Over the next few weeks, Lost in Translation will be looking at how to adapt settings from tabletop RPGs. The benefit of these settings is that a lot of the hard work, the world building, is already done. The settings also have a built-in audience, though one that isn’t as large as fans of Marvel or DC comics. The games also provide for an idea for a plot.
The settings to be looked at will all be created for the game. Yes, there are licensed RPGs, but that makes the RPG the adaptation. In the next few weeks, the idea is to see how a setting or game can be adapted using case studies and what would be the best format. Some games publishers have seen the potential and have licensed tie-in novels, to varying degrees of success.
Video game adaptations, especially from Hollywood, are given the side eye. Hollywood adaptations have a poor reputation, earned thanks to the likes of Double Dragon and Super Mario Bros. But, Hollywood persisted, because where there is a large enough number of people, studios will exploit. And in 1994, $studio exploited the names of actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, singer/actress Kylie Minogue, and actor Raul Julia along with the video game Street Fighter.
Street Fighter – The Movie did not do well with initial audiences. The tone of the film was not what anyone expected – Van Damme’s acting style was better suited for movies with more action and less acting, the film was almost four-colour at a time when the approach was to go darker and grittier, and the studio got too involved. However, on retrospection, Street Fighter – The Movie isn’t in the same league as the worst video game movies made.
The video game has backstory on who all the characters are, why they are fighting, and why they’re after M. Bison. The game play, though, is a fighting game. That’s the draw of the game, not the backstory. The backstory is there to give a reason for the player to beat up opponents but via the game manual. However, that backstory can be adapted, if loosely.
The movie had a few strikes against it on release. The rep of video game movies and the acting capabilities of the leads, with the exception of Raul Julia. The movie tried to include every character from the video game, even if it was for a brief appearance. The result could be a complete mess.
There are some bright sides that save the movie, beyond just Raul Julia. The supporting cast, which includes Ming-Na Wen, pulled their weight, though, carrying the film. The movie’s writing has a strong pedigree with Lorenzo Semple, Jr, handling the duties. Semple also wrote the 1980 Flash Gordon and was on the writing staff for the 1966 Batman TV series. The humour from Flash Gordon appears in Street Fighter, little things that come naturally in the situation without feeling forced. Watching the movie through the lens of an action comedy, the tone clicks. The four-colour approach works. Raul Julia knew exactly what sort of movie he was in and played M. Bison the same way Leslie Nielsen played Dr. Womack in Airplane!; straighter than straight to the point of being funny. His speech to Chun-Li about him not remembering invading her village is a great example of what he was doing.
Street Fighter – The Movie is a cult classic. Time has given audiences time to figure out what it is without marketing trying to set the genre in minds beforehand. The bright colours turn the film into something timeless, separated from grim and gritty. There are little things to noticed with every viewing, including the Armed Forces radio announcer, Adrian Cronauer, who was the inspiration for Good Morning, Vietnam. Yes, the movie parodied Good Morning, Vietnam with the real AFRS DJ. That’s going the extra step.
It’s such steps that elevate Street Fighter – The Movie. It may not be a great film, but it is a fun movie, well worth the watch.
Lost in Translation has looked at a number of live-action adaptations, the most recent being the 2002 Scooby-Doo adaptation. With adaptation fever going strong in Hollywood, let’s take a look at what makes live-action movies of animated or drawn original work.
A live-action adaption can come from a number of sources, such as video games, comics, and animation both Western and Eastern. Not included are adaptations of written works; the default for literature of all genres is live action unless there is something about the original work that suggests that a different medium would work better. Watership Down has an all-rabbit cast, an animated adaptation became necessary, especially at the time it was made.
The first, obvious question is “Why?” Why make a live-action adaptation of a work? There are several answers. The main one, though, is that the studio is hoping to make money off the movie, either through getting more money back at the box office than spent or by getting a big enough tax wrote-off for a stinker. No one wants to make a money-losing film on purpose. With cartoons, just making an animated movie will only get the target audience, even for a long-running franchise such as Scooby-Doo. Changing to a live-action movie, especially with actors that are a draw, means getting more of an audience than just the fans, and a larger potential audience means a larger potential box office return.
