Tag: movies

 

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

The world’s best known secret agent has had a long history. Created by Ian Fleming and first published in 1953, James Bond has appeared in 57 books, including 43 by other authors, at least 29 movies, including those made outside the Eon continuity, and in comics. Bond has been portrayed by six different actors in the main franchise alone. With the sheer number of works available, the 007 movies provide a range of adaptations, from the close but not quite approaches of the early films to the in-name-only later works. One film even manages to adapt the novella as smaller portion of its longer running time.

Approaching the project will take time. Several ways of tackling the franchise exist. First is to go movie by movie. With over twenty movies in the main franchise, that will take time. a similar method would be to group the films by the actor playing Bond. That gives the Sean Connery and Roger Moore eras a longer analysis, and doesn’t take into account the one George Lazenby outing. I could also group three movies together, based on the order being used.

The order, though, is another question. There’s the order of the books, starting with Casino Royale. Using this order means jumping around in the film continuity, such as it exists, and several of the movies have titles that come from other aspects of the character instead of story titles, such as The World Is Note Enough. Movie order may be easier – the films may be better known now by the general audience than the books.

Much like the History of Adaptations, the Bond project won’t be week by week. Instead, the goal will be to have an entry each month, with the intervening weeks being saved for other analyses. This will give me time to read the novels and watch the movies again without being rushed. Right now, though, I’m taking suggestions on the approach. Would the best approach be reviewing one movie at a time or grouping the movies together? What order would be best, the books or the films? And should I touch the non-franchise films? Please answer in the comments below.

This will be a big project, but I hope that it will show the range of adapting styles used in cinema.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Big budget blockbusters. Tentpole pictures tested and refined. Studios so risk adverse they run a lunch order past a test audience before committing. Save the cat!

The desire and need for studios to turn a profit leaves little room for new cult classics. Granted, a cult classic is a film that gained a small, dedicated audience instead of having a greater mainstream appeal. Cult classics stumble at the box office but have longevity; The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the top grossing film of the Seventies as a result. Today, movies need to be hit over the opening weekend or they’re considered failures. Studios compete for opening days. The result – movies either soar or they’re bland; crashing and burning is rare.

The problem coming up is a lack of innovation. Avatar showed that 3-D could be used to create an immersive experience, but few films used the film technique for anything beyond cheap scares and roller coaster rides. James Cameron took the risk, but he had a number of successes, including Titanic, to persuade the studio that he could succeed. Avatar had people returning to theatres for second and third viewings. The lesson the other studios learned? People will go to 3-D movies. Not, “People will go out for immersive experiences,” or, “People appreciate innovative work when done well.”

The lack of innovation, especially when married to the Save the Cat approach to scripts, means that, after a while, all movies start looking the same. Does “Washed out hero is forced to work with others to save the world,” sound like Guardians of the Galaxy or Battleship? The difference is often just execution. Granted, this sort of thing comes in waves. The Seventies had disaster movies*; the Eighties had science fiction and sequels. The Western was a staple until Heaven’s Gate and still appears from time to time. Superhero movies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The Eighties, though, show more variety even with the sequels. Not every movie succeeded, but there was room for other movies outside the Star Wars sequels and Indiana Jones films, from Short Circuit to The Breakfast Club to UHF to Weekend at Bernie’s to Alien From L.A. Not every film succeeded at the theatres, but there was variety.

The core issue is money. Studios don’t want to lose $200 million on a bad movie. At the same time, studios don’t see a problem in investing $200 million in a movie that follows a checklist. Battleship wears the checklist on its sleeve. Even comedies are getting into increased budgets. The Hangover 3 had a budget in the same neighbourhood as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. On the flip side, Johnny Mnemonic (1995) was first developed for a $3 million budget and the studio turned the idea down, but then accepted it when the budget was upped to $30 million.

This isn’t to say that cult classics don’t happen. They’re rare. Few people set out to create one, and deliberate attempts to be a cult classic tend to fail. Today, though, the elements that turn a movie into a cult hit get weeded out during the checklist and further removed with all the audience testing that happens. A movie that fails at the box office isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just bland. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li suffered this fate. Names could have been changed with no effect on the film. The earilier Street Fighter: The Movie may have been cheesy, but it was a better adaptation and it is more fun to watch**. Same goes with Flash Gordon; it was a fine cheddar, but the supporting cast and the soundtrack transform the film into the classic it is.

Today, the only way either Street Fighter or Flash Gordon could be made they way they were is if there was a big star attached. Granted, that is how Street Fighter was made, with Jean-Claude van Damme and Raul Julia. Today, much of the humour would be toned down or removed, turning the action-comedy to either pure action or an action-drama. The heart would be gone.

All of the above ignores television. The SyFy channel is the new home for B-movies, with such luminaries as Sharktopus, Lavalatula, and the Sharknado trilogy. Low budget monster movies with cheap CGI effects with an audience that wants to see that type of movie. It’s not the same; SyFy’s B-movies follow their own formula, mostly combining an animal with something else, either another animal or a natural disaster. Again, it comes down to execution and, for these movies, chutzpah.

