After analysing a number of adaptations over the past few years, it’s nigh time to examine how the different sources of material affects how a work is adapted. The History of Adaptations series helped show the different sources that led to popular works, with other works being reviewed expanding the list.
Literary sources cover a wide range, from novels to short stories to plays to poems. Each source has its own challenges for adaptations. Novels, being a longer form, tend to lose details when adapted as films. A series of novels adapted to film can lose critical scenes, especially if the adaptation begins before the last as happened with the Harry Potter series. Television may be the better format for novels; while individual episodes are shorter than a film’s run time, a full season gives more time to delve into the work. With the today’s choices for television going far beyond the three-channel universe, a traditional 22 episode season isn’t needed. Mini-series can take as long as needed. One other means to adapt a novel is to just use the characters and create new situations, such as happened with The Dresden Files. The benefit of novels is that their popularity is easy to track. The New York Times‘ best sellers lists, while flawed still provide studios an idea of how well a title is selling. A novel that makes headlines because of fan enthusiasm makes the choice to adapt it easy.
At the other end of length, short stories may not have enough material to fill a movie’s runtime. Studios would have to extrapolate and expand from the events in the story, sometimes to the point where the film could have been its own work. A television series would not work, unless the idea is to keep the characters in further situations. However, an anthology series could take the story and adapt it. The Twilight Zone did this throughout its run, with episodes like “Steel” and “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” being typical.
Plays don’t have the problem of having too much or too little story when it comes to being adapted as a film. A typical play is performed in about the same time as a film, possibly a little longer. The script is already written; all the director needs to do is remember that the fourth wall is now the camera’s lens instead of the audience. Plays don’t work out as well for television; length is the limiting factor.
Poems and songs do get adapted, though not to the same degree as other literary sources. The poem or song needs to be narrative, providing or at least implying a plot of some sort. “Harper Valley PTA” may be the best example, having been made into a movie that was then adapted as a TV series. The song provided the basis for the plots in both. Popular songs are easy to track, through Top 40 lists and YouTube hits.
Comics are a popular source for adaptations today. The bright costumes, the spectacle of superheroes fighting supervillains, and the almost black-and-white morality of pulp western serials are a lure for filmmakers. Yet, as a serialized means of storytelling, a comics adaptation could easily find a home on television. The plots are already storyboarded, though only Scott Pilgrim vs the World took advantage of that. Right now, the looming problem is audience burnout. At some point, audiences will want something different, but not too different. Yet, comics cover a wide range, something Marvel Studios has been exploiting. Each of the Marvel movies has been superheroes crossed with something else, from technothriller (Iron Man) to heist movie (Ant Man) to romantic comedy (Deadpool). The variety available in comics, not just the superhero titles, makes the medium ripe for the picking. Add in foreign titles, such as manga, and the surface has barely been scratched.
Television looks like it could make the jump to the silver screen. There have been attempts. The problem is the differences in running times. A TV episode today can run either 22 or 45 minutes, with breaks for ads. A full season can each 22 episodes. Neither fit well into a 2 to 2.5 hour film. Expanding an episode is similar to expanding a short story; much more needs to be added. Age of the work is another matter. Some series, like Entourage, have a goal to end with a cinematic release. Other series may have just enough popularity to risk trying a movie, like Firefly and Veronica Mars. The end result may be true to the TV show, but may not get the critical mass needed for an audience. Older series have another issue; while it may have been popular in its day, a TV series may not be well known to today’s audience. The Beverly Hillbillies, while almost note perfect as an adaptation, didn’t have the name recognition needed to get people out to it. Remaking and rebooting a TV series can work, though. Star Trek returned as Star Trek: The Next Generation to a much larger fanbase than the original series had when it first aired. The new Battlestar Galactica lasted longer than the original, providing a different look at the ragtag fleet searching for Earth.
Film remakes are also popular today. There appears to be a roughly thirty to forty year gap between originals and remakes. Take a look at King Kong; ignoring sequels, after the giant ape’s first appearance in 1933, the movie was remade in 1976 and 2005. With home video tape players and, later, DVD and Blu-Ray players along with specialty movie cable channels and streaming services, this gap may need to grow. The availability of older movies in homes grew tremendously in the Eighties. While the 1959 Ben Hur didn’t need to compete with the first adaptation, a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark has the original available and in many home movie libraries. Adapting a movie to a TV series means further exploration of the film. M*A*S*H and Stargate SG-1 are arguably the most successful film-to-TV adaptations, both having run ten years and are both still available in syndication and on DVD. Not every movie can make the jump to television; the film needs to leave room for further stories featuring the characters.
Video games have had a rough time in adaptation. The early video game movies were either poorly done or completely missed the mark; Super Mario Bros illustrates the latter well. Video games turned out to have similar problems as literary sources. Early games, especially arcade games, had just enough plot to lure players before letting them button mash. similar to the problem of adapting a short story. Later video games, especially once home consoles had the ability to save games in progress, provided for a longer story, requiring several hours of game play. Parasite Eve‘s ten to twenty hours for completion is on the short side. What some adaptations have done is provide extra information for players, either what happened prior to the game or what happened after. Animated adaptations, most in the form of a cartoon like Super Mario Bros Super Show, have been more successful. In most cases, the cartoon just takes the characters and some of the game play and create new stories around them.
Other games, such as boardgames and tabletop RPGs, see similar problems to video games with added layers of abstraction. Clue may have been the best adaptation of a boardgame; the game itself is a murder mystery with a cast of investigators and one murderer, ideal for translating to the big screen. Battleship, on the other hand, tried to incorporate elements from the game but there wasn’t much to bring in, resulting in a mess of a movie. With tabletop RPGs, the problem is that, while there may be an idea of what game play looks like, the game itself is social. Players create their own characters and storylines. Studios are competing with the imagination of the players. Tabletop RPGs are also a niche market; very few games get beyond specialty stores and into book stores.
Toys may have had the best success rate of all sources mentioned here. Most adaptations of toys started as a way to market the toy itself. However, to keep the audience watching, story and character development happened. Cartoons like Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic took the idea of the toy and expanded on it, creating settings and introducing characters. Not every adaptation succeeded; the live action Jem and the Holograms was pulled from theatres after two weeks. The problem studios need to watch out for is reaction by parental groups and popularity of the toy. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future ended on a heart wrenching note because while the series had an audience, the toyline did not. Even a mess of a movie, like Michael Bay’s Transformers, can still be a decent adaptation.
On side note, Bay’s Transformers didn’t have continuity issues. The Transformers series already had multiple continuities, with fans well aware that cinematic universes are a thing. Bay may have been well aware of the problems he was going to face and made the one move that brought Transformers fans on board – he brought in Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. A loud movie with explosions featuring Autobots and Decepticons fighting kept the fans happy. Getting key details right can go a long way in making a good adaptation.
Not every adaptation is successful, and not every adaptation is accurate. The goal for studios is to overcome the challenges of the source material. There’s a change coming in how television is seen; once a vast wasteland catering to the lowest common denominator, TV is now exploring new ways its format can tell stories. Film, while still seen as the goal for adaptations, is becoming stale, mainly because of remakes, reboots, and other adaptations. The format of the original work may require a hard look at how it is adapted.
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.