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.
With two exceptions, Lost in Translation has looked at professionally done work. The first exception, The Four Players, was to show just how far off Super Mario Bros. was from the mark. The second, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, demonstrated an eye to detail needed to maintain a parody of not one but two science fiction series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. The reason for analysing the professional work is two-fold. The main reason is that hte professional work is more available to a general audience. Movies get released to the silver screen, then is made available on DVD/Blu-Ray, digital streaming, video on demand, and other methods. TV series get rerun via syndication and released much like movies.
The other reason is that fan work is variable. Quality runs the gamut from rookies learning how to write and use the equipment to professional-level capabilities that may make the professional work look inadequate. Sometimes, the fan work can lead to getting a paid position; a number of fan droid designers, inspired by R2-D2 in Star Wars were hired to develop build robots for The Force Awakens. At the other end, fanfiction has a reputation for being barely comprehensible, whatever the truth of the matter is.
For the most part, the fans are creating because of a love of the original work. Each fan brings in a different interpretation of the original, seeing different elements despite the shared experiences. Sometimes the interpretation is brilliant, a new look at the original. Other times, the interpretation comes out of left field and has almost no connection to the original at all. it is easy to spot when something is mean-spirited; there’s almost no eye to detail, just characters wearing the names and acting so far out of character, it’s easier to find points that are related to the original work because they just stand out.
As mentioned, Lost in Translation has reviewed two fan adaptations. However, the goal with fan production is to show either how well the adaptation works or to show how far a professional adaptation missed the mark. There is little to gain by picking apart a lacking fan adaptation; there are too many issues and it’s just not fair to a potential budding fan to rip apart a work. Few fans are deliberately trying to make a bad interpretation; lack of experience is a leading cause. Thus, Lost in Translation will point out and analyze the fan adaptations that are a good reflection of original works. It is a bias, but good adaptations do not necessarily mean for pay. Professional quality can come from all quarters.
The Sixties were a time of upheaval of the status quo against the backdrop of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Television was starting to come into its own as a medium, especially with colour technology becoming affordable. 007 made the jump from the books to the silver screen and audiences wanted more. To help fill the demand, MGM worked with Ian Fleming to develop a TV series along the lines of the Bond movies, resulting in 1964’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Fleming’s participation ended when a connection between the TV series and Goldfinger was discovered; Napoleon Solo was named after a character in Fleming’s novel, a gunsel that got on the wrong side of Bond.
Fleming’s touch remained. U.N.C.L.E, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, is a multinational agency keeping the peace by working behind the scenes. Alexander Waverly heads up the agency from its hidden base in New York City. His top agents include suave American Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn, and dour Russian Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. The original plan was to have Vaughn be The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – it’s even in the name, Solo – but McCallum’s Illya worked well with Solo that they became a team in the series. Solo would be the more visible of the two, taking a Bond-like approach to investigation, while Kuryakin took advantage of the distraction. UNCLE had an opposite number, THRUSH, an agency bent on world domination. Like UNCLE, THRUSH also recruited from around the world. The difference between the two agencies is simple, their goals. With competing goals, UNCLE and THRUSH clash often, with Solo and Kuryakin responsible for shutting down several seasons worth of plots.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had several advantages while filming. MGM wanted to get its money worth out of its sets, so the studio allowed the series to reuse existing sets from other movies. To add to the unusual for television look that the series had, action scenes had a personal touch as a camera man jumped into the middle, long before handheld cameras were available. Ensuring that the series felt world-spanning, guest stars weren’t limited to just Hollywood. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became a weekly cinematic spy thriller, with a memorable theme tune by Jerry Goldsmith. Rounding out the globetrotting spy series, the titles were always an Affair; the first episode was called “The Vulcan Affair”, setting the tone for the rest of the run.
In 2015, Warner Bros. released Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The fifty years between the original and the remake saw a number of changes in the world, including the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. The nature of terrorism changed; instead of trying to get a message out even just fundraising, today’s terrorists are driven by ideology to the point where fear is the only end to the means. The likes of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army have given way to Daesh. At the same time, a black and white approach to fiction has been replaced with nuance and shades of grey; no one expects heroes to be shiny anymore. Updating The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would mean losing much of what made the series work in the Sixties.
