Studios will mine anything for an adaptation – popular books, classic literature, remakes of popular movies, television, games of all sorts. If there’s an audience, a studio will try to get its attention with a big screen adaptation. Sometimes, adapting a work may be the only way a project gets greenlit.
Police procedurals have been around for some time. Dragnet, the prototypical police procedural, began on the radio before moving to TV. Webb followed up with Adam-12, a series about two LA police officers and the calls they responded to during the day, and Emergency!, a paramedic procedural following the calls taken by the fictional Squad 51. The two series also went into some depth on what the characters did between calls.
In 1977, NBC added a new element to the police procedural. /CHiPs/ was typical for police procedurals, with a mix of action, drama, and comedy, but emphasized the buddy cop aspect that was still nascent in the previous series. Starring Larry Wilcox as Officer Jon Baker and Erik Estrada as Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, CHiPs ran six seasons, gaining a fan base. The characters were typical of a duo at the time, one stoic, the other hot blooded, but the buddy cop archetype has to start somewhere, taking cues from The Odd Couple. Each standalone episode had a mix of comedic and dramatic police calls, threaded together by a subplot involving the main characters in their downtime. Even the supporting cast, including Randi Oakes, Paul Linke, Robert Pine, and Michael Dorn.
The series is memorable, at least among the older audiences, and the name stands out. This made it prime for adaptation, which Dax Shepard did with the 2017 release, CHIPS, starring Shepard as Jon and Michael Peña and Ponch. Shepard had been trying to get a movie starring himself and Peña, a comedy about motor sports, but studios kept turning him down. He decided to adapt CHiPs and the studio, Warner Bros Pictures, green lit the project.
The movie made a few changes to the characters. Jon became the CHP’s oldest rookie after he went through the police academy to try to win back his wife. Before that, he was a professional motocross rider, with the injuries that built up over his career, including gaining a titanium humerus among all his scars. Rainy days are not his friend. “Ponch”, really FBI Special Agent Castillo, is an undercover operative, being sent into different organizations to infiltrate and expose crime. The movie begins with him being the getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers.
In LA, a number of armoured car robberies have been going on with precision, leaving no one dead at the scene of the heist. One of the robbers even moves a young woman out of the way of the shaped charge, dragging her from the car. However, during the robbery, a CHP cruiser arrives. The ringleader takes the driver of the armoured car with him, holding him hostage as a CHP helicopter hovers overhead. The catch, the driver is in on the crime, as is the helicopter pilot. The ringleader forces a choice, and the pilot takes a dive out of the chopper.
The FBI sends in Castillo as Poncherello to infiltrate the CHP the same day Jon is given an ultimatum. Due to his poor marks at the academy, Jon has to finish in the top ten percent in performance or be washed out of the CHP. The only area he has top marks in is motorcycle riding. Jon gets paired with new transfer Ponch and the two begin their patrol. Ponch starts his assigned investigation, only to be hindered by Jon ticketing for every possible offense. However, Jon turns out to be more observant than Ponch, noticing in a brief look that the home of the dead pilot’s widow didn’t have any sign that they were even together.
The investigation keeps building, leading to chasing of the ringleader’s son after a drug deal. The ringleader isn’t out to get rich but to get his kid to a place where he can kick his drug habit. The death of his son in the chase pushes him over the edge, leading to a campaign to get his revenge on Jon and Ponch.
The film makes changes to the original. Ponch and Jon are the more obvious change from the original. The movie shakes up the characters, making Jon not so much straitlaced as out of touch. Ponch is professional but is very likely to succumb to his weakness, mainly women wearing yoga pants. Shepard describes the difference between them as female energy (Jon) and male energy (Ponch). Neither is shown as being the better; each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The cast is more diverse than the original series, with a more even mix of men and women in uniform plus a few gay men. The script doesn’t quite take full advantage, but some plot points did slip in. The movie, though, tends to be more bro humour, low brow. CHIPS is rated R for good reason. It’s not necessarily a bad movie. The new approach, though, may be jarring to anyone expecting something like the original.
The main thing holding the movie back from being a good adaptation is that Dax Shepard took advantage of current studio thinking. Original works are risky; adaptations aren’t. Attach a known name to a project and the studio will fund. Given that, there is effort to recreate the original series even while using its name to push through a project that would otherwise not get funded. There is action, there is comedy, there is drama, and there is thought put behind the villain’s motives for what he’s doing, as well as motives for the other characters involved. The result is a movie that at times is held back because it had to be filmed under the banner of another work.
Reaching back a bit, I reviewed The Muppets, the reboot/sequel to The Muppet Movie. However, The Muppet Movie itself was an adaptation, of sorts.
