Adaptations of games are an iffy prospect. There have been major failures along the way, from Super Mario Bros through Dungeons & Dragons to Battleship. Yet, studios keep trying, because the recognition factor of the names involved should pull in an audience, as seen with the announcement of the Tetris movie. With D&D, Battleship, and Tetris, there isn’t a proper setting as would be used in fiction. Maybe movies aren’t the best vehicle for game adaptations. World building takes effort, and movies don’t provide enough time to get the details down. Also a good idea is to pick a game that has a setting. D&D has several, but using them would mean making the movie using the setting’s name*, not the game’s. Yet, the animated D&D series was able to create a setting and a conflict that came from the game’s mechanics. An animated series also has the advantage of needing to be short and to the point without having to worry about the effects budget. Time to look at a game that has a developed setting and see how it was adapted. For this, let’s look at BattleTech, a game of mecha combat in the far future.
BattleTech started as BattleDroids, produced by FASA in 1984. The change in the name came after some legal pressure from Lucasfilm over the term, “droid”. Becoming BattleTech didn’t change the core idea of the wargame – two sides fielding walking mecha called BattleMechs to claim dominence of the battlefield. FASA licensed mecha designs from several anime, including Macross**, giving them their own attributes for the game. As the game grew, different factions were developed, and a history came about explaining why these interstellar empires were at war. The five nations of the Inner Sphere*** eventually received a supplement each, detailing their culture, economy, and interstellar relations – the Lyran Commonwealth headed by House Steiner, with German influences; the Draconis Combine headed by House Kurira, with Japanese influences; the Federated Suns headed by House Davion, with French and English influences; the Capellan Confederation headed by House Liao, with Chinese influences; and the Free Worlds League headed by House Marik, with Greek and Balkan influence.
As the setting expanded, the years progressed from 3025, detailing the Succession Wars to see who would form the new Star League. The Houses could barely keep their technology base, with many technicians performing rituals that were learned by rote instead of proper study. In 3049, a new threat appeared from beyond known space. The Clans, the return of the descendants of Star League forces that fled the Inner Sphere after the the revolt from one of the Periphery states resulted in the death of the First Lord of the Star League in 2766. The goal of the invaders was to restore the Star League and retake Earth. The Clan invasion forced the major Houses to research technology and upgrade to survive. Ultimately, the Clan invasion was stopped in 3052 after a coalition of forces fought a proxy battle for control of Earth. The major Houses then formed a new Star League in 3060 to pre-empt a second Clan invasion, but internal fighting inside the Federated Commonwealth, made of Houses Davion and Steiner, erupted as a civil war. In the aftermath, Houses Steiner, Davion, and Liao pulled out of the Star League, ending it. BattleTech grew from the basic box set to encompass published missions, a related role-playing game (MechWarrior), tie-in novels, video games, and even an animated adaptation.
BattleTech: The Animated Series aired in 1994. Produced by Saban, the fourteen episode series melded traditional animation with CGI and detailed the exploits of the 1st Somerset Strikers, an ad hoc team created by Major Adam Steiner, and instructor at the famed Nagelring Military Academy of the Federated Commonwealth Armed Forces (FCAF). Adam’s goal was to find out who attacked his homeworld of Somerset; at first, he believed the Draconis Combine was involved, but learns that a new invader was responsible. With the tacet permission of Archon Melissa Steiner-Davion, he commandeers a Draconis JumpShip to take investigate further. With him are Lieutenant Rachel Specter, Adam’s best friend and tactical officer; Lieutenant Ciro Ramierez, Adam’s assistant instructor at the Nagelring; Cadet Katiara Kylie, aerospace pilot and fellow Somerset native; Captain “Hawk” Hawkins of the FCAF; “Captain” Valten Ryder, mercenary picked up on Dustball; Franklin Sakamoto, Draconis smuggler and illegitimate son of the Combine’s ruler; Doctor Deirdre Nakamura, shipmate of Franklin’s; and “Patch” McGuire, mechanic.
The 1st Somerset Strikers soon learn that the new foe they face is Clan Jade Falcon, one of the invading Clans returning to take back Earth. The Jade Falcons forces in the area of operations are led by Star Colonel Nicholai Malthus and Star Colonel Kristen Redmond. Both have a technology introduced for the cartoon, an Enhanced Imaging implant that allows them to get a broader picture of the battlefield through virtual reality. At first, the ragtag Strikers spend almost as much time infighting as they do battling Malthus’s forces, but as Adam gains intelligence, the Jade Falcon commanders become rivals as Nicholai tries to defeat Steiner. It’s not easy for the Strikers; they lose Ciro to the Jade Falcons, where he is turned into a bondsman and becomes a ‘Mech pilot with an EI implant. In the final episode, the Strikers battle Nicholai and his forces over the fate of Somerset.
