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.
Last year, over the Hallowe’en weekend, I went to CanCon, a local literary science fiction and fantasy convention. Among the guests was Robert J. Sawyer, who, among other achievements, has had the most serialized stories in Analog. During his panel on serial writing, he mentioned that the act of serialization led to adaptations, thanks to how he sets up the chapters. This week, instead of reviewing an adaptation, Lost in Translation looks at how to be adapted.
While not every creator wants to see his or her work adapted into a new form, others see it as a new source of income for little additional effort. The easiest way to get adapted is to be popular. Hollywood, in particular, wants as close to an instant hit as possible and adapting something already popular should bring in an audience. Warner Bros. would not have paid JK Rowling anything if Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hadn’t been a juggernaut in the publishing world. The phenomenal sales of each book in the Harry Potter series was something that no studio could ignore. Harry Potter wasn’t the first written work to be adapted so soon after publication. All Quiet on the Western Front, published via serials before released as a novel in 1929 was turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 1930.
The catch here, though, is that popularity is hard to predict. Audiences are fickle, demanding originality but going out in droves for by-a-Save the Cat-numbers film. Publishers and studios alike can release works that are similar to what has been popular before, but the new offering could very well languish. What works in one medium might fizzle in another. Also possible, a work that is all but ignored can become a smash hit as an adaptation. Popularity of the original isn’t a guarantee that an adaptation will also succeed.
The next best thing to being popular is to catch the eye of a potential adapter. Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a good example. The graphic novels were known but not a household name, but Edgar Wright had read them. The result, a movie that used the graphic novels as a storyboard, using the actual locations portrayed in the books. The benefit of catching the attention in this manner is that there will be a greater effort to be as accurate as possible to the original work. The adaptor is making his or her version because of what was seen in the original and will try to bring it out in the new work. The drawback is that audiences may not have an idea of what to expect. Worse, marketing departments may have no idea, as happened with Scott Pilgrim.
The third way to get adapted is to be adaptation-ready. Sawyer’s approach to serialization helped him here. He has had nineteen novels adapted or optioned for adaptation. When he serializes his stories for /Analog/, he includes a short summary of what happened in the previous chapter, to remind readers what has happened already. He continues with the summary for the last chapter, leaving him with a proposal that hits the major plot points in a one-to-two page summary, ideal to pass along to studios looking for a new series or movie. When the person making the decision on what to accept has limited time, a summary that explains the premise and shows each beat has an advantage. This method also means removing the uncertainty of getting Harry Potter levels of popularity or being read by the right person at the right time; in this case, rejection by one studio still allows the property to be shopped around. This doesn’t mean that a story should be serialized; Sawyer uses serialization as part of his business plan to get readers, but not all stories are easily turned into a serial. The summaries, though, are the key part, at least for getting a work ready for adaptation.
None of the above is any guarantee that a work will be adapted. There are other considerations, including the ease of adapting. However, the effort taken to be adaptation-friendly can remove barriers.
Two adaptations announced this week are raising eyebrows and possibly blood pressures among potential audiences.
First, the BBC announced that it has teamed up with Netflix to produce a four-part Watership Down mini-series. The goal is to introduce the story to a new audience while toning back the “brutal images”. While the movie did have some shots that featured blood, most of the violence was done with discretion shots. However, the mini-series will be using CGI to make the rabbits more life-like, which may make any violence shown more hard-hitting. The animation of the 1978 movie allowed for a separation of reality and fiction, something the new computer animation may blur. With the four one-hour parts, the new mini-series may be able to delve further into the original novel than the ninety minute adaptation did.
The second adaptation is a sequel to Disney’s Mary Poppins. The 1964 movie, which was itself based on a story by PL Travers, was one of the most popular films of its year. While Travers did write eight books featuring Mary Poppins, she wasn’t enamoured with Walt Disney’s adaptation, as seen in the fictionalized account, Saving Mr. Banks. Disney’s sequel, titled Mary Poppins Returns, will follow up with the Banks children as grown ups,
There is a difference between the Watership Down remake and the Mary Poppins sequel. The BBC is expanding the run time available, allowing them to take in more of the original novel. The Watership Down mini-series is also using modern techniques to add realism, while the 1978 movie was done in a rush by an inexperienced writer, director, and producer*. The Mary Poppins sequel feels more like an attempt to cash in on a known name. Granted, the working relationship between Disney and Travers was poor, which may prevent the studio from using an of her other books, but Mary Poppins won five Academy Awards and is still popular. Disney is also working to ensure the movie is a success, including casting Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton. Time will tell if the sequel is accepted by audiences.