In 1976, The Muppet Show debuted as a variety show sketch comedy program. Each week, a different guest star would appear and get caught up in the antics and running gags of the Muppets. While the range of guest stars were more theatrical and British in the first season, as the series went on, more and more stars appeared. Mark Hamill reprised the role of Luke Skywalker for one episode while also playing himself shortly after filming The Empire Strikes Back. There was no fourth wall, and the show was seen, in-universe, as bad vaudeville. The Muppet Show was family entertainment, not the “family, but really only suitable for the under-five set” but “something for everyone in the family, from brightly colour puppets to double entendres to high art”. The series ended in 1981, with Roger Moore as the last guest star.
During the run, Muppetmania caught hold. Naturally, when there’s a mania, people want to exploit it. The need was there, so Henson Associates and ITC Films released The Muppet Movie in 1979. The movie told, approximately*, how the Muppets first came together, from Kermit’s early life in a swamp to running Muppet Theatre. The writers, Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl, were also the writes for The Muppet Show, and the core cast of performers came from the same spot.
The movie delivered. Favourite characters appeared, Miss Piggy was head over heels in love with Kermit who wasn’t as thrilled about her, Fozzie told bad jokes, Gonzo was weird, and Animal was Animal. Instead of a special guest star, there were cameos. Of note, The Muppet Movie was the last film Edgar Bergen appeared in; he passed away shortly after his scene was shot. Bergen was one of Jim Henson’s inspirations. The fourth wall didn’t exist. When the Electric Mayhem catch up to Kermit and friends, they explained that they used the script to find them. As for the running gags, there were several, from “Lost? Try Hare Krishna,” to “‘That’s just a myth! Myth!’ ‘Yeth’?”
The years since The Muppet Movie was made has added some new twists on the gags in the film. Gonzo’s desire to become a movie star by going to Bombay isn’t that odd now that Bollywood has become better known to North American audiences. Still, it’s not the easy way. The movie, though, really hasn’t aged. The Muppets picked up on a few ideas in The Muppet Movie and continued with them, including Gonzo’s old plumbing business.
As an adaptation, The Muppet Movie works. The form of The Muppet Show, a vaudeville theatre show, wouldn’t work for a movie, but showing how the Muppets got together, approximately, while keeping true to the nature of the characters, the show, and the overall tone more than made up the difference. The core writers and performers understood what the audiences would be expecting, and delivered without being predictable.
Next week, riffing off the It’s A Wonderful Life sequel.
* “Well, it’s sort of approximately how it happened.” – Kermit.
Philip K. Dick is the most adapted science fiction writer, with eight novels having been transformed into movies and TV series. Some of Dick’s key elements, the questioning of what is real, what is humanity, and what is God, make it difficult to keep the original story intact. The results have been mixed; Minority Report borrowed from Dick’s short story “The Minority Report” but created its own ending. Total Recall was based loosely on “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”.
The 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is typical of Dick’s works. Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who specializes in hunting rogue androids who blend in with humanity, takes up the search to find and “retire” (read: kill) six Nexus-6 androids while dealing with a home life that is falling apart. Because androids blend in so well with the human populace, several different tests have been created to help determine who is real, including the Voight-Kampff empathy test. Deckard starts his investigation at the Rosen Industries, manufacturers of the Nexus-6 line, where he meets Eldon Rosen, head of the Rosen Association, and his neice, Rachel. Rosen insists that Deckard should give the Voight-Kampff test to Rachel. When she fails, Rosen says it’s because she grew up on a colony ship heading to Proxima that had to turn back.
Meanwhile, one of the escaped Nexus-6 androids, Pris Stratton, has moved into an apartment building with just one other occupant, J.R. Isidore. Isidore is a genetically damaged driver for an animal repair shop; his disability, brought on by radioactive fall-out, prevents him from leaving Earth. Pris befriends Isidore, and uses him to try to stop Deckard from retiring herself and her fellow escaped androids. Interwoven are elements of the setting, a post-nuclear war Earth where radiation is tracked by weather satellites, animals are artificially created because there are so few left, Mercerism where adherents can feel the suffering of Wilbur Mercer as he climbs a mountain while rocks are thrown at him, and off-world colonization.
