directly. Young Frankenstein uses this method, The other way is to just license the original. Airplane! is the exemplar here, with creators Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker having licensed Zero Hour to use the work’s script to pile on with jokes.
This last type of parody is very close to being an adaptation. The difference here is intent. The main goal of a parody is humour, whether through slapstick or satire. Adding humour doesn’t necessarily mean a work is a parody. Gnomeo and Juliet is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aimed for a younger audience, using humour to keep the attention of viewers. It’s not a parody, though; the aim wasn’t to spoof the play, just make it accessable to a younger audience. The line between the two can be fine, with Airplane! madly hopping over it, scuffing any trace the line may have had.
The end result is that, no matter what type of parody a work may be, it can’t be held to the same standards as an adaptation. With most adaptations, the effort is to keep to the original, putting in little twists to keep the work fresh, with humour a possible addition but not the focus. Parodies ultimately have a goal that is separate from bringing a work from one medium into another or rebooting a work. Accuracy isn’t as important as the humour. It is unfair to judge a parody by the same standards of other adaptations.
* Quark may have been the first to parody /Star Wars/, with the episode “May the Source Be With You”, given its timing.
Lost in Translation has covered The Transformers before, both the G1 cartoon and Michael Bay movie. The quick recap – two factions of giant robots, the Autobots and the Decepticons, from the war-ravaged world Cybertron, arrive on Earth. Both sides need energy, but the Autobots are willing to work with the inhabitants of Earth to get what they need while the Decepticons take it by force. Leading the Autobots is Optimus Prime, usually voiced by Peter Cullen, a wise robot who favours peaceful means but will fight when pushed. The Decepticons are led by Megatron, who rules through force and fear, though he keeps Starscream around anyway. The various Transformers series and movies may or may not tie into the same continuity, so different series can and have played around with canon.
Before getting into Bumblebee, let’s look at Bumblebee, the character. Bumblebee was part of the first line of Transformers sold in toy stores, being available from 1984 until 1986. In the G1 cartoon, he was one of the first Transformers seen on screen, during the Autobot-Decepticon war on Cybertron. Bumblebee was also the first Transformer to meet humans, the Witwickies. Bumblebee is as iconic as Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Starscream.
What makes Bumblebee approachable is that he comes across as being a younger Autobot, relatable to the younger audiences. He’s not that large for a giant robot. His original alternate form was a Volkswagen Beetle, a car whose popularity came from how cute it looked instead of performance. Adding to the innocense of the character, the Beetle was part of the hippie movement and Flower Power in the Sixties. Bumblebee, despite being an Autobot soldier in a war fighting Decepticons, looks innocent and relatable. Perfect for being the first Autobot to meet humans and for being the first Autobot to headline a movie solo.
Bumblebee opens on Cybertron. The Autobots are losing the war against the Decepticons. Optimus Prime, once again voiced by Peter Cullen, is sending out scouts to find a location for the Autobots to hide and rebuild. B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) is sent to Earth, landing in an military training facility in California of 1987. The soldiers, led by Sector 7 agent Colonel Burns, played by John Cena, chase the Autobot scout. B-127 takes advantage of seeing a Willys Jeep and takes on its form to get some space, only to wind up trapped at a mine. The Autobot does what he can to not hurt the humans.
Unfortunately, B-127 was followed. Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov) has no problems with collateral damage on his mission to find out where Optimus Prime is. During the battle with B-127 and the subsequent interrogation of the Autobot, Blitzwing winds up killing almost all of Burns’ unit, save the Colonel himself. The Autobot manages to destroy Blitzwing, but is unable to speak after the Decepticon destroyed his voice box and is so damaged that even his memory core fails. Before collapsing completely, B-127 sees a Volkswagen Beetle and transforms into the same vehicle.
Elsewhere, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, who played Spider-Gwen in /Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse/[http://codex.seventhsanctum.com/2019/01/19/lost-in-translation-279-spider-man-into-the-spider-verse/]) is not having a good life. She has all the angst of a teenager of the late Eighties – bad job, dealing with the clique of Heathers of her school, an annoying younger brother, Otis (Jason Drucker), and a new neighbour, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), who is romantically interested in her – plus she aches over the loss of her father. Her mother, Sally (Pamela Adlon), has remarried to Ron (Stephen Schneider) and has moved on with her life. Charlie, though, can’t.
