Can*Con once again ran 2017, over the weekend of October 13-15. One panel of particular interest to Lost in Translation was “Adaptation: Turning Your Novel into a Script, and Vice-Versa”, presented by Canadian science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, whose work has been adapted, including the recent ABC TV series Flashforward. He has also contributed to Star Trek Continues, having written the tenth episode, “To Boldly Go, Part 1”.
Sawyer started with the differences between traditional publishing and scriptwriting. The big differences is pay rate. Traditional publishing pays roughly six cents per word. The pay rate for a forty-four minute teleplay, approx six thousand words, works out to about six dollars per word. However, an author who has been paid for a novel will see the book published and out to an audience. There is no guarantee that a script will be filmed; only one percent of scripts that have been paid for ever get produced. Likewise, if an novel has been optioned for an film adaptation, it still may not be made. The situation is worse outside Hollywood; Canadian studios acquire works instead of producing their own.
There’s also a difference between script and prose. The written word in a novel, novella, or short story allows for the inner life of a character. The reader has access to the character’s inner thoughts. With film and television, that approach seldom works. Blade Runner was saddled with a narration by studio execs to try to explain what was happening, but the narration fell flat with audiences. The problem lies in the language and grammar of the different media.
Novels tend to follow one viewpoint character in a scene. A scene takes as long as needed to show an emotion change. An author can paint the scene, taking as long as needed to give the reader. The example Sawyer gave was him getting up, looking out the window to see the weather, then going through his morning routine before arriving at Can*Con and the panel, then seeing his old friend in the front row! All one scene, with the emotional charge going from positive to extra-positive.
Film, though, cuts from character to character, with the viewpoint being that of the camera and, thus, the audience. The average scene, that is, the length of time allowed for an emotional change, is one minute. Film starts the scene as close as possible to the emotional change and ends as soon as possible after. There is no time spent building up. The example above would start with Sawyer entering the room where the panel is held and ending after he sees his friend.
The above is why Lost in Translation looks at adaptations as translating a work from one medium to another. Each medium has its own way of storytelling. With film, the screenwriter, despite creating the work, has little say in what happens with it. Directors and actors have far more influence. The script is sparse, terse and tells instead of shows. There is only the bare bones – setting, telling the general action, and dialogue.
Changes in storytelling in film and television have changed over the years. Today, most shows have an A- and a B-story, allowing for internal cliffhangers by switching between the two stories. This hasn’t always been the approach; TV shows of the past have only had just the A-storyline. Star Trek is a great example of the differences. The original series seldom had a B-story, with the exception of “The Guardian of Forever”. The Next Generation, though had both A- and B-stories, and sometimes included a C-story. Film isn’t quite as bad, mainly because the cast is smaller and tends to follow one main character, but it’s not unknown there, either.
The current three-act approach for film comes from Syd Fields’ paradigm, published in 1979. The approach is artificial, but has been in use since the book’s publication. With television, the act breaks are the commercial breaks, allowing for cliffhangers just before the ads. Some TV movies take advantage of the commercial breaks; Special Bulletin used the structure of news coverage of a terrorist group threatening to set off a nuclear weapon to slip in ads the same way a news department would, making the ad breaks feel natural while still upping the tension.
Film, also using the three-act structure, has a different timing from TV. In a 120 minute film, the first act and last act are each thirty minutes. The middle act is the longest at sixty minutes. The beginning is done quickly; get the characters, setting, and situation introduced to get the to good part as fast as possible. The ending is also quick, wrapping up fast once all the action is done. The second act is where the character has an epiphany, usually at the midpoint.
The paradigm, at least for television, may be changing, thanks to season arcs, Netflix, and binge watching. Shows like the Battlestar Galactica reboot and A Game of Thrones have shown that television does not need to be episodic. The individual episodes may still follow the three-act structure, but the season and the series are akin to novels for television. With that change, the structure of how an episode is made may evolve.
Of note for potential NaNoWriMo participants, pantsers don’t do well as scriptwriters. The process requires knowing where things are heading, with the treatment, or the beat-by-beat outline, taking forty percent of the time. The treatment is followed by two drafts followed by a polish, all done within fourteen days if for television. Every point in the story must be known.
Along with Fields’ paradigm, Sawyer suggested Robert McKee’s Story for additional reading. He also pointed out that many scripts are available online for legal download, in part so that members of Writer’s Guild of America and the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can vote on best screenplay without revealing who they are. These screenplays will let aspiring writers see how movies have been written and how works have been adapted.
Lost in Translation has examined the passage of time on technology and how that affects adaptations and remakes. However, technology isn’t the only thing to change over time. Society and culture aren’t static. What was one scandalous may now be commonplace. What was once de rigeur is now out of fashion. What was once common practice is now forbidden by regulations.
Older contemporary works are seen as period pieces today. The social mores of Jane Eyre have long given way, so adaptations place it during its time. Prohibition limits The Great Gatsby to the 1920s. Changing the setting of either requires work to make the stories believable in the new era. Today’s world isn’t as class-based as the Victorian era and the excesses of the Twenties fall flat in today’s borderline recession.