Sometimes, the decision is because of the director’s vision. Scott Pilgrim vs the World came about because Edgar Wright had read the original graphic novels and thought he could turn them into a film. Wright went for live action in part because Toronto was easier to film than to redraw, but he wound up dealing with the video game metaphors of the graphic novels. While the film wasn’t a box office smash, it has the capability of being a cult film. The biggest problem was that Scott Pilgrim didn’t fall neatly into any marketing box.
There is also the challenge of taking a video game or an animated work and turning it into a live-action production. This may be the thought behind the various attempts at making a live-action Akira, which has been in development hell at Warner Bros since 2002 and Sony during the 90s. The animated film of the manga was a visually stunning work, catching attention outside Japan. The problem that the studios keep running into is that even the animated film leans on Japanese culture and history, especially the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It may be easier to make a live-action adaptation of Black Lagoon; the source would have to be toned down to PG-13. But Black Lagoon doesn’t have the name value that Akira and Dragonball have.
Hollywood adapting a Western source can also be fraught with problems. Finding an actor who can portray a character is part of the art of casting. Finding one who looks like an existing character and can match their mannerisms requires a search. Matthew Lillard as Shaggy in the live-action /Scooby-Doo/ movies is a casting director’s high point. Most casting decisions are to be close enough and hope the actor can bridge the gap; Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, Robert Downey, Jr as Tony Stark in the Avengers movies, and Christopher Reeve in /Superman/ all took their roles and made them theirs. It’s rare to see an actor misused in an adaptation today, but Super Mario Bros. does show that it is possible. Mojo Nixon, really? Casting does matter. The first of the Michael Bay Transformers movies caught fans attention by having Peter Cullen back as the voice of Optimus Prime.
With comics, special effects are limited to the imagination and the paint the artist has available, and with digital colouring, paint really isn’t an issue. Jack Kirby’s artwork, something he was able to produce for several titles a month, is colourful and detailed. The Kirby Krackle is named for his style. Even simpler energy blasts, like the Human Torch’s flames, Iceman’s ice bolts, and the Transformers’ laser shots, take time and money to reproduce in a live-action work. Characters like Superman, whose core abilities are physical and can be reproduced through practical effects, including wire work, and Batman, who is still human who has gone through training, are easier to put on screen. CGI has made effects easier today, though, so Kirby Krackle can be expected.
Adapting video games has been covered before. The biggest problem is, whether the game is being adapted to live-action or animated, that the nature of a video game is that the player is active in the storytelling, even if the plot is railroaded. Television and movies are passively watched, with, usually, no viewer input. This is on top of casting, finding actors who can pass as the main character. In some games, character customization is an option, so what one person pictures the lead character, others may not agree.
No matter the source, there’s always a chance that a celebrity will use the adaptation as a vehicle, pulling the attention to the celeb and away from the work. The adaptation will aim for the fans of the celeb, possibly to the detriment of fans of the original. The result is usually a mess, something that gets a brief flurry of attention before being forgotten. The problem is that studios will go by the numbers the celeb vehicle produced and make decisions off that without considering the why behind them.
Adaptations will be with us for the foreseeable future. There’s too much money in them to not make them. The goal is to figure out how and why they work and how and why they fail. Knowing the restrictions in advance will help studios avoid losing money and bring the best product for the audience possible,
On a related note, I will be on a panel at Renaissance Press’ Virtual Conference called “The book was better… or was it? The art of adaptation” on June 6 at 4p, EDT, with three other panelists. Registration is free but space is limited because of technical limitations. Check out the other panels, too; the conference runs June 5-7. There will also be a Discord channel for vendors.
In getting ready for the next review, Death Wish, I noticed on the back of the DVD case that it was an adaptation of the novel by the same name written by Brian Garfield. The review is still in the works, looking at the remake compared to the 1974 Charles Bronson film, but a future review will compare the latter movie with the novel. Garfield also wrote Hopscotch, which became a film starring Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. Older movies run into this issue more than recent films.
With recent films, the draw is often that the movie is an adaptation of something popular, or at least well known. Studios are risk adverse today; CHiPs was originally going to be an original work, but the studio balked unless the movie was made into an adaptation. Budgets have skyrocketed, so studios want a guarantee that the audience will turn out.. The result, adaptations are advertised as such. If they aren’t, it’s only because the movie is so obvious an adaptation. No one is going to mistake Detective Pikachu for an original film.
