Adaptations will happen. It`s the nature of Hollywood. Audiences aren’t fleeing away yet, so there’s no reason not to adapt. However, if all that is done is adaptations, original sources get scarce. The easy ones are on the verge of being over done. A couple of news articles this past week show that there are studios looking beyond just remakes.
First, Amazon picked up Tales from the Loop to make an eight episode series. Tales from the Loop is a collection of paintings by Simon Stålenhag showing an alternate Sweden of the Eighties, one where the landscape includes kids and unusual machines and buildings, the latter two being part of a particle accelerator program. The original paintings were gathered into one book, which then spawned a tabletop RPG of the same name. The Kickstarter raised enough money to have an American Loop project added, resulting in more paintings by Stålenhag. It looks like Amazon is trying to cash in on Netflix’s Stranger Things, but the collection of paintings was done prior to that series.
The second announcement uses a more mainstream source. Lively McCabe Entertainment and Primary Wave licensed Plain White T’s “Hey There, Delilah” as the basis for a romantic dramedy to shop around to networks. The song is a hit and has been featured on several TV series since its first release in 2006. Music has been used before as a source, but typically for either episodes of TV series or as a movie. “Hey There, Delilah” does have characters – Delilah, a university student, and an unnamed singer-songwriter, using the song to stay close to her while on the otherside of the country. That might be enough to at least start the series.
Notably, neither announcement is for a movie. Both are TV series. Television, though, isn’t the wasteland it used to be. The competition for audiences goes beyond the three-channel, lowest common denominator and now includes specialty channels and streaming. The goal now is to attract an audience that has become finicky in what it wants. With Tales from the Loop, the short run will keep the series focused on the mixture of mundane and mysterious. With “Hey There Delilah”, audiences are familiar with the idea of romantic dramedies already; the song becomes the hook.
Are these two announcements the start of a new trend? That depends on their success. Television is tough these days. If Amazon can reproduce the immersive quality of Stålenhag’s paintings, Loop should raise a following. The dramedy of “Hey There, Delilah” may have it rougher, but if the main characters are compelling, the series should have a few good seasons.
Remakes happen. The known element is popular with audiences, for all that people moan about the lack of original movies. Lost in Translation has looked at the problems different sources have when being translated to film, but remaking a movie has its own issues. For most genres, it’s not a problem. People will enjoy the same story over and over, whatever the format. For horror and mystery, there’s a problem.
Horror and mystery rely on tension and the unknown. In horror, it’s a question of when something happens, with setting, lighting, and music the only cues. Mysteries rely on solving the puzzle, following clues to the end. In both genres, knowing the end result takes away from the suspense. The remake of The Evil Dead took the same situation – a cabin in the middle of the woods and a group of young adults – and, while having similar beats to the original, added its own twists so that audiences couldn’t rely on their knowledge of the older movie.
Before the Eighties, most older films could be found either in repertory theatres or on television, either late night or weekend mornings. With the typical time between original movie and a remake being about thirty years or so, a new generation of audience could grow up without having seen the source. The Eighties, though, were when the VCR took off with hardware and available movies coming down in cost to be practical for the home. Specialty cable stations added to the availability of older movies. Today, with DVDs and streaming, if a film exists, it can usually be found somewhere on demand. A movie from the Eighties, ie, thirty years ago, is still available to the next generation of audience. The twists and turns that made an original movie suspenseful now makes a remake predictable. Yet, people want the familiar. Directors of remakes are in a tough spot. The audience wants the remake to be faithful, but not too faithful.
Slasher films and monster movies have an out. Audiences are there to see the star – the slasher or the monster, different sides of the same coin – do what they do best, kill people. Few people watch a Godzilla movie to cheer the Japanese Self-Defense Force; they’re there to see Godzilla stomp through Tokyo. Toho has rebooted the series, but hasn’t really remade the original.
Another issue with horror remakes is that horror films tend to reflect the fears of the time they are made. Going back to Godzilla, the original film was made in response to the growing fears of atomic weapons, made in a country that had the first and only two atomic bombs dropped on it. Other fears that have shown up include machines turning on humanity (Maximum Overdrive, The Terminator), humanity’s interference with nature (The Thing, Sharktopus), loss of identity (The Fly, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Borg), the faceless other (zombie films), and the seductive other (vampire movies). While some of those fears are part of being human, others change as understanding is gained and political winds blow.
Mysteries may not rely on the fear of the day, but they do rely on the puzzle. With information at the audience’s fingertips today, it’d be easy to do a quick search to find out whodunit. Adapting a mystery from literature doesn’t quite have the same problem; the audience is there to see a story they enjoyed on screen, not solve the puzzle. Remaking a mystery, though, needs to create new twists to keep the audience on its toes. There are exceptions, such as Columbo where the draw is to see how the detective solves the murder, but most mysteries rely on not knowing who the killer is until the reveal. Even the live action Scooby-Doo, while still using the tropes of the cartoon including having the monster really be someone the kids have met, created its own plot instead of using one of the animated episodes.
There are ways around the problem. The first is to make the new movie a reboot, picking up where the previous film left off. The TV series Ash vs Evil Dead is a continuation of the original The Evil Dead with Ash getting into more trouble. It’s easier with slasher films and monster movies; the star is the attraction, so even with new casting, as long as the main character acts in the expected way, the audience is satisfied. Mysteries may have a harder time, depending on how much the original actor was tied to the character. Peter Falk made Columbo his character; it’ll be some time before an audience will accept a newcomer to the role. However, other characters, like Sherlock Holmes, have been portrayed by a large number of different actors.
The key in any remake is to provide the audience what they expect. With horror, the expectation is suspense and scares; with mysteries, it’s a whodunit. The characters in the remake should behave like they did in the original, even if the plot has changed. Shaggy shouldn’t sound like an Oxford scholar and Ash Williams shouldn’t be the luckiest man alive. Get these details correct, and the audience won’t mind changes to the plot.