Some works don’t have that nice delineation in their era. Their themes are considered timeless. But the details have begun to date them. Adaptations that don’t take into account the changes are going to fall flat. Take Catcher in the Rye, a novel commonly assigned in high school English classes. The novel was written in the Forties and reflected education and teenage isolation of the time. While teenage worries of finding a place in the world is still a concern, the details of the novel date the work. Today, Holden wouldn’t have flunked out of four schools; at some point, his learning disability would have been diagnosed long before the story began. He wouldn’t have been able to leave school without permission without an Amber alert being issued. And there is no way he could have walked into a bar to order any alcohol without ID; bars risk losing their license and both the establishment and the bartender risk large fines. While the book appears to be contemporary, it isn’t, and any adaptation, assuming the Salinger estate allows one, needs to be able to adjust for these changes.
It’s not necessary to go back that far. Even works from the Eighties needs to adjust. The 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice had to account for how much the War on Drugs had changed since the TV series began airing in 1984. The police have become far more militarized, with military-surplus gear, in the intervening time. And not all changes are obvious. Subtle changes have happened over the past few decades.
Contemporary novels aren’t the only works affected. Science fiction has always been about the issues of the time the works were written. Let’s take two episodes from the original Star Trek, “Let That Be Your Final Battlefield” and “Day of the Dove”. With “Let That Be Your Battlefield”, the message was that discriminating because of skin colour was destructive, as the last two survivors from a planet where the only difference between peoples was whether they were black on the left side or the right side. Today, while the message is still needed, the approach would be less of a sledgehammer, like in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Far Beyond the Stars” which showed how discrimination hurt people. The message of “Day of the Dove” was that it is possible for foes to set aside differences and come to peace. In the original Trek, the Klingons represented the Soviet Union while the Federation acted as a stand-in for the US at a time when the Cold War was in full force and almost turned hot after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the Cold War is in the past and, for the most part, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been dropping since the Eighties.
A quick fast forward to 1978 to the original Battlestar Galactica provides another example. At the time, women were beginning to try to break into the combat arms of various military services. The first American woman to be a combat pilot was Jeannie Leavitt in 1993. In the episode “The Lost Planet of the Gods”, to replenish the losses in shuttle pilots during the evacuation of both the Twelve Colonies and Carillon, the Galactica opened flight training to all, including women. In the episode, thanks to a disease picked up on a planet, the Galactica‘s fighter corps was down to just Apollo and Starbuck, forcing the new shuttle pilots to upgrade their skills to fly Vipers, the starfighters. On a mission to escort a medical shuttle to the planet to find a cure for the disease, Apollo and Starbuck lead the new pilots, but each needs to break off, one to check the planet for a safe landing zone, the other to check on a Cylon fighter trailing the squadron. When Starbuck leaves, he places Lieutenant Deitra, played by Sheila DeWindt, a black woman, in charge. Deidra gets four on-screen Cylon kills over the two-part episode and returns in a later episode. Today, though, the idea of not having women in any combat arms, especially in an advanced society, is considered backwards, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot showed women, including Kara Thrace and Sharon Valerii, as pilots with no fanfare about their gender.
Even today’s works will be affected in the future. As a wise green Muppet once said, “Always in motion is the future“. Most works will be based on current culture and issues. Creators can try to predict, but the most surprising thing about these predictions is that there is a success rate. What speculative fiction can do is explore the potential issues, from treatment of artificial intelligences to the problems of extraterrestrial colonization, and get people to think about them. The idea of firsts – first man in space, first woman to become a fighter pilot, first black man to command a mission on the International Space Station – will fall eventually as the firsts are achieved, yet today, they are important to track.
Culture is changing. The only constant is change. Adaptations, including remakes and reboots, will have to either keep the original work in its original time or make the effort to adjust the work to reflect the changes. Both approaches have challenges, and it is possible that an original cannot be easily updated.
Every once in a while, there will be a film adaptation that perfectly highlights a key point at Lost in Translation. For the perfect adaptation that still fails at the box office, there’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. For the by-the-checklist approach, Battleship. And for adaptations that miss audience expectations, there’s Jem and the Holograms.
Jem, though, wasn’t a bad movie nor a bad adaptation. The movie just wasn’t what audiences wanted to see. Audiences wanted the cartoon adapted, not just the dolls. While the movie did pull characters from the animated adaptation, the direction it took went against the nostalgia the older audience had for the cartoon, and the older audience would be the group taking the target audience to the theatre.
The nostalgia factor is one of the draws for adaptations, especially for older works. It’s easy enough to take a currently popular work and adapt it; the Harry Potter films were successful because they drew from the books’ readers while they waited for the next book in the series to be written. Adaptations of older works don’t normally have an obvious audience that current works do. There are exceptions; episodes of every Star Trek series are easily found and Star Wars has expanded its fandom by expanding its universe. Word of mouth, the way Trek fandom spread in the early days and how Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew, is hard to measure. DVD sales and tracking online streaming might work, but with all the different ways to watch old shows today, TV ratings don’t always reflect the audience numbers. Likewise, an older work that was popular in its time might not bring in the audience it once did. Tastes change, and what was once popular may have faded away.
In-name-only adaptations are a problem. These adaptations happen when a studio understands that a work is popular without understanding why. The 1998 Godzilla demonstrates the problem. Godzilla has a long cinematic history, and the draw is the kaiju himself. Iterative changes to his appearance isn’t a problem; a massive makeover is. The 1998 film could easily have been its own monster movie, but needed the draw of the Godzilla name. Not helping matters is that movies featuring giant monsters are in a small niche. An original monster movie, once the staple of B-movies, has a limited audience. Studios either have to build on an existing name or franchise, or create an original while keeping special effects costs down*. Both are risky at a time when studios are notoriously risk adverse.
