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.
Lost in Translation has examined the passage of time on technology and how that affects adaptations and remakes. However, technology isn’t the only thing to change over time. Society and culture aren’t static. What was one scandalous may now be commonplace. What was once de rigeur is now out of fashion. What was once common practice is now forbidden by regulations.
Older contemporary works are seen as period pieces today. The social mores of Jane Eyre have long given way, so adaptations place it during its time. Prohibition limits The Great Gatsby to the 1920s. Changing the setting of either requires work to make the stories believable in the new era. Today’s world isn’t as class-based as the Victorian era and the excesses of the Twenties fall flat in today’s borderline recession.
Some works don’t have that nice delineation in their era. Their themes are considered timeless. But the details have begun to date them. Adaptations that don’t take into account the changes are going to fall flat. Take Catcher in the Rye, a novel commonly assigned in high school English classes. The novel was written in the Forties and reflected education and teenage isolation of the time. While teenage worries of finding a place in the world is still a concern, the details of the novel date the work. Today, Holden wouldn’t have flunked out of four schools; at some point, his learning disability would have been diagnosed long before the story began. He wouldn’t have been able to leave school without permission without an Amber alert being issued. And there is no way he could have walked into a bar to order any alcohol without ID; bars risk losing their license and both the establishment and the bartender risk large fines. While the book appears to be contemporary, it isn’t, and any adaptation, assuming the Salinger estate allows one, needs to be able to adjust for these changes.
It’s not necessary to go back that far. Even works from the Eighties needs to adjust. The 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice had to account for how much the War on Drugs had changed since the TV series began airing in 1984. The police have become far more militarized, with military-surplus gear, in the intervening time. And not all changes are obvious. Subtle changes have happened over the past few decades.
Contemporary novels aren’t the only works affected. Science fiction has always been about the issues of the time the works were written. Let’s take two episodes from the original Star Trek, “Let That Be Your Final Battlefield” and “Day of the Dove”. With “Let That Be Your Battlefield”, the message was that discriminating because of skin colour was destructive, as the last two survivors from a planet where the only difference between peoples was whether they were black on the left side or the right side. Today, while the message is still needed, the approach would be less of a sledgehammer, like in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Far Beyond the Stars” which showed how discrimination hurt people. The message of “Day of the Dove” was that it is possible for foes to set aside differences and come to peace. In the original Trek, the Klingons represented the Soviet Union while the Federation acted as a stand-in for the US at a time when the Cold War was in full force and almost turned hot after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the Cold War is in the past and, for the most part, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been dropping since the Eighties.
A quick fast forward to 1978 to the original Battlestar Galactica provides another example. At the time, women were beginning to try to break into the combat arms of various military services. The first American woman to be a combat pilot was Jeannie Leavitt in 1993. In the episode “The Lost Planet of the Gods”, to replenish the losses in shuttle pilots during the evacuation of both the Twelve Colonies and Carillon, the Galactica opened flight training to all, including women. In the episode, thanks to a disease picked up on a planet, the Galactica‘s fighter corps was down to just Apollo and Starbuck, forcing the new shuttle pilots to upgrade their skills to fly Vipers, the starfighters. On a mission to escort a medical shuttle to the planet to find a cure for the disease, Apollo and Starbuck lead the new pilots, but each needs to break off, one to check the planet for a safe landing zone, the other to check on a Cylon fighter trailing the squadron. When Starbuck leaves, he places Lieutenant Deitra, played by Sheila DeWindt, a black woman, in charge. Deidra gets four on-screen Cylon kills over the two-part episode and returns in a later episode. Today, though, the idea of not having women in any combat arms, especially in an advanced society, is considered backwards, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot showed women, including Kara Thrace and Sharon Valerii, as pilots with no fanfare about their gender.
Even today’s works will be affected in the future. As a wise green Muppet once said, “Always in motion is the future“. Most works will be based on current culture and issues. Creators can try to predict, but the most surprising thing about these predictions is that there is a success rate. What speculative fiction can do is explore the potential issues, from treatment of artificial intelligences to the problems of extraterrestrial colonization, and get people to think about them. The idea of firsts – first man in space, first woman to become a fighter pilot, first black man to command a mission on the International Space Station – will fall eventually as the firsts are achieved, yet today, they are important to track.