Older films, though, weren’t caught in this trap. When I started the History of Adaptations series, I wasn’t expecting so many adaptations to appear, nor did I expect that popular original works to start to outnumber popular adaptations only in the Eighties. While the books might have been popular at the time, The Graduate, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Bullitt are better known than the books they were based on – The Graduate by Charles Webb, The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, and Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike. A change of title, such as Mute Witness to Bullitt, adds to the distancing.
The change is in the marketing. Marketing for today’s adaptations lean heavily on the source material. Marvel and DC’s superhero forays are advertised as being from their comics. The Hunger Games and Harry Potter didn’t shy away from using the original books as part of the marketing. Studios spend millions to advertise a film to get as many people out to see their movies. Books, though, rarely get large advertising budgets. Publishing costs are such that the authors are putting in effort to spread the word of their own books. Novels rely on word of mouth to get known, especially for authors who aren’t household names like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Before the Internet became a household service, word of mouth meant talking to others or writing letters. Today, social media helps with the word of mouth, as sites like Twitter help amplify reviews.
Can an adaptation fly under the radar today? For the big blockbusters, no But for smaller budgets, where the studio isn’t risking its existence on the success of a film, it is possible. Advertising for Kingsman – The Secret Service never mentioned that it was based on an Image comic. The movie was a light spy action flick, something that doesn’t spring to mind when “comic book” is mentioned, so the studio may have wanted to avoid the connection to guide audience expectations. Two decades from now, will people remember the comic was the source for the movie and its sequel?
This is what made the History of Adaptations so interesting, discovering what was assumed to be original to be an adaptation. It makes reviews interesting, because I have the choice to either go ahead with what i have planned or set the review aside until I can get my hands on the ultimate original work.. The problem with the latter is the time needed to hunt down the work; the older the work, the more likely it is to be out of print. Ignoring the ultimate original, thought, won’t do justice to the review of the adaptation. With the pandemic, getting the original takes more time, so, for now, I’ll press on with the planned review, with a note of the original work and a vague promise to return when possible.
Now that the Teens are done, it’s time to look at the breakdown of popular movies by originals and adaptations. In 2015, Lost in Translation looked at the decade up to that year to wrap up the History of Adaptations series at the time. With five more years gone by, things have changed. Once again, I’m using the compiled list at Filmsite.org.
Toy Story 3 – sequel. Pixar’s most popular series of films.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – sequel and adaptation. The last of the Harry Potter movies based on the first seven books.
Marvel’s The Avengers – adaptation.
The Dark Knight Rises – sequel of adaptation, The Dark Knight.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – sequel and adaptation. Covers the second book of The Hunger Games trilogy.
American Sniper – adaptation of American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Pyle.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – sequel. The first Star Wars movie released after Disney bought Lucasfilm.
Jurassic World – adaptation. It’s a tough call, as it was marketed as a sequel but doesn’t share much between the original Jurassic Park movies or the book. It’s more, “What if Jurassic Park didn’t have the dinosaur break-out shown in the book and movies?”
Avengers: Age of Ultron – sequel of adaptation. The Marvel movies that led up to this release didn’t make the list.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – spin off. The first of several films meant to look at other parts of the Galaxy Far Far Away that aren’t part of the main Skywalker saga.
Finding Dory – sequel of original. The second Pixar film on the list for the Teens.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi – sequel.
Beauty and the Beast – remake of adaptation. Part of Disney’s series of live action remakes of their animated classics.
Wonder Woman – adaptation. The second DC property to make the list.
Black Panther – adaptation. Diversity matters.
Avengers: Infinity War – sequel of adaptation.
Incredibles 2 – sequel. Another Pixar film, this time fourteen years after the original.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – sequel of adaptation.
Avengers: Endgame – sequel of adaptation
The Lion King – remake. Computer animated remake with photo-realistic characters.
Toy Story 4 – sequel of original and fourth of the series to be mentioned in the History series.
Captain Marvel – adaptation.
Disney is a big winner, with fifteen films listed above. The list breaks down to six adaptations, six sequels of original movies, five sequels of adaptations, two movies that are both sequels and adaptations, and one spin-off. There are no original movies on the above list, the worst showing for any decade. Since popular movies tend to stay in the pop subconscious, the backlash against adaptations has a point. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been popular original movies. Us was knocked out of the top ten of 2019 by The Rise of Skywalker in the final weeks. If anything, the Teens was the decade of the blockbuster, big budget films.