To Ritchie’s credit, he realized that and made the movie as a period piece, set in 1963. He makes use of cinematic techniques of the era, including split screen montages, to cement the mood. The opening credits cover history between the end of World War II and the beginning of the action in 1963, including the Cold War between the US and the USSR, the nuclear escalation between the two nations, the splitting of Germany between East and West, and the building of the Berlin Wall. The plot starts with Solo, now played by Henry Cavill, crossing the border between West and East Berlin, entering the Soviet sector. His goal, extract Gabby, played by Alicia Vikander, a mechanic whose biological father is a top nuclear researcher. However, the KGB has sent someone to prevent Gabby’s extraction, Illya Kurakin, played by Armie Hammer. The extraction is difficult; Illya is as good an agent as Solo, and is only lost while crossing over no-man’s land between the two Berlins.
Gabby’s father turns out to be a bigger problem than expected. He’s disappeared, and both the CIA and the KGB want him found. Both agencies bring their top agents together. Kuryakin and Solo recognize each other and are ordered to put aside their differences to work together and Gabby. The trail goes to Rome, Italy, where Gabby’s uncle and his wife have a shipping company. Both CIA and KGB expect that Victoria, the wife, played by Elizabeth Debicki, is the force behind the operation involving a nuclear missile. However, Gabby is already working for someone, a Mr. Waverly, played by High Grant, who is several steps ahead of both Solo and Kuryakin.
Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more of an origins movie, though one that keeps the action going. Many of the bits that made up the TV series didn’t appear, but since neither Solo nor Kuryakin were UNCLE agents, they couldn’t get to UNCLE HQ through Del Florio’s, nor could they use either the pen radios* nor the modified Walther P-38s** that appeared in the TV series. Another missing element, though the people Victoria was working with were never mentioned, is THRUSH. The movie also introduced backstories for both Solo and Kuryakin, something that never came up in the TV series.
That said, the movie did keep to the feel of the TV series. While Hammer as Kuryakin worked for the Illya of the movie, Cavill’s Solo came from Vaughn’s portrayal. The film avoided a gritty look while still keeping the approach of the TV series, a mix of serious and lightness. Given the trend to make grim-and-gritty versions of older series, avoiding the temptation to do that with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a good move. Solo and Kuryakin aren’t grim killers, nor do they traipse around, usually, and their portrayals in the movie reflected the teamwork seen in the original.
For those who have seen the original series, some of the twists, particularly involving Waverly, could be seen coming. Given that the last episode was first run in 1968, it has been almost fifty years since a new episode*** and even a syndicated run is now limited to specialty channels. The movie reintroduces the characters and the setting for new audiences, bringing them into the world of the 1963 UNCLE. By the end of the movie, UNCLE is a new agency, with Waverly bringing in top agents from around the world, leaving room for further affairs. The movie brings back the core of the original TV series with few missteps.
* The TV series began with a cigarette case radio, but changed to the pen radio after concerns about children wanting a toy based on the prop.
** Known as the P-38 UNCLE, the pistol used by UNCLE agents had an attachable stock, barrel extension, silencer, and telescopic sight, and was never available commercially.
*** Barring the reunion TV movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair in 1983.
The short version, adaptations continued to dominate the silver screen. With studios risk adverse, they want to maximize audiences. It’s still not a guarantee of success, but adapting a popular work is one way to draw in a crowd. Couple adapting with popular actors, and studios see a sure thing. The New Teens are looking a lot like the Fifties, where popular adaptations far outnumbered popular adaptations. Let’s break down the top ten films by box office, using the numbers compiled by Box Office Mojo. Remember that popularity isn’t necessarily a sign of quality, just of what is popular.
1) Finding Dory – sequel to the Disney/Pixar original work, Finding Nemo. A surprising entry, given the strength of what follows.
2) Captain America: Civil War – second sequel to Captain America: First Avenger, an adaptation.
3) The Secret Life of Pets – original.
4) The Jungle Book – Disney’s live action remake of its animated adaptation of the story by Rudyard Kipling.
5) Deadpool – adapted from the Marvel character and the most comic book movie ever made*.
6) Zootopia – An original Disney animated movie.
7) Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice – adapted from characters and situations seen in DC Comics.
8) Suicide Squad – another DC Comics adaptation.
9) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – an original movie in the Star Wars franchise.
10) Doctor Strange – adapted from the Marvel comic.
Note that Rogue One and Doctor Strange are still in theatres. The Star Wars prequel could finish 2016 higher in the list and also dominate the 2017 list.