Will the cheese return to the big screen? Eventually. Universal Studios managed to have a profitable summer without a non-franchise blockbuster. Outside Jurassic World and Fast and Furious 7, Universal’s line up has been of reasonable budgets, allowing for fewer losses on a movie that falls flat and huge profits for their successes, including Fifty Shades of Grey***. If other studios follow Universal’s lead, and give that a few years, the lower budgets means there’s room to experiment and try something different. An unsuccessful experiment won’t cost as much, especially if it does well on DVD. A successful one means that a larger budget can be assigned for similar in the future.
* Until Airplane! skewered the airplane crash genre so thoroughly.
** Raul Julia alone is worth seeing in the film. Having Adrian Cronauer as the Armed Forces Radio announcer was genius.
*** $40 million budget, over $560 million in box office take globally.  That sort of success allows Universal to try another $40 million movie and not worry about failure.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

The silver screen has been the pinnacle of Hollywood since the early days of Hollywood.  Movies occupy the top rung of the creative hierarchy, towering over television.  Actors work hard to get their big break, looking to move from TV to the big screen.  For adaptations, movies are both a blessing and a curse.  A film adaptation means that an author has reached enough of an audience that a studio has noticed.  On the downside, few books survive the process of being adapted.

Over the past fifty to sixty years, the average length of a book has grown over the past 50 years, with doorstoppers common today.  There are exceptions, naturally; each book of The Lord of the Rings was far longer than the other fantasy novels of the time.  At the same time, The Lord of the Rings became the template for modern fantasy works, leading to series such as The Wheel of Time and A Game of Thrones.  With the increased length comes more detail, more plot points, more action, all of which makes it difficult to put into a feature film.

Typically, a theatrically released movie is from ninety minutes to two hours long, with a few going under to eighty-five or over to three hours.  Any shorter, and the audience starts wondering about the cost of seeing something so short.  Longer, and audience fatigue sets in unless the film is kept tight so that the viewers don’t notice the passage of time.  The time limit means that something from the original work has to give.  Usually, the decision is to remove scenes that will confuse the audience or that don’t add to the plot.  Such partial adaptations can work; Blade Runner, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and Jurassic Park all kept to the core story while still excising elements that detracted from the plot.  However, if the wrong elements are removed, or the story is so intertwined that removing elements causes the story to fall flat, movies can fail.  The Dragonlance animated film is a good example; with a ninety minute running time, the movie felt shallow, missing concepts that made the original work breathe.

The problem grows if the original work is part of a series that isn’t yet complete.  While Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was successful both as a movie and as an adaptation, some parts of the story that became important in later book were removed for the sake of fitting the movie into a decent running time.  With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the studio decided to split the book into two movies to avoid rushing the story in just one.  Likewise, The Hobbit became three movies in part to give the plot the time it needed to unfold.

With short stories and novellas, the problem doesn’t quite go away.  A short story may not have enough plot to last even ninety minutes, requiring padding.  A good example is the Ian Fleming story, “The Living Daylights”.  The story has 007 protecting a Soviet defector from a sniper.  In the movie, The Living Daylights, the original story takes up about twenty minutes of screen time, leaving over one hundred minutes to be filled.

The answer, though, isn’t to stop adapting books.  Given the risk aversion in Hollywood, not adapting anything is off the table.  One solution is to take into account book length.  Going back to James Bond, the movie versions of both Dr. No and Casino Royale stayed close to the original works, with little to no scenes added or removed.  Longer books could be broken into parts, though if the first movie fails at the box office, the rest of the story won’t be filmed.

Another solution is to take a hard look at adapting the work for television.  Whether the work becomes a regular series or a mini-series, the adaptation isn’t as dependant on the vagueries of the international market.  With mini-series, the full novel will be shown in a short span, long enough to get the immediate ratings, but not long enough for the network or cable channel to end the adaptation early.  In a regular series, the adaptation will have the time it needs to build the world and establish characters, but poor ratings could kill the show before the work has been fully aired.  However, cable channels aren’t as beholden to the Neilsens as the broadcast networks are.  Dexter, True Blood, and A Game of Thrones all thrived as series, with each book becoming a season in the series.

Reducing the size of novels is a non-starter.  As mentioned earlier, The Lord of the Rings became not only a classic but also a template for writers inspired by it.  It is rare to find a stand-alone fantasy novel that isn’t a tie-in to a property such as Dungeons & Dragons.  Science fiction does have them, but given the time and effort needed for worldbuilding, recycling the work becomes tempting when looking at building a new universe from scratch.  There’s also the readers’ reaction; the price of books has crossed a point where buyers are expecting not just a good story, but a long one to match the cover price.  A short book just doesn’t have the physical weight that readers want.