Studios can take advantage of the nostalgia factor. Curiosity will draw in fans of the original, provided that the adaptation doesn’t drift too far away from the concept. The Jem film adaptation is a good example of what happens when the adaptation drifts too far from the work fans are most familiar with, resulting in a two week run in theatres. At the same time, it is possible to have an adaptation that does break from the original and still do well at the box office; 21 Jump Street being a good example. The key to using nostalgia as a draw is making sure either that fans of the original won’t feel like they are being made fun of or that the new builds on the old.
However, relying on nostalgia alone to draw an audience is risky. The original’s name isn’t enough. Thanks to the success of the film adaptation of the Harry Potter series and, to a lesser degree, The Hunger Games, audiences are more demanding about faithfulness to the original. The worst thing a studio can do today is to use the name of an older, serious work and turn it into a comedy. That move will alienate fans of the original, the fate of such adaptations as The Land of the Lost and CHiPs. The former adaptation was turned into a comedy vehicle for Will Farrell, losing the core of what drew audiences to the original. The latter took a police procedural along the lines of Dragnet, Adam-12 and Emergency** showing a work day for a pair of California Highway Patrolmen and, again, turned it into a comedy with almost no resemblance to the original except for names.
Name recognition is a key reason why studios are adaptation prone. An original work will require effort from the studio to raise interest in an audience. A known name, whether a popular actor or a popular original work, gets attention. That’s not enough, though; the new adaptation now has to stand out in the crowd of adaptations. Audiences are less accepting of changes for the sake of change. They want the characters they know and love.
There are workarounds for the studio. The first is to take a work with name recognition but not well known. While contradictory, the idea is to find an original work with a core concept that is known but not the details. The studio has more leeway in how the work is adapted as a result. The 21 Jump Street film adaptation went this route. The TV series was known in the Eighties, but because it was on the then-fledgling Fox network, the series wasn’t well known to audiences, and is best known for having a young Johnny Depp in the cast. The core concept – police officers undercover in a high school – is broad enough to make the jump from television to silver screen. In contrast, CHiPs was on NBC, one of the three networks available and ran in syndicated reruns even while still airing new episodes, bringing in a larger audience. The approach wouldn’t work with The X-Files; the series found an audience in the science fiction fandom and had a more dedicated following.
Second, the studio could take a popular older original and update it for a more modern take. Society and technology are always changing. What was once ground-breaking has turned quaint or has led to new issues that weren’t even on the horizon when the original first appeared. The classic “woman trying to make her way in a man’s world” sitcom from the Sixties and Seventies, such as That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show looked at issues important at the time. Today, while many of those issues are moot, new ones have taken their place, allowing for an update of the sitcom. The catch here is that many of those sitcoms are tightly tied to the main actors. Workcoms, sitcoms set at a workplace, fare better here. Dynamics have changed, but interpersonal relationships still exist. Taking an older workcom and bringing it to today isn’t difficult and allows for several of the original actors to return. The original WKRP in Cincinnati was set at a low-rated radio station with an unusual group of personalities; the remake, The New WKRP in Cincinnati kept the station, brought back several characters, and introduced new ones, all perfectly plausible in the industry. The main problem The New WKRP had was quality; the original set too high a bar and was in syndicated reruns when the new series aired through first-run syndication.
Finally, the studio could go back to an original’s core concept and present a new take that still works with the idea. The Battlestar Galactica reboot series is a prime example. Both the original and the rebooted Galactica featured the last of humanity escaping the destruction of their home on a ragtag fleet. The original, though, was a family drama as the fleet was shepherded by Commander Adama to find Earth; while the Cylons were bent on destroying the Galactica, the series maintained a hopeful tone for the survivors. The reboot, however, took a harsher look and didn’t focus on just the Adamas; the show put in doubt humanity’s survival and demonstrated how the different aspects of society clashed in the crisis. Both series were popular, but the reboot garnered more attention and is now the one audiences will remember.
Audience expectation has to be managed. The studio needs to know what the audience expects from an adaptation. Just taking an original and adapting it because it’s popular or it’s a comic book isn’t enough. Adapting is popular with studios because of the built-in audience, but ignoring why that audience followed the original will lead to disaster.
* The low budget approach is how the SyFy monster movies work, including Sharktopus, the Sharknado series, and Lavalantula. They typically feature a known name and cheesy special effects that are part of the charm of the movies.
** Technically, Emergency was more a paramedic procedural, but it did show how the Los Angeles Fire Department’s program worked.
With superhero movies becoming a mainstay in theatres, the question arises, what is the border between adapting and expanding a franchise? Lost in Translation has already touched on the question, but as comics get adapted for both film and television and movie series get TV series and comics, the line between adaptation and franchise gets blurred.
The difference between a tie-in work and an adaptation is academic. The 007 movie franchise started with one adaptation, Dr. No, but grew from there. Likewise, Marvel’s cinematic universe started with just one film, Iron Man, and expanded when the movie succeeded at the box office. Tie-in works aren’t limited to going from books to movies; Star Trek, Star Wars, and Murder, She Wrote all have long-running series of novels with a goal of continuing the story begun in the original works.
The main difference between an adaptation and a franchise tie-in is perception. Tie-in works are seen as part of the monetization of a work, expanding the influence into other media. However, very few adaptations are made without an eye on turning a profit. Even the notable flops weren’t meant to fail at the box office. Studios and publishers aren’t charities; they exist to be profitable. That distinction between franchise and adaptation isn’t really a distinction.