Superhero films were popular, with nine total in the list, including the one not based on any comic book character. Superhero films are filling the niche that Westerns once had, becoming almost ubiquitous. The trend of adapting Young Adult novels that heralded the start of the decade faded; few YA novels ever had the buzz that Harry Potter and The Hunger Games had.
Gone from 2015’s list are Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Frozen, Despicable Me 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Inside Out, and Furious 7. The Teens’ top grossing movies come mainly from the latter half of the decade. Part of the losses were to be expected; as the decade continued, more movies had opportunity to outperform what had already come. But the latter half of the Teens had more blockbusters, more record breaking grosses than the first half. Some of it can be chalked up to Disney’s marketing department. The rest of the explanation needs some further study.
As the new Twenties dawn, adaptations hold ground. At this point, it’ll take a sleeper hit to get studios to put the money they do for adaptations behind an original, untested work. Risk avoidance means original works won’t have the spectacle of an adaptation. It may take a well-known name to get an original work done to the same level at this point. For the next few years, expect adaptations to get the lion share of budgets and marketing.
Studios will mine anything for an adaptation – popular books, classic literature, remakes of popular movies, television, games of all sorts. If there’s an audience, a studio will try to get its attention with a big screen adaptation. Sometimes, adapting a work may be the only way a project gets greenlit.
Police procedurals have been around for some time. Dragnet, the prototypical police procedural, began on the radio before moving to TV. Webb followed up with Adam-12, a series about two LA police officers and the calls they responded to during the day, and Emergency!, a paramedic procedural following the calls taken by the fictional Squad 51. The two series also went into some depth on what the characters did between calls.
In 1977, NBC added a new element to the police procedural. /CHiPs/ was typical for police procedurals, with a mix of action, drama, and comedy, but emphasized the buddy cop aspect that was still nascent in the previous series. Starring Larry Wilcox as Officer Jon Baker and Erik Estrada as Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, CHiPs ran six seasons, gaining a fan base. The characters were typical of a duo at the time, one stoic, the other hot blooded, but the buddy cop archetype has to start somewhere, taking cues from The Odd Couple. Each standalone episode had a mix of comedic and dramatic police calls, threaded together by a subplot involving the main characters in their downtime. Even the supporting cast, including Randi Oakes, Paul Linke, Robert Pine, and Michael Dorn.
The series is memorable, at least among the older audiences, and the name stands out. This made it prime for adaptation, which Dax Shepard did with the 2017 release, CHIPS, starring Shepard as Jon and Michael Peña and Ponch. Shepard had been trying to get a movie starring himself and Peña, a comedy about motor sports, but studios kept turning him down. He decided to adapt CHiPs and the studio, Warner Bros Pictures, green lit the project.
The movie made a few changes to the characters. Jon became the CHP’s oldest rookie after he went through the police academy to try to win back his wife. Before that, he was a professional motocross rider, with the injuries that built up over his career, including gaining a titanium humerus among all his scars. Rainy days are not his friend. “Ponch”, really FBI Special Agent Castillo, is an undercover operative, being sent into different organizations to infiltrate and expose crime. The movie begins with him being the getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers.
In LA, a number of armoured car robberies have been going on with precision, leaving no one dead at the scene of the heist. One of the robbers even moves a young woman out of the way of the shaped charge, dragging her from the car. However, during the robbery, a CHP cruiser arrives. The ringleader takes the driver of the armoured car with him, holding him hostage as a CHP helicopter hovers overhead. The catch, the driver is in on the crime, as is the helicopter pilot. The ringleader forces a choice, and the pilot takes a dive out of the chopper.
The FBI sends in Castillo as Poncherello to infiltrate the CHP the same day Jon is given an ultimatum. Due to his poor marks at the academy, Jon has to finish in the top ten percent in performance or be washed out of the CHP. The only area he has top marks in is motorcycle riding. Jon gets paired with new transfer Ponch and the two begin their patrol. Ponch starts his assigned investigation, only to be hindered by Jon ticketing for every possible offense. However, Jon turns out to be more observant than Ponch, noticing in a brief look that the home of the dead pilot’s widow didn’t have any sign that they were even together.