* To be fair to Martin Rosen, he learned quickly and was able to produce a quality work limited by its length.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the live-action Jem and the Holograms movie. The film lasted all of two weeks in theatres before being pulled because of poor attendance. Despite reviews, including the postmortem done here, the movie wasn’t the problem. If Jem hadn’t been tied to a popular cartoon*, the movie may have had a fighting chance, or may have become a cable channel’s movie of the week. With the Adaptation Fix-It series, Lost in Translation tries to figure out what went wrong and suggest corrections. The only correction that the Jem movie needs requires time travel.
Audience expectations are a risk with adaptations, more so than original movies. With original works, marketing can give potential audiences a sense of what to expect. When the marketing campaign backfires, it’s either because the advertising spoils the film for audiences** or misrepresents what the film is. When it comes to an adaptation, especially one based on non-traditional media like toys and theme park rides, the potential audience may already have preconceived notions of what the final work should look like. Deviation, especially when social media lets negative word of mouth to travel fast, could mean a quick end to the adaptation’s shelf life.
The best way to meet expectations is to be slavishly faithful to the original or to the definitive version. As seen many times here at Lost in Translation, sometimes that level of detail just isn’t possible. Technical issues and running time can prevent a full adaptation. There are works where there isn’t a definitive version. What the adaptation makers need to do is manage the audience’s expectations. This can be done through casting or through advertising.
Michael Bay’s Transformers took advantage of casting. Word of mouth was hesitant at best about a live action version of the Hasbro toy line. There have been a number of Transformers cartoons over the past thirty years, resulting in a number of continuities. Yet, when Optimus Prime spoke with the voice of Peter Cullen, the actor who first played the Autobot leader, fans were mollified. Bay’s casting reassured fans that the director was making the effort. Likewise, casting Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films kept to the vision of JK Rowling, who had pictured the actor in the role as she wrote the books.
Beware stunt casting, though. Studios will do what they can to pull an audience into a theatre, including stunt casting, or the hiring of a popular actor to draw in that person’s fans, whether or not that person fits the role. It can work, provided the actor in question has the chops. When the actor isn’t as capable, the stunt casting falls flat. Two examples reviewed by Lost in Translation are Battleship and The Dukes of Hazzard. Both films cast popular singers, Rhianna and Jessica Simpson, respectively. Rhianna’s role felt like it was expanded because she was cast in it, to give her more screen time. Simpson was placed in a major role and was not a good fit as Daisy.
If a proper adaptation isn’t possible and casting may be difficult for a any number of reasons***, the next best method is to provide an advertising campaign to show the new direction the adaptation is heading. Advertising is meant to entice an audience, give it a taste of the spectacle offered. The risk here is that the potential audience will see the new direction and be turned off from it. The Miami Vice movie wound up with this problem. Audiences wanted something similar to the 80s TV series and not the update for the the New Aughts. Same thing occurred with the 2014 Robocop; the original movie’s broad satire was missed despite the new film’s nastier, much closer to home, bite.
Adaptations come with a built-in audience. That is the main reason why adaptations have dominated popular film lists, with two decades the exception. In an industry as risk adverse as movie making, having a near-guaranteed draw is an easy decision to make. What some studios haven’t realized is that a shallow adaptation, one that uses the name of a work without getting into the substance, tends to leave audiences cold. The above ideas don’t replace making the effort to capture the core of a work, but can offset audience fears of the treatment.
* The animated Jem and the Holograms was the top rated syndicated cartoon when it was on, according to Nielsen ratings, more popular than Transformers, G.I. Joe, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, all on during Jem‘s run.
** At least one romantic comedy has had its entire plot shown in a trailer, with the decision of who the heroine chooses left unrevealed. Given the nature of the film, audiences could guess who the lucky guy would be with better accuracy than flipping a coin.
*** These reasons include the death of a key actor, budget considerations, and even age.
A few weeks back, Lost in Translation looked at adaptations of tabletop RPGs. While there haven’t been many RPGs adapted to other media, the reverse is far more likely. Many popular franchises have been adapted for gaming, from Star Trek to Supernatural. The result is a licensed property created by game designers who are also fans. With The Force Awakens turning into a powerhouse beyond expectations, now is as good a time as any to look at the Star Wars roleplaying games past and present.