In short, the glamour of the movies needs to be balanced with the idea that two hours just isn’t enough time to do justice to today’s works.

Next week, Smokey and the Bandit.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Last week’s link round up included several movies being turned into TV series and one TV series being adapted as a movie. The former tends to be successful; the format of a series allows the development of characters and plots over more time. TV series adapted into movies haven’t had the same success. The root cause has been a lack of respect to both the original material and the fans.

Lost in Translation hasn’t looked at many TV series adapted to movies. The more successful ones, like Star Trekand The Naked Gun were made with the original creative staff and cast; the transition was to take what was being done on television to the big screen. In the case of The Naked Gun, the move allowed the creators to indulge without having to worry about restrictions imposed by the network’s Broadcast Standards and Practices group. Meanwhile, works like Land of the Lost and Starsky & Hutch played the ideas behind the original shows for laughs, missing the point of the original work. The A-Team remake ran into the passage of time; The Vietnam War was still lurking in American culture when the TV series debuted while the Gulf Wars didn’t affect the American psyche with returning soldiers vilified.

This leads to the news of Dwayne Johnson, “The Rock” himself, being cast to play Colt Seavers in a Fall Guy remake movie. For those not familiar with the show, The Fall Guy was about a stuntman who moonlighted as a bounty hunter to make ends meet. Colt would use tricks of the stunt trade to help track down the men and women who skipped bail, with the help of his cousin Howie and fellow stunt performer Jody. The show was light action/adventure, with humour coming from the byplay between the core cast. Note that the show wasn’t a comedy, though; the humour came from reactions of characters. The trick is to trim back the 80s era cheese while still keeping the core of The Fall Guy and also feature Johnson and give him a solid role to build on. At the same time, Johnson brings in his own physicality and can bring a new dimension to the character. Ultimately, Johnson has to respect Lee Majors’ work while adding his own element.

What holds for The Fall Guy holds for other movie treatments of old TV series. Just because the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s had different approaches to televised storytelling doesn’t mean that series from those decades can be easily held up for ridicule. The shows did have a following; what is seen as cheesy now was once ground breaking. The grim darkness of today’s works will be seen in similar light in time. Respect for the original work and its fans is critical to success.

Next week, Doom.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

After wrapping up the Avengers Adaptation series last week, I started wondering what was in store for adaptations of comic books. If you’ve followed along here at MuseHack, you’ll have noted the posts about the movie meltdown coming. From Spielberg to Cracked.com, the current bubble is predicted to pop, possibly as early as 2015. Meanwhile, Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers have a number of big screen adaptations in planning. Add in companies like Dark Horse Comics, and the comic book movie looks to be a mainstay until the pop.

First, Marvel Studios has a number of sequels related to The Avengers, including Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Outside the Avenger titles, Marvel’s taking a risk with Guardians of the Galaxy, based on an older title of space-faring heroes. Another risk, though linking back to The Avengers, is the Ant-Man movie. Marvel did succeed with the movies leading to The Avengers despite the characters being lesser known. What may help is Marvel Studios using existing storylines from the comics. That still leaves the question on whether audiences are willing to give the non-sequel movies a shot. Summer of 2013 has audiences not turning out for the big-budget blockbusters as they had in the past.

Marvel Studios isn’t the only studio adapting Marvel titles. Fox has the rights to the X-Men and related titles and characters and have released The Wolverine and is working on X-Men: Days of Future Past combining the original X-trilogy with X-Men: First Class. Sony has the rights to Spider-Man and has rebooted the series.

Over at Warner, owner of Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, the success rate of movies depends on whether it centres around Batman. Man of Steel underperformed at the box office. The Green Lantern fizzled. Catwoman bombed. The Dark Knight trilogy did do well, though. The advantage Warner has is that it holds all the rights to the DC characters. If they need a character, they have the access. However, the lesson that Warner learned is that dark, grey, and gritty is the way to go, leading to Man of Steel. Warner’s next adaptation is based on World’s Finest, a Batman-Superman movie. Meanwhile, a Justice League movie may be on its way, thanks to the success of The Avengers, but this would put Warner into the position of catching up with Marvel. With The Green Lantern‘s middling success and the studio having no idea what to do with Wonder Woman, that leaves the rest of the classic team in limbo. Aquaman would need a Dini-verse makeover. The Flash would mean trying to pick which Flash* to use. There is a Flash movie in the works for 2016, though.  The character does not work in a grim and gritty story. Other than Batman, the Green Arrow has had some success through the TV series Arrow

Adding to the movie implosion of 2013 is R.I.P.D., an adaptation of a Dark Horse comic of the same name. The comic doesn’t have the same name space in pop consciousness, so the failure of the movie shouldn’t impact the title. However, by being off the pop culture radar, the movie had to rely solely on marketing, a problem plaguing several releases over the past few years, including John Carter. While Marvel Studios, Fox, Sony, and Warner have the money to get word of a movie out to everyone if they wish**, a lesser movie won’t get the money behind it. R.I.P.D. did have marketing, but audiences stayed away.