To feel closer to her late father, Charlie uses the money from her food concession stand job to buy parts she finds at her Uncle Hank’s (Len Cariou) junk yard to rebuild a classic Corvette. When searching for a key part, she discovers an old yellow Beetle under a tarp. She checks out the car and has one of her rare smiles. Charlie pays for the parts and heads home. The next morning is her eighteenth birthday. Her mother and stepfather give her well-meaning gifts. Still down, Charlie heads to her uncle’s junkyard and pleads with him, offering anything, including cleaning the bathroom there, just to get the Beetle. Hank gives the car to her, not expecting the Beetle to start. Charlie, though, learned mechanics from her father and gets the Beetle home. She also gets the car’s radio going briefly.
B-127’s radio not only gets local stations, it also broadcasts his location. Two Decepticons, Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) pick up the signal while executing an Autobot lieutenant on one of Saturn’s moons. The trace the signal to Earth, the western coast of North America.
She starts to suspect that the Beetle might not be what it looks like when an unusual part drops from the undercarriage. B-127, now having amnesia due to the memory core failure, is as afraid of her as she is of him. The two manage to communicate, the Autobot through body language, and learn about each other. Charlie also gives him a name, Bumblebee, because of his colour and the Beetle’s basic shape. On an outing, they walk into some woods to be alone. Bumblebee shows what happened to his voice box. Charlie does what she can to fix it and repairs a holographic projector and a memory cell. The contents of the cell get projected – the last orders Optimus Prime gave to Bumblebee, protect Earth from the Decepticons.
Shatter and Dropkick arrive on Earth and adopt a new form, cars. It turns out that they are Triple Changers[https://tfwiki.net/wiki/Triple_Changer], picking up a second alternate form, a jet and a helicopter, respectively. They head west, but run into Agent Burns with a lot more backup than before and Dr. Powell (John Ortiz). Powell wants to treat the situation as a first contact moment, negotiating peacefully with the aliens. Burns is more wary, having seen what one can do. Shatter, though, presents herself and Dropkick as emissaries from the Decepticons looking for a renegade who needs to be brought back to Cybertron. While Powell and others at Sector 7 are convinced, Burns shows a bit more genre savviness and points out the name, Decepticons. He’s overruled, though.
Every character has an arc in the movie. Charlie’s is to move on with her life without forgetting her father. Bumblebee’s is to regain his memory and protect Earth. Being voiceless through most of the movie, Bumblebee has to communicate through body language and his eyes. For a non-human CGI character, Bumblebee does this well. The movie is essentially a story about a girl and her car that changes into a robot.
Unlike the previous entries in the live-action Transformers series, the Transformers seen in Bumblebee resemble their G1 cartoon appearances. In particular, Soundwave, Shockwave, and Starscream are easily recognized. Soundwave even sounded like his G1 cartoon counterpart, especially with “Ravage, eject!” And, yes, Ravage went from cassette to robotic jaguar. There’s a number of Easter eggs for fans of the G1 cartoon. Given the Eighties soundtrack, “The Touch” by Stan Bush, featured in the 1986 The Transformers: The Movie did come up.
Bumblebee is also a prequel to the Michael Bay movies. Sector 7 is shown in its early stages. A young Agent Simmons (Nick Pilla) appears in Sector 7’s headquarters. However, familiarity with any other Transformers property isn’t needed to watch the movie. The number of Transformers on screen at any one time is no more than three once off Cybertron. On Cybertron, Optimus Prime is notable, but the others are there to boost the armies on both sides. They’re not important to the story in Bumblebee beyond showing the desperate situation B-127 is leaving. Knowing what’s coming is also not important. While Bumblebee’s voice is damaged, the reason for it is shown on screen. The story uses the damage to help build the relationship between Bee and Charlie. The focus is on those two characters, not the wider context of the cartoon and movies.
