Comic book universes tend to grow. New characters get created, make guest appearances, get spun off into their own titles, then crossover everywhere. Some characters are popular but not enough to maintain a title. Others work better on a team than solo. When a large number of solo characters are popular, editorial toys with teaming them up. Both the Avengers and the Justice League came about for that reason – popular solo characters brought together in a new title to take advantage of the popularity.
With DC Comics, the characters include sidekicks to the main heroes. Batman has Robin. The Flash has Kid Flash. Green Arrow has Speedy. Aquaman has Aqualad. To complicate matters, Superman and Wonder Woman both had younger versions, Superboy and Wonder Girl. DC discovered that the younger characters drew younger fans; naturally, the company released a title to feature them, /Teen Titans/.
First appearing in The Brave and the Bold #54 in 1964, the original Teen Titans roster consisted of Dick Greyson’s Robin, Aqualad, and Wally West’s Kid Flash. In issue #60, the roster expanded to include Donna Troy as Wonder Girl. After one more appearance, this time in Showcase #59, the Teen Titans received their own title in 1966, picking up Roy Harper’s Speedy as a guest hero. The title ran until 1978, with a three year interregnum between 1973 and 1976.
In 1980, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez created The New Teen Titans. The roster this time around included Dick Greyson’s Robin, Donna Troy’s Wonder Girl, Wally West’s Kid Flash, Gar Logan as Changeling, Cyborg, Raven, and Starfire, expanding the original roster. This team came together to deal with Raven’s father, Trigon, a demonic lord of Hell who has enslaved countless worlds. With the threat defeated, the team remained together, facing off against Deathstroke the Terminator next. The title ran until 1996, spawning the concurrent spin-off Team Titans. The Titans followed two years afterwards, with Dick Greyson now as Nightwing, Donna Troy using no heroic ID, Wally West now as the Flash, Starfire, Cyborg, Gar Logan now going by Beast Boy, Roy Harper as Arsenal, and new member Damage. This title ran for three years, ending in 2002.
Comics pick up continuity the longer they run. DC’s main universe has been around since Action Comics #1, Characters develop and grow, whether editorial wants that to happen or not. DIck Greyson started as Robin, then left being Batman’s sidekick to go be his own hero as Nightwing, moving to Bludhaven. Wally West started as Kid Flash, then took over the mantle as the Flash. Donna Troi went through a few heroic identities, getting caught up in a continuity snarl during DC’s Crises. Gar Logan started as Changeling, changed his name to Beast Boy, and has been a member of both the Doom Patrol and the Titans over the years. The Titans may have only been around as a team since 1964, but they do have a history.
With the success of Arrow. The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow on television, the creative team behind the shows teamed up with Netflix to create Titans in 2018. The series adds Geoff Johns, former Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics and writer on a number of titles, including a Beast Boy miniseries and Teen Titans volume 3. The series stars Brenton Thwaites as Dick Greyson, Anna Diop as Kory Anders, Teagan Croft as Rachel Roth, and Ryan Potter as Gar Logan. The show also has some key recurring characters, including Hawk and Dove (Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly), a young Dick Greyson (Tomaso Sanelli) for flashbacks, and Conor Leslie as Donna Troy.
Titans begins with the death of Rachel’s adoptive mother, Melissa Roth. Detective Dick Greyson of the Detroit police department picks up the case and tracks down the girl, though not before a cult picks her up. Rachel’s dark side, though, turns the tables on the cultists, killing them. In Austria, an amnesiac Kory Anders finds herself in a gun battle and escapes, incinerating her pursuers. And in Covington, Ohio, a green tiger steals a video game from a electronics store.
Through the first season, the core team – Dick, Rachel, Kori, and Gar – come together. Each has their own story arc. Dick, despite having left Batman to go on his own, is still wearing the Robin costume when he stops crime the police can’t. Dick’s past comes out through flashbacks, painting why he’s having problems today. Not helping is meeting the new Robin, Jason Todd (Curran Walters). Rachel is having family trouble. Her father, Trigon, is looking for her, using a cult. Her main hunters are the Nuclear Family – Dad (first Jeff Clarke, then replaced by Zach Smadu as the character is replaced), Mom (Melody Johnson), Sis (Jeni Ross), and Biff (Logan Thompson) – who use drugs to augment their physical abilities. Kory is trying to figure out who she is and why she has to find Rachel, aka the Raven. Gar may be the most well adjusted of the group, a vegan who shapeshifts into a tiger. Even he has a few skeletons in the closet in the form of the Doom Patrol.
The first season deals with Trigon as the main plot, though his name doesn’t get mentioned until late in the run. This is the same plot that the Wolfman-Pérez The New Teen Titans began with. The take, though, is darker. The creators are taking full advantage of not being on a broadcast network. Netflix has its own standards and practices, so the language is far saltier than could be allowed over the air or even in the comics. At the same time, it’s not all dark all the time. There are light moments, coming from the characters. The tone is serious, but with light moments. Again, Gar is a point of light in the series. He’s better adjusted than the rest of the team.