DC Comics has its triumvirate – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Superman has had many adaptations on radio, television, and film, the latter two both live action and animated. Batman hasn’t had as many over the character’s existence, but has picked up on the number of film adaptations over the past two decades. Wonder Woman, not so much. The character had her own TV series in the Seventies and has appeared in the various DC-based cartoons featuring a full team of heroes, but her solo appearances are lacking compared to the other two in the Big Three.
Created by William Moulton Marston, who also developed the lie detector, Wonder Woman was to offset the more violent titles. Instead of beating her opponents into defeat, she’d use the power of love to change their ways, using her version of the lie detector, the Lasso of Truth, to rehabilitate them. Since her debut in 1941, her approach has changed, becoming an Amazon warrior, willing to take the steps that Superman and Batman would not.
Over the past ten years, DC’s domination of superhero moves have waned as Marvel Studios finally figured out how to make interesting movies. Marvel’s approach to The Avengers movies forced DC to accelerate their Justice League titles. The problem that Warner has right now, though, is that all of the DC-based movies look like the Batman films. While that approach works for the character*, it didn’t with Man of Steel or Batman vs Superman, turning both into colourless messes.
After a few fits and starts, Warner finally had a Wonder Woman movie released in 2017. Directed by Patty Jenkins, the film was the top grossing superhero film for the year and finished behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the live-action Beauty and the Beast overall. Even Justice League only wound up tenth. Turns out, representation is key. Wonder Woman is a feminist icon; the character is the best known superheroine, able to bring in an audience that normally wouldn’t consider a capes-and-spandex movie.
The movie opens briefly in the present with a voice over narration by Diana (Gal Gadot) about the problems of the world. A Wayne Foundation armoured truck delivers a briefcase to her. Inside are a photo of Wonder Woman standing with several men in a wartorn town and a note, triggering a flashback to Diana’s days as a child on Themiscyra. Diana is the only child (played by Lilly Aspell) among the Amazons, having been fashioned by clay by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and has no mind for studies, instead wanting to watch the Amazons train. While the Amazons are hidden, they are prepared for the day when Ares tries to destroy mankind and the world again. To prevent that end, Zeus left a weapon capable of killing a god on the island.
As Diana grows older (now played by Emily Carey), she convinces her mother to let her train. Diana’s aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright) pushes her past her limits, working the girl to be the best she can. As a full grown woman, Diana is capable of standing her own against several Amazons at once, but when Antiope pushes to far, something inside Diana pushes back, sending Antiope flying. Diana walks away to brood over what happened. As she does so, a German plane crashes off the coast.
Diana rescues the young pilot, unaware that a German warship has sent several boats to retrieve him. The Germans pierce through the veil that surrounds Themiscyra and land on the beaches. The Amazons fight the invasion, but swords, spears, and arrows can only do so much against trained soldiers with rifles. The Amazons win, but at a cost.
The young pilot is interrogated with the Lasso of Hestia, compelling him to give his name, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and his mission, an American officer working for British intelligence as a spy. He discovered German General Ludendorf (Danny Huston) and Dr. Isabella Maru (Elena Anaya) in the Ottoman Empire creating new weapons, including poison gas, to fight the Allies in the Great War. Diana insists on going off to fight, suspecting Ares behind the war, but her mother denies her. Undaunted, Diana breaks into the tower holding the god-killer sword. She takes it, the Lasso of Hestia, a shield, and the costume. Dressed and armed, she takes Steve to a small harbour. Her mother arrives, not to stop her, but to say goodbye, giving Diana Entiope’s circlet to wear. The parting is bittersweet.
London is a confusing whirlwind for Diana. So many new sights, sounds, and smells. Steve takes her to get appropriate clothes, with the help of his secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis). After a few hours and many outfits tried, Diana gets an outfit that’s slightly less conspicuous. Leaving the store, Steve and Diana are followed by German spies. They confront the Germans in an alley, where Diana shows how effective she can be.
At Allied HQ, Steve gives over Dr. Maru’s notebook. Diana is able to decrypt it, understanding the languages used. However, she’s learning that in man’s world, women aren’t listened to. Diana goes off on the assembled generals, who have denied Steve’s request to track the General to Belgium. Steve pulls her out, explaining that he is going anyway, only convincing her after using the Lasso on himself. He makes a stop to pick up reinforcements, con man Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and smuggler The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock).
On the way to find Ludendorf, Diana leads an impromtu charge through No Man’s Land, clearing a path for the British troops to follow while reducing the German defences. She continues through to liberate the village of Veld, with assistance from Steve and his men. Diana is getting a harsh lesson in modern warfare, seeing the damage wrought to people and their lives.
The team tracks Ludendorf to German High Command. The General, opposed to the Armistice, had killed the rest of the Command with his new gas. The gathering at High Command is a show, one put on to demonstrate the new weapon by using Veld. Angered, Diana finds her own way into the aerodrome where Ludendorf is stockpiling the gas and begins her attack. The final battle of the film is one for Diana’s heart.
There were changes made to the character as created in 1941. The biggest is moving the date of Diana’s first appearance in the setting. When Wonder Woman was first published, World War II was an ongoing war, appearing in newspaper headlines daily. The US hadn’t yet formally joined the war, but was supplying the Allies supplies while trying to appear neutral. Comics of the time gained a secondary purpose, propaganda, so naturally, Wonder Woman fought Nazis. With the war now part of history and using Ares as the film’s villain, moving the setting to World War I made sense. World War I, also known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars, saw casualties in the millions, saw technological advancements that outstripped defenses, and saw an entire generation reduced in four years. Showing Ares having a hand in creating that War works in the context of the film. The movie didn’t show all the horrors of the war, but did show enough to give the audience an idea of the nature of warfare.