Even licensing isn’t a factor in the difference. Reboots, a type of adaptation, are often done by the rights holder; Paramount rebooted Star Trek into Star Trek: The Next Generation to great success. Warner, DC Comics’ parent company. has rebooted the Batman movie franchise several times. In DC’s case, being owned by a movie studio does add a level of separation, but that doesn’t hold for Paramount and Star Trek.
Is the perception that adaptations and franchise tie-ins are different correct? Lost in Translation has been looking at how works are adapted, and every franchise has to start somewhere. There would be no Wonder Woman breaking box office records if William Moulton Marston hadn’t created the character for All Star Comics number 8. The difference between Disney getting Marvel to create a line of Star Wars comics and DiC creating The Real Ghostbusters under license from Sony or Saban licensing BattleTech from FASA for an animated series is how far out from the ownership of the adaptation is from the original work. Disney owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm; Sony didn’t own DiC nor did FASA own Saban. But the result, a new work based on an existing one, is still an adaptation.
Ultimately, what all the above means is that the field of available works to review at Lost in Translation has grown. There is still the same process when translating a work from its original medium to a new one, with the same problems to overcome.
And a quick reminder that Lost in Translation is on Facebook!
Last week’s look at Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future led to a questions – “When is an adaptation not an adaptation?” On investigation, Captain Power wound up being a parallel development. Gary Goddard had an idea for a TV series and Mattel had a technology they wanted to market. With Mattel’s backing, Goddard could produce Captain Power, at least for one season.
Captain Power isn’t the only work that looks like an adaptation but isn’t. In some franchises based on a series of books, a new entry starts in a different medium, but because of production time, the book gets released first. The 007 film, Thunderball, is such a movie. Fleming worked on the story for the film first, then wrote it as a novel while the movie was delayed. And this doesn’t happen to just franchises. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey began as a film treatment; he then wrote the novel while the movie went through production.
Figuring out what is and isn’t an adaptation does take research. Parallel developments aren’t apparent, even when checking the credits. It’s only after digging a bit that details come out. Some of that digging involves commentary tracks, so streaming isn’t always a good option for Lost in Translation. Fortunately, most creative types are happy to talk about the process with their works. It is easier to tell when a work is an adaptation, though. The credits state it outright, using phrases such as “Based on” or “Inspired by”. However, “Based on a story idea by” isn’t always a good indication. Many movies, including classics, begin from a story treatment submitted where there isn’t already an existing work.
Today, it’s easier to find out what is being adapted. Entertainment news and blogs will have this information out as soon as an announcement is made. Studios want and need fans of the original works to come out to the movie adaptation. Creators get excited about seeing their works in a new format. Finding announcements made in the last ten years is a quick web search away. Older works, though, may have had the announcements, but not with the same hype and not as easily found. Not everything is on the Internet. There are people who do the research, though, which does help.
Why mention these non-adaptations? They affect Lost in Translation in a two ways. First, there’s the discover of works that are suspected to be adaptations that aren’t. Captain Power last week is a good example. Likewise, Thunderball, which will be part of the 007 project, isn’t an adaptation. The film isn’t even an adaptation of the character to film. Ian Fleming wrote the screen treatment of the film before he wrote the novel; Thunderball is an original work in the 007 series with the novel being the adaptation. This issue is likely to show up in other franchises where the original work has grown beyond its original medium.
The second is the discovery that an adaptation isn’t. Reviewing a work does take time; both the original and adaptation must be seen. A longer work, either original or adaptation, takes more time. If it becomes apparant early that a work isn’t an adaptation, something else can be swapped in. However, reviewing longer works means that if the discovery is found on checking a secondary source, such as the commentary track or a website, then it gets too late to change gears. Sometimes, the non-adaptation can provide a look into the process of adapting, either by being an example of the problems faced or by showing how a creator works across multiple media.
Still, even these non-adaptations can provide an insight into how a work is adapted. Creators today can use the various media far more readily for far less cost than in the decades prior. Video cameras are now consumer goods. The Open Source movement means that video editing tools are easily found for low or no cost. Web sites are easily created and can allow creators to display their works, in full or in part, to entice potential audiences. Hollywood is the big producer, but it isn’t the only one.
The world’s best known secret agent has had a long history. Created by Ian Fleming and first published in 1953, James Bond has appeared in 57 books, including 43 by other authors, at least 29 movies, including those made outside the Eon continuity, and in comics. Bond has been portrayed by six different actors in the main franchise alone. With the sheer number of works available, the 007 movies provide a range of adaptations, from the close but not quite approaches of the early films to the in-name-only later works. One film even manages to adapt the novella as smaller portion of its longer running time.
Approaching the project will take time. Several ways of tackling the franchise exist. First is to go movie by movie. With over twenty movies in the main franchise, that will take time. a similar method would be to group the films by the actor playing Bond. That gives the Sean Connery and Roger Moore eras a longer analysis, and doesn’t take into account the one George Lazenby outing. I could also group three movies together, based on the order being used.
The order, though, is another question. There’s the order of the books, starting with Casino Royale. Using this order means jumping around in the film continuity, such as it exists, and several of the movies have titles that come from other aspects of the character instead of story titles, such as The World Is Note Enough. Movie order may be easier – the films may be better known now by the general audience than the books.
Much like the History of Adaptations, the Bond project won’t be week by week. Instead, the goal will be to have an entry each month, with the intervening weeks being saved for other analyses. This will give me time to read the novels and watch the movies again without being rushed. Right now, though, I’m taking suggestions on the approach. Would the best approach be reviewing one movie at a time or grouping the movies together? What order would be best, the books or the films? And should I touch the non-franchise films? Please answer in the comments below.