Marvel managed to capture attention using the Avengers Initiative and high quality movies. Warner needs to play catch up without looking like a Marvel imitator, making the success of a Justice League movie difficult.

Next week, Blade Runner

* Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West have all taken up the mantle of the Flash in DC Comics.
** For a counter-example, see John Carter. Please.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Adventure novels have gone through their own evolution. Novels by Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone among many others) and Ian Fleming (of 007 fame) gave way to the creation of the techno-thriller. While Tom Clancy is seen as the start point for the techno-thriller genre, both Robert Ludlum and Craig Thomas had novels out a decade before. Thomas could be seen as taking Fleming’s setting and bringing it into alignment with the reality of the Cold War*. Starting with Rat Trap in 1976, Thomas showed a grittier, more realistic look at espionage, showing missions at several levels, including the agents on the ground and the MI6 heads revising plans as better intelligence arrived.

In 1977, Thomas released his second novel, Firefox. In the story, the Soviet Union had developed a new fighter jet, the MiG-31**, that incorporated stealth technology, could reach Mach 5, and had a weapons system controlled by the pilot’s thoughts. At the time of publication, the B-2 stealth bomber was in development and the fastest aircraft were the SR-71 Blackbird, reaching Mach 3.2, and the Soviet MiG-25 “Foxbat”, reaching Mach 3. Thought control was in the realm of science fiction at the time, but is now available to the general public. In the novel, an advance like the Firefox would upset the balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

To counter the Soviet breakthrough, Kenneth Aubry, one of Thomas’s recurring characters, devises a brash plan. He recruits American pilot and Vietnam war veteran Mitchell Gant to sneak into the Soviet Union and steal one of the MiG-31 prototypes. Aubry’s choice of Gant boiled down to the American fitting the pilot’s uniform and helmet. Gant, however, has Post-Traumatic Stress from his experiences in Vietnam; Aubry is well aware and trusts that the stress won’t affect Gant’s flying abilities.

To get Gant into the Soviet Union, Aubry uses up several contacts and dissidents. The main goal is to get the Firefox. After arriving in Moscow, Gant meets the dissidents, gets another false identity, and is taken to Bilyarsk, where the MiG-31 is being tested. Once there, Gant sneaks in, creates confusion, and steals the Firefox. Once in the air, he’s invisible to radar and satellite. He lets himself be seen by an Aeroflot crew before changing to his real course. Meanwhile, the Soviet Air Marshal begins to realize the sort of chess game he’s in and gets reconnaissance craft, both air and sea, to cover the northern routes while telling the crews to seach for the stolen Firefox’s heat signature. The second Firefox prototype is sent to destroy Gant’s jet.

Adptations in the 80s were mainly made to exploit the name and make a quick buck. Writers didn’t have the pull that JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins do today. However, when the producer, director, and owner of the studio enjoyed the book and wants to bring it to the silver screen, the chance of a good adaptation rises. Clint Eastwood had read the book and thought it would make for a good movie. His studio, Malpaso, shot the film for $21 million, most of which were on the special effects. The movie follows the book as close as it can, though at times feeling a little shallow from the transition – the book delved into the focus characters’ thoughts and brought forth imagery of the locations. Eastwood, who also starred as Mitchell Gant, keeps close to the events in the book, only adding little details. One detail, Gant’s flashback, made it into the novel Firefox Down, which picked up from the end of Firefox.

There are some interesting elements in the story and movie. Wolf Kahler played the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov. During filming, Andropov replaced Leonid Breznev, and the world saw what he looked like for the first time, which was nothing like Wolf Kahler. The fictional MiG-31 took design elements from the SR-71 and the XB-70. The outer skin the B-2 stealth bomber wound up having elements in common with the Firefox. Thought control has since been relegated to toys, but the voice commands used to trigger the thought impulses needed are making their way to commercial uses, such as Apple’s Siri.

The likelihood of Firefox being remade today is low. Both the novel and the movie are artifacts of the Cold War that ended almost twenty-five years ago. The remake would have to be done as a period piece, but that could drive away the younger audience. That said, Firefox shows what can be done when the studio makes an effort to adapt a work properly. With Clint Eastwood as star, director, producer, and head of Malpaso, meddling by the executive suite was removed from the efforts, leading to a good adaptation.

Next week, the ultimate Avengers Adaptation review.

* The Cold War plays a huge element in this review. While an extensive knowledge isn’t needed, if things get confusing, the BBC and the History Learning Site have summaries that can help.
** There was a real MiG-31, codenamed “Foxhound”, in production at the time of publication. Its specifications are nowhere near as groundbreaking as its fictional counterpart’s. The real MiG-31 entered service while Firefox was being filmed.

