Lost in Translation has noted a few times that television may be the better medium for adapting novels, particularly series of novels. Provided it doesn’t fall victim to poor ratings, the adaptation can take the time needed to present the story at a proper pace instead of trying to cram everything into two to three hours. Let’s take a look at such an adaptation, Syfy’s adaptation of the James SA Corey series of novels, The Expanse.
With Leviathan Wakes published in 2011, The Expanse tells the story about life in the Solar System after being colonized. While Earth is still the birthplace of humanity, Mars and the Asteroid Belt are homes for a large number of people. Things start with relations friendly between the three locations, with a coalition of Earth and Mars treating the Belt as a protectorate. Underneath the friendliness lies friction, not enough to start a war, but enough to take a good excuse to launch one.
Leviathan Wakes is told from two perspectives. One is from the view of James Holden, the executive officer, or XO, of the Canterbury, an ice hauler working between the Belt and Saturn. The other is from Detective Miller’s, a Belter born and raised on Ceres station working for Star Helix, who has the law enforcement contract on the asteroid. The two stories start far apart; but as events happen, they start to intermingle.
Miller’s assignment on Ceres has him and his partner, Havelock, trying to find out what happened to the local organized crime gangs, the griega, as solo operators and young punks muscle in on the action without repercussion. Since the case is stalling out, Miller’s boss gives him, and only him, a new assignment – a missing person to be retrieved who may not want to be retrieved, Julie Mao.
Over on the Canterbury, Holden registers a distress signal, forcing the Cant to respond. He takes engineer Naomi, mechanic Amos, medic Shed, and pilot Alex in a shuttle over to check out the Scopuli. The ship is dead, no power, no life, no bodies, yet still transmitting. The Cant picks up an engine signature, but before Holden can get his crew out of the Scopuli, the unknown ship fires nuclear missiles at the Canterbury, destroying her with all hands except the rescue party.
Leviathan Wakes switches point of view between Holden and Miller. Holden and his crew try to stay alive while getting the blame for starting a war between Mars and the Belt, eventually picking up the Rocinante. Miller gets more obsessed with finding Julie Mao. Both run into senior members of the Outer Planets Alliance, with Holden meeting Fred Johnson and Miller running into Anderson Dawes. The storylines intertwine, as Holden searches for the reason why the Cant was destroyed and Miller gets closer to finding Julie at the cost of his career. On Eros, the two meet. As bad as the storylines were getting when they were apart, they get worse after the meeting. The common element is Julie Mao.
In 2014, Syfy picked up the license for The Expanse and began airing the ten episode first season at the end of 2015. The series stars Steven Strait as Holden, Dominique Tipper as Naomi, Wes Chatham as Amos, Cas Anvar as Alex, and Thomas Jane as Miller. Today is just a look at the first season and how it adapts Leviathan Wakes.
Season one takes its cues from Leviathan Wakes. The events in the book are portrayed on screen. However, the series does away with the having just two perspectives. The story is still split between Holden and Miller, but other details are added in. With a novel, hinting at what’s happening outside the perception of the main characters works. Leviathan Wakes has Holden and Miller on the outside and trying to peer into a complex set of relationships between governments, corporations, and private citizens. Television, though, doesn’t work as well with hinting. Showing what is just mentioned in the background, such as a suicide ramming run by a Belter ice hauler against a Martian warship, adds to the impact. There are many cogs and gears happening behind the story in The Expanse; showing some helps make the setting real, even if it means pulling in details from the other novels and the short stories and novellas.
The series keeps to the pace of the novel. Turns out, ten episodes isn’t enough to adapt the entire novel. Instead of rushing through to cram Leviathan Wakes into one season, the first season ends about midway through the book at a spot that works for a natural end point. It’s a cliffhanger ending, to be sure, but the end point works for the both the story and the season. The characters are in a safe enough spot after everything that has happened, though the main mystery is still not shown.
Season one also keeps the the mix of genres of the novel, a mix of space opera, noir, and horror. The tension remains steady through the series, with things ramping up for the two-part season finale. The depth of the setting is on full display, as the Belt, Mars, and Earth find their reasons to begin hostilities. The TV series keeps the dynamic feel of the setting by showing it beyond what is hinted at in Leviathan Wakes.