Ridley Scott’s adaptation, Blade Runner, has had several versions. The theatrical release had Harrison Ford narrating in a voice over and a happy ending using scenes cut from The Shining. The narration was asked for by the studio and added after test audiences had trouble following the movie. An international theatrical release had more violence, including on-screen eye gouging. In 1992, a “director’s cut” – in realty, a workprint prototype – was discovered and screened at an LA film festival. The print did not have the full soundtrack with Vangelis’ music, using a temp track from Planet of the Apes instead, but was successful enough to convince Warner Bros. to create a proper director’s cut with input from Ridley Scott. This cut removed the voice over and the happy ending and added a dream sequence involving a unicorn. Scott, however, was busy at the time, so could not put his full attention on it. Finally, in 2007, he did get the time and put together the Final Cut that included some newly reshot footage and some redubbing. It is the Final Cut that will be reviewed; it is the version that is closest to what Ridley Scott wanted to make.
Blade Runner is definitely an adaption of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but the movie doesn’t adapt everything from the book. Some changes, such as the year the story is set, were made to reflect that time has passed since the book’s first release. In 1968, 1992 was a distant future, especially with the Cold War threatening to turn hot and nuclear. In 1982, while the Cold War was still happening, it was starting to build back up through tensions; nuclear war was still a possibility but not as immediate. Deckard was no longer a bounty hunter but a former police operative known as a “blade runner” who tracked Replicants who escaped to Earth. Deckard’s bounty hunter comrade, Dave Holden, became another blade runner, one still working with the police. J.R. Isidore became J.F. Sebastian, a genetic designer with Methuselah Syndrome, a genetic disease causing his body to age faster than normal. Rosen Industries became the Tyrell Corporation, with the founder’s name changing to match. Little details, mostly. Other elements were removed completely; Mercerism isn’t shown or mentioned. Deckard’s wife appears only in a photo, though no explanation was given on his marital status.
Despite the changes, the movie holds to the core of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The hunt for the androids, the Voight-Kampff empathy test, the budding humanity in the Nexus-6 escapees, Tyrell Corporation trying to create an android that can pass the Voight-Kampff test. The visual look of the movie matches the feel of the novel. Blade Runner isn’t a shot for shot adaptation; the movie is as much Ridley Scott’s vision as it is Philip K. Dick’s, but the issues examined – what is real, what is human – come through clearly in both. The end is where the two works diverge the most. In the novel, Deckard returns home to his wife after meditating in Oregon and finding a toad, Wilbur Mercer’s favorite animal. In the movie, Deckard and Rachel leave his apartment to go, well, Scott left that up to the audience.
Is Blade Runner a good adaptation? For the most part, yes, even with the changes. It helps that the movie is a visual feast. Blade Runner has inspired numerous creators, from TV and movies to video games to tabletop RPGs to music. The movie melded film noire with science fiction, predicted several trends and technologies. Blade Runner is a masterpiece on its own. As an adaptation, it picks and chooses from the original novel, taking what it can do and leaving the bits that won’t work.
Next week, the September link round up of adaptation news.
Adapting popular books isn’t new in Hollywood. Some of the best known movies are based on written works, be they books, short stories, or plays. Historically, the accuracy of adaptation has fluctuated, though some works included a change of name to reflect the differences. It is possible that, right now, we are in the middle of a Golden Age of adaptations, where authors have just enough clout to ensure that their works are adapted faithfully instead of being mined for ideas and left an empty corpse in Hollywood Hills.
Outside Hollywood, studios and directors tend to be more aware of the original work and its audience when it comes to adapting. The approach is to keep the original work in tact where possible, and can be seen in The Guns of Navarone. The original novel, released in 1957 by Alistair MacLean, featured a hand-picked team of specialists being sent to destroy the anti-ship artillery guns on the titular Greek island after previous attempts, including a bombing run, failed to destroy them. At stake, the lives 1200 British soldiers and the British ships being sent to retrieve them before the German offensive starts. Without the guns destroyed, the flotilla would be under a heavy barrage from the guns, out of range of the ships’ own weapons.
The movie follows the plot of the book reasonably closely. Events from the book do show up in the movie. The changes between the two occur in the characters. Captain Keith Mallory, Corporal Dusty Miller, and Andrea, a former Greek colonel all appear and serve in the same roles in both movie and book, with some minor alterations. Supporting characters, though, did see changes, some minor, some massive. Mallory, a New Zealander in the novel, picked up Gregory Peck’s American accent in the movie. Andrea, played by Anthony Quinn, originally was Mallory’s confidante, and didn’t harbour the grudge he had in the movie. Miller was cynical in the book, but David Niven gave him a touch of resigned whimsy. The Greek resistance members Louki and Panayis became Maria and Anna, played by Irene Papas and Gia Scala, respectively. The gender flip allowed the producer to add a romance that didn’t exist in the original novel.