Gal Gadot as Diana worked well. She looks like the character, which is critical when adapting from a comic book. Appearances are everything. There were a few times in the film where Gadot’s appearance called back to Lynda Carter’s turn as Wonder Woman in the Seventies. While the movie was far more serious than the show, the portrayals aren’t that much different. Both find that they are fighting with the Power of Love. Chris Pine isn’t necessarily Lyle Waggoner, but he does bring charm to the role of Steve Trevor. Lucy Davis’ Etta Candy also harkens back to the comic and the first season of the TV series. Etta is there as contrast to Diana, but even she has her moments of heroism. Moving the time didn’t change the characters; they adapted well.
Wonder Woman is an origins story. Unlike Batman and Superman, Diana’s origins don’t leave her passive. She defies her mother and trains then leaves Themiscyra. Diana explores the world of men and carves out her piece of it. She is a warrior, but one who fights for love. The movie explores how she came to that decision.
The movie managed to add something that, until then, was missing from the DC adaptations – humour. The levity came from character moments, usually between Diana and Steve, typically centering around the different cultural attitudes about sex. Diana is well read about the subject and the Amazons are open and honest with each other. Steve, though, is coming from an American upbringing that has far more hangups than today.
Wonder Woman despite the changes, does keep to the nature of the character and the comics. Changes that were made help with the story without really taking away from the character. Diana is still Diana, warrior and defender of mankind. She is still recognizable on the screen in costume or regular clothes.
* To quote Batman from The LEGO Movie, “I only use black. And sometimes very, very dark gray.“
When a movie gets popular, a bandwagon forms to get in on the action. Right now, superheroes, fantasy, and urban fantasy are popular. Look at the popular films of 2017; of the top ten, six are superhero movies. The Lord of the Rings films showed there was an audience for fantasy, leading to novels like A Game of Thrones and Elfstones of Shannara being adapted for television. Supernatural is still going into its 13th season, not to mention all the vampire TV series that have come and gone over the past decade.
What if one movie could tie all three together, riding on the coat tails of all that has come before? In 2011, The Asylum rose to the challenge with the SyFy feature, The Almighty Thor. As a character, Thor is very much open source. Myths and legends are well out of copyright and Marvel can trademark the appearance of characters based on them but not necessarily the name. However, The Mighty Thor is right out; hence, The Almighty Thor.
The movie itself features Ragnarok, the final battle between good and evil where evil is destined to win, causing the worlds to end. Midgard – Earth – would suffer the most in this battle. Loki, played by Richard Grieco, in is home in Niflheim, chants the incantation to start the battle, then heads out to wreak havoc on Valhalla with his giant dog demons. Odin, played by Kevin Nash, senses that something is up and heads off to investigate with his sons, Baldir (Jess Allen) and Thor (Cody Deal). Thor follows Odin into the lair of the Norns (Nicole Fox, Leslea Fisher, Lauren Halperin) who foresee the end of the worlds. Thor, though, defies Fate, setting up the rest of the movie.
Odin faces off against Loki, trying to stave off Ragnarok. Loki, being a trickster, gets Odin to kill Baldir, then stabs Odin in the back. Loki needs the Hammer of Invincibility. With his dying strength, Odin sends the Hammer back to its origins, the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil. Odin’s dying words to Thor are to retrieve the Hammer before Loki can. However, Loki isn’t far and attacks Thor. The surviving son of Odin isn’t adept with weapons yet, stinging more with his words than his sword. Just as Loki is about to strike a killing blow, help appears in the form of Jarnassa (Patricia Valesquez). She strikes Loki from behind, then pulls Thor away.
The chase is on! Jarnassa pulls Thor through several gateways to escape Loki, eventually ending up in Los Angeles. She manages to get some training in for Thor, but he is stubborn and wants revenge on Loki for what he’s done. With Ragnarok in progress, the goal is to get to the Tree of Life to save Midgard and its humans while outrunning Loki and his giant dog-demons…Thor and Jarnassa reach the Tree of Life, where he recovers the Hammer. Jarnassa wants to hide Thor away for as long as it takes to train him. Thor insists on stopping Loki now.
Thor wins the argument, but in his fight against Loki, loses the Hammer to him. Loki is able to get to the Tree of Life and kill it, ensuring Ragnarok happens. Thor is sent to Niflheim. Instead of perishing, Thor figures out how to use his godly abilities and creates a new Hammer of Invicibility. He climbs out of Niflheim back to Midgard and fights Loki one more time, hammer to hammer. Thor the Warrior emerges and defeats Loki, then heads to the Tree of Life to revive it, ending Ragnarok. To ensure that the end of Midgard will never happen, Thor returns to the Norns and destroys their loom and tapestries, letting humans decide what their fate will be.
Putting aside other problems the movie has, and it has many, it plays fast and loose with Norse mythology. Baldir is fated to die by being hit by mistletoe, not Odin’s own spear. Thor and Loki are brothers, both sons of Odin. But when it comes to getting something done quick and cheap, details are one of the first corners cut. The Almighty Thor borrows from myth and legend in its own way, becoming less a product of the source and more its own movie.
One of the main features of a superhero is the bright costume. Sure, there are superheroes who work in black or really dark grey, but the vast majority are in primary colours. Often, the costume will look like it was painted on, emphasizing the hero’s physique. Because comics are drawn, liberties can be taken with things like physics, so some costumes may be almost impossible to recreate in real life.
With comics being the popular source of adaptations today, studios have to figure out the almost impossible. Over the past few weeks, Lost in Translation has looked at a number of comic books adapted to a new medium, plus has reviewed others in the past. Josie and the Pussycats and Kingsman: The Secret Service get a pass here. The most unusual item the Pussycats wear are for on stage and is still in the realm of possibility. The wardrobe in Kingsman is based on high priced but still existing apparel found on London’s High Street.
Arrow, though, deserves a look. In the comics, the Green Arrow has worn a variant of a Robin Hood costume through most of his appearances. In the TV series, the goal was to create a costume that star Stephen Amell could wear and move in, going with a hooded cloak over dark green clothes. The costume is close to what the Green Arrow wears in the comics, and the producers are aiming at showing Oliver Queen becoming the hero.