The first season of The Expanse shows how television can adapt a novel far better than a movie or even a series of movies. Television allows for the quieter moments, the scenes that are focused on the characters, both of which are heavily used in Leviathan Wakes. Horror works best when the audience’s imagination is allowed to take over; hinting at what’s lurking is better than showing it outright. When the payoff comes, the audience experience the full horror of what’s happening.
The danger of a television adaptation is that it may not be completed. Syfy aired three seasons of The Expanse. Amazon picked up the series for the fourth season coming soon. With A Game of Thrones being a massive hit for HBO, it was only natural for other channels to find their own version. Syfy went with a space opera with political machinations running in the background. However, costs, especially for a series set in space, have a price, and that means the risk of being dropped despite viewership. The Expanse takes a massive story and presents it at a proper pace. The characters are easily recognizable, the setting’s details come through, and the plot is unmarred by the translation to the new medium. With the number of books released, Amazon and whoever comes afterward, has enough to work with for years.
Remakes happen. The known element is popular with audiences, for all that people moan about the lack of original movies. Lost in Translation has looked at the problems different sources have when being translated to film, but remaking a movie has its own issues. For most genres, it’s not a problem. People will enjoy the same story over and over, whatever the format. For horror and mystery, there’s a problem.
Horror and mystery rely on tension and the unknown. In horror, it’s a question of when something happens, with setting, lighting, and music the only cues. Mysteries rely on solving the puzzle, following clues to the end. In both genres, knowing the end result takes away from the suspense. The remake of The Evil Dead took the same situation – a cabin in the middle of the woods and a group of young adults – and, while having similar beats to the original, added its own twists so that audiences couldn’t rely on their knowledge of the older movie.
Before the Eighties, most older films could be found either in repertory theatres or on television, either late night or weekend mornings. With the typical time between original movie and a remake being about thirty years or so, a new generation of audience could grow up without having seen the source. The Eighties, though, were when the VCR took off with hardware and available movies coming down in cost to be practical for the home. Specialty cable stations added to the availability of older movies. Today, with DVDs and streaming, if a film exists, it can usually be found somewhere on demand. A movie from the Eighties, ie, thirty years ago, is still available to the next generation of audience. The twists and turns that made an original movie suspenseful now makes a remake predictable. Yet, people want the familiar. Directors of remakes are in a tough spot. The audience wants the remake to be faithful, but not too faithful.
Slasher films and monster movies have an out. Audiences are there to see the star – the slasher or the monster, different sides of the same coin – do what they do best, kill people. Few people watch a Godzilla movie to cheer the Japanese Self-Defense Force; they’re there to see Godzilla stomp through Tokyo. Toho has rebooted the series, but hasn’t really remade the original.
Another issue with horror remakes is that horror films tend to reflect the fears of the time they are made. Going back to Godzilla, the original film was made in response to the growing fears of atomic weapons, made in a country that had the first and only two atomic bombs dropped on it. Other fears that have shown up include machines turning on humanity (Maximum Overdrive, The Terminator), humanity’s interference with nature (The Thing, Sharktopus), loss of identity (The Fly, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Borg), the faceless other (zombie films), and the seductive other (vampire movies). While some of those fears are part of being human, others change as understanding is gained and political winds blow.
Mysteries may not rely on the fear of the day, but they do rely on the puzzle. With information at the audience’s fingertips today, it’d be easy to do a quick search to find out whodunit. Adapting a mystery from literature doesn’t quite have the same problem; the audience is there to see a story they enjoyed on screen, not solve the puzzle. Remaking a mystery, though, needs to create new twists to keep the audience on its toes. There are exceptions, such as Columbo where the draw is to see how the detective solves the murder, but most mysteries rely on not knowing who the killer is until the reveal. Even the live action Scooby-Doo, while still using the tropes of the cartoon including having the monster really be someone the kids have met, created its own plot instead of using one of the animated episodes.
