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.