While the movie is very much a science fiction action flick, the core of it belongs to the characters Bumblebee and Charlie. While Charlie was created for the movie, Bumblebee wasn’t. The goal, then, is to determine if the character made the translation over. Of course, the various Transformers series and the live-action movies all have differing continuity. It’s a feature, not a bug. It does make judging whether the movie works as an adaptation.
The key part is what was covered about the character of Bumblebee earlier. He is a friendly introduction to the Autobots, close to human size, with a cute exterior that isn’t normally threatening. Throughout Bumblebee, the Autobot took pains to not hurt Charlie or her friends and family on purpose. He went out of his way to warn Agent Burns, trying to protect him from the Decepticons. Bumblebee is a protector, not a destroyer. The only time he was a threat to humans in the movie was when they were a threat to Charlie. Also, throughout his incarnations, Bumblebee is loyal to Optimus. This, too, carries over, even with Optimus on Cybertron. Considering Bumblebee’s amnesia, this core of his personality still survived the memory core failure. From the character perspective, Bumblebee remained true to his previous incarnations.
The loose continuity in Transformers media does complicate matters, but in the movie, Bumblebee has his classic yellow VW Beetle alternate mode. While licensing was an issue with the first live-action movie, this wasn’t a problem for Bumblebee. Using a Beetle allowed the film to have fun with a chase sequence; Beetles weren’t know for being fast, just cute. The use of the Beetle kept the movie light.
Overall, Bumblebee is a good live-action adaptation, fitting in with the continuity of the Bay films while still standing alone. No knowledge of the character is needed, yet the character is true to both his previous appearances in the Michael Bay films and his animated counterparts.
Lost in Translation has covered several Spider-Man adaptations in the past, including Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and its reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. Both focused on Peter Parker, the Spider-Man introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15. Spider-Man is Marvel’s flagship character. Whenever a new character gets a title, Spider-Man is there to reinforce the idea that the hero is part of the Marvel Universe. As a result, Spidey has met most of Marvel’s heavy hitters, from the Avengers to the X-Men. New York City may be a large city, but heroes will cross each others’ paths.
Peter, though, isn’t the only Spider-Man in Marvel Comics. Thanks to alternate universes, there can be an infinite number of Spider-Men. Indeed, some are from a different Marvel Universe, like the Spectacular Spider-Ham, who first appeared in Marvel Tails Starring Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham; Spider-Gwen, the Gwen Stacy of Earth-65 who became Spider-Woman, as seen in Edge of Spider-Verse #2; and Miles Morales, from Marvel’s Ultimate line, who took up the mantle of Spider-Man after Peter Parker died, as seen in Ultimate Fallout #4. In a possible future of the main Marvel Universe, Miguel O’Hara becomes Spider-Man in Spider-Man 2099. In the main continuity, Dr. Otto Octavius, Doc Octopus himself, once took over Peter’s body to become the Superior Spider-Man. And that’s just scratching the surface of Spider-Men, not even touching the versions that have appeared in animated series, in live action film and TV, and in video games, nor the Spider-related characters, like Spider-Woman, Venom, and Araña. Marvel released a limited series, Edge of the Spider-Verse, that featured stories of the various version of Spider-Man, bringing them together to fight the dangers of the Inheritors across the Marvel Multiverse.
Marvel does track its multiverses. Anything done under a Marvel logo, be it film, TV, or streaming, Even the company’s comics that aren’t part of the main continuity, like the New Universe and the mangaverse, are part of the overall multiverse. The Peter Parker from the classic cartoon is a different one from Tobey Maguire’s in the Raimi Spider-Man, who is a different one from the main continuity, but they are all Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
Pulling even a fraction of all the available Spider-People is daunting. The general audience is most familiar with Peter Parker, thanks to decades of him being the face of Spider-Man outside comics. Fans will know of the others, but the rest of the movie-going public might not. With a runtime of just under two hours, there’s not much space to introduce all of them in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, even if the number of alternate Spider-Beings is limited.