For all the complaints people have about adaptations, audiences went out to see them more than original works. The breakdown has two completely original works, two sequels/prequels to original works, and six adaptations or sequels to adaptations. It’s telling that most of the original works are animated, especially from Disney, who used to plumb animated features from fairy tales. Studios just aren’t going to give up the potential income from popular adaptations, no matter the outcry. At this point, original works will need top talent just to get a budget from studios. Depending on the work, an original may need to go to television just to get noticed. For balance, let’s look at the bottom ten.
10) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – fictionalized adaptation of the memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker
9) Assassin’s Creed – adaptation of the video game.
8) Snowden – a biopic of Edward Snowden.
7) Mechanic: Resurrection – sequel to the remake, The Mechanic.
6) Manchester by the Sea – original.
5) Free State of Jones – loosely based on a historical event.
4) Blair Witch – remake of The Blair Witch Project.
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – sequel to a movie based on Rice Broocks’ God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in An Age of Uncertainty.
2) Keanu – original.
1) Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life – adapted from Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts.
Note that Assassin’s Creed is still in theatres after being released on December 21. Manchester by the Sea opened in limited release November 18 and had a full release December 16 and is still in theatres.
The bottom ten has four adaptations, two sequels to adaptations, one original work, and two movies based on real events, including the Snowden biopic. Being at the bottom isn’t necessarily a sign of quality. Manchester by the Sea has been nominated for a number of awards, including Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay, and has been listed on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of the Year. What the bottom ten show is that adaptations run the gamut of popularity and that we’re still in an era where adaptations outnumber original works. However, with two exceptions, every decade in the history of movies shows that trend. The exceptions were the Eighties and Nineties.
Adaptations aren’t going away any time soon. People are still getting out to see them in theatres. At this point, quality is important; repeat audiences are driving the numbers for several films. For now, expect more original works in unexpected media, like animation or television.
* I’d say “shamelessly the most comic book movie,” but the movie lives in audacity, contributing to its popularity.
Over the weekend of September 9-11, I was at Can-ConSF, a literary science-fiction and fantasy convention in Ottawa, Ontario. The con is small but brings both readers and writers together to discuss various topics. One of the panels was called “Adapting Literary Works to Television and Movies”, so, naturally, I had to go.
There were five panelists, representing different views of being adapted. Tanya Huff, one of the author guests of honour, had her Blood books* adapted as a TV series that can still appear on Canadian cable stations thanks to Canadian content requirements. Ian Rogers is a horror writer who has had stories optioned by Roy Lee, but nothing is going to pilot yet. Jay Odjick is the creator of Kagagi the Raven, a comic that he adapted as a cartoon that airs on APTN. Sam Morgan is a literary agent with the JABberwocky Literary Agency, and provided the insider view. Moderating was Violette Malan, a fantasy novelist.
While there are some writers who either don’t want their works adapted or have had bad experiences and won’t go down that path again, for most, getting optioned is like winning the lottery, except the lottery has better odds. The money from being optioned isn’t that much, but if the adaptation is picked up, it can be comfortable. Tanya was able to pay off her mortgage thanks to Blood Ties going to air and still sees royalties coming in from the series.** But, while the money from adaptations may not be much, there is a boost in sales of the original work that comes immediately afterwards. Tanya saw a thirty percent increase in the sales of her Blood books right after the first episode aired. This boost, though, doesn’t necessarily carry over with comics. Jay didn’t see an increase and believes that movies may be too different from the comic to entice new readers.
Writers have little control over how a work gets adapted. Some writers may have more leverage; JK Rowling, thanks to the success of Harry Potter, managed to ensure that the movies remained as faithful as possible, but most writers don’t have that luxury. Stephen King treats adaptations of his works as entities separate from the originals. Changes will be made and the writer is low on the totem pole when it comes to decision making. The best thing to do in that case is to treat the adaptation like a grandchild; don’t complain about how they’re raised or you won’t see another grandchild ever. Tanya treats adaptations as fanfic that she’s getting paid for. She even wrote an episode of Blood Ties, so she wrote fanfic of her own work.***
Kagagi the Raven is a little different. Jay tried shopping the adaptation around, looking for someone to pick it up. He and his partner wound up producing the series themselves. As a result, he had more initial control once APTN licensed the series from him. However, APTN doesn’t pay for the show until it’s done. Jay had to find a distributor to sell the show internationally. As a result, Jay is now beholden to network distributors and advertisers. However, Jay now has a producer credit and can now make pitches far more easily than when he was shopping Kagagi.