This will be a big project, but I hope that it will show the range of adapting styles used in cinema.
Since the dawn of television, the medium has been seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Film was seen as more prestigious. Today, though, the situation has reversed. While film adaptations are still desired by fans, television may be the better medium, allowing for greater depth. What happened?
In the US, television became dominated by three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. While there were other options, including the public broadcaster PBS, those three networks aired the bulk of TV series. The nature of ratings meant that, on average, a network could expect a third of the viewing audience for any given time slot. To attract a broader audience, the network would need a show with broad appeal, something that attracted families during the early evening and something that brought in adults later in the night. An inexpensive family drama could survive longer than an expensive high-brow science fiction series that needed special effects and dedicated sets. Broadcasters also could let a series find an audience. Even a 20 share meant that the network could sell the show to sponsors.
Film, however, was where the glamour was. Movies had an edge on television just on relative longevity alone. In the Fifties, colour was the norm for film, shown on a large screen. The stars were larger than life, thanks to the Hollywood glam machine. Even as televisions became more affordable, a weekly night out at the movies wasn’t a hardship. Studios still had limitations, though. The “voluntary” Hays Code, taking effect in 1930, put limits on what could be shown, leading to writers leaving what happened off-screen to the audience’s imagination. Beginning in the late Fifties, with Some Like it Hot, directors and studios started ignoring the Code, or, in the case of foreign film makers, weren’t bound by it in the first place. As a result, the MPAA introduced a classification system in 1968 that would let audiences decide for themselves what they were comfortable with.
Early television couldn’t compete with film. Television sets were small, with grainy black and white pictures, and very dependent on the strength of the broadcast signal. Movies were backed by studios with a good distribution system, shown on large screens that directors took full use of. Actors used television as a stepping stone towards a career in film. Better televisions were available, and colour became the standard for TV in the Sixties, but film still got the lion’s share of attention.
Then came the 500-channel universe. As cable grew, the choices available went from local and nearby broadcast stations to specialty channels available through subscription. Audiences could find a niche they wanted. Advertisers could target their market with more precision. Sports fans had several channels available to them, as did lovers of classic films and science fiction aficionados. With the expanded range available, specialty channels didn’t have to worry about the lowest common denominator. Networks, though, took time to learn the lesson. With the expanded competition, though, the quality of even the lowest of the low still had to improve. Add in time-shifting technologies as video cassette recorders and digital recording, viewers no longer had to plan around their favourite shows.
Film ran into new problems. The competition in television meant that there was less time for the weekly movie outing. The economic woes meant that nights out became rarer, especially after the Great Recession of 2007. Coupled with rising ticket and popcorn costs at theatres, who were trying to find ways to stay afloat despite record blockbusters, a movie night became a luxury. Not helping was the ballooning costs of making movies. Comedies were starting to cost as much as special effects laden science fiction movies; The Hangover 3 cost as much to make as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Studios now need films to be popular not just in the US, but also around the world. This need means aiming for the lowest common denominator, one that transcends international borders.
In contrast, televisions main problem is filling all the hours. Stations, broadcast and specialty alike, will still fill time by airing old programming. Sports stations will show classic games of the past; science fiction stations show older series that still have a following, like Star Trek; movie channels will show classic films of yesteryear. The stations will also create new programming as well. The quality may not be great, but even Sharktopus brings in an audience. Budget is a concern, but specialty channels can create TV series that brings in subscribers.
For adaptations, this reversal of roles means that television is the better medium, especially for long form works like novels. HBO’s success with A Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and AMC’s similar success with The Walking Dead, based on the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, showed that it is possible to create a series that resonates with audiences. Naturally, there were follow-the-leader adaptations, especially in fantasy with MTV adapting Terry Brooks’ Shannara series as The Shannara Chronicles. Television allows for greater depth over a season than possible in a two hour film, allowing the adaptation to take the time it needs to present the characters properly.
Film still has its glamour, though. Movies have budgets that television can only dream of. The same budgets, though, mean that most studios aren’t going to take huge risks. Deadpool, an R-rated superhero raunchy comedy, would never have been made if the X-Men franchise didn’t get past the first movie. With television’s lower budgets, a failed pilot isn’t as much of a loss as a blockbuster dud, and the expectation of TV pilots is lower.
The reversal of roles between film and television is recent and the root is economic. Adaptations of longer works, including series of novels, television has become the medium of choice. Film’s competitive edge has eroded, and television is coming into its own.
Most of the works analyzed here at Lost in Translation have been the a partial or full adaptation of the story in an original. While the degree of success may change from work to work, the intent was to take the whole of an original work and move it to another or, in the case of remakes and reboots, the same medium. However, not every adaptation aims for that goal. A small few don’t use the story so much as the main character or characters. The most recent analysis featuring a character being adapted is the 2007 Nancy Drew film.
For the most part, when a work gets adapted, it’s because the adapter wants to bring the story over to the new medium. With movies, the studio wants to bring in the fans, and the safest way is to remake the story in the original work and place it on screen. Tinkering can cause a backlash, especially with the speed of today’s social media. Warner Bros. would have been crucified if they had altered the Harry Potter films in any way from how the novels presented not just the characters but the setting.