The new series is taking the characters from the comics and bringing them into the same televised multiverse the other DC shows are in. It’s likely that Titans, like Supergirl, is in its own universe because it’s on another network. This gives the show room to maneuver when it comes to interpretations. The characters are recognizable, but Titans is putting its own spin on them, something to be expected in a cinematic universe. The costumes for Robin, Hawk, and Dove match what was seen in the comics. Rachel’s outfits hint at Raven’s costume; when she wears a hoodie to cover her head, the silhouette matches her comic counterpart. Kory, while not yet Starfire, wears a purple outfit that reflects the costume from the comics. Gar is the lone outsider here, possibly due to budget and time restraints. While his tiger form is green, Gar only has green hair when he’s human instead of being all green.
Titans may not be accurate to the comics. The series is taking its cue from the comics, though. Characters are recognizable to long-time fans without losing newcomers to continuity lockout. As such, it fits in with the rest of the DC television series.
For every rule of thumb, there are exceptions. There are adaptations that are better liked than their originals. What should turn the audience off becomes the draw. This happens in many mediums, film, television, and music included; the new work is the better known version, often considered an improvement. How can an adaptation that generally goes against general rules of thumb be popular?
The main reason is that the adaptation does what it intends well. Airplane! set out to be a comedy and is now tenth on the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Movies. Young Frankenstein, which could be considered a comedy remake of Frankenstein as well as a sequel and a fix-fic, is thirteenth on the AFI’s list. Both films set out to be funny and they succeeded. Similar to comedy remakes is the anime released as a gag dub, especially when there’s no other way to watch the original. Fan-made gag dubs don’t get the same dislike, because they don’t replace the original work, just spoof it. But when the only way to watch a work is through a gag dub, fans get annoyed. Yet, Samurai Pizza Cats, the gag dub of Kyatto Ninden Teyandee, has a bigger following than its original. With the Pizza Cats, the gag dub came about because the importers didn’t get the original scripts, something Airplane! and Young Frankenstein didn’t have an issue with. Like the two films, Samurai Pizza Cats succeeded in what it set out to do, be funny.
Being good helps, but sometimes just being better known can help. By 1980, Zero Hour! was relegated to late night TV filler, a black and white movie in a colour universe, and not well known to the general audience. Same thing with Kyatto Ninden Teyandee; it came out before the big anime boom of the mid-90s. Samurai Pizza Cats was imported not because it was anime but because the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise was a juggernaut and Saban wanted a piece of the action; the theme song even admits it. Obscurity means audiences can’t compare the two easily. That doesn’t mean that the small fanbase won’t be upset, but the general audience won’t be aware of the original. Young Frankenstein, though, doesn’t have this advantage. Frankenstein is one of Universal’s classic monster movies. Yet, not working from an obscure work wasn’t a hindrance.
Sometimes, the original work, while popular at the time of release, may not have held up well as the years progressed. The original Battlestar Galactica, a space opera family adventure series, represented an older style of storytelling, one that included hope despite the Twelve Colonies being completely destroyed. When the series was rebooted in 2004, the tone changed, growing darker, with the possibility that the ragtag fleet might not make it to Earth. The new series lasted longer than the original and had none of the network interference.
What most of the exceptions listed above do is respect the original work. Airplane! may have spoofed the airline disaster movie genre into non-existance, but the film treated Zero Hour!‘s plot seriously. Likewise, Young Frankenstein picked up from the Frankenstein and showed where the character and not the original film makers made a mistake. It’s the difference between laughing at and laughing with. The exception to this exception is Samurai Pizza Cats, a work that probably wouldn’t be done today because of how anime is treated has changed since the TV series first aired.
There are exceptions and there are exceptions to the exceptions. The one key element in the exceptions is that they are exceptional works, done well by their creators, leaving the audience a sense of satisfaction, not hate.
Music is somewhat out of scope for Lost in Translation. The analysis of songs and their arrangement is a different beast from what is done with film and television here. However, music covers are a microcosm of what has been looked at here in the past in terms of types of adaptations.
Straight-up covers are more common than shot-for-shot remakes. The only time a shot-for-shot remake comes up is when there’s a huge change in film technology, like going from silent to sound or from black-and-white to colour. With the availability of older movies through a number of different formats, such as DVD or streaming, it’s easier to just watch the original today than it was even forty years ago. With music, sometimes the attraction is the hearing the song as originally recorded, but live. Tribute bands and cover bands, from Beatles tribute band 1964 the Tribute to Rush cover band Trip the Breaker, are usually fans of the original work and want to present the music as they first heard it. In cases like the Beatles, the original band is no longer performing, so the tribute band is the only way to recreate the sound and the performance.
Tribute and cover bands aren’t the only way to get straight adaptations of songs. Bands that otherwise perform original music will sometimes do a cover of a song, because they are fans of the original performer or performers or because the song is technically challenging. There may be some crossover of the fans of both the original band and the newer one, but the goal is to add to the repertoire. Weezer is a good example here, having done a cover of Aha’s “Take On Me“, including nods to the original music video. The reaction to covers is different from reaction to adaptations. One covered song or even an album of song covers is just a drop of water in a lake. The original band’s works are still available and the new band can take the attention it garners from a cover to get people to listen to their original works.
Not all covers are remakes. Some cross musical genres, from one form of rock to another, from country to rock, even from classical to rock. This sort of cover is similar to adaptations from one medium to another. The new artists may enjoy the original work and want to see how it sounds in their own genre. Another possible reason is that the song has meaning for the new artist, who now wants to perform it because it is personal. A good example of this is Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt“, which even songwriter Trent Reznor has said that the song is Cash’s now, becoming an example of an adaptation that improves on the original.