Each of the panelists had works optioned in different ways. Jay, as mentioned above, became a producer to turn his comic into a cartoon. With Tanya’s Blood Ties, the series had been optioned since the third book, with Kaleidoscope being the studio to take the adaptation to pilot and then to series. Kaleidoscope had read the books and loved them but, being Canadian, couldn’t pay as well as an American studio. To make up for that, they let Tanya be involved with the show. With Ian, Roy Lee, who had adapted a number of Japanese horror movies including The Ring, had one of Ian’s stories recommended to him. Lee contacted Ian out of the blue to option the story, and took a number of other ones that were related. Ian now has credit as a consulting producer even though the series hasn’t gone to pilot. Sam, the literary agent, often gets called to find out if the rights to a book are available. With True Blood, Alan Ball had bought the book prior to a dentist appointment, then read it afterwards while recovering, and the rest is history. Sam also mentioned that production companies have people, book-to-film agents whose job it is to find works that could be adapted.
The big takeaway, at least from the writer’s view, is to know when to take credit. If the movie or series is a hit, take the credit as the creator. If the movie or series is a flop, blame Hollywood. “Eh, you know how it is in Hollywood.” This goes back to treating an adaptation as a grandchild; changes will be made. Knowing that changes happen and accepting that it’s beyond a writer’s control means sleeping easier, especially with option and royalty money coming in.
* Not to be confused with the Books of Blood by Clive Barker.
** Tanya recently received a $600 cheque thanks to Blood Ties being in the top ten shows in Pakistan.
*** Tanya also reports that most final drafts of scripts keep no more than five lines from the first. Her episode of Blood Ties managed to keep in six thanks to some actor improvisation that matched her early draft.
The past three weeks, Lost in Translation has looked at the Good, the Bad, and the Weird. There are some works that deserve some spotlight, despite not falling into the above three categories. The honourable mentions are, again, in no particular order.
The original Robocop was an over-the-top satire of the Reagan Eighties. Everything was exaggerated that it couldn’t possibly happen. A city going bankrupt? Privatized police forces? Couldn’t happen. The remake, though, was made after Detroit declared bankruptcy. The satire wasn’t over the top; it was biting, closer to home. Samuel L. Jackson’s parody of a Fox News pundit was too on the nose. The violence got toned down, at least against humans, and ED-209 gained competency, but after a decade of drone warfare, the new Robocop wasn’t the exaggeration the original was.
A TV series that can last ten seasons deserves mention. The series used the original Stargate movie as a launching point then built the universe implied in the film. Stargate SG-1 shows what a TV series can do as an adaptation, allowing the work to delve deeper into the setting with the time available.
Thunderbirds Are Go!
The remake of the classic Gerry Anderson work replaced Supermarionation with CGI but kept the model work. The update used several episodes of the original series, in some cases recreating scenes shot for shot and kept the tension while expanding the role of several characters, including Kayo. Of course, bringing back the original voice of Parker, David Graham, didn’t hurt.
Dilbert slipped off the top five list for the Good in a close heat. The quintessential office comedy comic strip made the transition to animated series almost seamlessly, and included casting choices that worked for the characters.
The Four Players
Where Super Mario Bros. tried for a gritty world and failed, the web original work, The Four Players injected a note of hope despite the grim duty the characters faced. Each part focused on one character, keeping the iconic appearances while giving a new twist. With technology allowing fans to produce work that can surpass what professionals did twenty years earlier, the onus is now on Hollywood studios to up their game.
Michael Crichton’s novel about the hubris of man and the dangers of unchecked genetic engineering was hefty. Not everything in the novel made it into the movie of the same name, though some elements would make it into one of the sequels. Lex’s role in the story got expanded; in the novel, she was there to scream whenever a dinosaur showed up. In the movie, some of her brother’s abilities, such as knowledge of Unix, transferred to her, giving Lex more substance.
And this is still just scratching the surface. I could have added A Charlie Brown Christmas, Harry Potter, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Watership Down, and Evil Dead to the list above and still not scratch the surface. There are good adaptations out there; but it takes effort. There will be even more coming, Good, Bad, and Weird.
The reviews return next week.