The EI implant allowed the studio to switch to CGI, showing ‘Mech battles via virtual reality. The characters are given ties to the setting, through relations, like Adam and Franklin, and through position, like Nicholai and Kristen. Ciro first appeared in Michael A. Stackpole’s BattleTech novel, Lethal Heritage. Franklin’s storyline began in Robert Charette’s novel, Heir to the Dragon. Distinctive BattleMechs were used, from Adam’s Axeman and Kristen’s Vulture to Valten’s Bushwacker, making its first appearance in the setting. Jordan K. Weisman, one of the series’ creators, also was a developer on the game. The production team took pains to bring in as many elements of the setting that they could fit, from having characters of both the Federated Commonwealth and the Draconis Combine working together to the choice of the Jade Falcons as the antagonists. Keeping the focus on the 1st Somerset Strikers helped the writers create their own stories while still using the decade of work already produced for the game as background.
There were some issues. As a cartoon, the animated series was aimed at the lower age of BattleTech players. The series couldn’t get into a lot of detail; a 22 minute episode doesn’t provide enough time to get into the depth of the setting while still providing an ongoing story arc and ‘Mech versus ‘Mech action. To get some of the ‘Mechs, the Technical Readouts were ignored. Hawk’s Mauler was originally a Draconis Combine-only design, yet the Fed-Com pilot has one. For the casual viewer, one interested in the series with little or no knowledge of the existing canon, this isn’t a problem.
Unlike the D&D movie, the problem with adapting BattleTech is the sheer amount of world building that has been done since 1984. Even in 1994, just ten years after the game’s first release, the Inner Sphere saw two Successor Wars, one that resulted in two of the nations becoming one through marriage and conquest, and the return of the descendants of the Star League. The political maneuverings between the wars were hinted at in the animated series, but could use more time to expand. A Game of Thrones does show it is possible, but a 22 minute episode requires a focus on the core characters without getting into too much detail of events beyond..
FASA did release a sourcebook based on the series, 1st Somerset Strikers, which served three purposes. The first was to act as an intro for new players brought in through the cartoon, explaining the different factions shown in the series. The second was to let existing players replay events in the series to see if things could go differently. The third was to bring the characters into the BattleTech canon. Star Commander Pytor, one of Malthus’ ‘Mech pilots, appeared in the Robert Thurston novel, I Am Jade Falcon while Adam became the Archon of the post-civil war Lyran Alliance, to name but two characters. However, the animated series is now considered an in-universe series detailing a fictionalized account of events that happened.
BattleTech: The Animated Series was an ambitious undertaking by FASA. The designer notes in 1st Somerset Strikers shows the efforts being taken to ensure that new viewers wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the setting while still getting key elements in, a challenging task, especially when different products and novels could show any given House as both savior and destroyer of mankind. The chosen format required liberties taken through necessity. Overall, the series makes an effort to adapt the game, even if it’s not perfect.
* For example, Dragonlance, though that adaptation had issues related to time needed.
** These ‘Mechs would later become “the Unseen” after a legal proceedings by Harmony Gold led FASA to remove their images. The conflict came about because of how each company had licensed the images; Harmony Gold had the Macross license, leading to Robotech, while FASA had approached the design studio instead of the animation studio.
*** There are minor nations outside the Inner Sphere, collectively known as the Periphery. They, too, have BattleMechs, but their capacity for warfare is limited compared to the major Houses. Some of the Periphery states still do have a role to play in interstellar politics.
Back in November, one of the news round-ups mentioned that there Hummingbird working on a sequel to It’s A Wonderful Life. With Paramount contesting the sequel, I want to take a look at the mess and how to avoid it.
With It’s a Wonderful Life, the problem stems from a clerical error; the movie’s copyright wasn’t renewed properly, sending the movie to the public domain. The owners, Republic Studios, managed to regain most of the rights through backdoor methods that allowed them to control who could show it and at what price. The short version, the film itself is in the public domain, but the story and the music are not. The question that a court may have to decide is how much It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story depends on the copyrighted story.
Before I continue, I want it made known that I am not a lawyer, not do I play one on TV. This article is all from a layman’s point of view and isn’t legal advice, even if it sounds like it.
The first thing when adapting a work is to find out who has the rights to it. If the work is old enough, it’s in the public domain where anyone can take it. As a rule of thumb, if a work is older than Disney’s “Steamboat Willie”, it is very likely in the public domain. Works by Shakespeare are definitely in the public domain, as are myths, legends, and fairy tales. To verify, sites like Project Gutenberg can be helpful. That Romeo & Juliet alternative universe rom-com* where he’s the son of a necromancer and she’s the daughter of vampires can be made with no rights issues at all.