Changing music genres means changing how the song is played. Rock is typically danceable and has a backbeat. Country doesn’t have the backbeat and may have more of a twang on the guitars. Classical music can have a deeper sound, using more instruments in an orchestra, or it may be written for a single instrument such as piano or organ. Crossing the streams means figuring out what the core of a song is and adapting it to the new genre, trying to keep the song intact while changing out elements. Staying in one broad genre, such as rock, while changing subgenres, say from New Wave to metal, means having an ear to notice both the similarities and the differences. An example of adapting between subgenres is Nonpoint’s metal version of Phil Collins’ soft rock song, “In the Air Tonight“.
Going across different genres means adapting the new genres techniques to the song. When the genres are related, like how jazz and the blues are to rock, the difference comes out in the sound; the instruments are similar, but the performance changes. Henry Mancini’s “Theme from Peter Gunn” was originally a jazz piece, but has been adapted by Duane Eddy as rockabilly with twang and Art of Noise as synth-pop. The song remains essentially the same, but each version has its own unique sound. Even classical music can be covered like this; the goal is the same, but the instruments change, sometimes drastically. A good example here is Sky’s rock version of Johann Christian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor“, originally written for an organ. Instead of just using a keyboard, the arrangement uses the typical rock instruments to recreate the song.
If adapting across genres is like adapting a TV series to movies, then using non-traditional instruments in a cover is like adapting a book to a film. This isn’t just using guitars in what was a classical piece. Think dubstep violin or heavy metal bagpipes, instruments known for specific works being used in a new way. The results can be mixed, much like book to film adaptations, but when done well, becomes a new way to listen to a work.
Finally, parodies exist, possibly more so in music than in film and television. A parody takes the same amount of time to create as the original it’s spoofing. A four minute song takes less time to create than a two hour film at a far lower cost. As a result, musical parodies can be done by professionals, semi-pros, and amateurs. The leading parodist today is “Weird Al” Yankovic, who not only parodies songs but styles, having written the best song from The Doors in the past two decades with “Craigslist“. The parodies don’t have to be about the original song. Different takes can include parodies from another medium, from film to politics.
Music covers deserve a much deeper examination than the above. They have their own nuances and catches that film adaptations don’t have. Covers are also more accepted; there aren’t complaints that there isn’t original music like there are about the lack of original movies. Part of this is that there is room for both original songs and covers; songs don’t take much time to listen to, allowing audiences to hear a wider variety. The performers are the draw here. However, music covers can be used as quick examples. They take less time to demonstrate concepts of adapting works.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the idea of parodies and how they are different from adaptations. This week, a look at the flip side of parodies, the remake that serves as a comedy vehicle.
A comedy vehicle is a work, typically a movie, that highlights the lead’s comic ability. The plot is secondary to the showcase of talent. This tends to hold whether the work is original or an adaptation. Examples include movies starring Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell. Audiences turn out specifically for the star of the movie. They know what to expect from the film. Even with television, the nature of the star influences the direction of a TV series, /Seinfeld/ being a good example.
That isn’t to say that any movie starring a comedian is a comedy vehicle. A comedy, whether in theatres or on television, requires actors who are aware of the timing needed to deliver lines. For television, a rule of thumb is to check the title. If the title and the lead character are named after the star, ie, I Love Lucy and Seinfeld, chances are it’s a vehicle for the star. The rule isn’t perfect; The Bob Newhart Show was named after Bob Newhart with his character sharing his first name, but it was an ensemble series. With movies, it’s not as clear cut, but the advertising will promote the star as much as the film. To clear up the differences, let’s look at two of Robin Williams’ works. Mork and Mindy was created specifically for Williams after his appearances as the character on Happy Days. Hook, though, was created by Steven Spielberg because of his love of Peter Pan and used Williams’ ability to be child-like in the role of Peter.
Adapting a work to become a comedy vehicle has an appeal to studios. The adaptation has two built-in audiences – fans of the original work and fans of the star. Studios use the star power of the leads in other works to draw in audiences. People know what to expect, whether the movie stars Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Julia Roberts, or Jennifer Lawrence. With adaptations, the popularity of the original acts as the draw. The Harry Potter movies were going to draw crowds, whether they had leads with star power in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or not. When a work is a bit more esoteric then attaching a star can help with drawing an audience. In 1982, Philip K. Dick was known to fans of literary science fiction, but relatively unknown outside that circle. Having Harrison Ford, then known for films like American Graffiti, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, play Deckard in Blade Runner could bring in a wider audience.
The problem here is that, with a comedy vehicle, what draws in fans of the original work may get tossed aside. With the Blade Runner example above, Ford was a good fit for the role. With a comedy vehicle, the roles will get changed to suit the actors. Fans of the original may not recognize the new character. In a parody, a change of name to the role isn’t a problem; Captain James B. Pirk is definitely not Captain James T. Kirk, but a mockery. In a comedy remake, that difference gets lost. It’s not too bad when the original is also a comedy, but when it isn’t, audiences start getting mixed reactions.
In general, the change in tone can throw off fans of the original work. Light family fare includes humour to keep the tone light, but the work may not necessarily be a comedy. The work doesn’t have to become a comedy vehicle in order to throw off audiences. Taking family fare and turning it into something dark can result in the same mood whiplash. The difference is that in that case, audiences would be wondering if they and the adapters had seen the same work. When a work becomes a comedy vehicle, it comes across as laughing at not just the original but also the fans. Parodies are up front about their intent and include some space between them and originals. Adaptations that become comedy vehicles lack that separation. It’s the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone.