Into the Spider-Verse opens with Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) introducing himself as Spider-Man, giving a brief rundown on who he is and what he’s done for ten years, with scenes taken from the various Spider-Media, from comics to film, and the different tie-ins, like the classic cartoon and a Christmas album. Once Peter’s intro is done, though, the focus turns to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a high school student just starting at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions, a private school that only takes the best and brightest. Miles aced the entrance exam, but isn’t sure that he belongs there. At one point, he tries failing a true/false test, getting a zero. His teacher saw through it, though.
Miles’ life is complicated, like most teenagers’ lives are. He does wind up talking to another new student, “Wanda” (Hailee Steinfeld), who laughed at his lame excuse for being late for science class. Miles also sneaks out to meet up with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who shows him a safe spot to practice his graffiti. Aaron still has a shady side gig, the point where he and Miles’ father, police officer Jeff Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) have had arguments about leading to estrangement. As Miles works on his latest project, a radioactive spider, having escaped from Alchemex, lurks, eventually biting the teen.
The next day, the effects of the spider’s bite appear. Miles’ thoughts seem loud to him and are appearing on screen around him. His attempt to put to use some advice his uncle gave him on talking to girls fail horribly with Wanda when his hand gets stuck in her hair, leading to an impromptu haircut for her and stony silence for him. With nothing going right, Miles returns to his dorm room and flips through is roommate’s comics, finding the first Spider-Man comic and realizes that he’s having the same thoughts and problems the Peter Parker in the comic is having. Miles returns to the underground chamber where his artwork is and finds the dead spider. He then hears a fight nearby.
Spider-Man has located the Kingpin’s secret facility, being used to breach dimensional barriers to bring back Fisk’s deceased wife and son. The problem that Spidey has realized is that the device could collapse the space-time continuum, destroying not just Brooklyn, but multiple dimensions. Fisk’s device manages to lock on five other universes before Spider-Man can stop the process. The fight, though, leaves Spider-Man badly hurt. Spidey hands the key that can destroy the device to Miles, who sneaks away. Before he leaves, though, Miles witnesses Kingpin dealing the death blow to Spider-Man.
When news gets out about the hero’s death, New York City mourns. Peter Parker was well respected as both himself and as Spidey. His widow, Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz), is surrounded by well wishers. Miles, still in shock and feeling responsible, attends funeral in the crowd in a cheap costume. He tries to train alone, but while he has Spider-Man’s agility, the rest isn’t there yet. To try to work out his thoughts, he heads to Peter’s gravestone. While there, a stranger approaches him. Miles reacts instinctively, knocking out the man. When he gets a closer look, he discovers that it’s a brunette Peter.
Once he recovers, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), goes through the same intro Miles’ Peter had at the beginning, except this Spider-Man had been around for over twenty-five years, had been married to MJ but later divorced and hadn’t been taking it well. He’s older, heavier, and not quite on his game. The two head out to Alchemex’s headquarters in Harper Valley, where the plan is for Peter to sneak in, retrieve the files needed to recreate the key, now broken after Miles ran from Fisk’s henchmen, grab a bagel, and sneak out. Nothing in Peter B. Parker’s life ever goes smooth. He runs into Fisk’s chief researcher and Brooklyn Visions guest physics lecturer, Doctor Olivia “Liv” Octavius, Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn) herself.
Miles and Peter escape the facility, lugging a desktop PC while being chased by armed mad scientists and Doc Ock as Miles is being taught how to use Peter’s web shooter. The competency of Miles’ late Spider-Man, though, means that the villains had to up their own game, and the pair are in deep trouble. However, a newcomer swings in to help. Spider-Woman, from another of the five dimensions, saves the boys and retrieves the computer before Doc Ock could grab it. “Wanda”, or, as she should be called, Gwen Stacy, gives her own backstory in the same manner as both Spider-Men before, this time with her own dimension’s Peter Parker having been the Lizard.