Supergirl, on the other hand, starts with Kara Danvers embracing her Kryptonian heritage and catching a plane. The show is also lighter than Arrow; Kara is adorkable. So, hiding her costume away isn’t going to work. Fortunately for the producers, Supergirl has a number of costumes to choose from. On the show, the costume is a melding of a number of outfits seen in the comics, allowing Kara to have her own look while hinting at being Superman’s cousin. And Supergirl isn’t the only character with a costume from the comics. The Martian Manhunter in his normal guise is accurate to his appearances in the pages of DC Comics.
Both TV series can take advantage in advances in fabric thanks to man-made fibres. Older movies and TV series didn’t have the breakthroughs and it shows. The Batman serials of the mid- to late-Forties, having the added limitation of a low budget, tries to match the costumes from the comics, but between the war effort focusing on the needs of the military of both the US and the Allied Forces, the physique of the actors, and the lack of techniques, the result is “close enough but not really.” The costume looks like Batman’s, but it’s not the skintight version. The 1966 Batman with Adam West does have access to satin and nylon, but its approach to the character – played dead straight by West despite all the camp around him – meant that the more down-to-earth portrayal that Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil had wasn’t going to be seen. Adding to the fun, Cesar Romero didn’t want to shave his trademark mustache, so the Joker’s whiteface was placed on top. Yet, it worked for the series. The costumes did reflect what the characters wore, though.
The 1989 Batman by Tim Burton introduced a new twist – Batman’s costume was an armoured suit. All practical, the rubber suit allowed Michael Keaton to move, but not as acrobatically as in the comics. The change made some sense; Batman deals with people who shoot guns and he doesn’t have a power that will let him bounce bullets off his chest. His movement in the Burton film and subsequent sequels is more restricted. The costume looks right, compared to the Batman in the comics at the time, but the nature of the suit slows the actors down.
When practical effects won’t work, CGI comes into play. Over in the Marvel cinematic universe, characters that would be impossible to portray well have had their own movies. Marvel did try a practical effect for one of their characters in the past; Howard the Duck had many problems, and the appearance of the title character was one of the big ones. His appearance in the post-credits sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy is accurate. Guardians also gave audiences a proper Rocket and a proper Groot, two characters who would either be actors in costumes, puppets, or protrayed by a trained raccoon (in Rocket’s case) and a trained shrub (in Groot’s) before CGI.
Iron Man was the proof of concept. In the comics, Tony Stark has a number of Iron Man suits which he uses depending on mission requirements. The classic suit, the red and gold power armour, appeared in the first film and was as close as possible to being a recreation of the comic book version. Audiences accepted the premise of a comic book on screen. With Thor, the studio could build from the character’s appearance in the comics to present him on screen. Loki, when he appeared in costume, was resplendent in his green and gold. Marvel’s releases of today build from the comic books.
Marvel characters that appeared in films from studios other than Marvel Studios have had mixed success. The X-Men franchise, released via Fox, avoided using costumes, with an exception that will be named below. Instead, the films went with leather suits when the team broke into places. The Spider-Man franchise, even after the reboot, kept the costume best known to the general audience. However, the character’s 1977 TV series, The Amazing Spider-Man had problems; the suit didn’t quite work. Budget may have been the main problem there.
The comic book character who may have had his costume translate the best to film and television is the exception in the X-Men franchise. Deadpool went out of its way to make sure that the costumes were accurate. Colossus, being a CG character, had no problem with the transition. Deadpool’s, though, included having his eye coverings express his thoughts and emotions. Considering that his appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine completely missed the mark, the costume in Deadpool is a complete reversal and should be applauded.
Lost in Translation has taken a look at a number of tabletop role-playing games, the most recent being Tails of Equestria. In those reviews, the goal was to see how well the source material was adapted as a game. Today, the goal is to determine what would adapt well as a game.
Tabletop RPGs bring together a group on a regular basis to play, to socialize, and to relax. Existing settings helps reduce set up time. Settings based on existing works allow the players to get a good idea of what sort of play is expected in a game. What makes for a good source to be adapted? The big thing is playability. There needs to be something for the players to do in the game. The goal doesn’t have to be all combat all the time. Investigations, intrigue, and exploration are all viable options. The implication here is that there is more to the setting than what is shown in the original work; that the main characters aren’t the only movers and shakers.
Related to the above, can the players have an effect on the setting of the same importance as the main characters? Sure, only Luke Skywalker can destroy the first Death Star, but can players in a Star Wars setting aid the Rebellion in a way that is just as meaningful? The effect doesn’t have to be achieved in the first session; the goal of an entire Star Wars RPG campaign could be to bring down the Empire in a sector, with the end taking place at the same time as the Battle of Endor. Star Wars: Rogue One could easily be a campaign, getting the plans for the Death Star into the hands of Princess Leia. Without that, the Rebellion would be destroyed.
Next, does the plot of the original work allow for expansion? Some works come down to the actions of one character. A hypothetical The Last Starfighter RPG* has the problem of every starfighter pilot except Alex being killed by a Ko-Dan sneak attack. The movie doesn’t show what happens afterwards, but there isn’t much detail to the setting beyond that needed to drive the plot. Few players want to play Dead Pilot #10. Likewise, a Rumble in the Bronx RPG, based on the Jackie Chan movie, doesn’t work; Jackie’s character is the critical one in the story, and there isn’t a way to expand the cast to allow for player characters. However, a tabletop RPG based on the entire Jackie Chan movie catelogue can and has been done.