As I mentioned above, the plot remained unchanged. The change from novel to movie meant that different means of keeping up tension had to be used. The destruction of the guns occurred “off-screen” in the novel, leaving the tension to the reaction of the characters as they waited for their explosives to detonate. The movie, though, turned the focus of the tension to the search for the planted explosives and the raising and lowering of the cargo lift, where if the lift dropped down far enough, the circuit needed to detonate the charges would be complete. Camera angles, the tempo of the music, the cuts from the cargo lift to the flotilla to the main characters waiting heightened the tension.
Is the movie version of The Guns of Navarone a perfect adaptation? No; many changes, some for the sake of expanding the demographic to have something for everyone, were made. However, the plot remained unchanged, as did the general feel of the novel. The core ideas – the guns being a danger, the stakes, the race against time – remained. Helping was the quality of the cast*; the odd actor out was James Darren, whose movie works prior to being cast as Spyros Pappadimos included two Gidget movies. However, Darren turned out to be up for the challenge and held his own among the rest of the cast.
The Guns of Navarone has been adapted in other ways, beyond just the movie. A radio play was produced in 1997 for the BBC. The original Battlestar Galactica had an episode, “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero”, that combined The Guns of Navarone with another of MacLeans’s novels, Ice Station Zebra. The core story – the race against time by a small team to protect thousands – reaches out and grabs the audience, no matter the format.
Next week, The Man of Steel.
* Today’s cast equivalent would be Daniel Craig, Johnny Depp, and Patrick Stewart, in terms of talent and draw. James Darren would essentially be Rihanna in Battleship except with a better role to work with.
In 1982, the world of computing was vastly different than today. Desktop computers were still in their infancy, with popular machines being Commodore’s VIC-20 and Radio Shack’s TRS-80. Game consoles existed, but the video arcade was the home for video gaming, as machines ate a steady stream of quarters. Cyberpunk and the concept of cyberspace were still new, with John M. Ford leading the way in 1980; but, neither would be well known until the 1984 publication William Gibson’s Neuromancer. However, the visiuals of cyberspace got a boost from, of all places, Disney.
The early 80s saw Disney experimenting with releases, taking risks that the company normally had passed on. One of the experiments was an, at the time, animated project that would incorporate computer graphics in with the traditional techniques. The project evolved further, becoming a live-action film with computer animation enhancing the look. Tron was released in 1982 and performed well enough, bringing in double its budget of US$17 million, but received mixed reviews and was not nominated for an Academy Award for Special Effects because the use of computers was considered “cheating”*. The late Roger Ebert felt that Tron was not given due credit by audiences and critics alike and showcased it at his first Overlooked Film Festival in 1997.
Tron, though light on plot, is a beautiful movie. The film stock changed depending whether the action is in the real world or in cyberspace. The computer world was filmed in black and white with bright primary colours hand-drawn on to the film, creating a stark contrast. Tron created the base of most depictions of cyberspace and its denizens. Wendy Carlos’ musical score heightened the other-worldly nature of the digital realm. Tron, despite being ignored by audiences in general, proved to be influential, including leading to the works of Daft Punk and the creation of Pixar.
The plot of Tron is simple enough. Software engineer Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, has been fired from ENCOM after alleging that his boss, Ed Dillenger, played by David Warner, had stolen several video games designed by Flynn. As a result, Flynn tries to hack into ENCOM’s computer but gets blocked by the Master Control Program set up by Dillenger. One of Flynn’s hack attempts has CLU, also played by Bridges, try sneaking through the system; CLU gets discovered and is de-rezzed by a Recognizer. Meanwhile, Alan Bradley, played by Bruce Boxleitner,, one of Flynn’s friends and former co-workers, has a security program, Tron, that monitors communication between the MCP and the real world. Flynn convinces Bradley to get him back inside to increase Tron’s security clearance. However, the MCP has reached artificial intelligence and is actively protecting itself. The MCP uses a laser to digitize Flynn into the Game Grid. On the Grid, Flynn finds himself a prisoner of the MCP, forced to participate in gladiatorial games based off the video games he and others programmed at ENCOM. With the help of Tron, Flynn escapes and works towards the overthrow of the MCP in order to return to the real world.
Since Tron‘s release, the movie’s influence grew. As mentioned, without Tron, there would be no Pixar. In 2008, Tron was nominated for the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Science Fiction Films, although the movie didn’t make the list. The visuals have infused themselves into pop consciousness; depictions of cyberspace resemble Tron‘s grid.