The three decide that the best place to try to figure things out is at the home of Peter’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin). Aunt May had been expecting them and isn’t surprised at seeing her nephew at the door despite his funeral. She leads Miles, Peter, and Gwen to her Peter’s underground lair and introduces them to the other dimensional travellers – Peter Parker (Nicholas Cage), from 1933, in black and white, a masked detective in a noir pulp style; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her SP//dr mecha which she copilots with a radioactive spider; and Peter Porker (John Mulaney), the Spectacular Spider-Ham. The three go through their backstory in unison, much like the previous backstories.
With the five extra-dimension Spider-beings now gathered, the plan turns from stopping Kingpin to getting everyone home then stopping Kingpin. The problem is that there should be six, but the one from Miles’ dimension is dead. To avoid having anyone left behind, though. Miles has to step up, control his abilities, and become the new Spider-Man for his dimension.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may have done the impossible. The movie introduced Spideys that weren’t Peter Parker, provided their backstory, gave them all credible motivations, and made them all interesting, while still keeping to their comic origins. Even the animation styles used for the characters kept to their original titles. Spider-Ham’s animation harkens to both Disney and Warner Bros; Spider-Man Noir’s kept to black and white, including the dots that older, pre-computer inking used; Peni was straight up anime-style. Yet the styles didn’t clash. By the time they appeared, the idea of dimensions colliding was well in effect in the film.
Introductions were quick, getting the point across, becoming a running gag, then turning into a proper ending with Miles’ version. The movie is Miles’ story, but there’s room for the other Spideys. Relationships between characters were real. The relationship between Miles and his father showed all the awkwardness when a teenaged boy is trying to become his own person but is still dependent on his parents. Peter B. Parker’s life falling apart, especially in contrast to the successful Peter of Miles’ dimension, shows a man who lost his direction. Yet, that Peter hasn’t gone to the extremes that Wilson Fisk did by creating a means to break dimensional walls to get his wife and son back.
There is the required Stan Lee cameo, this time as Stan, the owner of a comic book shop who gives Miles some advice. “It [the costume] always fits, eventually.” While the costume Miles bought didn’t fit, when he stepped up, he made the costume his, and it did fit who he is. The quote from Stan Lee during the credits really does apply to Miles, and to many people in real life, “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it’s the right thing to do, is indeed, without doubt, a real superhero.” Even when he was trying to deal with his new powers, Miles did help Spidey because it was the right thing to do.
To emphasize that Miles’ dimension was different, little things changed. Some were obvious, some were in the background. His father was an officer of the Police Department of New York City, or PDNY. Koca-Soda has the ad at Times Square. Movie posters had familiar pictures but new titles, like Simon Pegg’s From Dusk to Shaun. Getting details right is a key element that can make or break an adaptation. Into the Spider-Verse went beyond that here.
As a film, Into the Spider-Verse will be the Spider-movie that all others will be judged against. While the movie is Miles’ story, the different Peter Parkers brought a nuance to the character not seen in any of the movies so far, an older Peter instead of the high school and university students portrayed so far. The movie managed to hit the right tone, a bit of comedy, a bit of drama, a bit of superhero action, just as in the comics. Spidey couldn’t solve his problems using his powers in his comic titles, and neither could any of the Spideys in the movie. Peter B. Parker eventually realizes that he was in the wrong and he needed MJ in his life. Miles and his father reconcile. Gwen opens a little to letting people get close to her.
The humour comes through in appropriate times. When the Spider-Man of Miles’ dimension dies, it is a sombre moment. Later, though, as Peter and Miles steal Dok Ock’s computer, the tone lightens. The scientists recognize Spidey, since he was wearing the costume, and one yells out, “It’s Spider-Man! He’s stolen a bagel!” before they break out their lasers. Even in the climactic fight, all the Spideys keep up with the patter, a Spider-Man trademark.
As an adaptation, the movie doesn’t adapt The Edge of the Spider-Verse, nor was it meant to. It took the concept from the mini-series and from the video game, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions and brought it to film. The characters, though, are true to their original works, complete with appropriate animation style. The result is a film that embraces its comic book heritage instead of ignoring it.
Do stay past the credits. An eighth Spidey, Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), makes an appearance, travelling back to when it all began, 1967. Worth staying for and is a brilliant adaptation on its own.