 

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Early in Lost in Translation‘s run, I covered Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The movie, while being successful at the box office, had its problems – awkward moments, odd pacing, weak writing. The entire Star Wars prequel series shared the problems, with a romance between Padmé and Anakin that felt rushed in Attack of the Clones. The sheer amount of events to be covered in just three movies was one of the primary causes; at best, only highlights of the Clone Wars, specifically, the beginning and the end, could be touched. Characters came and went without much fanfare but with backstory connected to the main characters; Clone Commander Cody and General Grievous both appeared from nowhere* but had met Obi-Wan previously.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe may hold the key to fixing the problems the prequels had, though. Instead of patching in details afterwards, the concept of a larger universe could be built up prior to the first production’s release. The idea changes from filling in plot holes and introducing characters who become important in a movie to laying out groundwork for projects that connect as a whole. The rushed romance in Attack of the Clones can be expanded on and given the time it needs in a televison series, which was the case with the Star Wars: The Clone Wars CGI-animated series. The animated series also showed Anakin’s slow fall to the Dark Side, making his Face-Heel Turn in Revenge of the Sith far more believable.

The key to this approach is to capture the audience’s attention and curiosity. In the past, the goal of a TV series, especially a science fiction series, was to get enough episodes for syndication and enough of a following to justify a movie. Books are routinely turned into films. Right now, there is a massive boom in comic book movies. Even tabletop role-playing games aren’t immune; Gary Gygax had been trying to get his Dungeons & Dragons RPG for two decades. The silver screen has been considered the ultimate production for some time now. However, Hollywood is running into problems. We here at Musehack have been covering it, from The Lone Ranger‘s belly-flop** to movie fatigue to Steve’s look at the inevitable bubble popping. Cable television is getting more attention, thanks to series like Dexter, True Blood, and A Game of Thrones. Even animated series are getting attention. Thus, use the movie as a pilot. Plan out movies to deal with big events in the plot line and use television to deal with reactions, romances, and slower moving yet still needed plotlines. Movies have limited run times; few people will sit for longer than two hours unless the movie is riveting. Television, however, allows for a more expanded plot. If the villain is manipulating people like pawns, a movie will make him or her obvious, while a television series can use subtle moments that lead to the reveal. The Clone Wars is a great example of watching a chessmaster play both sides of a conflict.

Let’s take Star Wars as an example. George Lucas released the original Star Wars first because it was self-contained and it got to the heart of the main conflict. If the movie failed, no cliffhangers would be left dangling. Star Wars would still be the first movie to be released if everything was pre-planned. Get the audience’s attention with leading edge special effects and a classic storyline. Afterwards, a TV series showing the fighting between the Rebellion and the Empire, introducing more setting elements and Vader’s search for the pilot who destroyed the Death Star, with everything leading up to The Empire Strikes Back. People following the TV series would know why the Rebels are on Hoth and the screen crawl would catch others up on events. Following Empire, a new TV series that leads people up to the events of Return of the Jedi, including Luke’s training, the search for Han, and the discovery of the second Death Star. The prequels can follow a similar format. The Phantom Menace introduces the new series, shows the beginning of the fall of the Republic. The follow-up TV series shows Anakin’s training, the budding romance between Anakin and Padmé, and early machinations of Darth Sidious, leading to Attack of the Clones. The next TV series is, essentially, The Clone Wars, leading to Revenge of the Sith. Optional TV series or series of series to bridge the gap between the fall of the Republic and the attack on the first Death Star.

The problem is audience fatigue. Star Trek ran into the fatigue problem when Star Trek: Enterprise lost its audience. Enterprise followed directly after fourteen straight years of Trek, from the beginning of The Next Generation to the end of Voyager, with a seven year period where Deep Space Nine accompanied the other two series***. The franchise should have allowed to lie fallow for a few years, until viewers wanted more instead of just expected a Trek show to be on. A project that incorporated both movies and television would need to be aware of the risk of a falling audience. The other problem is trying to get the audience in the first place. If the first movie fails, the audience for the project may not exist; no studio is going to throw more money into a project that has already floundered. The work put into the setting up the film-and-TV series will go to waste, possibly to be integrated into other works.

Back-filling, for now, may be how movies get plot holes fixed. With Hollywood seeing a burst bubble on the horizon, a new approach may be needed.

Next week, Ma and Pa Kettle.

* Actually, in non-movie works. Grievous first appeared in a Star Wars comic.
** Despite having a shirtless Johnny Depp in leather pants.
*** Three year overlap with TNG, four years with Voyager. Twenty-one years of Star Trek in a fourteen year period, ignoring syndicated reruns of the original series.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.

Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games

Tabletop Role-Playing Games

A relatively new form of gaming, tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) evolved from fantasy wargaming. The grandpappy of RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons came from adding elements to the Chainmail rule set allowing for individual characters to gain experience. From those humble beginnings, RPGs have spread to cover almost every conceivable genre, from swords & sorcery to space opera, historical romance to post-apocalyptic horror, Wild West to hard science fiction. Players take on the role of their character, unravelling the Game Master’s (GMs) plots.** The simplest and oldest of plots is the dungeon exploration, where a group of specialists go into a structure to kill the inhabitants and take their belongings.