Culture is changing. The only constant is change. Adaptations, including remakes and reboots, will have to either keep the original work in its original time or make the effort to adjust the work to reflect the changes. Both approaches have challenges, and it is possible that an original cannot be easily updated.
Every once in a while, there will be a film adaptation that perfectly highlights a key point at Lost in Translation. For the perfect adaptation that still fails at the box office, there’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. For the by-the-checklist approach, Battleship. And for adaptations that miss audience expectations, there’s Jem and the Holograms.
Jem, though, wasn’t a bad movie nor a bad adaptation. The movie just wasn’t what audiences wanted to see. Audiences wanted the cartoon adapted, not just the dolls. While the movie did pull characters from the animated adaptation, the direction it took went against the nostalgia the older audience had for the cartoon, and the older audience would be the group taking the target audience to the theatre.
The nostalgia factor is one of the draws for adaptations, especially for older works. It’s easy enough to take a currently popular work and adapt it; the Harry Potter films were successful because they drew from the books’ readers while they waited for the next book in the series to be written. Adaptations of older works don’t normally have an obvious audience that current works do. There are exceptions; episodes of every Star Trek series are easily found and Star Wars has expanded its fandom by expanding its universe. Word of mouth, the way Trek fandom spread in the early days and how Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew, is hard to measure. DVD sales and tracking online streaming might work, but with all the different ways to watch old shows today, TV ratings don’t always reflect the audience numbers. Likewise, an older work that was popular in its time might not bring in the audience it once did. Tastes change, and what was once popular may have faded away.
In-name-only adaptations are a problem. These adaptations happen when a studio understands that a work is popular without understanding why. The 1998 Godzilla demonstrates the problem. Godzilla has a long cinematic history, and the draw is the kaiju himself. Iterative changes to his appearance isn’t a problem; a massive makeover is. The 1998 film could easily have been its own monster movie, but needed the draw of the Godzilla name. Not helping matters is that movies featuring giant monsters are in a small niche. An original monster movie, once the staple of B-movies, has a limited audience. Studios either have to build on an existing name or franchise, or create an original while keeping special effects costs down*. Both are risky at a time when studios are notoriously risk adverse.
Studios can take advantage of the nostalgia factor. Curiosity will draw in fans of the original, provided that the adaptation doesn’t drift too far away from the concept. The Jem film adaptation is a good example of what happens when the adaptation drifts too far from the work fans are most familiar with, resulting in a two week run in theatres. At the same time, it is possible to have an adaptation that does break from the original and still do well at the box office; 21 Jump Street being a good example. The key to using nostalgia as a draw is making sure either that fans of the original won’t feel like they are being made fun of or that the new builds on the old.
However, relying on nostalgia alone to draw an audience is risky. The original’s name isn’t enough. Thanks to the success of the film adaptation of the Harry Potter series and, to a lesser degree, The Hunger Games, audiences are more demanding about faithfulness to the original. The worst thing a studio can do today is to use the name of an older, serious work and turn it into a comedy. That move will alienate fans of the original, the fate of such adaptations as The Land of the Lost and CHiPs. The former adaptation was turned into a comedy vehicle for Will Farrell, losing the core of what drew audiences to the original. The latter took a police procedural along the lines of Dragnet, Adam-12 and Emergency** showing a work day for a pair of California Highway Patrolmen and, again, turned it into a comedy with almost no resemblance to the original except for names.
Name recognition is a key reason why studios are adaptation prone. An original work will require effort from the studio to raise interest in an audience. A known name, whether a popular actor or a popular original work, gets attention. That’s not enough, though; the new adaptation now has to stand out in the crowd of adaptations. Audiences are less accepting of changes for the sake of change. They want the characters they know and love.