There are ways around the problem. The first is to make the new movie a reboot, picking up where the previous film left off. The TV series Ash vs Evil Dead is a continuation of the original The Evil Dead with Ash getting into more trouble. It’s easier with slasher films and monster movies; the star is the attraction, so even with new casting, as long as the main character acts in the expected way, the audience is satisfied. Mysteries may have a harder time, depending on how much the original actor was tied to the character. Peter Falk made Columbo his character; it’ll be some time before an audience will accept a newcomer to the role. However, other characters, like Sherlock Holmes, have been portrayed by a large number of different actors.
The key in any remake is to provide the audience what they expect. With horror, the expectation is suspense and scares; with mysteries, it’s a whodunit. The characters in the remake should behave like they did in the original, even if the plot has changed. Shaggy shouldn’t sound like an Oxford scholar and Ash Williams shouldn’t be the luckiest man alive. Get these details correct, and the audience won’t mind changes to the plot.
Five friends take a vacation in an abandoned, isolated cabin in the woods, only to find themselves at the mercy of the supernatural. A simple premise, but loaded with potential. Sam Raimi’s 1981 film, The Evil Dead, began there, then grew with two sequels, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, plus comics and video games, and kicked off careers for not just him but Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert.
The Evil Dead has five Michigan State students, Ash Williams, his girlfriend Linda, his sister Cheryl, their friend Scotty, and Scotty’s girlfriend Shelly, on spring break. They decide on an isolated cabin in the hills of Tennessee*, but the journey there isn’t uneventful. After a near-collision with another motorist in the downpour, the group barely gets across a bridge before it collapses.
At the cabin, things keep getting odd. Cheryl, while trying to draw a clock, draws a demonic face, her hand and arm possessed at the time. She dismisses what she did as just her imagination playing tricks after the long drive and near death encounters on the road. In the main room, though, a trapdoor flies open. Ash and Scotty go down to investigate and find a book, the Book of the Dead, with unusual bindings and a tape recording. The recording is gibberish to them, but is an incantation to summon evil spirits. Upstairs, a tree crashes through a window, causing Cheryl to become hysterical and leave to her room.
Cheryl, though, hears voices from outside. She goes out to look, only to be attacked, held, and assaulted by trees. Cheryl escapes, but no one believes her story. Trees don’t move like that. Ash, though, does agree to take her back to town. The only bridge connecting the cabin to the rest of the world is gone, trapping everyone.
The demons go to work. They first possess Cheryl, making her warn the others that they’re doomed, then having her stab Linda with a pencil. Cheryl gets locked up, but Shelly is the next to be possessed. Shelly attacks Scotty, who defends himself with an axe. He buries Shelly’s dismembered body, then, still shaken, goes out to find another way to escape the cabin.
When Scotty returns, Linda has been possessed, though she never tried to attack Ash. Scotty has found another way out, but falls unconscious before he could say what it is. Linda and Cheryl convince Ash they’re not posessed, but he doesn’t fall for the trick. Cheryl remains locked up in the cellar and Ash locks Linda out of the cabin. As he tends to Scotty’s injuries, Linda gets back in the cabin and attacks with a ceremonial dagger. Ash turns the tables and stabs Linda. He buries Linda, but isn’t able to dismember her as Scotty did to Shelly. The demon possessing Linda takes advantage and bursts out of the grave. Ash decapitates the possessed Linda with a shovel.
Back at the cabin, Cheryl has escaped the cellar and Scotty is now possessed. Ash finds a shotgun and wounds Cheryl, but needs to reload afterwards. He locks himself in the cellar to look for more shotgun shells. The walls seep blood and voices call to Ash. Cheryl and Scotty break through the door. Ash spies the Book of the Dead and throws it into the flames. Cheryl and Scotty fall apart. Ash returns upstairs as dawn breaks. The final shot is a from the view of an unseen evil being rushing through the woods and leaping at Ash.
The Evil Dead was a low budget horror movie by a first-time feature film director. Raimi kept the production at the isolated cabin, adding more problems as shooting went on. All the effects are practical, with workarounds made to make up for the lack of expensive equipment. Dolly zooms**, the shots where the focus pulls in on an actor while pulling the camera away, were done using a long piece of wood covered with Vaseline because proper dolly cameras weren’t available. The movie became a cult hit despite getting an initial X rating from the amount of violence and gore and, as mentioned above, spawned sequels and a musical.