The result is an audience that is turned off from the adaptation. Few people like being laughed at, whatever the reason. This is on top of having expectations dashed, especially if the marketing doesn’t prepare the audience for what the movie really is. The 2009 movie adaptation of Land of the Lost is the perfect example here. It took a Saturday morning series aimed at children and turned it into an movie featuring adult humour, losing the audience who watched the original show who expected and wanted something closer to what was aired in 1974.
Ultimately, adaptations and comedy vehicles have different goals. An adaptation is bringing a work from one medium to another or remaking in the same medium with an eye on bringing in fans of the original. Comedy vehicles exist for the stars and their fans, and plot is secondary. The two approaches are at odds with each other. Unless the comedy vehicle can make allowances, the adaptation will suffer.
Last week‘s look forward to this year mentioned that superheroes aren’t going away. Superhero works may become the new Western because the new genre doesn’t carry the historical problems while still providing for morality plays. Right now, though, the success of superhero works is mainly through adaptations of existing characters and titles. Marvel Comics and DC Comics have seen success with the transition of their works to movies and television.
Naturally, the success of superhero movies and TV series are creating a backlash. Part of it is the source – comic books have been considered for children and teenagers, not something an adult would be caught reading, works like Watchmen and Maus notwithstanding. Another part of it are two decades, the Eighties and the Ninties, when original works were more popular than adaptations, unlike the rest of the history of film[http://psychodrivein.com/lost-in-translation-history-of-adaptations-wrapping-up/].
Is it possible to create an original superhero TV series not based on an existing character or setting? There have been attempts in the past. Mutant X lasted three seasons in syndication and ended after the its studio was sold, though the series was originally meant to tie in with Marvel’s X-Men until Fox sued. Misfits of Science ran one season in the mid-Eighties. Heroes survived four seasons despite a writer’s strike and network interference. The track record isn’t great for original superhero works, but the audience didn’t exist then like it does now.
Television may be the better medium to attempt an original superhero work. Movie studios are risk adverse and the budget to do a superhero movie well may be too high for an unknown work. No one wants to be responsible for a $150 million superbomb. Television is more competitive today, so risks need to be taken just to get viewers. What might not be popular in theatres could garner attention on the small screen; the admission cost is lower with the biggest investment being time, not money. Television also allows for viewing on the viewer’s schedule, thanks to time shifting through DVRs/PVRs and, going old school, VCRs.
They key to succeed with an original superhero work is to embrace the tropes. The colourful costumes, the obvious heroes and villains, the morality, everything found in the comics need to be taken seriously, even if the situation is bizarre. The DC television series have had success because the characters were treated seriously. A man returning home to clean up his city, a teenager whose original mission was over by the time she reached Earth, and a forensics analyst trying to clear his father’s name are solid ground to build from, and Arrow, Supergirl, and The Flash all did that successfully.
The next catch, though, is to not be just superheroes. DC’s television universe, known as the Arrowverse after the first series to air, and Marvel’s cinematic universe aren’t just superhero stories. Arrow includes both family and crime drama. Supergirl sees Kara adjusting after getting to Earth too late to raise her cousin while dealing with a demanding boss and helping her adopted sister. Ant-Man is a superhero heist movie. Iron Man is a superhero techno-thriller. Captain America: The First Avenger was a superhero pulp war story while its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superhero political thriller. Even the original movie The Incredibles is a superhero family drama crossed with a spy thriller. Pure superheroics can happen – look at The Avengers and Justice League – but an original work will needs its own spin on superheroes.
Television does long form dramas well. Character development needs time, something that a two hour film just doesn’t have. A new superhero character can be introduced, with personality and abilities laid out over the course of a few episodes. Too slow will lose viewers, though, but that’s true whatever the genre. The goal is to present a character who is a superhero. Marvel’s approach to heroes may work well here; the characters have powers, but they aren’t useful in dealing with the more serious problems in their day-to-day life. Peter Parker may have spider-based powers, but they haven’t helped him deal with school, job, or family.
The series’ world can be introduced to the audience over time. There’s no need to go into the history of supers in the first ten minutes of the first episode. Details can be filled in, from a TV in the background mentioning a hero in a different city to a character, main or supporting, making a mention. Building that world, though, needs to be done before the series starts. The world of the new superhero needs to make sense to the viewers, especially when asking them to suspend their disbelief on how physics works in the series. How are supers treated? Will the superhero character needs a secret ID and how will he or she maintain it? Who are the rest of the cast? Even DC’s solo heroes on television have an extensive supporting cast backing them.
For film, the big problem is getting everything packed into a two hour time span. An origins film could work, but that often means that everything else will get overshadowered as the character becomes a superhero. Smallville spent ten seasons showing how Clark Kent became Superman; movies don’t have that luxury. Audiences will be showing up to see superheroic action, unless the marketing can convey properly what the movie is about. Film also has the potential for a larger budget, allowing for cutting edge special effects, even with the likelihood of an original superhero movie having a lower budget due to risk aversion. It’s probably best to get the actual origins – how the character became a superhero – out of the way early but have the repercussions of them last through the film. If the origins are interesting, as seen in Deadpool, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Iron Man, then make them the focus of the movie. The goal is to tell a story that will keep audiences in their seats.