For the purposes of this week’s entry, I’ll be including tabletop wargaming. RPGs were originally an offshoot of wargaming. Several franchises, such as Warhammer and Battletech have related role-playing lines. Other franchises, such as Traveller had tactical and strategic wargames based off the RPG’s setting.

I’ll return again to the four elements noted in Part I – plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. Each of these need to be acknowledged and included for an adaptation to succeed. With RPGs, though, the plot and characters are created by the players. Some games, notably Steve Jackson’s GURPS and Hero Games’ Champions, come without a setting in the core rules. Gameplay may be critical; players will want to be able to duplicate what the characters do on-screen.

If plot is player created, then what can the writers do? Ideally, they can figure out the sort of adventures player characters (PCs) are meant to go on. A fantasy game tends to imply an epic. Dungeons & Dragons should also include a dungeon*** and a dragon; some items are just expected. Meanwhile, the cyberpunk/Tolkien-esque fantasy fusion Shadowrun should involve a group of specialists hired to be expendable assets who break into a mega-corporate facility to retrieve the plot coupon, as in the shadowruns the title implies. Not all RPGs provide such inspiration, though. The various editions of Traveller allow GMs to create a huge sandbox for the players to wander in, to find adventure both in space and on the ground. The writers will have to pick a potential plotline out of supplemental material. Other games, such as TSR’s Boot Hill and R. Talsorian’s Mekton, bring their genres to the table to play in; in the examples given, Westerns and giant mecha anime, respectively. At this point, why license (other than to get the name)?

For games that come packaged with a setting, most of the work is done. Typically, there’s still room left for GMs to add their own twists, but basic facts are provided to help out. Catalyst Game Labs’ Shadowrun and Battletech and Alderac Entertainment Group’s 7th Sea are good examples, coming with a well-formed setting in each game mentioned plus numerous supplements that expand options. In Shadowrun‘s case, the history of the world from 2012 until 2070 is given, including the return of magic, the fragmentation of nations, and the rise of the mega-corporations. Battletech provides the background of factions, the different types of gear, including the game’s king of the battlefield, the BattleMech, and the various fronts of the wars between 2375 and 3072. 7th Sea shows a fictional Earth, called Théah, its history, and the political alliances that form the backdrop to a campaign. An adaptation needs to remember these details; players will be looking for them. Some items, such as history, can be glossed over, be referenced in throwaway line, or even forgotten about if the characters don’t care about the matter. However, ignoring the fracturing of Canada and the US in Shadowrun/ or dropping an alliance from 7th Sea because it’s inconvenient to the plot will have players complaining, killing word-of-mouth.

Characters for an RPG adaptation gives the writers room to maneuver. In some settings, there are a number of key non-player characters, such as Elminster for the Forgotten Realms and Seattle Governor Kenneth Brackhaven in Shadowrun. They don’t need to appear necessarily, but their existance may provide some inspiration for writers. Ideally, the characters created for the adaptation should be possible under the game’s character generation system. That said, most games try to make it possible for believable characters. Even when the power level is stratospheric, there needs to be room for character improvement. The other question is how experienced the characters of the adaptation are. Level based games such as Wizard of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons and Palladium Games’ Rifts start new PCs as youngsters heading out to adventure at the beginning of their career. Even games that aren’t based around levels can start PCs as rookies; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade had PCs start as recently turned vampires. Other games, the various Travellers in particular, had PCs begin play with a years of experience under their belt. Still other games allowed for a variety of prior life experience, from the hot-shot rookie to the world-weary veteran, before play started. The key here for writers is to make sure that the main characters reflect what’s possible. A D&D-based movie can have a mid-level**** character as the hero as long as his or her abilities match what they should be for a PC in a game of that level.

The last, gameplay, is going to be a sticky point. Game mechanics do try to represent the genre, but abstraction does happen. A PC in D&D can keep going without a drawback as long as his or her hit point total remains above zero. Loss of hit points represents minor scrapes, twisted ankles, fatigue, and luck, but there is no mechanical disadvantage for being wounded. On screen, people may have trouble setting aside suspension of disbelief and believing that the fighter who just took an arrow to the knee can still run. Some mechanics may have to be set aside. However, if the game system uses Vancian magic+ and a wizard in the adaptation keeps casting Fireball multiple times without stopping to pull out his or her spellbook, there’s a problem. Writers need to keep the mechanics in the back of their mind to prevent glaring mistakes.