The game publisher has another issue unique to the industry. Will the adapted game bring in something that a more generic game can’t? The generic game doesn’t have to be as broad as Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS; there are games that handle just one genre, such as D&D with fantasy. The goal, though, is to have the adaptation represent the original far better than the broader games in the genre. Take Victory Games’ James Bond 007 Role Playing Game as an example. At the time, its competition included TSR’s Top Secret, Flying Buffalo’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, and Hero Games’ Danger International, but the game had the draw of 007 himself. The result was a game with mechanics that could be seen happening on screen without having to be excessively house ruled to be playable, a game that reflected the source well. That’s not to say that a broader game can’t be used to adapt a work. GURPS has had a number of licensed adaptations, including The Prisoner and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
Of course, game publishers can’t just adapt a work at will. The owners of the originals want to be compensated. Thus, the big question, the one that can make or break an adaptation – is the license available and affordable. Game publishing is still a business. If a license costs more than the expected return on investment, then it’s not worth pursuing. Likewise, if a license just isn’t available, like with the Harry Potter series, then no amount of money is enough. The game just won’t exist legally, and few game publishers have the money to afford a lawyer to fend off the inevitable lawsuit that would occur by ignoring the licensing needs.
How does this work? Let’s take Star Trek, which has had a number of RPGs based om it, the most recent being published by Modiphius. The players do have something to do – they can be officers on board a Starfleet vessel exploring new worlds and new civilizations, going boldly where no one has gone before. As Starfleet officers, the players can make discoveries similar to the ones Kirk, Picard, and Janeway have. Star Trek: Voyager showed that there are ships in Starfleet not named Enterprise that also explore the unknown. Each of the Trek RPGs was designed with the setting in mind; while Traveller could be adapted to the setting, the various publishers have made an effort to keep to the feel of the franchise. As for the license, Modiphius is the current holder for the purposes of publishing a tabletop RPG.
A potential licensed RPG shoould have these questions in mind. Let’s use a hypothetical Reboot RPG, since it’s fresh in memory. Players would have a wide variety of things to do, from fighting viruses to winning games to dealing with or even being software pirates. If in a different system other than Mainframe, the players can have a similar impact to the main cast, the exception being the events in Daemon Rising, where it took a small handful of Mainframers and a friendly virus to stop Daemon. The plot in Reboot, especially once the ongoing one begins in season 2, still allows for players to do their own thing, even during Daemon Rising. The key to the mechanics will be to allow for the range of characters seen in the show; binomes like the Crimson Binome, Binky, and Algernon, sprites like Dot, Bob, and big and little Enzo, and even benign viruses. Devices like the Guardians’ key tools, like Glitch, and the Code Masters’ staff will need to be worked out. As it stands now, a superhero game may be the best “generic” system to emulate the series, but a game that can reflect Reboot specifically would be ideal. The only question is, is the license available to a publisher? That can only be found out by a potential designer.
Licensed tabletop RPGs have a tightrope to walk, They have to be true to the source material while still being playable. If done well, though, the game can introduce a new pastime to fans of the original and introduce gamers to a new work that they might not have heard of before.
* Note that FASA released a wargame based on The Last Starfighter, where one player took the forces of the Ko-Dan Empire and a second played the Star League. One of the scenarios in the game was the final battle from the movie, complete with rules for the Death Blossom.
Last week, during the analysis of the TV adaptation of The Dresden Files, I mentioned that pragmatism will play a factor in how a work gets adapted. There will be times when what the original work envisioned just cannot be translated over to a new medium, whether the cause is budget, technical limitations, or needs of the new medium. Pragmatism does not necessarily affect quality, provided that there’s effort put in to acknowledge not just the change but what was changed. The originals tend to be written works – novels, short stories, even comics – where there isn’t a limitation based on practicality. Words and pictures cost time and energy to create, but can go beyond earthly limitations.
Let’s start with budget, a big factor in making both movies and TV series. No studio has an unlimited source of cash and no movie has made an infinite amount of money. Budgets, through methods that seem like dark sorcery, are drawn up based on expected rates of return. Even then, there’s no guarantee of success. Big budget flops have occurred. Sometimes, the studio is just using the film for other reasons, as in the case of Alien From L.A., where the movie was meant to get money out of a country under international sanctions. Low budget works have to work around the restriction. The ITV Playhouse adaptation of “Casting the Runes” didn’t have the budget to show the demon or the climactic plane crash; instead, the teleplay relies on using the actors’ reactions to hint at what’s happening and getting the viewers’ imaginations to fill in the rest of the details. However, budget isn’t always a limiter in a production. Studios are aware of how much production elements cost and won’t try overextending capabilities.
Where a budget may allow for an effect, technical limitations may be the bigger restriction. The advent of computer graphics in special effects has reduced the difficulty of staging effects. However, CGI isn’t a cure-all. Practical effects and props are still more cost effective than computer generated objects and easier for actors to interact with. In books, literary or comic, if a creator wants a character to own something specific, there is nothing to prevent the object from existing in the work. A custom piece of jewellery, an unusual and impractical weapon, or, as seen in The Dresden Files, a battered Volkswagen Beetle can easily be added. On screen, it’s not as easy. Jewellery can be approximated, but an exact likeness may not be possible because of the materials used. On TV, Harry Dresden’s Blue Beetle was replaced with a war surplus Jeep; the latter being more readily available than the now collector piece VW Beetle. The key when working around technical limitations is to remember why the original object was chosen. The adapted piece of jewellery should reflect the heritage the original has, from age to design. With the TV version of Dresden, the Jeep was of similar vintage as the Beetle, old enough that its mechanics were simple enough to not be affected by Harry’s tech bane nature.
The needs of the new medium may cause changes that don’t make sense otherwise. Television and film are visual media, often not having a narrator. Even when there is a narrator, the insights provided are for what’s not shown, such as a character’s thoughts. In contrast, written works use words to paint scenes for the reader; the narrative carries the story. Whether the point of view is first person or third, the reader gets to see what the author wants to show. Film and TV default to third person, specifically, the cameras. Even DOOM, based on the first person video game, only had a short scene from that point of view. Audiences want to see the actors. And while writers can show what characters are thinking and feeling directly, on screen, the actors have to do the heavy lifting. In the Dresden books, Bob is a spirit in a skull with some limited ability to take over a cat’s body for short joyrides. On TV, though, a skull doesn’t do that much, and Bob would be, effectively, a disembodied voice. Giving Bob a body, though, allows the actors to play off each other, adding to the depth of the scene. Human actors are also far more convincing than cat actors, who may become difficult to work with when naptime hits.