One problem that does occur in comics and is starting to occur with the both Marvel and DC’s cinematic universes is continuity lockout, where readers need to be familiar with the entire output of a company to understand what’s happening. DC’s Arrowverse have had three crossover events where the casts of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow appear on an episode of each series in an interconnected storyline. If a viewer somehow wasn’t aware of the other series, the new characters would be a mystery, even if the episode gave enough detail to allow the view to get through to the end. Continuity lockout can happen even if there is just one series if the show lasts long enough. Supernatural uses a “Previously On” segment to get viewers up to speed with what’s needed for the upcoming episode, but even there, a new viewer jumping on in season 10 may not be aware of what happened to Sam and Dean’s mother, detailed in season 1.
Superheroes aren’t going away any time soon. Adaptations of superhero comics will continue to hit television and movie theatres. There is room for an original superhero work in those media, but it will take effort to make the work successful. Just following on the coattails of the leaders won’t draw an audience. The new work, movie or TV series, needs to stand on its own. It’ll take work, but it is possible.
Audience acceptance of adaptations can be finicky. Everything can be set up just so but if something is off, the audience is thrown. On the flip side of that, an adaptation can get a lot wrong, but if it gets certain details right, the audience will just go along for the ride. Casting plays a role in this. Adaptations that audiences weren’t sure about did well when certain actors were announced. Likewise, fans have become divided when their dream casting didn’t happen.
With books, the goal is to find actors who can pass for how the characters are described. The author may or may not have a specific actor in mind when creating a character. Fans may pick up on the description and figure out who the author was using as a reference. Other works, the author may not have anyone particular in mind. In this case, the casting director should be aware of the characters’ general appearance. Some works make the casting work harder, particularly those with a young cast that grows over the series of novels. Since the appearances are all in the description, it shouldn’t be difficult to get close. Mind, some cases are harder than others; Harry Dresden, being canonically six-foot-nine, has a limited pool of actors to work from. The adaptation went with six-foot-four Paul Blackthorne as Dresden, then used camera angles as needed to emphasize his height.
The Harry Potter books make for an interesting case with child actors. The initial casting of Harry, Hermione, and Ron worked; the young actors resembled their character’s description from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. However, each book ages the characters one year. It is hard to tell what a child actor will look like in a decade. With the Harry Potter movies, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grew with the roles, but that isn’t a guarantee.
On the flip side, casting for the Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation caused a rift among fans. While the films went with Dakota Fanning and Jamie Dornan as the leads, fans wanted Alexis Bledel and Matt Bomer instead, going so far to start a petition to have the cast changed. The adaptation did well in theatres, though the backlash against the cast may have meant the film under performed.
More visual media provide a definite base to begin casting from. Not every role is locked into a specific look, just a general appearance. However, certain types of works become iconic. Animation is one of those. The art shows the character, from general appearance to mannerisms. Even comic books have distinctive characters, particularly the costumes. In these cases, ignoring the iconic looks may cause problems. Audiences, though, are aware of the restrictions and can adjust their perceptions while watching the adaptation. Some notable exception have come up, making for pleasant additions to their adaptations.
The 2002 Scooby-Doo movie did well at the box office, thanks to its star power. Matthew Lillard, though, deserves special mention. As Shaggy, Lillard managed to channel Casey Kasem’s portrayal, getting the voice right. Adding to his performance, he managed to get Shaggy’s unique walk. Of all the cast, Lillard was his role the most. In fact, Lillard has since taken over as the voice of Shaggy after Kasem passed away in 2014.
In a case of where getting the casting right would make or break a film, Karl Urban as Judge Dredd in the 2012 Dredd. Urban insisted that Dredd’s face would never be seen, correcting a major issue with the 1995 Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone. The one time Dredd is seen without his helmet, he’s in shadow, with no facial features showing. Urban became Dredd for the film, and while the film wasn’t as successful at the box office, it became an instant cult classic thanks to the portrayal.
Sometimes, the announcement of a casting choice can get an audience on board, even if there were reservations before. Michael Bay’s Transformers was seeing fan pushback on the idea of a live-action adaptation. Then the studio announced that the voice of Optimus Prime was cast – Peter Cullen would be reprising the role that was his when the cartoon first appeared in 1984. Fan reception changed, and the movie, while still having problems, succeeded well enough to have three sequels.
When it comes to adapting a live-action work, the limitations are obvious. Unless an actor has a child that looks much alike, and there are some who do, the adaptation will have to go with best fit. The appearance may not be important; instead, the portrayal is critical. The original actors will have set the characters; the new cast will have to adjust to expectations. Karl Urban once again shows how it’s done as Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. While Urban doen’t look like DeForest Kelly, he once again channeled the character. Urban’s co-star, Zachary Quinto, had an added difficulty. Unlike the rest of the cast, Quinto had one of the original cast of Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy, playing the older version of his character, Spock. Audiences could compare the two directly. Helping, though, was all the character development Spock had gone through in the movies. Quinto’s Spock was the younger version, Nimoy the mature. The result, though, was that Quinto held his own.
Casting is important. Getting the right actor for a role is key, for original works and adaptations. With adaptations, getting fans on board means getting someone who can be the character. When that happens, the adaptation grows beyond expectations.