Raimi and Campbell had wanted to remake the movie over the years, but the idea was on hold in 2009. In 2011, though, Campbell revealed during a Reddit AskMeAnything that there was a script for a remake, one that blew him away. While not directed by Raimi, he chose Fede Alvarez to direct the 2013 Evil Dead, making the movie his feature film debut. Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues co-wrote the script, which was then cleaned up by Diablo Cody to fix the dialogue.
Evil Dead starts with a young woman being kidnapped by two men in the woods and taken to a cabin. She recovers to find herself chained to a post and held in place by barbed wire. Along with the men who kidnapped her is her father, who is trying to tell her its for her own good, and an old witch who is ordering the father to pour gasoline on the woman. The woman pleads to be let go, but as her begging falls on deaf ears, the demon possessing her starts berating her father. He sets his daughter on fire, then shoots her.
Years later, five college-aged friends arrive at the cabin. David and his girlfriend Natalie, along with their friends Eric and Olivia, who is a nurse, have gathered to make sure that David’s sister Mia kicks her heroin habit cold turkey. The isolated nature of the cabin should ensure that Mia isn’t able to obtain more drugs or run off. As the group settles in, Mia smells something off, like something died. Olivia dismisses it as withdrawal symptoms, but Grandpa, David and Mia’s dog, also smells something coming from under a throw rug. The group removes the rug to find a trapdoor and bloodstains leading to it.
The group investigates, finding corpses of animals, a shotgun, and a book wrapped in plastic and bound with barbed wire. They take the book and shotgun back upstairs. Eric, either through curiosity or because the book called to him, removes the barbed wire to start reading. The book, Naturom Demonto or Book of the Dead, is filled with writing and illustrations, along with warnings to not read further. The illustrations are of either demons or their human victims. One page has been heavily scribbled out, but Eric makes an impression to get the original words, which he reads aloud.
Mia senses the awakening of an ancient evil. She tries to get the group to leave, but, again, Olivia dismisses it all as withdrawal symptoms. Mia grabs her car keys and leaves anyway. On the road, she sees a girl in ragged clothes too late to brake. Mia swerves instead, sending her car off the road and into the swamp. The girl reappears, following Mia. Mia runs off into the woods, but is caught on a thorn bush. While it first appears that Mia was just unlucky, the vines grab on to her, holding her in place for the girl. The girl shoots black ooze from her mouth. The ooze writhes along the ground and up Mia’s legs.
David and Olivia have followed Mia, finding her car off the road. They search for her and do find her in shock with a number scratches and thorns. Back at the cabin, Mia tries to warn the group, who, once again, passes off her babblings as withdrawal symptoms. Mia withdraws. David, working outside, finds a trail of blood that leads to his now mortally wounded dog. He storms back in, looking for his sister, who is off taking a shower. In the shower, Mia is fully clothed and turns up the heat. David breaks through the door as second degree burns appear on Mia. Eric recognizes the scene from the Book and finally speaks up about it. David takes Mia with him in his Jeep to get his sister medical attention, but the only way in and out has been washed away, forcing him to return to the cabin.
Back with the others, Mia’s possession goes full-demon as she picks up the shotgun and shoots her brother. David dodges enough so that only his arm is hit. Mia then tells the group, in a voice that isn’t hers, that all five will die, then passes out. Olivia tries to retrieve the shotgun, but Mia recovers and overpowers the nurse, covering her in a vomit of blood. The group manages to push Mia into the cellar and lock her away. Olivia heads to the bathroom to clean up. She sees a distorted view of herself in the mirror just before it explodes. Outside the bathroom, Eric hears an unsettling sound. He heads into the room to see Olivia, now also possessed, cutting her cheek with one of the mirror shards. She sees him and attacks with everything she has, mirror shard and hypodermic needle. Eric fends her off long enough to pick up a heavy piece of porcelain to bludgeon her.