Another restriction placed on an adaptation by the needs of the new medium is time. Books don’t have time limits; readers read at their own pace. As long as the reader enjoys the work, there isn’t a problem. Television and movies, though, do have time limits. With TV, a work has to fit a thirty- or sixty-minute time slot as a series or a two-hour slot if a mini-series of movie of the week, plus leave time for advertising within the slot. Theatrical films have a minimum running time of around eighty to ninety minutes, any shorter and audiences won’t bother, and seldom run longer than two and a half hours. Longer films have happened, but tend to be ones that will draw an audience because of the running time. The film adapations of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first and shortest of the Potter novels, still had to lose scenes to fit the allowed time, which also took into account the young age of the likely audience. Even when spread across a full television season, details can be lost because there’s just not enough time to show everything in a novel.
Comic books run into similar. Unlike written novels, comics are a visual medium, but one with its own language. Comics are a series of panels, each one contributing to the story. Readers know how to fill in the details from one panel to another. Artists can compress time by showing a clock in two separate panels having a later time in the second. They can slow down time by repeating an image with minor changes between panels. Individual issues of a run may not fill the time of even a thirty-minute TV slot, but multi-part stories can work for feature film. The aesthetics of a comic book is difficult to pull off; Deadpool being a rare exception. A well done adaptation from a comic can be done well, but the studio involved cannot be lulled by the fact that comics and film are both visual. They have separate tropes, sometimes similar but not always.
Getting an adaptation perfect may not always be possible. The change in medium necessitates changes to the work. It’s in the how the change is done that will make the difference to an audience.
Adapting literature has a few issues that don’t appear when adapting other media. The major one is time; writers don’t have many limits on how long a story can be other than those imposed by format. Short stories can run up to 7500 words; novellas 17 500 to under 40 000 words, and novels 40 000 words or more. Getting a story to fit the time available in another medium requires bits to removed. Film is the main culprit. Few films break 120 minutes; longer books will still lose details. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone lost key plot points needed in later movies. Blade Runner dropped two major elements – the loss of real animals and the rise of Mercerism – just to get the main plot into the running time. And even when the full novel gets adapted, the restriction of the running time makes the result feel flat, losing the depth of work, as with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.
Television today provides an alternate approach when it comes to adapting novels. While each individual episode doesn’t provide much time, typically about 42 minutes interrupted by 18 minutes of advertising, a season in the US or a series in the UK can provided up to 22 episodes, enough time to get into the depth of a novel. While television was once a wasteland catering to the lowest common denominator, the three channel lineup has given way to competition between hundreds of cable channels and streaming services. A Game of Thrones is the exemplar, in both how a novel can be adapted well and how a series of novels can be outpaced by its adaptation. The adapted series is subject to the whims of the audience, though.
Let’s look at a specific example, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. The series of novels tells the story of Harry Dresden, the only practicing wizard detective in Chicago and possibly the entire country. Starting with Storm Front published in 2000, there have been 15 novels and a book of short stories written starring Harry. He has dealt with a number of natural and supernatural threats to Chicago, including “Gentleman Johnny” Marcone and the Mob, werewolves, the Red and Black vampire courts, the Summer and Winter Courts of the Sidhe, and various other paranormal entities. Harry isn’t alone, though. Despite himself, he has a number of allies, including Bob, spirit bound to a skull to assist the wizard who owns it, Karrin Murphy, a member of the Chicago Police Department who initially tossed a few cases Harry’s way; the Knights of the Cross, wielders of magical swords charged with defending humanity; Waldo Butters, the Assistant Medical Examiner who picked up on magical doings because of the bodies passing through the morgue; and Mouse, a temple dog the size of of a Tibetan mastiff. Complicating things is the Wizards Council, who distrust Harry after he killed his uncle in self-defense. In particular, Morgan is waiting for Harry to make one mistake.
The novels find Harry taking on what should be a simple case that get him in over his head against something far more dangerous. Nothing goes easy for Harry, either because he’s so far behind in the plot that he doesn’t realize what he’s up against or because, being human, he makes mistakes. Yet, he still gets the job done with the help of his friends. Cases are solved.
In 2007, the SyFy Channel began airing an adaptation of The Dresden Files. The hook is obvious; a detective show crossed with urban fantasy fits perfectly with the cable channel’s mandate and doesn’t stretch a special effects budget like a science fiction series would. Lasting one season, the series starred Paul Blackstone as Harry, Terrence Mann as Bob, Valerie Cruz as Murphy, and Conrad Coates as Morgan. The show didn’t adapt any of the books, but took the characters and situations and created new cases for Harry to solve. The feel of the show – the only practicing wizard detective in Chicago trying to maintain the masquerade while dealing with supernatural threats – kept close to the books. The details, though, are another matter.
Blackthorne as Harry worked; the actor is tall and lanky. He just didn’t wear the same outfits Harry did on the covers of the books. Harry’s blasting rod became a drumstick and his staff became a hockey stick. His mother’s bracelet, allowing him to defend himself against magical attacks, remained. His car, a vintage Volkswagen Beetle nicknamed “The Blue Beetle” despite having a patchwork of colours thanks to Harry’s tech bane and various damage from his work, became a war surplus Jeep. Continuing with the cast, the Irish-American Murphy was portrayed by a Latina. That aside, Cruz was a convincing Murphy in all other aspects. Bob went from a spirit in a skull to a ghost cursed to be tied to a skull and its owner. Again, Mann did get Bob’s personality correct.