The problem with copying a copy is image degradation – finer details are lost thanks to the resolution of the copier. When the image is simple, such as words in a sans-serif font or stick figures with thick lines, the losses are minimal and the details are easily seen. With an intricate painting with precise colours, the loss of detail hurts the copy. This tends to hold with adaptations.
It’s not that the adaptations of adaptations are bad. Many are acclaimed, including shows like M*A*S*H, which was based on the movie of the book, and the 1959 Ben Hur, a remake of the 1925 silent film adaptation Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ which itself was based on the novel of the same name. However, each step away from the original brought on changes. Robert Hooker’s MASH: A Novel of Three Army Doctors focused on the hijinks of the surgeons and nurses of the 4077. The movie built on it but added an anti-war angle, which was continued into the TV series, which then added more serious elements. The TV series may have had hijinks, but some of the practical jokes were done to keep sanity and the humour was kept out of the operating room.
What happens is that, unless the crew making the new adaptation takes a look at the original, they won’t know what needed to be removed to for the new format. If the crew is only familiar with the first adaptation of a work, there may be a wealth of detail they are unaware of. For example, if a studio decided to make a Harry Potter TV series based on the movies instead of JK Rowling’s books, key details will be lost, such as the importance of Neville Longbottom, who will lead the resistance at Hogwart’s in Year 7. Neville was critically ignored in the early movies because the studio wasn’t aware of what he would do later in the novels.
Yet, as mentioned above, adaptations of adaptations can stand on their own. The 1931 Frankenstein may be the definitive version with Karloff’s childlike monster, but the film owed more to the various plays that were written based on the original work than on Mary Shelley’s story. The M*A*S*H TV series won numerous awards over its eleven seasons. The 1959 Ben Hur was the most popular movie in its year of release. Just as adaptations aren’t necessarily bad, adaptations of adaptations aren’t necessarily bad. Comparing them to the original means following through the generations to see what went missing and why.
Part of the problem is that there are times that an adaptation becomes the definitive version of a work, despite the presence of the original. Movies like 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stargate SG-1 have surplassed their original works. With The Wizard of Oz, adaptations including The Wiz, with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and Muppets Wizard of Oz build off the movie, not L. Frank Baum’s original novel. The popularity of Buffy and SG-1 means that a remake of either, which has been suggested for both, needs to take into account the events in the TV series.
Despite the the loss of details from original works, adaptations of adaptations appear to be able to fill in the blanks, adding instead of removing. What helps is the original fading into the background. A more obscure original work leave both the adaptation and the adaptation of the adaptation wriggle room to make changes. The hypothetical Harry Potter TV series doesn’t have that wriggle room, while the M*A*S*H TV series needed that space to allow the characters to develop. The Harry Potter novels are still too popular to ignore outright.
Adaptations of adaptations will happen. Movies get remade. TV series get rebooted. It’s the nature of the beast. Details can get lost. Yet, it is possible for the second generation adaptation to surpass its precursors. It takes work, but the results are worth it.
After analysing a number of adaptations over the past few years, it’s nigh time to examine how the different sources of material affects how a work is adapted. The History of Adaptations series helped show the different sources that led to popular works, with other works being reviewed expanding the list.
Literary sources cover a wide range, from novels to short stories to plays to poems. Each source has its own challenges for adaptations. Novels, being a longer form, tend to lose details when adapted as films. A series of novels adapted to film can lose critical scenes, especially if the adaptation begins before the last as happened with the Harry Potter series. Television may be the better format for novels; while individual episodes are shorter than a film’s run time, a full season gives more time to delve into the work. With the today’s choices for television going far beyond the three-channel universe, a traditional 22 episode season isn’t needed. Mini-series can take as long as needed. One other means to adapt a novel is to just use the characters and create new situations, such as happened with The Dresden Files. The benefit of novels is that their popularity is easy to track. The New York Times‘ best sellers lists, while flawed still provide studios an idea of how well a title is selling. A novel that makes headlines because of fan enthusiasm makes the choice to adapt it easy.
At the other end of length, short stories may not have enough material to fill a movie’s runtime. Studios would have to extrapolate and expand from the events in the story, sometimes to the point where the film could have been its own work. A television series would not work, unless the idea is to keep the characters in further situations. However, an anthology series could take the story and adapt it. The Twilight Zone did this throughout its run, with episodes like “Steel” and “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” being typical.
Plays don’t have the problem of having too much or too little story when it comes to being adapted as a film. A typical play is performed in about the same time as a film, possibly a little longer. The script is already written; all the director needs to do is remember that the fourth wall is now the camera’s lens instead of the audience. Plays don’t work out as well for television; length is the limiting factor.
Poems and songs do get adapted, though not to the same degree as other literary sources. The poem or song needs to be narrative, providing or at least implying a plot of some sort. “Harper Valley PTA” may be the best example, having been made into a movie that was then adapted as a TV series. The song provided the basis for the plots in both. Popular songs are easy to track, through Top 40 lists and YouTube hits.
Comics are a popular source for adaptations today. The bright costumes, the spectacle of superheroes fighting supervillains, and the almost black-and-white morality of pulp western serials are a lure for filmmakers. Yet, as a serialized means of storytelling, a comics adaptation could easily find a home on television. The plots are already storyboarded, though only Scott Pilgrim vs the World took advantage of that. Right now, the looming problem is audience burnout. At some point, audiences will want something different, but not too different. Yet, comics cover a wide range, something Marvel Studios has been exploiting. Each of the Marvel movies has been superheroes crossed with something else, from technothriller (Iron Man) to heist movie (Ant Man) to romantic comedy (Deadpool). The variety available in comics, not just the superhero titles, makes the medium ripe for the picking. Add in foreign titles, such as manga, and the surface has barely been scratched.