There hasn’t been many movie and TV adaptations of RPGs. The main factor is that tabletop RPGs are a niche market. Many exist to let players play in a specific genre, so adapting one of those games can seem silly. The best known RPG has had two adaptations; Dungeons & Dragons was first adapted as a Saturday morning cartoon, then later as a movie.  Vampire: The Masquerade was turned into an Aaron Spelling nighttime soap called Kindred: The Embraced, lasting eight episodes. Over in Japan, the fantasy RPG Sword World became the basis for the novel series and anime Record of Lodoss War, based on the creator’s home campaign. The mecha wargames and RPGs Battletech and Heavy Gear have been turned into animated series. At one point, Rifts was optioned by Jerry Bruckheimer, though that seems to be at least stuck in development.

Record of Lodoss War may be the route to use, at least for a TV series – base the series off an actual campaign that has been played. The characters will have been developed, the setting is already fleshed out, and plot lines will have flowed from events naturally. For movies, the best way may be to give the game a test play and see if the results were both fun and lead to exciting visuals.

Next week, part IV, adapting games as games.

* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** Like a cat unravels a wool sweater.
*** Or other underground structure.
**** Levels 5 through 8 or so. Enough to start dealing with serious threats without becoming responsible for a town’s security.
+ Magic where spellcasters memorize a spell, then release it later, “forgetting” the spell afterwards. Named after Jack Vance, who used the method in his works.

 

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.

Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games

Boardgames

Boardgames and card games are the oldest form of gaming, found in all cultures throughout history. From mere diversions to gambling to war preparations, boardgaming has spread far and wide. While there are some games designed for just one person, such as the various solitaire games for cards, the vast majority of games require at least two people. And, yet, there are few projects based on a boardgame. There are many movies that feature a game or are centred on a game, but very few that bring the game to the screen. Part of the reason is that the conflict is between the players. The musical Chess** features the drama between two chess players during the Cold War. Poker is a fixture in many movies, from Maverick to God of Gamblers where, again, the conflict between the poker players is the focus. Battleship became part of the plot in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

As for boardgame movies, there is Clue and there is Battleship. Jumanji, for all its appearances of being based on a boardgame, is based on a short story. The boardgame came out after the movie. Hasbro does have some movies in the works based on their game lines, detailed earlier.

Last week, I listed key elements that needed to be dealt with to adapt well: plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. Unlike video games where the game needs an icon for the player***, boardgames might just have a coloured token that has no backstory at all. Game bits may include money equivalents, miniatures to represent items, tokens for keeping score, and parts to add to the board. In a few games, the players’ pieces are identified by colour, with the shape of the tokens representing in-game elements.

For the vast majority of movies centred around games, the game shows up as itself within the work. The plot comes from the drama and conflict between the players as they play the game. Gambling games tend to be the focus of this type of movie. It isn’t the poker tournament that is the focus, but the players in it. The setting is where the game is played, whether it’s a saloon on the American frontier, a high class casino in Europe, or a back room in a seedy neighbourhood pool hall. The gameplay is on screen, performed by the characters.

Lately, though, as Lost in Translation previewed last year, boardgames are now being adapted as movies. Monopoly, Risk, Candyland, and a remake of Clue have all been announced. Risk and the similar in scope Axis and Allies involve a world at war, the former set in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the latter during World War II. Typically, movies set during wars of those times would focus on a particular historical element or figure and not need the game at all. Boardgames like Monopoly are about trading and getting rich, again, plots that can be handled easily without the baggage that a boardgame would bring. Monopoly, however, does bring with it a setting, Atlantic City.

For traditional boardgames, the plot can be pulled from the game itself, based on what the winning condition is. Some games, such as The Game of Life and Redneck Life, fit the bill poorly, covering the lifespan of the player’s token. Others, like Battleship, handwave away why there is a conflict between the players, assuming that if the players didn’t want to play the game, they wouldn’t. This leads to the writing staff having to create the reason for the conflict.

In terms of characters, again, few boardgames name their tokens, with Clue being the main exception. Some characters may be named, such as Monopoly‘s Rich Uncle Pennybags and Redneck Life‘s Uncle Clem, but they’re not playable. Typically, the players aren’t placed into a role. They just play the game. To adapt a game, characters will have to be created and cast; few people will pay to see a giant dog token hop down the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

Boardgames do give the adapters a break on setting. The board itself can be turned into the setting. The movie Clue adapted the game’s board well, including the secret passageways and the relative locations of all the rooms. Battleship was set on the Pacific Ocean, providing the nice rich blue sea the game’s boards represent. The exceptions are games similar to Life and Redneck Life, where the boards represent a metaphorical journey instead of a physical one.

Gameplay is going to be the hardest part to adapt properly. Unlike games, people don’t walk a number of steps based on a die roll and don’t move one at a time in order. Games that have inter-player negotiation, such as Monopoly and Diplomacy**** fare a little better here, as players interact with each other in a dramatic conflict, as dramatic as the players want to get.+ In a work of fiction, the desires of both sides of the negotiations can be played up and the movement on the board can be downplayed.