As David tends to Eric’s wounds, Eric explains that everything that has happened is in the Book. The extra notes tell of how to cleanse the evil from the possessed, including dismemberment, live burial, or burning. The Book also tells of how the Taker of Souls needs five souls in order to release the Abomination. Mia and Olivia were just the first two.
The possessed Mia is working on the third. Natalie hears Mia crying in the cellar, confused about what happened to her. She opens the cellar to talk, and discovers that Mia is still possessed. Mia bites Natalie’s hand, but Natalie escapes. In the kitchen, Natalie discovers that her hand is moving of its own accord. Scared that she’s getting possessed and hearing Mia’s maniacal laughter, Natalie does the one thing she can think of to stop the infection – she severs her arm with an electric knife.
David and Eric arrive as Natalie’s arm falls to the floor. They wrap up the stump, then try to work out how to stop Mia. David is unwilling to just kill his sister. During the debate, Natalie picks up the nail gun and attacks the two men. Eric takes most of the nails, and distracts Natalie long enough for David to get the shotgun. David shoots his girlfriend’s remaining arm off.
David pulls Eric outside, along with the gasoline can. The plan is to burn the cabin with Mia inside, but she begins singing a lullaby that their mother sang to them. David’s Plan B is to bury his sister alive. He returns inside and into the cellar, but is surprised by Mia. Mia is surprised by Eric, who knocks her out but is fatally wounded by her box cutter. David carries Mia out to the shallow grave. He gives her a sedative, then buries her. Mia wakes up and taunts him with every shovelful of dirt he adds. With Mia completely buried, he waits several moments, then digs her back up. Mia is dead, but David has built a makeshift defibrillator using items in the cabin. It works, and Mia is herself again.
David returns to the cabin to get the keys for his Jeep. He’s attacked by Eric, who is possessed. David realizes that he can’t survive his neck wound, so gives Mia the keys and pushes her out of the cabin. With just him and Eric inside, David grabs the shotgun and takes aim at the gas can. The fireball kills both him and and the re-animated Eric.
Outside, Mia stares in horror at what happened. As she stands watching the flames, a rain of blood starts. Five have died, and Mia’s clinical death counts. The Abomination awakens. Mia tries to run, but the Abomination keeps up, calling her name in a harsh whisper. Mia realizes she can’t keep running and looks for a way to fight back. Her eyes fall on the chainsaw. It takes a number of attempts to get it started, all while keeping away from the Abomination. It is only while hiding under the Jeep that Mia gets the chainsaw started. She cuts the Abomination’s legs out from under it. Mia can’t get away from the Jeep fast enough, though. The Abomination topples the vehicle on its side, trapping one of Mia’s arms under it.
Horror movies are difficult to remake. Fans of the original have certain expectations, but a shot-for-shot remake means all the twists and scares are known. With an cult classic like The Evil Dead, there are elements that are needed in a remake to keep the feel. Evil Dead managed to keep those elements while still being fresh. The original used camera tricks like dolly zooms and long, low, fast shots through the woods while still being in a cramped environment. Those same tricks return, adding to the oddness of the cabin. Changing the names of the victims also helps. Ash Williams would be expected to survive in a remake. No Ash, no foreknowledge of who, if anyone, survives.
Some things, though, shouldn’t be changed. The trap door, the Book, the chainsaw, the rape-trees, all were key in the original and all return in some form. For an added bonus, Sam Raimi’s 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88*** returns, as an abandoned car at the cabin. Everything that made The Evil Dead the horror classic it is returns in Evil Dead. Helping to keep that feel are the producers, Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert, all resposible for the original. Raimi may not be at the helm, but he chose Fede Alvarez. Alvarez delivered a movie that uses the techniques of the original to deliver the chills of the original while still being its own film.
The end result is that Evil Dead is The Evil Dead with a better budget but a tighter film.
* Production filmed in an isolated cabin near Morrison, Tennesee, adding a touch of cinéma verité to the movie. Raimi was known to be happy when his actors bled.
** Also known as Vertigo shots, after the Alfred Hitchcock movie.
*** The Delta 88 has appeared in every movie and series that Sam Raimi has worked on, including Spider-Man as the car Peter’s uncle drove and even in an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess.