Experience comes through learning from mistakes. These mistakes can be made by someone else. Lost in Translation has looked at a number of adaptations, remakes, and reboots over the past three years, covering works of a variety of quality. One of the difficult parts of the reviews is differentiating quality of the movie from the quality of the adaptation.
Generally, a bad movie is bad everywhere. Not only does it miss the point of the original, the bad movie also misses the point of pacing, characterization, plot, and entertainment. A good movie, though, may not necessarily be a good adaptation. A good adaptation may not work as a good movie; there could be elements that don’t carry over during the translation between media.
In general, there are nine possible outcomes, combining the degrees of quality. Along with beging good or bad, there’s the middle stage, the decent by not outstanding. The middle stage is the interesting part when looking at adaptations here at Lost in Translation; the work shows signs of understanding the original work while still missing key elements. I can highlight both and show why the adaptation works and why it needs more thought.
Good work, good adaptation is getting more common. With movies, studios are realizing that an accurate adaptation will please the original work’s fanbase. Word of mouth counts for a lot more today than in pre-Internet days; anyone can be a reviewer and can get their views out during the movie. Risk-averse Hollywood needs the fanbase onside. However, it’s still difficult to get a pitch perfect adaptation. The best I’ve run into so far were Scott Pilgrim versus the World and Blade Runner. Neither movie adapted the original fully, instead going with what I’ve called a “partial adaptation”. Blade Runner left out a number of elements from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep just to be filmable. Scott Pilgrim followed one plot line, the seven evil exes, and ignored some subplots; however, the movie used the graphic novel as the storyboard and filmed in Toronto to keep what was filmed accurate.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are few bad works that are also bad adaptations. Few people set out to make a deliberately bad movie. Even Ed Wood* was putting in his best effort to make the movie he envisioned. With today’s blockbuster budgets breaking past $200 million, studios want to see the movie succeed. Still, bad movies happen. The worst I’ve reviewed here was Alien from L.A., a very loose adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth that had problems that go far beyond the script. Movies don’t get featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 without going that extra step.
Bad movies make it easy to point out what went wrong, but there’s nothing to point out where there was effort. A lack of effort dooms adaptations, but even works that try can fail. On the flip side, movies that have the deck stacked against it succeed against the odds. The size of the budget is no guarentee; the big budget Battleship suffered from being too tied to the Save the Cat script formula while trying to reflect game play, while Flash Gordon was successful as an adaptation and became a cult classic despite executive meddling. It’s these middle cases that make Lost in Translation interesting.
The good movie/bad adaptation combination comes out when a studio has a vision for the final product that deviates from the original work. Real Steel was a family movie about a man reconnecting with his son through the rounds of a robot boxing league. The Richard Matheson short story “Steel” that the movie was based on, though, was about a desperate man stepping into a ring posing as a robot in order to earn money to fix his own entrant. Yet, Real Steel is worth seeing for what it is. The 2014 Robocop could fall into this category; it eschewed the over-the-top violence and satire of the 1980s, reflecting the New Teens instead.
The reverse, the bad movie/good adaptation, is rare. The effort needed to create a good adaptation would also go towards making a good movie. The eye to detail that leads to good adaptations would also go to making sure that the movie’s pacing suits. Cult classics have the potential to fall in this category; Street Fighter: The Movie might qualify. But, most bad adaptations go the route of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, missing the point of the original work while still committing sins of the bad movie.
The middle case, the okay movie/okay adaptation, is ideal for reviewing. This sort of adaptation allows for showing what does work and what doesn’t, providing a contrast. These adaptations tend to be shallow, either because the format of the adaptation doesn’t allow for depth or the adapter doesn’t quite get the original. The novel-to-movie adaptation can easily fall here; Dragonlance and Firefox are the exemplars. In both cases, the adapters put an effort into being faithful, but the length of the adaptations prevented from getting deep just to cover the story. Dragonlance also has the problem of a larger cast; in a movie, this prevents the audience from really getting to know anyone. Television, either a regular series or a mini-series, could have been the better choice, something that A Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have shown.
All the above discussion looks solely at the quality of the adaptation. The original work hasn’t come into play, yet its quality also becomes an issue. With Harry Potter, JK Rowling created a vibrant world that people want to visit all from playing with words. The fanbase expected no less from an adaptation. Meanwhile, the original Battlestar Galactica was seen as a throwback to an earlier for of science fiction, ignoring that the series routinely was in the top ratings until the network, ABC, couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted the series and moved it around or pre-empted it. The popular view of Galactica gave the remake room to experiment and take a harder look at what it would be like for a ragtag fleet escaping the destruction of its homeworlds. It is very possible for an adaptation or a remake to be seen as better than the original; the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series is seen as an improvement on the movie.
What all the above means for Lost in Translation is that the choice of works to review needs to be diverse. If all I did was review just good adaptations or just bad ones, I’d be missing the full picture. Quality of movie doesn’t matter; neither does box office success. Limiting myself would mean missing on works that would allow for greater understanding on how adaptations work.
Next week, the July news round up.
After over a year of writing Lost in Translation, two items recently stood out. One was the concept of the partial adaptation, as seen with Blade Runner and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. While neither movie adapted everything from their original works, what was adapted was true to the original.
Partial adaptations allow taking what is adaptable out of a story without having to sacrifice screen time to explaining an odd occurance. Blade Runner is a good example. The original, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, went further in setting up the time and the aftermath of a nuclear war. The nature of religion had changed drastically, with Mercerism and Buster Friendly at odds for the spiritual audience. In a movie, explaining the religions would detract from the main plot line, adding yet another level of complexity to a movie that was already getting the audience to question reality. The addition could have turned away audiences, or, worse, studio execs. The catch with a partial adaptation, especially when the original work is still being made, is figuring out what can be cut. A complete work makes it easy; the adapter can experience the original and pull out the plot threads needed. In larger works, such as the Harry Potter series, removal of a scene in the first book may cause problems several books later.
The other item that came up recently was the order of viewing. So far, I’ve made sure to watch/read/experience the original work first, then watch/read/experience the adaptation. What I’ve run into, though, is that I’ve watched movies that were remakes or adaptations without realizing it. Movies like Bedazzled and The Mummy* were remakes that weren’t touted as such. This brings about a change in methodology.
The normal way, with the original first, would have me looking for differences in the adaptation, looking at how the adaptation differed from the original. With the experiencing reversed, I’d be looking for similarities in the original. The reversal allows for the adaptation to feature on its own, at least at first, with any problems with it coming from script and casting instead of accuracy. The original work is now receiving the judgement instead of the adaptation. In the future, I will make note of when I approach a review backwards, that is, adaptation first. Chances are, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter will be the first work looked at in this manner.
Next week, I am on hiatus. In fact, I am on hiatus for the month of November. I am lining up guest posts, though, and will have an adaptation news round up around mid-month. The reason for the hiatus is NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, where I will be applying what I’ve learned in Lost in Translation to write a novel in thirty days.
* Both remakes starred Brendan Fraser.