Television looks like it could make the jump to the silver screen. There have been attempts. The problem is the differences in running times. A TV episode today can run either 22 or 45 minutes, with breaks for ads. A full season can each 22 episodes. Neither fit well into a 2 to 2.5 hour film. Expanding an episode is similar to expanding a short story; much more needs to be added. Age of the work is another matter. Some series, like Entourage, have a goal to end with a cinematic release. Other series may have just enough popularity to risk trying a movie, like Firefly and Veronica Mars. The end result may be true to the TV show, but may not get the critical mass needed for an audience. Older series have another issue; while it may have been popular in its day, a TV series may not be well known to today’s audience. The Beverly Hillbillies, while almost note perfect as an adaptation, didn’t have the name recognition needed to get people out to it. Remaking and rebooting a TV series can work, though. Star Trek returned as Star Trek: The Next Generation to a much larger fanbase than the original series had when it first aired. The new Battlestar Galactica lasted longer than the original, providing a different look at the ragtag fleet searching for Earth.
Film remakes are also popular today. There appears to be a roughly thirty to forty year gap between originals and remakes. Take a look at King Kong; ignoring sequels, after the giant ape’s first appearance in 1933, the movie was remade in 1976 and 2005. With home video tape players and, later, DVD and Blu-Ray players along with specialty movie cable channels and streaming services, this gap may need to grow. The availability of older movies in homes grew tremendously in the Eighties. While the 1959 Ben Hur didn’t need to compete with the first adaptation, a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark has the original available and in many home movie libraries. Adapting a movie to a TV series means further exploration of the film. M*A*S*H and Stargate SG-1 are arguably the most successful film-to-TV adaptations, both having run ten years and are both still available in syndication and on DVD. Not every movie can make the jump to television; the film needs to leave room for further stories featuring the characters.
Video games have had a rough time in adaptation. The early video game movies were either poorly done or completely missed the mark; Super Mario Bros illustrates the latter well. Video games turned out to have similar problems as literary sources. Early games, especially arcade games, had just enough plot to lure players before letting them button mash. similar to the problem of adapting a short story. Later video games, especially once home consoles had the ability to save games in progress, provided for a longer story, requiring several hours of game play. Parasite Eve‘s ten to twenty hours for completion is on the short side. What some adaptations have done is provide extra information for players, either what happened prior to the game or what happened after. Animated adaptations, most in the form of a cartoon like Super Mario Bros Super Show, have been more successful. In most cases, the cartoon just takes the characters and some of the game play and create new stories around them.
Other games, such as boardgames and tabletop RPGs, see similar problems to video games with added layers of abstraction. Clue may have been the best adaptation of a boardgame; the game itself is a murder mystery with a cast of investigators and one murderer, ideal for translating to the big screen. Battleship, on the other hand, tried to incorporate elements from the game but there wasn’t much to bring in, resulting in a mess of a movie. With tabletop RPGs, the problem is that, while there may be an idea of what game play looks like, the game itself is social. Players create their own characters and storylines. Studios are competing with the imagination of the players. Tabletop RPGs are also a niche market; very few games get beyond specialty stores and into book stores.
Toys may have had the best success rate of all sources mentioned here. Most adaptations of toys started as a way to market the toy itself. However, to keep the audience watching, story and character development happened. Cartoons like Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic took the idea of the toy and expanded on it, creating settings and introducing characters. Not every adaptation succeeded; the live action Jem and the Holograms was pulled from theatres after two weeks. The problem studios need to watch out for is reaction by parental groups and popularity of the toy. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future ended on a heart wrenching note because while the series had an audience, the toyline did not. Even a mess of a movie, like Michael Bay’s Transformers, can still be a decent adaptation.
On side note, Bay’s Transformers didn’t have continuity issues. The Transformers series already had multiple continuities, with fans well aware that cinematic universes are a thing. Bay may have been well aware of the problems he was going to face and made the one move that brought Transformers fans on board – he brought in Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. A loud movie with explosions featuring Autobots and Decepticons fighting kept the fans happy. Getting key details right can go a long way in making a good adaptation.
Not every adaptation is successful, and not every adaptation is accurate. The goal for studios is to overcome the challenges of the source material. There’s a change coming in how television is seen; once a vast wasteland catering to the lowest common denominator, TV is now exploring new ways its format can tell stories. Film, while still seen as the goal for adaptations, is becoming stale, mainly because of remakes, reboots, and other adaptations. The format of the original work may require a hard look at how it is adapted.
Adaptations will happen. It`s the nature of Hollywood. Audiences aren’t fleeing away yet, so there’s no reason not to adapt. However, if all that is done is adaptations, original sources get scarce. The easy ones are on the verge of being over done. A couple of news articles this past week show that there are studios looking beyond just remakes.
First, Amazon picked up Tales from the Loop to make an eight episode series. Tales from the Loop is a collection of paintings by Simon Stålenhag showing an alternate Sweden of the Eighties, one where the landscape includes kids and unusual machines and buildings, the latter two being part of a particle accelerator program. The original paintings were gathered into one book, which then spawned a tabletop RPG of the same name. The Kickstarter raised enough money to have an American Loop project added, resulting in more paintings by Stålenhag. It looks like Amazon is trying to cash in on Netflix’s Stranger Things, but the collection of paintings was done prior to that series.