In 2010 Disney released Tron: Legacy, a sequel and reboot of Tron. The world of gaming changed in the almost thirty years since the release of the original. The video arcade, mainstay of the 80s, has all but disappeared. Console gaming is far more widespread, as is the Internet. Keeping the feel of the original Tron while incorporating modern graphics and sensibilities had to be balanced with the capabilities of CGI. Back for Legacy was both Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner reprising their roles from Tron. Time had passed for their characters, with Kevin Flynn having a son, Sam, played by Garret Hedlund, and then going missing in 1989, Sam has long lost his belief that his father will return by the start of the film, but a page brings him to Flynn’s Arcade. Sam snoops around and finds a computer still on, waiting for input. Sam logs in, and gets digitized to the Grid. He’s picked up by a Recognizer, which now looks even more ominous. Sam is sentenced to the Games, where he’s recognized by a semi-feral program called Rinzler as a user. The film continues with Sam’s fight to escape, the discovery of his father and the last of the isomorphic algorithms, and the race to return to the gateway to get back to the real world. The concept of Zen plays heavily in the film as the chess match between Flynn and CLU turns into first a game of Go then into a game of Roborally**.
As a reboot and sequel, the movie does well. The Grid is bleaker than in Tron, and an explanation is given for why the blossoming of colour at the end of the first movie is gone. The story in both Tron and Tron: Legacy is Kevin Flynn’s; Sam may be the mover and shaker in Legacy, but it is his father’s story that comes to a close. The music, by Tron fans Daft Punk, again adds to the otherworldlyness of the computer realm and adds a sense of menace that Wendy Carlos didn’t have. Legacy is just as beautiful as the original.
Next week, the pitfalls of adapting games.
* Times have changed indeed. Life of Pi won the Oscar for Achievement in Visual Effects in 2013 with heavy use of CGI.
** Not so much because there’s robots, but because even carefully laid plans in Roborally can be completely derailed thanks to an unforeseen random element.
In 1956, Richard Matheson had his short story “Steel” published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, later published in Steel and Other Stories. The story told of a former boxer, “Steel” Kelly, who turned to robot fighting with an older model and how Kelly steps into the ring to raise money to fix the robot. The brutality of boxing wasn’t minced, nor was Kelly’s desperation. Every body blow could be felt while reading. Interestingly, the story predicted the existence of a robot fighting league long before shows like Battlebots (2000) and Robot Wars (1998).
In 2011, Touchstone and Dreamworks teamed up with several other companies to adapt the story to the big screen. The movie, called Real Steel, followed a former boxer who was trying to raise money to fix his old robot. However, the movie breaks away from the original story at this point. Instead of following a washed-up boxer into the ring to fight a robot, the story focuses on the gulf between Charlie Kenton and his son Max. The movie more or less follows the formula for father-son bonding after being estranged, using the robot fighting leagues to symbolize how the two become more attached. The ending did deviate from most boxing movies; instead of a knockout, the final fight ends up being decided by the judges.
Real Steel is the one movie I’ve been looking to review in this column. As an adaptation, it’s a failure. The story and the characters are changed greatly to the point where there’s very little beyond the backstory of how robot fighting came to the fore. At the same time, despite the formulaic plot of a father and son working past their estrangement, the movie is worth watching because of solid performances from Hugh Jackman (Charlie) and Dakota Goyo (Max) and well done special effects of the robot gladiators.
As an adaptation, the movie fails early. As mentioned, the story and characters were completely changed from the original short story. Instead of Kelly going into the ring, the closest Real Steel shows Charlie boxing is in the final fight, using the “shadow function” of Max’s robot to keep the ‘bot going against the favourite and self-updating Zeus.* Even the tone of the story was different. “Steel” had an air of desperation as Kelly did everything he could to get his robot repaired, even if it meant injury and death. Real Steel had an undercurrent of hope that built up as father and son bonded.
However, the movie does show that while a film might not be a good adaptation, it can still be worth watching. As above, every actor in the movie gives strong performances. The special effects are well done and believable. The boxing scenes are well researched, with the film makers having Sugar Ray Leonard as a consultant. A difference can be seen between the robots managed by fighters and the ones programmed by programmers, with the latter going for more flash. What helps the movie is that the original story was fifty-five years old and relatively unknown to the target audience. Changes could be made and the audience wouldn’t know the difference.
Overall, Real Steel pays lip service to the original work, using ideas from the short story to build a completely different one. As an adaptation, it’s a failure. But the movie shows that even a bad adaptation can be a good movie, provided that the audience isn’t aware of the original work and that the studio puts an effort into making the film.
Next time, hopefully off into the black.
* In a perfectly good example of missing a twist, Max’s robot Atom could have had his shadow function turned on while facing Zeus in a case of Zeus constantly having to outfight itself. However, narrative requirements needed Charlie to fight.