The investigation keeps building, leading to chasing of the ringleader’s son after a drug deal. The ringleader isn’t out to get rich but to get his kid to a place where he can kick his drug habit. The death of his son in the chase pushes him over the edge, leading to a campaign to get his revenge on Jon and Ponch.
The film makes changes to the original. Ponch and Jon are the more obvious change from the original. The movie shakes up the characters, making Jon not so much straitlaced as out of touch. Ponch is professional but is very likely to succumb to his weakness, mainly women wearing yoga pants. Shepard describes the difference between them as female energy (Jon) and male energy (Ponch). Neither is shown as being the better; each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The cast is more diverse than the original series, with a more even mix of men and women in uniform plus a few gay men. The script doesn’t quite take full advantage, but some plot points did slip in. The movie, though, tends to be more bro humour, low brow. CHIPS is rated R for good reason. It’s not necessarily a bad movie. The new approach, though, may be jarring to anyone expecting something like the original.
The main thing holding the movie back from being a good adaptation is that Dax Shepard took advantage of current studio thinking. Original works are risky; adaptations aren’t. Attach a known name to a project and the studio will fund. Given that, there is effort to recreate the original series even while using its name to push through a project that would otherwise not get funded. There is action, there is comedy, there is drama, and there is thought put behind the villain’s motives for what he’s doing, as well as motives for the other characters involved. The result is a movie that at times is held back because it had to be filmed under the banner of another work.
I’ve been in discussions with Steve of Seventh Sanctum and Serdar of Genji Press about the nature of adaptations and how some works could be done as pure originals instead of being tied to an existing property. There are a few examples of works available today or soon to be released that fall into this realm. The question is, why?
Streaming services are getting competitive due to the number of them starting up. To get subscribers, the services need something that will draw audiences in. Disney+, while having all of Disney’s library, went with The Mandalorian, a space western in the Star Wars setting with a lead dressed in armour similar to what Boba Fett wears and a very young version of Yoda. The series is beautiful to look at and has depth that the movies don’t have, mainly because of the nature of a TV series. CBS All Access went with Star Trek: Discovery and will follow up with Star Trek: Picard, banking on Star Trek fans wanting to subscribe just to watch the shows.
It’s understandable. The streaming services are competing for views, so they are going to maximize the headliner as much as possible, including budget. The services don’t want their headliner to look terrible. The Mandalorian has movie-level production values with casting to match. But the series is a space spaghetti western at its heart. The series adds to the Star Wars setting, but does the Star Wars setting bring anything to the story?
But the need to draw attention means that the services are going to go with their big guns. For Disney+, that’s The Mandalorian. CBS All Access’ go-to is Star Trek. The goal is to get subscribers. But once there are subscribers, why not create a new property? Obviously, if CBS goes for a space spaghetti western with a Bounty Hunter With No Name, with or without a young child, people will suspect the service is trying to follow in Disney+’s footsteps. But what about a new science fiction series, one that isn’t about exploration or isn’t a space western with samurai/ronin influences? There is a demand growing, even if adaptations are still the major draw at the box office.
The problem comes from budget. The headliners are getting a proper budget. The streaming services don’t have unlimited funds. Unlike Netflix, many of the newer services have a back catalogue to help fill time, but there’s only so many episodes of Big Bang Theory people are willing to watch in a day. There’s room for original works in the schedule. The question is, will there be a budget for the original works. Some of the subscriber fees will be going back into the headliners, since they are the draw. The rest, anything leftover after operating costs and CEO bonuses are taken out, may have a number of projects trying to get a chunk. Science fiction tends to be expensive, from special effects to specialized sets. Apartment sets can be redressed as needed. Starship bridges tend to be unique and recognizable.
It will boil down to demand. Will there be enough demand for a new work, and original series exploring new territory? Or will fans demand more of the same?
Sony Interactive has launched PlayStation Productions to take the catalogue of original video games to turn into film and television. There is more detail at the link, but there seems to be more to the announcement than just mining existing intellectual property for fodder.