More recent works, though, have owners who expect payment when someone else plays in their sandbox. Research skills pay off here. First thing is to find out who holds the rights. Sometimes it’s easy; a Star Trek adaptation has to go through Paramount to be made. Sometimes, it’s not. It is the rare company that survives a hundred years. Studios like RKO, Orion, and United Artists have gone under, leaving entire libraries to be picked over. With UA, MGM bought most if not all of its assets, including the 007 franchise. It is a matter of research to find out where the movies have gone. This is where It’s a Wonderful Sequel is running into problems. Both studios can rightfully argue their sides; the film itself is public domain, provided that it is not shown in its original order. The sequel, and any other movie, could very well use images and scenes out of context as flashbacks and not run afoul of the copyright.
Once the rights owner has been found, it’s time to convince them that the adaptation should happen. The easiest way is sums of cash, or, as it is better known, a licensing fee. The owner sets the fee, but could be negotiated down. If there’s no agreement, no adaptation. A possible alternative is to convince the owner that they want to produce the adaptation themselves, with the adapter at the helm of the work. This method works best when remaking a movie, but can also work in the comics industry. This is what I expect the outcome of the dispute between Hummingbird and Paramount to be, an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum that allows It’s a Wonderful Sequel to go ahead.
If the rights owner says no, that’s not the end of the adaptation. Unless the new work relies heavily on established canon, changing details such as character names, setting, and even genre may be enough to make the former adaptation look original. This process is, essentially, “filing off the serial numbers”. Done well, no one notices. Done poorly, and the work gets called a rip-off of the original work.
Let’s take a hypothetical** example. I want to create a dark and gritty remake of BJ and the Bear, setting it in a post-apocalyptic America where BJ and his mutant chimpanzee deliver needed supplies through blighted wastelands to the last remnants of humanity living in fortified towns and cities, getting past corrupt warlords who want the goods for themselves***. The original owners of BJ and the Bear are easy to find – Glen A. Larson and Universal. The two still have a working relationship as of the Battlestar Galactica remake. All I need to do is convince both parties that I can make it worth their while to license the rights to me. Simple, no?
Not so fast. BJ’s main adversary in the remake, Warlord Lobo, is based on a character that got his own spin-off. If I want to use Lobo, I need to make sure that his character isn’t stuck in some sort of rights limbo. The problem has cropped up; The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man were both set, at least partially, in New York City. However, Marvel licensed Spider-Man and his supporting cast to Sony Pictures, who isn’t about to give up the wall-crawler anytime soon. Both Marvel and Sony negotiated to get the Daily Planet into The Avengers, but, ultimately, the building wasn’t there. Marvel is running into a similar situation with the next Avengers movies with Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch. Fox has the rights to all characters related to the X-Men, including mutants. Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch not only are mutants but have worked alongside Magneto in their villain days. Marvel is skirting the problem by not mentioning the m-word (“mutant”) in the movie. However, there has been a massive crossover of rosters between the two teams; other X-Men who have been Avengers include the Beast and Wolverine.
The issue of rights doesn’t affect just movies. The Battletech game has what players have come to call The Unseen, thirteen BattleMechs that could no longer made as miniatures or be used in artwork as a result of a rights dispute between FASA and Harmony Gold. Both companies had licensed the mecha designs; Harmony Gold through the respective studios of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Fang of the Sun Dougram, and Crusher Joe as part of Robotech, FASA through the design studio, Victor Musical Industries, for BattleTech. The case was settled out of court; FASA might have been able to win except the cost of fighting the case became too high for the company to justify. The loss of the Unseen meant redoing several books and creating new minis for the core game and led to the Clan Invasion.
In my hypothetical example, the competing rights issue doesn’t come up. Glen A. Larsons Productions and Universal are still the people to talk to about Lobo. However, if the word is no, I can make changes to remove the BJ and the Bear markers from the project. Keeping the post apocalyptic setting, I can change Bear into a horse that CJ rides. Instead of delivering supplies, CJ delivers news through the wastelands to the fortified towns. Or, since the new project is a little too close to The Postman for comfort, I change the setting to space, where CJ and his sidekick alien buddy try to make ends meet in their dilapidated space freighter while Space Admiral Lupine hunts them down for crimes they may or may not have committed.
In short, check the rights situation. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s not. When in doubt, rework to avoid legal entanglements.
Next week, 2013 in review.
* Yes, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy. That didn’t stop Gnomeo & Juliet.
** At least, I hope it’s hypothetical.
*** If someone reading does do this remake, I would like on-screen credit, please.