There are workarounds for the studio. The first is to take a work with name recognition but not well known. While contradictory, the idea is to find an original work with a core concept that is known but not the details. The studio has more leeway in how the work is adapted as a result. The 21 Jump Street film adaptation went this route. The TV series was known in the Eighties, but because it was on the then-fledgling Fox network, the series wasn’t well known to audiences, and is best known for having a young Johnny Depp in the cast. The core concept – police officers undercover in a high school – is broad enough to make the jump from television to silver screen. In contrast, CHiPs was on NBC, one of the three networks available and ran in syndicated reruns even while still airing new episodes, bringing in a larger audience. The approach wouldn’t work with The X-Files; the series found an audience in the science fiction fandom and had a more dedicated following.
Second, the studio could take a popular older original and update it for a more modern take. Society and technology are always changing. What was once ground-breaking has turned quaint or has led to new issues that weren’t even on the horizon when the original first appeared. The classic “woman trying to make her way in a man’s world” sitcom from the Sixties and Seventies, such as That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show looked at issues important at the time. Today, while many of those issues are moot, new ones have taken their place, allowing for an update of the sitcom. The catch here is that many of those sitcoms are tightly tied to the main actors. Workcoms, sitcoms set at a workplace, fare better here. Dynamics have changed, but interpersonal relationships still exist. Taking an older workcom and bringing it to today isn’t difficult and allows for several of the original actors to return. The original WKRP in Cincinnati was set at a low-rated radio station with an unusual group of personalities; the remake, The New WKRP in Cincinnati kept the station, brought back several characters, and introduced new ones, all perfectly plausible in the industry. The main problem The New WKRP had was quality; the original set too high a bar and was in syndicated reruns when the new series aired through first-run syndication.
Finally, the studio could go back to an original’s core concept and present a new take that still works with the idea. The Battlestar Galactica reboot series is a prime example. Both the original and the rebooted Galactica featured the last of humanity escaping the destruction of their home on a ragtag fleet. The original, though, was a family drama as the fleet was shepherded by Commander Adama to find Earth; while the Cylons were bent on destroying the Galactica, the series maintained a hopeful tone for the survivors. The reboot, however, took a harsher look and didn’t focus on just the Adamas; the show put in doubt humanity’s survival and demonstrated how the different aspects of society clashed in the crisis. Both series were popular, but the reboot garnered more attention and is now the one audiences will remember.
Audience expectation has to be managed. The studio needs to know what the audience expects from an adaptation. Just taking an original and adapting it because it’s popular or it’s a comic book isn’t enough. Adapting is popular with studios because of the built-in audience, but ignoring why that audience followed the original will lead to disaster.
* The low budget approach is how the SyFy monster movies work, including Sharktopus, the Sharknado series, and Lavalantula. They typically feature a known name and cheesy special effects that are part of the charm of the movies.
** Technically, Emergency was more a paramedic procedural, but it did show how the Los Angeles Fire Department’s program worked.
With superhero movies becoming a mainstay in theatres, the question arises, what is the border between adapting and expanding a franchise? Lost in Translation has already touched on the question, but as comics get adapted for both film and television and movie series get TV series and comics, the line between adaptation and franchise gets blurred.
The difference between a tie-in work and an adaptation is academic. The 007 movie franchise started with one adaptation, Dr. No, but grew from there. Likewise, Marvel’s cinematic universe started with just one film, Iron Man, and expanded when the movie succeeded at the box office. Tie-in works aren’t limited to going from books to movies; Star Trek, Star Wars, and Murder, She Wrote all have long-running series of novels with a goal of continuing the story begun in the original works.
The main difference between an adaptation and a franchise tie-in is perception. Tie-in works are seen as part of the monetization of a work, expanding the influence into other media. However, very few adaptations are made without an eye on turning a profit. Even the notable flops weren’t meant to fail at the box office. Studios and publishers aren’t charities; they exist to be profitable. That distinction between franchise and adaptation isn’t really a distinction.