Role-playing in an established universe is more than just letting the players take the roles of existing characters. With a setting as vast as the Galaxy Far, Far Away, there’s room for any number of characters, from scruffy rogues to naive farmboys to dashing conmen to dangerous bounty hunters. Adding to the complexity, Jedi and Sith lurk, depending on the era. The goal of the games is to provide an experience that would fit in the Star Wars setting but still giving players the flexibility to play what they want. There have been three published RPGs for /Star Wars/, detailed below.
Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game, West End Games
The first Star Wars RPG, released in 1987, used WEG’s Ghostbusters: The Role-Playing Game‘s core mechanic, modified for the new setting. Determining success or failure was based on rolling a number of six-sided* dice based on the rating of a character’s skill, with a differently coloured die designated the wild die. The wild die could allow for amazing successes or crushing failures, depending on its value. Players could use character points to add dice to the roll. To account for the Force in Star Wars, players also had Force points. Spending a Force point allowed players to double the number of dice they could roll for a skill, allowing feats such as firing a proton torpedo into a two metre exhaust port without the aid of a targeting computer.
Because it was released three years after Return of the Jedi, there was little information about Jedi, beyond that they were rare after the Emperor destroyed the Order. At the time, Star Wars wasn’t the big franchise that it is now. The Expanded Universe consisted of the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian trilogies; Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire would be published in 1991, a year before the RPG’s second edition. Jedi were limited to what was shown on screen and what the WEG writers could extrapolate and get approved by Lucasfilm. However, the more earthier characters, like Han, were supported, with all starships, from starfighters to Star Destroyers, being written up. The Revised and Expanded edition, released in 1996, became the definitive version of the RPG.
The game played fast; the mechanics loose enough to let players swoop through space in a transport modified for smuggling while out running a flight of TIE fighters and maintain the feel of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. WEG’s RPG still has an impact even today; Dave Filoni, showrunner for both CGI-animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels has stated in commentary that he and his crew have refered to WEG’s Imperial Sourcebook and Star Wars Sourcebook for details on vehicles and droids used in the series.
WEG lost the license in 1999 after having to declare bankruptcy when its parent company, West End Shoes, drained the game publisher to stay afloat. Speculation on the Internet on who would get the license next grew as the prequel movies were announced.
Star Wars Roleplaying Game, Wizards of the Coast
Wizards of the Coast, who also owned Dungeons & Dragons, picked up the license in 2000, a year after The Phantom Menace was released. Wizards used a modified version of the d20 System, as used in D&D 3rd edition. The result was a class-based system that covered not just the original trilogy, like WEG’s game had, but also the prequels and the Expanded Universe. A second edition was released in 2002, a year before D&D 3.5, cleaning up some problematic rules. The Saga edition came out in 2007, streamlining the d20 system more to keep the gameplay flowing.
As mentioned, the d20 System is class-based, meaning that every character falls into one of a number of character classes that define their abilities. Instead of using the D&D classes like Fighter and Wizard, the d20 Star Wars games used classes like Scoundrel, Fringer, and Jedi. The result was playable, but the sweet spot was between levels 7 and 12, where characters had the skills needed to pull off difficult but in-setting plausible stunts without becoming impossible to challenge without throwing a Star Destroyer at them. Thanks to the prequels and the Expanded Universe, Jedi had more options than in WEG’s RPG. Sourcebooks detailed the different eras of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, giving gamemasters (GMs) and players flexibility in play styles.
Wizards let the license lapse in 2010, after not just a large number of detailed sourcebooks but also a miniatures game that could tie into the RPG or be played as a stand-alone.
Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force and Destiny, Fantasy Flight Games
Fantasy Flight Games picked up the Star Wars license with an eye to create both a miniatures and a role-playing game. The first of the RPGs, Edge of the Empire, came out in 2013, followed by Age of Rebellion in 2014 and Force and Destiny in 2015. Each of the games, while using the same mechanics, have a different focus. Edge deals with characters on the edge of polite society; smugglers, bounty hunters, colonists. Rebellion allows for characters in the Rebel Alliance, fighting against the Galactic Empire’s evil. Force focuses on Jedi and other Force-sensitives. The three games are set during the original trilogy, but can be adapted, with work, to other eras.
The FFG games need to use specialty dice marked for use in play. It is possible to use regular dice** and convert the numbers to the special markings, but it is easier with the specialty dice. The dice provide for more than just success and failure; they also add advantages and threats. A failure could come with an advantage and success could come with complications. Scenes from the movies, like Han stepping on a twig when right behind a stormtrooper in Return of the Jedi, can come from the mechanic, ensuring that the feel of the movies is kept.
Each game moves the timeline through the movies. Edge is set shortly after the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope. Rebellion is set just after the events in The Empire Strikes Back. Force is set after Return of the Jedi. However, players and GMs aren’t limited to those eras. /Force/ can easily be used for a group of Jedi padawans during the prequel era. All three could be used for a campaign set during The Force Awakens. Work would need to be done, such as re-skinning existing vehicles for the new ones seen in the new movie, but the amount of work needed is minimal.
Each of the above games had a different approach to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. While each one had some areas that needed work, overall, the games remained faithful to the source. Players could feel like they were part of Star Wars, which is the most important part of adapting to a game.
* Role-playing games use more regular polyhedrons than just the standard cube dice.
** Regular meaning six-, eight-, and twelve-sided, as used in other games such as D&D.
After three and a half years, Lost in Translation has built up a number of terms that haven’t been well defined. The History of Adaptations forced the issue, running into works that were both sequels and adaptations and were sequels of adaptations. What follows is a working set of terms defined as used so far, complete with examples. The definitions may be a bit fluid; as more reviews are done, the better an idea I get of the breadth of adaptations there are.
Adaptations – A catch-all covering any form of media that is based on another work. Adaptations include remakes and reboots, and can be in the same medium or taken from one medium to another. The better known adaptation is the movie based on a novel or, especially lately, comic. Also possible is the movie to TV series adaptation, such as M*A*S*H, and the international adaptation, such as Three’s Company, based on the British series, Man About the House.
Remakes – A work that re-tells the story from the original. Typically done with movies, the remake takes advantage in advances in film technology, whether it’s the advent of sound, colour, or special effects. The 1956 The Ten Commandments is a prime example, remaking the 1923 silent film of the same name. The upcoming The Jungle Book from Disney appears to be a live-action remake of the animated feature based on the Rudyard Kipling stories.
Reboots – A form of remake that is typically found in series, whether a movie franchise or a TV series. The reboot creates a new baseline for plots to work from and can feature a new cast. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a prime example, as is the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series. A sequel can be considered a reboot depending on how much time has passed between the original work and the new.
Sequels/Prequels – Works that continue, in the case of sequels, or set up, in the case of prequels, an original work. Sequels and prequels are generally out of scope for Lost in Translation unless they are also adaptations. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is a sequel. The movie The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is both a sequel to the film version of The Hunger Games and an adaptation of the novel, Catching Fire.
Sequel of an Adaptation – A work that follows up to an adaptation without itself being based on an original work. This is different from a sequel that is also an adaptation in that there is no original work the sequel is based on. The 2004 movie Spider-Man 2 follows from events in the 2002 Spider-Man, but isn’t based on a specific storyline from the Marvel comics.
Partial Adapatation – Any adaptation that takes just a portion of an original work, whether due to time limitations or sake of comprehensibility. Blade Runner is the best example; the movie takes just the android hunting from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep while dropping the religious subplots.
Loose Adaptation – A work that takes the premise of an original work and goes in a different direction. Such a work is often said to be loosely based on an original. Real Steel was such an adaptation of the short story, “Steel”, taking the idea of the robot boxing league but changing the story to one about a man and his son. Often, the title is changed, emphasizing the difference, as seen with Alien from L.A.
In Name Only – A loose adaptation that doesn’t change the name. Often happens when the adaptation fails to understand the appeal of the original. The 1998 Godzilla is often called GINO, for “Godzilla In Name Only”, reflecting the adaptations failure to understand what Godzilla is.
Shot for Shot Remake – A remake of a film that duplicates the original. While such a remake can work, especially when there has been improvements in film technology, the new film could just have audiences wondering why the new film was made, especially when the original is considered a masterpiece. Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho did use new technology plus colour, but the changes were subtle, and Hitchcock’s use of black and white was an artistic choice. A shot-for-shot remake of The Last Starfighter today may be better received, taking into account the capabilities of CGI that the movie broke ground on when it was first released.
Tie-in – Derivative works that are licensed from a franchise. Best known are the Star Trek tie-in novels, featuring original casts of each Trek series plus new casts, and the Star Wars expanded universe. Tie-ins are out of scope for Lost in Translation, though there are exceptions. The Nikki Heat novels by Richard Castle are Castle metafiction; the novels that the fictional writer is researching in the TV series, and do count as adaptations.