Boardgames will take a deft hand to adapt properly, to keep the feel of the game while still producing characters and a plot that works within the constraints of the original work. The difficulties explain why few boardgames have been adapted directly. Clue managed to keep the feel of the game and worked with the existing characters to produce an entertaining movie. Battleship tried, hard, but might have been a better movie without the name attached.

Next week, part III looks at adapting tabletop role-playing games and wargames.

* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** Someone made the leap.
*** Yes, there are exceptions like Duck Hunt, but the player still is represented by the crosshairs.
**** Diplomacy and, to a lesser degree, Risk and Axis & Allies could also be covered next week as wargames.
+ “Hey, want Reading and B&O for Illinois and Oriental?” “Only if you toss in Boardwalk.”

 

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.

Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games

Video Games

Video games are a visual medium. With console gaming, adapting a video game to television is just changing where the input comes from. Early video games were fairly linear; computing power and no storage for saved games combined to keep the play simple enough to avoid overloading the console but challenging enough to keep players interested. Over in the microcomputer world, graphics were still primitive, but games could be saved, allowing for longer play.

Console games did allow for recognizable characters. Icons such as Pac-Man, Mario, and Donkey Kong became household words, first through the video arcade, then through home console adaptations.** With the focus of early console gaming on kids, naturally the early adaptations were animated. Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and Dragon’s Lair led the way in North America. Accuracy to the games more or less meant taking all the named characters and using them in similar roles as they had originally. Thus, Mario fought Bowser, Pac-Man dealt with Inky, Blinky, Pinky (no, not that Pinkie). The nature of the medium, though, meant that you just couldn’t show the game being played; at the minimum, advertising regulations would have to be ignored. In the case of Mario, the Princess needed to be part of the cast; she couldn’t be “in another castle” off-screen. Plots had to go beyond the game but still keep elements. Mario kept a cheesy Italian accent and had a boing sound effect whenever he jumped. Pac-Man became invulnerable when he ate a power pellet.

As the technology evolved, so did games. Graphics improved mainly because gaming demanded better. Eight bits gave way to sixteen, and sixteen to “holy crap, that’s a lot of pixels!” As storage became less of an issue, going from none for the Atari 2600 to external memory cards for the Playstation to gigabyte rated hard drives common today, more information could be saved. More information could also be stored on the game’s physical media, having gone from cartridges to CD-ROM and, later, DVD and higher density formats. This allowed games to go from basic plots such as, “Defend the Earth from invaders,” “Rescue the Princess from the castle,” and “Eat everything while running from ghosts” to more complex plots. Even 2D fighting games received elaborate backstory and each character had a history. Video games started to mature.

Adaptations of video games? Not so much. The early silver screen adaptations were Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Street Fighter/.  Street Fighter is reaching cult classic status, mainly through Raul Julia’s performance. Super Mario Bros. wasted a good cast including Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper with a set that oozed brown. Double Dragon reached the worst rating at Rotten Tomatoes. However, Mortal Kombat reversed the trend, becoming the first Hollywood video game adaptation to keep the spirit of the original game and not drive audiences away. Meanwhile, on television, Pokemon became a juggernaut, expanding the world of the game while keeping to the gameplay.

The problem with adapting a video game is that the player has an active role in the plot of the game. By turning from an active audience (the players) to an passive one (the viewers), the onus is now to draw in and keep the audience. Characters have to be, if not pleasant for the audience, interesting. Few works have a dull protagonist.*** In a video game, though, the less personality a character has, the more the player can infuse, adding an extra level of enjoyment. In Mass Effect, the player has full control over Commander Shepard’s reaction to shipmates and events; the gameplay encourages the player to make these decisions. A Mass Effect movie focusing on Shepard would have to decide on which Shepard, male or female, renegade or paragon, even where the character was born, details that get decided by the player in the video game.

The next problem to deal with is the plot. Most video games have a plot of their own, one that the player either completes or abandons. Adapting the plot essentially spoils the ending of the game for the audience. Some games, such as the Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia series, are based around an activity that is repeatable, such as exploration. Franchise games can lend open up options; Mario may be a plumber, but Nintendo has managed to have him rescue princesses, race cars, and prescribe pills. Not all franchises can do this. The appeal of The Sims series is the open sandbox the games provide.****

I’ve touched on a few key elements – plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. A successful adaptation of a video game needs to at least acknowledge these elements. Missing on one might not hurt the adaptation. Missing on all and the movie is an adaptation in name only; a good example is Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. These days, the audience expects more from adaptations. Mediocre films don’t last in the theatres. Big budget busts such as Battleship, which recovered its budget plus some, are seen as exploitative of the fanbase. The fans already exist; that’s the main reason for doing an adaptation. Studios need to respect the fans.

Next week, part II looks at adapting boardgames.

* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** At some point, there will be an ourobouros of adaptations when a video game is made of a TV show based on a movie inspired by a video game that was ported from an video arcade game.
*** Insert Twilight joke here.
**** And yet, a Hollywood studio has optioned the game.

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