Some of the changes came about because of the switch in medium. Television is very much a visual medium. Bob being stuck in a skull in the books isn’t a problem; Butcher showed the interaction and relationship between Harry and Bob using narrative. On TV, though, the narrative is carried by the actors, not a narrator, and body language becomes key to informing the audience. An inanimate skull won’t have that. An actual actor playing to Harry’s can show the chemistry and relationship far better.
With Murphy, Cruz wasn’t originally meant portray her. Instead, she was supposed to play Susan Rodriguez, Harry’s girlfriend. However, Cruz switched her role with Rebecca McFarland, who was supposed to play Murphy. Cruz brought the essence of Murphy, except for the Irish-American part. Watching Cruz on screen as Murphy, she is the tough, no-nonsense cop from the books.
The Blue Beetle became a casualty of pragmatism. Volkswagen Beetles are now collector items; few owners are going to let a studio turn a valuable car into a banged and battered vehicle with a pathwork of colour and primer. Older Jeeps, though, are easier to get, thanks to Hollywood making war movies, and a battered Jeep is natural for those films. Another issue is that Blackthorne stands 6’4″, making getting in and out of a Beetle interesting, especially when resetting between takes.
The Dresden Files TV series manages to get the tone right, but flubs the details. Renaming the characters doesn’t work; the show is very much like the books. The little details, though, hurt the adaptation and can throw fans out of the narrative.
The origin of the police procedural can be traced to one series, Dragnet. While detective stories had been around for a while, series that showed the nuts and bolts of how the police perform an investigation were non-existent until 1949 when the first Dragnet episode aired on NBC radio. Since then, the distinctive theme tune and the matter-of-fact narration became hallmarks, recognizable in other works.
Dragnet was not just the prototypical police procedural. The series used files from the Los Angeles Police Department; the stories were true, with the name changed to protect the innocent. With the advent of television, Dragnet made the jump, with a TV series running concurrent with the radio show from 1951 to 1957, when the radio series ended. The TV series continued for two more years, ending in 1959. During the run, creator and star Jack Webb worked to ensure a high degree of accuracy to policies and procedures used by the LAPD. The jargon, the room numbers, the call signs, even the number of footsteps between offices were researched and represented accurately. Even Friday’s badge was authentic; the LAPD issued Badge 714 to Webb for the duration of the series and has retired the number in his honour.
Webb played Detective Sergeant Joe Friday of the LAPD. When the radio series started, his partner was Sergeant Ben Romero, played by Barton Yarbourough. The partnership did cross to the TV series, but when Yarborough passed away in 1951, so did Romero, as detailed in the episode “The Big Sorrow” on both the radio and TV. Afterwards, Friday had several partners, including Sergeant Ed Jacobs (played by Barney Phillips), Officer Bill Lockwood (Martin Milner), and, finally, Detective Frank Smith (originally played by Herb Ellis, then by Ben Alexander for the rest of the run on TV and radio).
Dragnet didn’t just focus on murders. While LAPD detectives wouldn’t normally handle a wide range of crimes, Friday and his partners investigated everything from homicide and armed robbery to missing persons and shoplifting. The idea was to show the police in action, no matter the crime. The amount of time each episode covered depended on the case. Some took months in reality. At least one episode, “City Hall Bombing”, took place in real time, as a bomber gave the LAPD thirty minutes to give in to his demands.
In 1967, Webb revived Dragnet. Ben Alexander wasn’t available to reprise his role as Detective Smith. As a result, Webb called in Harry Morgan to play Office Bill Gannon. The revival took advantage of colour technology and ran four seasons, when Webb decided to focus on his production company, Mark VII Limited, and its series, the Dragnet spin-off Adam-12, another police procedural focused on patrol officers Jim Reed and Pete Malloy. Adam-12 had its own spin-off, Emergency!, a paramedic procedural.
The lasting influence of Dragnet still can be seen in the police procedurals of today. While no show duplicates Dragnet exactly, the roots can be seen in shows like the Law & Order franchise*, which added the prosecution to the procedure, NCIS and spin-offs, showing procedures used by military police, and even Police Squad. However, audience expectations have changed. Audiences want to know more about the characters they return to week after week, so the police procedural has become the police drama.
In 1989, Dan Aykroyd co-wrote and starred in a theatrical release based on the series. Aykroyd played Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, the nephew of Webb’s character. With his partner retired from the LAPD, Friday gets a new one, this time from Vice, Pep Streebek, played by Tom Hanks. Harry Morgan returned as Bill Gannon, promoted to Captain and in charge of Robbery-Homicide. Unlike the original, the Dragnet movie was a comedy, not based on an existing case file, with Friday and Streebek becoming an odd couple. Aykroyd’s Friday delivered his lines in the same manner as Webb’s, deadpan.
A crime wave has hit Los Angeles. A new cult, PAGAN, People Against Goodness And Normalcy, is trying to take over the LA gang scene. It has made a few hits, including the entire run of Bait, a porn magazine run by Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman), police and other emergency vehicles, the mane of a lion, a wedding dress, and an anaconda. Caesar is also seeing pressure from MAMA – Moral Advanced Movement of America – a civics group run by the Reverend Jonathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer) and is worried about about being shut down. Friday isn’t happy to investigate, unlike Streebek, but will do so because that’s his job.
Friday and Streebek trace PAGAN and discover that a secret ceremony is about to be held. The detectives go undercover as members of the cult, where they find the stolen goods. The wedding dress is on a woman, Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul), who PAGAN will use as a virgin sacrifice. Friday rescues Connie briefly, only for he and Sweebek to be tossed into the snake pit with her. They save themselves and Connie and disperse the crowd. When they return later with Captain Gannon, the area is immaculate; no sign of the ceremony or any of the PAGANs can be seen. Connie did recognize the leader, though – Whirley.