Lost in Translation has delved into the problems of video game adaptations. The main problem is translating gameplay into a narrative. What works to keep players playing for hours doesn’t work well on screen. The expectations of each medium are at odds; video games require the player to be active while movies typically have a seated, passive audience. There’s signs that the people in charge, Asad Qizilbash and Shawn Layden, understand the problem. To quote Layden, “The real challenge is, how do you take 80 hours of gameplay and make it into a movie? The answer is, you don’t. What you do is you take that ethos you write from there specifically for the film audience. You don’t try to retell the game in a movie.”
PlayStation Productions will also be handling the development instead of licensing out titles, and using Sony Pictures for distribution. The men in charge are using the Marvel movies as a guide. Marvel created Marvel Studios to produce their own movies instead of licensing as well, something that the Disney merger didn’t change. Marvel also used writers who were familiar with the comics being filmed, reducing the chance of something getting mistranslated to the silver screen. PlayStation Productions intends to follow the same roadmap, keeping control over the IP. They are aware of the reputation video game movies have.
The studio will have a number of titles to explore right away. While not every PlayStation exclusive game belongs to Sony, there are still a number that do that will draw an audience. Considering that the PlayStation has been around in various forms since 1994, that’s 25 years of gaming the studio can explore.
Does this mean Sony is trying to leverage its IP? Well, yes. That’s what corporations do. Sony has gone from being an electronics manufacturer to a provider of material for those same electronics. Turns out, there’s more money in providing the entertainment played in Blu-Ray players than selling them. With all the games created for the PlayStation over the past twenty-five years, some must have enough interest to justify making a movie or TV series from them. Sony isn’t going to leave money on the table.
At the same time, Qizilbash and Layden appear to understand why the games have fans and why other films based on video games have failed. They’re not just milking a cash cow. Their approach, based on the interview, appears to be more nuturing, Will they get a hit with PlayStation Productions first effort? I’m expecting the first to have flaws, but to reflect the game far better than what has come before, such as Super Mario Bros and Doom. However, if the studio follows through on what Layden said above, the first effort is not going to be a train wreck, either. The film may have problems, but it will reflect the game properly. PlayStation Productions will be in a position to ensure there is a quality to their releases.
The announcement shouldn’t be a surprise. Sony has a lot of IP that’s just sitting around. Video game development takes time. The approach that PlayStation Productions wants to take, though, shows that the studio has learned the lesson about just slapping on a logo on any script that comes along. One doesn’t have to make the mistake to learn from it, and Qizilbash and Layden have done their homework. Time will tell, but PlayStation Productions is off to a good start.
Last week, Lost in Translation did a quick overview of sports movies. It’s time to look at a specific example, a movie about a quintessentially Canadian sport, Men With Brooms.
While curling originated in Scotland, it spread quickly with the settlers in the New World, especially where there was winter three to ten months of the year. Most Canadian small towns have a curling rink. But what is curling? It’s a sport where two teams of four compete over ten ends to get the highest score. To score, a team must have at least one rock or stone nearest to the button, the middle of the target. For each rock nearer to the button than the opponent’s closest, the team scores a point.
Curling gets its name from what each team member must do to get a stone as close to the button as possible. By giving the stone a bit of spin, the curler gets it to arc around the opponents’ rocks, taking some out by hitting them. The curler’s teammates can straighten the path of the stone by sweeping a path using a broom, letting the rock travel farther.
Curling competitions are called bonspiels, where a number of teams compete over the course of a weekend, with the top teams meeting in a playoff to determine the overall winner. There are typically no referees or officials, with the players respecting the Spirit of Curling to maintain sportsmanship. One of the biggest fouls in the game is burning a rock, or touching one while it’s in motion. The expectation is that the team that burned the rock will own up to it.
It may be easier to watch a few ends to understand the game, but the above should act as a primer. Curling is a team sport, and teams are made of people with their own goals and motivations, some of which may cause conflict with teammates. There is story-telling potential in the sport. Which brings us to Men With Brooms.
Released in 2002, Men With Brooms was written by, directed by, and starred Paul Gross, best known as Constable Benton Fraser on the TV series Due South. Billed as a romantic comedy, it was originally intended to be about the other Canadian sport, hockey, but worries about politics surrounding the sport and the size of a hockey team led to changing the focus to curling. From there, the script fell into place.