Continuing the retrospective, this week, Lost in Translation looks at the oddities. These are movies that defied expectations and became a challenge to analyze and review. Unlike the Good and the Bad, the Weird show how adaptations can misfire and still cleave close to the original work. Once again, the list is presented in no particular order.
Gnomeo & Juliet
For a movie aimed at children and promising to tell Shakespeare’s tale in a different way, Gnomeo & Juliet remained faithful despite the use of garden gnomes. Even the opening monologue came from the original play. The story only really devaites after William Shakespeare himself appears. The result was surprisingly entertaining and accessable, with background gags reflective of other Shakespearean plays.
The biggest failing Speed Racer had was trying to hard to recreate the original. The movie is live action anime, with the Wachowskis putting in an effort to not just recreate the characters but also the appearance and animation style of the TV series. The casting was note perfect, and the soundtrack used the original Speed Racer theme. The movie turned out to be far more animated than the original, and managed to make Spirtle and Chim-Chim key characters without making them annoying. The Wachowskis could have dialled things down a notch and not have lost details.
Phantom of the Paradise
Two adaptations in one, Phantom of the Paradise worked from both The Phantom of the Opera and Faust. A tale of obsession and desire, Phantom moves both original works from their eras to the then-modern 70s, keeping the core of both while changing the trappings.
Battle Beyond the Stars
By all rights, a low-budget B-movie trying to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars should have been a disaster. Battle Beyond the Stars punched above its weight class, though, in an adaptation of The Seven Samurai by way of The Magnificent Seven. Creative use of the budget and budding young filmmakers, including James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, lifted the movie up to the point where it kept the core of the original work even while placing the story in space.
Howard the Duck
Howard the Duck wasn’t a good movie. Technical limitations meant animatronics and people in duck suits that barely looked like the comic book Howard if the audience squinted. Character backgrounds changed; Beveraly became an up-and-coming rock star instead of a nude model, and the being responsible changed from Thog the Nether-Spawn to mad scientist Dr. Jennings. There was no PG-13 rating yet when the movie was first released; it earned a PG rating with Howard smoking cigars and implied duck/human sex. However, the movie kept the relationship between Howard and Beverly and kept to the idea of a duck alone in a strange world. Howard the Duck wasn’t a good adaptation, but it wasn’t a complete write-off unlike last week’s list.
After five years, Lost in Translation has seen a number of adaptations, the good, the bad, the mixed. The result is a body of work trying to understand what makes for a good adaptation and why. This week, a look at the best adaptations reviewed so far, presented in no particular order.
Scott Pilgrim vs the World
Scott Pilgrim is a film that shows that a good adaptation doesn’t necessarily mean a good return at the box office. The film failed to take hold at the box office, in part from a disjointed marketing effort that didn’t quite catch the movie properly. However, as an adaptation, the movie not only caught the feel of the original graphic novels, it used them as them as storyboards. Scenes appeared on screen as they did in the novel, and Edgar Wright filmed on location in Toronto, using the settings that appeared in the comic. The only deviation came at the end, where Bryan Lee O`Malley hadn`t finished the series yet, and he was on board the production as a story consultant. The result is a cult clasic for the video game age.
The Beverly Hillbillies
At first glance, the adaptation of The Beverly Hillbillies is an odd choice. Yet, the movie managed to capture the essence of the TV series while still acknowledging how Los Angeles had changed between the end of the TV series in 1961 and the movie’s release in 1993. While the choice of TV show may seem odd, The Beverly Hillbillies was a top rated series during its run and lasted beyond in syndication, making it a known factor. The movie managed to keep the feel while still updating some ideas, helped in no small part to its cast, including Jim Varney and Lily Tomlin.
The LEGO Movie
How can a movie be made based on a toy that relies on the imagination of the person playing with it? The LEGO Movie answered that question by remembering to be fun. The movie felt like someone was playing with their LEGO, letting imagination run wild. The big reveal hammers home that core idea. The LEGO Movie looks like a LEGO world, with the main characters being Minifigs, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more or less that that.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Popular novels tend to be made into movies. Studios want to maximize the audience, and using a popular work means there will be people coming in curious to see how the work turns out on the big screen. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo took some liberties with the novel, but needed them due to the change of medium. The big changes came at the end, in part to curb ending fatigue. The movie tightened the narrative, but the key elements appeared just as in the book. Helping with the success of the adaptation is the director’s use of locations in Sweden, bypassing the trend to Americanize foreign works.