With some works, though, chosing an iconic moment to tell is difficult. This becomes especially true for long running series. The tendency for non-comics media versions of superheroes to go off in their own directions has been discussed before; the short version is that the needs of the new medium, either a film with limited time to delve into the intricacies of the character and plots or a TV series with time to fill, will cause the adaptation to veer in a new direction. Even Marvel Studio’s offerings and Fox’s X-Men films, based on story lines in the comics, have their own take.
It’s not just superheroes, though. Supers are noticeable because of their popularity in theatres. Other long running series have been adapted. The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories ran from 1930 until 2003, with 175 titles released in that time. With all the titles available, the 2007 movie still created a new mystery for her; the character is better known than any one of her published books. Even James Bond, with Ian Fleming writing 12 novels and 2 collections of short stories, has been adapted as a character. While the first three Sean Connery movies, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger stayed close to the original novels, though with some changes, later works, including The Man With the Golden Gun and Octopussy, both with Roger Moore, and the entirety of the Pierce Brosnan run, featured new stories about Bond*.
That’s not to say that anytime a character with a series gets an adaptation, the work is automatically a character adaptation. The 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve and 2013’s Man of Steel are both about the same character, but they also both retell the character’s story, just through different interpretations. Likewise, the 2011 remake of The Mechanic told the same story, just with a different approach, an action movie instead of a character piece.
The flip side to the above is that a work doesn’t have to focus on just one character to be a character adaptation. The exemplar here is The Addams Family from 1991. The movie showed the Addamses coping with life among the mundanes. Each character was recognizable, not just in appearance but in action and personality. The movie extrapolated from both the original one-panel comics and the 1964 TV series to explore what they would do outside the comfort of their home.
At what point does an adaptation become more about the character or characters than the original story? The main difference is having a new plot created for the character, as with Nancy Drew, The Addams Family, and the sequels to the Tim Burton Batman film. This approach works well when the character is better known than any of his or her existing stories, which tends to happen with older characters. Pop culture osmosis means that a younger generation will know of the character in general without having experienced the original work first hand, if at all. Nancy Drew is a teenage girl detective who can get herself in and out of trouble. The Addamses, as the song says, “They’re creepy and they’re kooky.” James Bond is a suave British agent with a license to kill.
Another way to tell that a work is a spin-off. Spin-offs are works that are related to an original or even an adaptation, based on a character or situation that was minor in the original but got attention from the audience. The Ma & Pa Kettle series of movies came about after the hard luck characters in The Egg and I became breakout hits despite being supporting characters. The Angel spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed the tortured vampire to LA after leaving Sunnydale. After Cheers ended, Frasier followed the character to Seattle. In each of these cases, the character’s/characters’ story continued. Note that not all spin-offs are popular. There are times when a studio misreads the audience’s desires; this was the case with the Friends spin-off, Joey. Friends was popular, lasting ten seasons. When it wrapped up, fans still wanted more, so NBC spun off the character of Joey. The new show didn’t maintain the ratings the parent show had, and only lasted two seasons.
Like full works, characters can also be adapted. While adapting a character for a new medium is part of the process of adaptation, it is possible for a character to be adapted without the rest of his or her story. The degree of success lies in how well the adapters – whether studio executives, comic artists and writers, or even fanfic authors – understand the character and can portray that understanding to the audience.
* Special mention here for the Timothy Dalton outing, The Living Daylights, which re-told the short story of the same name, then expanded on it. The full 007 series deserves to have its own project as it covers not just simple adaptation, but character adaptation and expansion into a franchise.
Last week’s look at Mercury Theater’s War of the Worlds saw HG Wells’ science fiction story about the invasion of Britain by Martian war tripods moved wholesale to New Jersey. The radio drama is a classic presentation; yet, localization is becoming problematic today, with concerns about live action version of both Ghost in the Shell and Akira around. Today’s post will look at the issues around localizations.
A localization is an adaptation remade for a new audience, taking into account what the culture that the audience lives in. An localization made for an American audience is better known as an Americanization. Several popular television series came about because of Americanization, including All in the Family, after the UK series Till Death Do Us Part; Three’s Company, after the UK series Man About the House, and The Office, after the UK series of the same name. Not every attempt to Americanize a foreign work succeeds, though. The nigh-infamous clip of Saban’s Sailor Moon missed the core of what the original was about in an attempt to bring the anime across the ocean.
The difference between Mercury Theater’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds and Saban’s failed Sailor Moon adaptation lies in the intent. Mercury Theater’s goal was to scare New York City; bringing over the Martian invasion from the British countryside to New Jersey, across the river from the Big Apple. The biggest changes to the story were location and time, with a focus that changed from a first-person narrative to eyewitness news reports on the radio. To the end Mercury Theater wanted, the action had to be close to the listeners. An invasion of Britain would not have had the immediate impact that destroying Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, had.
With Saban’s Sailor Moon, the intent was to bring in a popular anime series without necessarily bringing the aninme. The new series was part live action, part animated, with a superficial resemblance to the original. However, the core of the original Sailor Moon was, ultimately, the concept of a shoujo heroine in Japanese fiction. Usagi is the least likely person to ever save the world multiple times. She’s not the smartest, not the strongest, and not the bravest, but she has heart. Her heart is how she defeats villain after villain. Sailor Moon wins not because she’s the most powerful, but because she believes in her friends and is willing to extend a hand in friendship. Usagi is the hero, not Sailor Moon, and that’s a concept that can get easily lost in translation.