Even licensing isn’t a factor in the difference. Reboots, a type of adaptation, are often done by the rights holder; Paramount rebooted Star Trek into Star Trek: The Next Generation to great success. Warner, DC Comics’ parent company. has rebooted the Batman movie franchise several times. In DC’s case, being owned by a movie studio does add a level of separation, but that doesn’t hold for Paramount and Star Trek.
Is the perception that adaptations and franchise tie-ins are different correct? Lost in Translation has been looking at how works are adapted, and every franchise has to start somewhere. There would be no Wonder Woman breaking box office records if William Moulton Marston hadn’t created the character for All Star Comics number 8. The difference between Disney getting Marvel to create a line of Star Wars comics and DiC creating The Real Ghostbusters under license from Sony or Saban licensing BattleTech from FASA for an animated series is how far out from the ownership of the adaptation is from the original work. Disney owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm; Sony didn’t own DiC nor did FASA own Saban. But the result, a new work based on an existing one, is still an adaptation.
Ultimately, what all the above means is that the field of available works to review at Lost in Translation has grown. There is still the same process when translating a work from its original medium to a new one, with the same problems to overcome.
And a quick reminder that Lost in Translation is on Facebook!
Last week’s look at Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future led to a questions – “When is an adaptation not an adaptation?” On investigation, Captain Power wound up being a parallel development. Gary Goddard had an idea for a TV series and Mattel had a technology they wanted to market. With Mattel’s backing, Goddard could produce Captain Power, at least for one season.
Captain Power isn’t the only work that looks like an adaptation but isn’t. In some franchises based on a series of books, a new entry starts in a different medium, but because of production time, the book gets released first. The 007 film, Thunderball, is such a movie. Fleming worked on the story for the film first, then wrote it as a novel while the movie was delayed. And this doesn’t happen to just franchises. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey began as a film treatment; he then wrote the novel while the movie went through production.
Figuring out what is and isn’t an adaptation does take research. Parallel developments aren’t apparent, even when checking the credits. It’s only after digging a bit that details come out. Some of that digging involves commentary tracks, so streaming isn’t always a good option for Lost in Translation. Fortunately, most creative types are happy to talk about the process with their works. It is easier to tell when a work is an adaptation, though. The credits state it outright, using phrases such as “Based on” or “Inspired by”. However, “Based on a story idea by” isn’t always a good indication. Many movies, including classics, begin from a story treatment submitted where there isn’t already an existing work.
Today, it’s easier to find out what is being adapted. Entertainment news and blogs will have this information out as soon as an announcement is made. Studios want and need fans of the original works to come out to the movie adaptation. Creators get excited about seeing their works in a new format. Finding announcements made in the last ten years is a quick web search away. Older works, though, may have had the announcements, but not with the same hype and not as easily found. Not everything is on the Internet. There are people who do the research, though, which does help.
Why mention these non-adaptations? They affect Lost in Translation in a two ways. First, there’s the discover of works that are suspected to be adaptations that aren’t. Captain Power last week is a good example. Likewise, Thunderball, which will be part of the 007 project, isn’t an adaptation. The film isn’t even an adaptation of the character to film. Ian Fleming wrote the screen treatment of the film before he wrote the novel; Thunderball is an original work in the 007 series with the novel being the adaptation. This issue is likely to show up in other franchises where the original work has grown beyond its original medium.
The second is the discovery that an adaptation isn’t. Reviewing a work does take time; both the original and adaptation must be seen. A longer work, either original or adaptation, takes more time. If it becomes apparant early that a work isn’t an adaptation, something else can be swapped in. However, reviewing longer works means that if the discovery is found on checking a secondary source, such as the commentary track or a website, then it gets too late to change gears. Sometimes, the non-adaptation can provide a look into the process of adapting, either by being an example of the problems faced or by showing how a creator works across multiple media.
Still, even these non-adaptations can provide an insight into how a work is adapted. Creators today can use the various media far more readily for far less cost than in the decades prior. Video cameras are now consumer goods. The Open Source movement means that video editing tools are easily found for low or no cost. Web sites are easily created and can allow creators to display their works, in full or in part, to entice potential audiences. Hollywood is the big producer, but it isn’t the only one.