Whirley has pull in the police department through Commissioner Jane Kilpatrick (Elizabeth Ashley) to have Friday not just pulled from the case but have his badge suspended. Streebek takes over the case and finds himself falling into Friday’s mannerisms. Friday, though, is still a cop and doesn’t leave the case alone. Whirley, though, has Friday and Connie taken again. Streebek manages to track the pair down in time. Once the full story is out, Gannon returns Friday’s badge and gun, allowing him to go after Whirley with the force of the law behind him. The Reverend manages to slip away, but Friday has one last method to catch up and make the arrest.
Aykroyd did his research. Any regulation cited is an existing one on the LAPD’s books. He has Jack Webb’s style of speech down pat to the point where, if the movie wasn’t a comedy, it’d be pitch perfect. The rest of the cast is solid, with Hanks and Aykroyd switching around the duties of the straight man. Even the main theme by Art of Noise fits. The main catch is that the movie was a comedy, a parody of the original.
In 1987, the nature of police dramas had changed since Dragnet was last on the air. Miami Vice showed the effects of working undercover. Hill Street Blues showed life at a precinct. Audiences wanted to know more about the characters they watched solve the crimes instead of just the procedures. A straight Dragnet movie wouldn’t have had the attention. At the same time, the movie could have passed as an episode if the more fanciful elements, like PAGAN, were removed. The result is a film that just misses being a superb adaptation, but all the elements to be one are there. Dragnet comes close, missing mainly on tone. Even taking into account the comedy, Aykroyd did well as Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, a role that Jack Webb made his own.
* Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, even had a short run remake of Dragnet first airing in 2003 called L.A. Dragnet, with Ed O’Neill as Friday.
Can*Con once again ran 2017, over the weekend of October 13-15. One panel of particular interest to Lost in Translation was “Adaptation: Turning Your Novel into a Script, and Vice-Versa”, presented by Canadian science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, whose work has been adapted, including the recent ABC TV series Flashforward. He has also contributed to Star Trek Continues, having written the tenth episode, “To Boldly Go, Part 1”.
Sawyer started with the differences between traditional publishing and scriptwriting. The big differences is pay rate. Traditional publishing pays roughly six cents per word. The pay rate for a forty-four minute teleplay, approx six thousand words, works out to about six dollars per word. However, an author who has been paid for a novel will see the book published and out to an audience. There is no guarantee that a script will be filmed; only one percent of scripts that have been paid for ever get produced. Likewise, if an novel has been optioned for an film adaptation, it still may not be made. The situation is worse outside Hollywood; Canadian studios acquire works instead of producing their own.
There’s also a difference between script and prose. The written word in a novel, novella, or short story allows for the inner life of a character. The reader has access to the character’s inner thoughts. With film and television, that approach seldom works. Blade Runner was saddled with a narration by studio execs to try to explain what was happening, but the narration fell flat with audiences. The problem lies in the language and grammar of the different media.
Novels tend to follow one viewpoint character in a scene. A scene takes as long as needed to show an emotion change. An author can paint the scene, taking as long as needed to give the reader. The example Sawyer gave was him getting up, looking out the window to see the weather, then going through his morning routine before arriving at Can*Con and the panel, then seeing his old friend in the front row! All one scene, with the emotional charge going from positive to extra-positive.
Film, though, cuts from character to character, with the viewpoint being that of the camera and, thus, the audience. The average scene, that is, the length of time allowed for an emotional change, is one minute. Film starts the scene as close as possible to the emotional change and ends as soon as possible after. There is no time spent building up. The example above would start with Sawyer entering the room where the panel is held and ending after he sees his friend.
The above is why Lost in Translation looks at adaptations as translating a work from one medium to another. Each medium has its own way of storytelling. With film, the screenwriter, despite creating the work, has little say in what happens with it. Directors and actors have far more influence. The script is sparse, terse and tells instead of shows. There is only the bare bones – setting, telling the general action, and dialogue.
Changes in storytelling in film and television have changed over the years. Today, most shows have an A- and a B-story, allowing for internal cliffhangers by switching between the two stories. This hasn’t always been the approach; TV shows of the past have only had just the A-storyline. Star Trek is a great example of the differences. The original series seldom had a B-story, with the exception of “The Guardian of Forever”. The Next Generation, though had both A- and B-stories, and sometimes included a C-story. Film isn’t quite as bad, mainly because the cast is smaller and tends to follow one main character, but it’s not unknown there, either.
The current three-act approach for film comes from Syd Fields’ paradigm, published in 1979. The approach is artificial, but has been in use since the book’s publication. With television, the act breaks are the commercial breaks, allowing for cliffhangers just before the ads. Some TV movies take advantage of the commercial breaks; Special Bulletin used the structure of news coverage of a terrorist group threatening to set off a nuclear weapon to slip in ads the same way a news department would, making the ad breaks feel natural while still upping the tension.
Film, also using the three-act structure, has a different timing from TV. In a 120 minute film, the first act and last act are each thirty minutes. The middle act is the longest at sixty minutes. The beginning is done quickly; get the characters, setting, and situation introduced to get the to good part as fast as possible. The ending is also quick, wrapping up fast once all the action is done. The second act is where the character has an epiphany, usually at the midpoint.
The paradigm, at least for television, may be changing, thanks to season arcs, Netflix, and binge watching. Shows like the Battlestar Galactica reboot and A Game of Thrones have shown that television does not need to be episodic. The individual episodes may still follow the three-act structure, but the season and the series are akin to novels for television. With that change, the structure of how an episode is made may evolve.
Of note for potential NaNoWriMo participants, pantsers don’t do well as scriptwriters. The process requires knowing where things are heading, with the treatment, or the beat-by-beat outline, taking forty percent of the time. The treatment is followed by two drafts followed by a polish, all done within fourteen days if for television. Every point in the story must be known.
Along with Fields’ paradigm, Sawyer suggested Robert McKee’s Story for additional reading. He also pointed out that many scripts are available online for legal download, in part so that members of Writer’s Guild of America and the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can vote on best screenplay without revealing who they are. These screenplays will let aspiring writers see how movies have been written and how works have been adapted.