Note that both adaptations have a target audience. Even Saban’s attempt at localizing /Sailor Moon/ was based on the company’s knowledge of American children’s television. Likewise, the three TV series mentioned at the beginning were well aware of the audience that would be watching. Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family, had seen episodes of Till Death Do Us Part and was struck by how much the relationship portrayed there resembled the one he had with his father. All in the Family was built upon that resemblance, allowing a near-universal experience be the core. The American version of The Office reflected the American work experience, which, because of differences in labour laws between the US and the UK, results in a different dynamic.
Television has the luxury of being able to target a specific audience. The bulk of the television work out of Hollywood is meant for American consumption, with foreign markets a bonus. Movies, though, don’t have that option. With budgets rising and frequently break the $200 million mark, studios can’t rely on the domestic take to break even. Films on the big screen need to have a broader appeal today. A work that is known internationally is a draw studios want, but too many try to Americanize to appease the domestic market. Some of these works, though, don’t translate well. Ganriki.org has gone into details about the problems surrounding the live action Akira movie, from the screenplay to the purpose of the movie. Essentially, the US was never the target of the only two atomic weapons used in war, and never had to rebuild after a defeat, something that is inseparable from Akira.
Moving away from anime, Harry Potter was spared from localization thanks to JK Rowling being able to set terms, and that was from the sheer popularity of the books. Like Akira, Harry Potter is very much set in the country of its origin. Britain has a long history, with castles that are older than current North American nations. Boarding schools are common enough that the average person in the UK will have a good idea of what being at one is like. The wizarding world in the books is as old as the country. Moving Hogwarts to the US loses the sense of foreboding history that the school has in the books. The characters reflect British society throughout time, from the upper class Malfoys to the common Weasleys. Harry Potter also demonstrates the power of the draw. Audiences wanted the Harry they read about, not one that was transplanted to another country. With works that have the widespread appeal like Harry Potter, alienating the audience is not a good idea.
Similar to the problems facing Akira and a hypothetical American Harry Potter, the 1998 Godzilla lost some important elements on moving the action to New York City. While Tokyo and NYC are major cities along a coast, filled with tall buildings, a lot of people, and neon, the similarities end there. The first American Godzilla movie forgot that the eponymous monster was a result of the nuclear age, going back to the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the nuclear weapon tests in the Pacific. It is possible to have a story featuring giant monsters stomping through an American city, but Godzilla has cultural ties that don’t make the journey to the West easily. The 2014 Godzilla acknowledges the nature of the monster’s origin, starting him near Japan before sending him westward.
What can help with localization is changing the nature of the story. War of the Worlds updated the story; the American military, with its mechanization, its improved communications, its aerial capabilities, all not available in 1897, still lost to the Martian invaders. The Seven Samurai, a story based in Japanese samurai, was successfully translated to the American West with The Magnficent Seven and then moved into science fiction with Battle Beyond the Stars. The goal in these adaptations wasn’t so much to localize, but to retell the story within the new trappings. Ronin became guns-for-hire, who then became starfaring mercenaries; all three are similar, but are very much dependent on their culture and their settings. Similarly, Phantom of the Paradise took the core ideas from both Faust and The Phantom of the Opera and combined the stories and bringing them into the Seventies, with a villainous record producer in the role of Faust and a hapless songwriter as the Phantom.
Sometimes, though, the effort to localize doesn’t pay off. The film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo kept the story in Sweden. The plot could have easily been moved to an American setting, yet the makers kept the work in Sweden, with most of the cast being Swedish. Part of the decision comes from the original work; the novel is set in Sweden, using various towns in the country. Moving the work would mean finding a similar location, It was easier to keep the Swedish locations.
Localization isn’t necessarily a negative. Presenting a story that the intended audience can understand culturally can get the point of the story across. The problems begin when the original’s culture isn’t accounted for when translating the work. Care needs to be taken, and there are some works that don’t translate well, even if the two countries involved share a common language.
Last week’s Lost in Translation featured a discussion about fan adaptations, including a rationale on what works would get analyzed. This week, a look at a Star Trek fan audio productions.
Radio serials were the forerunner of today’s TV series. Families would gather around the radio and tune in favourite series. In the Thirties, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had his own, live, show that had a large audience. Orson Welles had Mercury Theatre on the Air, the production that scared the US with War of the Worlds. The key is to engage the audience’s imagination. Unlike theatre before, movies concurrent with radio, and television afterwards, radio relies on just one sense, hearing. The cast and crew have to create an immersive setting while just using audio. Sound effects become key. The more real the situation sounds, the more the audience buys in. Creative use of sound can also create the mood desired. Welles’ War of the Worlds has a memorable scene where one plaintive voice calls out over radio, “Is there anyone out there?” over and over while the background sounds fade out one by one as the Martian advance, leaving the audience in horror of what’s happening even if they don’t realize why*.
Even with television ubiquitous these days, radio plays still abound. National Public Radio (NPR) adapted the original Star Wars trilogy into radio serials shortly after each movie was released. BBC Radio 4 still airs radio dramas on Saturdays. With the proliferation of portable devices capable of playing .mp3 files, from dedicated .mp3 players to cell phones to tablets, audio plays join music and audio books as something to listen to when the eyes are busy elsewhere.