Men With Brooms opens with the death of Don Foley, played by James B. Douglas, as he and his younger daughter Amy (Molly Parket) retrieve a curling rock from the river near Long Bay, Ontario. The heart attack, though, plays into Don’s goals of getting the curling team he coached back together to win the Golden Broom. The team came close ten years before, but the skip, Chris Cutter (Gross), walked off the ice in the finals, never to return, after being so caught up in wanting to win he failed to call a burned rock. Don wants the team to reform and put his ashes, now in the recovered curling stone, on the button to win the Golden Broom.
The rest of the team – Neil Bucyk (James Allodi), James Lennox (Peter Outerbridge), and Eddie Strombeck (Jed Rees) – are convinced. They all have some problems in their lives, though. Neil is in a loveless marriage to Linda (Kari Matchette). James owes money to people who can afford to send a hardy knee-breaker to recover the cash. Eddie and his wife, Lilly (Jane Spidell), are desperate to have a baby. And Chris has an ex-girlfriend, Don’s eldest daughter Julie (Michelle Nolden), who still hasn’t worked out her anger from when he disappeared. Eva is also now an astronaut; she pushed herself after Chris left. Chris’ old drinking buddy, Amy, is a single parent and attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. Life in Long Bay has not been kind.
The reformed team is enthusiastic, but rusty. For their first match as a team, they take on a team of retirees, one of whom needs a walker. Team Cutter loses the match and they realize that they need help. There’s only one man in town who knows how to coach a winning team. Unfortunately, Chris is estranged from his father, Gordon (Leslie Nielsen). Chris does approach his father, all he wants is a coach, not reconciliation. Gordon agrees, and starts a training regimen for the men.
The team enters the Golden Broom bonspiel. Teams from such metropolises as Kingston, ON, Moose Jaw, SK, and Come by Chance, NF have all arrived in Long Bay to compete for the Golden Broom. Among the teams, though, is the one skipped by Alexander “The Juggernaut” Yount (Greg Bryk), who once represented Canada in the Olympics. The luck of the draw puts Cutter and Yount in the first match. The score is close, but in a later end, a rock is burned by Cutter’s rink with only three men noticing – Chris, Gordon, and Yount. Gordon gives Chris the chance to call it, but Chris refuses. Yount’s rink goes on to win the match. Chris leaves the rink to go to the bar.
Some of Chris’ problems get worked out. Amy and Julie have come to an understanding and Amy has realized that she is in love with Chris. Julie finds out that the unusual happened and both the designated astronaut and his backup have been scrubbed, letting her join the mission. Chris heads to his mother’s grave, where he finds his father, and the two reconcile.
Chris returns to the bonspiel, but Neil has been dragged away by his wife to the country club. Gordon steps in. The Cutter rink stages a comeback, but in the penultimate game, Gordon throws out his back and is unable to continue. The team is down one man and may have to play the final game as a three-man team. However, James’ girlfriend of the moment, Joanne (Polly Shannon), who has gotten to know Neil, retrieves him to finish the bonspiel.
The final game pits the Cutter rink against the Yount Rink one more time. It’s a tough match for the Cutter rink as the Juggernaut lives up to his name. In the final end, though, the score is close and comes down to the final rock, thrown by the skip, Chris. It’s an impossible shot, having to curl around then rebound to land on the button, but Chris gets the rock, the one with Don’s ashes, to go where he wants. Problem is, the rock gets burned by Eddie and only Chris sees it. Chris calls the official over and explains what happened. Yount, impressed that Chris called the burned rock when he could have won, allows the stones to be reset to give Chris a second throw. However, the first throw was impossible. To do it again is unthinkable. And Chris decides that there is another way. A brute force throw sends the final stone with Don’s ashes down the ice, smashing through any other rock in the way, shattering the thrown stone so that pieces of it land with the ashes on the button.
The film plays with curling and bonspiels. The match with the retirees allows the film to explain curling to anyone in the audience who doesn’t know the game, using Joanne as the audience stand-in to ask questions. That match is played mostly straight, using the game to show the relationships within the Cutter rink and how rusty they are. The Golden Broom bonspiel, though, is treated as a major event, along the lines of an NBA final and the Olympics, despite the largest town represented, Kingston, having a population of about 137 thousand. Come by Chance has a population of 228. The Juggernaut’s entrance would fit more at a WWE event than curling. Despite that, the gameplay is what one would expect from curling. Even when the Cutter rink starts using straw brooms instead of the more modern carbon fibre, it’s an odd choice but represents the type of broom Gordon used when he was younger.