Richard Matheson’s short story, “Steel”, saw two adaptations reviewed over the past five years. Real Steel changed the story greatly, keeping just the idea of a robot fighting league. Matheson’s own adaptation of the story for The Twilight Zone, though, remained true to the work. Elements that helped with keeping to the original work include having the original author on board and being in an anthology series known for pushing the envelope with science fiction and fantasy. The Twilight Zone was groundbreaking when it aired, tackling issues that weren’t normally seen. “Steel” was a study of human perseverance, the lengths one man would go, even getting into a boxing ring against all odds of survival to fight an unfeeling machine.
Each of the above managed to take the original work and translate into a new medium without losing the key features that made the work popular. Next week, the bad.
In analyzing the history of movie adaptations, I tracked the sources of works. While the Aughts resembled the Fifties in having adaptations be the overwhelming source of popular movies, the type of work adapted changed. Toys, games, and comics became viable original works for adapting, eating away the piece of the pie that literary works had. Games have had a varied success rate; Clue managed to stay with the core concept and, while not a blockbuster hit, works thanks to the strength of its cast and writing. On the other hand, Battleship had problems, from wasted plots to the checklist approach the script appeared to take.
With toys, all the problems with adapting games return, with a new one introduced. With games, the mechanics shape the nature of the play. With toys, there’s not even mechanics. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, whether it is a doll, an action figure, or a set of building blocks. The manufacturer can give a broad base for play, but, ultimately, it is the owner that determines the story, if there is one. The LEGO Movie provides a demonstration of the problem in-story. The movie felt like someone was playing with LEGO, because that was the source of the plot and one of the film’s themes.
The LEGO Movie is probably the best toy adaptation made. It caught the feel of playing with LEGO. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was based on how series creator Lauren Faust played with her ponies as a girl. Both works pull from the idea of playing with the toys themselves. On the other side, there are works like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Jem and the Holograms. Both are based on toy lines from Hasbro and both films had problems. GI Joe‘s script tended to forget what happened earlier and worked better as a collection of set pieces. Jem, though, may have been better off as a TV movie in an alternate timeline where there wasn’t a popular cartoon in the Eighties.
The presence of prior animated series just adds to the problems facing works adapting toys. Without the series, adaptations face the same challenge as studios adapting tabletop role-playing games. There’s no one way to approach the toy. The toy is just an object; the person playing with it adds his or her interpretation, which could align with the manufacturer’s intent, if any, or go in a direction that couldn’t be foreseen, such as using a set of Matchbox fire and rescue vehicles as a space response team fighting pirates disguised as Furbies. Taking that same fire and rescue set, creating an adaptation featuring it may very well just be an action movie featuring firefighters, at which point, the presence of the toy may become a hindrance.
With an existing series, the problem future adaptations have is the lasting memories of the prior work. Jem is illustrative here. The recent movie, while pulled after two weeks, suffered because it just wasn’t the cartoon. The studio didn’t handle audience expectations well. If the cartoon hadn’t existed and if the movie was aired on TV instead of released to theatres, it would be seen in a better light and could have been spun off into its own live-action series. GI Joe, among its other problems, also had a definitive version in its past, the Larry Hama-helmed G.I. Joe comic published by Marvel, which built upon the animated series from the Eighties.
Not all toys with prior adaptations have this problem. Michael Bay’s Transformers succceeded, at least financially, by borrowing elements from the different cartoons and creating its own continuity. The Transformers franchise doesn’t have just one definitive work, so creating a cinematic universe isn’t necessarily destroying memories.* Mattel’s Barbie movies have the doll and her friends as animated actresses, taking on the roles required by the features without locking them into any one personality.** My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is turning into the definitive MLP work, but the series covers enough ground to include slice of life and magical girls and has a large supporting cast that future works can fit in without a problem.
The key issue when adapting toys is to stay true to the play. The closer the adaptation stays to how a toy is played with, the more the audience will identify with the work. The LEGO Movie is the ultimate example of an adaptation getting to the heart of how a toy is played with and can serve as a lesson for future adaptations. The further away from the toy’s core play, the harder it will be to get an audience to turn out.
* Lost in Translation will go into further details next week. Short version, the Transformers live-action movie made all the right moves in casting to offset fan concerns.
** Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse breaks this approach, but is its own continuity. The result is functionally the same as having the dolls as actresses.