Fan works, however, exist at the forbearance of the person or company owning the original material. Fan fiction tends to get overlooked; unless the fanfic is notorious, a blind eye is usually turned. There is also no barrier to entry when it comes to fan fiction; all that is needed is a means to write, available with all computers or even pen and paper. Some rights holders encourage fan fiction, with limitations, because of the creativity the endeavor encourages. With original visual works, like TV series and movies, the closer a fan work is to matching, the closer the work gets to being an infringement. Full video also has expenses; while the cost of professional-quality recording and editing equipment has dropped, creating sets and costumes still have material costs. If the fan production charged a fee for viewing, the work becomes a copyright and trademark infringement and corporate attack lawyers will have cease-and-desist orders issued before the first payment can be processed. There are ways around, including donation in kind, where a fan can help by providing equipment, costumes, or props that are needed.
Audio works don’t have the range of expenses a video would. Where a video would need props, sets**, and costumes, audio just needs the sound effects of those elements. The actors don’t even need to be in the same city or even continent, thanks to the Internet and cloud storage. Each actor just needs a good microphone and a way to record, which even the Windows operating system had since version 3.1. The audio production, though, needs to use sound to build the sets, so details that get taken for granted by audiences, such as subtle creaks in an old castle or the rumble of a starship’s main drive through the hull, have to be added to help the listener create the image in his or her mind. One wrong detail, even if it’s just getting a sequence of beeps on a starship’s viewscreen out of order, can break the suspension of disbelief and lose listeners.
Strength of writing is also important. Getting the audio details correct does go towards satisfying an audience, but if characters aren’t acting as expected or the plot is dull, listeners won’t tune in. Some original works, including Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, and Harry Potter, have settings broad enough that new stories can be created in them without ever interacting with the original characters. In the case of Star Trek, a fan work could focus on the crew of a different starship, exploring different sectors at any point in the history of the setting. The precedent already exists with Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. With Harry Potter, the novels already show a glimpse of a larger wizarding world; setting an audio series at a different wizard school isn’t farfetched. There’s room to play, and that sort of room allows for creative interpretations. Let’s take a look at a fan-made Star Trek audio series.
Starship Excelsior began its first season in 2007. Set on board the Sovereign-class starship, the USS Excelsior, hull code NCC-2000C, the series is in its fourth season. The main plot of the first three seasons picks up to dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation and ties them together as the crew of the Excelsior investigates an anomaly that leads into dark revelations that threaten the survival of not just the Federation, but the entire galaxy. The fourth season starts a new arc as the Excelsior begins an exploration mission, with a mixture of lighter and darker episodes, though some still harken back to the earlier episodes.
The cast of characters consists of the Starfleet officers assigned to the Excelsior. The ship’s captain, Alcar Dovan, received the command after the previous commander, Rachel Cortez, died in action. Dovin joined Starfleet to explore, not to engage in military action, but he has excelled at surviving in battles, something he has grown to hate. His first officer, Alecz Lorhrok, is an unjoined Trill, chosen to be the exec by Dovan. The by-the-book operations manager, Neeva, is an Orion, dealing with the difficulties of being one of the few of her people in Starfleet. The chief of security, Asuka Yubari, was severely wounded in the special forces, moved to intelligence, then was assigned to the Excelsior. The helmsman, Bev Rol, also served in intelligence, where he lost his idealism. The ship’s surgeon, Doctor Melissa Sharp, wanted to be a researcher, away from patients, but found her career stalled as a result of her beliefs before signing up on the Excelsior. The characters all have their own motivations, from Dr. Sharp’s opposition to military engagements to Rol’s atonement for past misdeeds. They clash, they argue, they laugh, they are fully formed, brought to life by actors who could easily get into professional voice work if they so choose.
The writing of the series is tight and takes into account Trek canon. As mentioned about, the major plot of the first three seasons centred around two dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation, one involving the Borg. The first three seasons are also one continuous story, as opposed to being episodic. Missing an episode means missing plot and character developments. The fourth season has more single-story episodes, but still has an arc to it. Listeners can easily get attached to the characters and worry about their survival and success. There are times when the writers’ fannish tendencies*** show up; Dovan’s exclamations owe a lot to Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, with a nod to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld with a colour that Bolian vision can see that humans can’t.
The audio sets are also built well. The sounds that are expected from a Starfleet vessel are all there, from the rumbling of the engines to the beeps of consoles and PADDs to the alarm klaxons. Even if someone was just tuning into the middle of an episode, the effects would be enough to tell them where the story was set. The result is a series that is very much Star Trek, though in the darker realms of the franchise.
Of special note, Starship Excelsior ran a Kickstarter campaign to create an episode for the fiftieth anniversary of /Star Trek/’s first airing. The campaign was more than successful, letting them rent a proper recording studio and fly their audio engineer in from Toronto. More than that, the success allowed the series get Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Robin Curtis (Saavik, The Search for Spock), Joanne Linville (the Romulan Commander in “The Enterprise Incident”), and Jack Donner (Subcommander Tal, “The Enterprise Incident”) to reprise their original characters in a new story that still ties into the Starship Excelsior storyline. “Tomorrow’s Excelsior” is a one hour, forty minute story where Uhura and Chekov must save Starfleet, the Federation, the galaxy, and the future while avoiding war with the Romulans, with a solution that fits well with their characters. The series took care in emphasizing in the Kickstarter campaign that all money raised would be put into the production of the episode, with the main costs being getting the actors they wanted. The episode is available for free from Starship Excelsior‘s website.
* Creative use of sound continues even today. Alien, a science fiction horror movie, removed background music, leaving the audience no cues on what was about to happen.
** Even with green screening and CGI available, some physical elements are still needed, if only to give the actors something to play off.
*** To be fair, even professional works will have this sort of thing. The Serenity from Firefly had a cameo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, appearing overhead on Caprica.