Outside the gameplay, the sport is used to bring the characters together, first to reunite them after ten years, then to fulfill Don’s dying wish. The conflicts between characters come out on the ice, adding to the drama. Curling isn’t just the sport being played, but a metaphor for what the characters are going through. After the win, each member of Cutter’s rink has an improvement in their lives, even the divorce.
The ads around the rink are typical for the sport, especially in smaller towns. Instead of the big name advertisers that would buy ads at, say, the Super Bowl, like Apple, there are local shops and smaller grocery chains. This level of realism grounds the movie, allowing the more comedic aspects to shine through.
Curling is an odd sport of choice to adapt to film. While the game has about the same pace as baseball, it’s not as widely known. /Men With Brooms/ took some time to show the audience the ins and outs of the game so viewers could follow the action on the ice. However, the small team size makes for a more intimate drama, even in a romantic comedy. Men With Brooms uses the sport to build from, using curling’s more laid back approach as a springboard for comedic elements while still portraying the game as it is played.
In the world of entertainment, sports covers a large segment. People will tune in to watch their favourite team play their favourite sport. Monday Night Football has aired since 1970. Hockey Night in Canada predates that, with the first match airing in 1952. Baseball’s Major League Game of the Week began in 1953. The Olympics generate billions for the networks showing the Games. Every game is its own narrative, from tight, close games that need extra time before there is a winner to blow outs. The draw for the audience is the nature of the sport, the competitors, and the competition. To quote ABC’s Wide World of Sport, it’s, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
Sports are big business, with millions of fans, a potential audience for studios to try to attract. The temptation is too much to resist, so studios don’t even try. Resistance is futile. Can sports be adapted to a medium that requires plot and characterization? American coverage of the Olympics, both summer and winter, adds a narrative for American competitors, but most sports broadcasts focus on what’s happening on the field of play.
One issue is that most sports aren’t one and done, especially team sports. To determine the finalists for playoffs, each time needs to meet the others at least twice, once in the home city, once at the opposition’s. The number of games in a season is limited by the amount of days available and how much exertion is needed during a game. Baseball, with its 162-game season, is one of the longer seasons, though the sport doesn’t require as many rest days as, say, hockey, which has 82 games in a season. With a season, losing a game is just a setback, not the end of the world. The ebb and flow of a season can also provide more drama for a movie or TV series. Injuries, trades, and rivalries both internal and external, personal and team can cause complications.
Another issue when adapting a sport to a fictional form is that there’s only so much time available in both film and TV. Baseball and football can last at least two to three hours. Hockey, soccer, and basetball, both being more fast paced, still can take up to two hours to play a full game, including intermissions and stoppages in play. During the season, the audience may prefer to watch an actual game than a fictional version. Fortunately, in film and TV, editing is a thing, and the key scenes can be shown without necessarily showing the slower moments.
TV series go the season route. Dragging out a game for multiple episodes won’t keep an audience. The passage of time and the build up to the big game, whether it’s a key match against a rival team or the make-or-break game to get into the playoffs, creates tension over the season. However, even series not focused on a sport may have an episode focused on a game. Baseball tends to be the sport of choice, with WKRP‘s “Baseball” and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” being prime examples. Other sports do get featured, though; Jack of All Trades had a football episode, combined with Thanksgiving, with “One, Two, Three: Give Me Lady Liberty”*.
The goal of a sports adaptation is to feature the sport. If what happens on screen doesn’t resemble what the audience expects, the adaptation is not going to perform well either in ratings or at the box office. The nature of the adaptation – comedy, drama, action – will determine just what the audience will accept. A comedy can have the more bizarre plays happen; dramas tend to build off the more spectacular and intense plays.
The key to adapting a sport to film or television is to focus less on the game’s play and more on the characters involved. If an audience wanted to just watch a game, there are multiple ways of doing so. For fiction, the story is the draw. Underdogs competing against all odds. The last hurrah of an aging player. The rivalry between star players. Those are draws for a sports-based movie or TV series. The adaptation must present a narrative, something that a game doesn’t provide.
Sports is big business. Audiences for sports can get huge, both domestically and internationally. Studios can’t ignore the potential audiences for sports adaptations. But studios do have to make sure that the draw of both the sport and the fiction are balanced.