The second announcement uses a more mainstream source. Lively McCabe Entertainment and Primary Wave licensed Plain White T’s “Hey There, Delilah” as the basis for a romantic dramedy to shop around to networks. The song is a hit and has been featured on several TV series since its first release in 2006. Music has been used before as a source, but typically for either episodes of TV series or as a movie. “Hey There, Delilah” does have characters – Delilah, a university student, and an unnamed singer-songwriter, using the song to stay close to her while on the otherside of the country. That might be enough to at least start the series.
Notably, neither announcement is for a movie. Both are TV series. Television, though, isn’t the wasteland it used to be. The competition for audiences goes beyond the three-channel, lowest common denominator and now includes specialty channels and streaming. The goal now is to attract an audience that has become finicky in what it wants. With Tales from the Loop, the short run will keep the series focused on the mixture of mundane and mysterious. With “Hey There Delilah”, audiences are familiar with the idea of romantic dramedies already; the song becomes the hook.
Are these two announcements the start of a new trend? That depends on their success. Television is tough these days. If Amazon can reproduce the immersive quality of Stålenhag’s paintings, Loop should raise a following. The dramedy of “Hey There, Delilah” may have it rougher, but if the main characters are compelling, the series should have a few good seasons.
Remakes happen. The known element is popular with audiences, for all that people moan about the lack of original movies. Lost in Translation has looked at the problems different sources have when being translated to film, but remaking a movie has its own issues. For most genres, it’s not a problem. People will enjoy the same story over and over, whatever the format. For horror and mystery, there’s a problem.
Horror and mystery rely on tension and the unknown. In horror, it’s a question of when something happens, with setting, lighting, and music the only cues. Mysteries rely on solving the puzzle, following clues to the end. In both genres, knowing the end result takes away from the suspense. The remake of The Evil Dead took the same situation – a cabin in the middle of the woods and a group of young adults – and, while having similar beats to the original, added its own twists so that audiences couldn’t rely on their knowledge of the older movie.
Before the Eighties, most older films could be found either in repertory theatres or on television, either late night or weekend mornings. With the typical time between original movie and a remake being about thirty years or so, a new generation of audience could grow up without having seen the source. The Eighties, though, were when the VCR took off with hardware and available movies coming down in cost to be practical for the home. Specialty cable stations added to the availability of older movies. Today, with DVDs and streaming, if a film exists, it can usually be found somewhere on demand. A movie from the Eighties, ie, thirty years ago, is still available to the next generation of audience. The twists and turns that made an original movie suspenseful now makes a remake predictable. Yet, people want the familiar. Directors of remakes are in a tough spot. The audience wants the remake to be faithful, but not too faithful.
Slasher films and monster movies have an out. Audiences are there to see the star – the slasher or the monster, different sides of the same coin – do what they do best, kill people. Few people watch a Godzilla movie to cheer the Japanese Self-Defense Force; they’re there to see Godzilla stomp through Tokyo. Toho has rebooted the series, but hasn’t really remade the original.
Another issue with horror remakes is that horror films tend to reflect the fears of the time they are made. Going back to Godzilla, the original film was made in response to the growing fears of atomic weapons, made in a country that had the first and only two atomic bombs dropped on it. Other fears that have shown up include machines turning on humanity (Maximum Overdrive, The Terminator), humanity’s interference with nature (The Thing, Sharktopus), loss of identity (The Fly, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Borg), the faceless other (zombie films), and the seductive other (vampire movies). While some of those fears are part of being human, others change as understanding is gained and political winds blow.
Mysteries may not rely on the fear of the day, but they do rely on the puzzle. With information at the audience’s fingertips today, it’d be easy to do a quick search to find out whodunit. Adapting a mystery from literature doesn’t quite have the same problem; the audience is there to see a story they enjoyed on screen, not solve the puzzle. Remaking a mystery, though, needs to create new twists to keep the audience on its toes. There are exceptions, such as Columbo where the draw is to see how the detective solves the murder, but most mysteries rely on not knowing who the killer is until the reveal. Even the live action Scooby-Doo, while still using the tropes of the cartoon including having the monster really be someone the kids have met, created its own plot instead of using one of the animated episodes.
There are ways around the problem. The first is to make the new movie a reboot, picking up where the previous film left off. The TV series Ash vs Evil Dead is a continuation of the original The Evil Dead with Ash getting into more trouble. It’s easier with slasher films and monster movies; the star is the attraction, so even with new casting, as long as the main character acts in the expected way, the audience is satisfied. Mysteries may have a harder time, depending on how much the original actor was tied to the character. Peter Falk made Columbo his character; it’ll be some time before an audience will accept a newcomer to the role. However, other characters, like Sherlock Holmes, have been portrayed by a large number of different actors.
The key in any remake is to provide the audience what they expect. With horror, the expectation is suspense and scares; with mysteries, it’s a whodunit. The characters in the remake should behave like they did in the original, even if the plot has changed. Shaggy shouldn’t sound like an Oxford scholar and Ash Williams shouldn’t be the luckiest man alive. Get these details correct, and the audience won’t mind changes to the plot.