The short version, adaptations continued to dominate the silver screen. With studios risk adverse, they want to maximize audiences. It’s still not a guarantee of success, but adapting a popular work is one way to draw in a crowd. Couple adapting with popular actors, and studios see a sure thing. The New Teens are looking a lot like the Fifties, where popular adaptations far outnumbered popular adaptations. Let’s break down the top ten films by box office, using the numbers compiled by Box Office Mojo. Remember that popularity isn’t necessarily a sign of quality, just of what is popular.
1) Finding Dory – sequel to the Disney/Pixar original work, Finding Nemo. A surprising entry, given the strength of what follows.
2) Captain America: Civil War – second sequel to Captain America: First Avenger, an adaptation.
3) The Secret Life of Pets – original.
4) The Jungle Book – Disney’s live action remake of its animated adaptation of the story by Rudyard Kipling.
5) Deadpool – adapted from the Marvel character and the most comic book movie ever made*.
6) Zootopia – An original Disney animated movie.
7) Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice – adapted from characters and situations seen in DC Comics.
8) Suicide Squad – another DC Comics adaptation.
9) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – an original movie in the Star Wars franchise.
10) Doctor Strange – adapted from the Marvel comic.
Note that Rogue One and Doctor Strange are still in theatres. The Star Wars prequel could finish 2016 higher in the list and also dominate the 2017 list.
For all the complaints people have about adaptations, audiences went out to see them more than original works. The breakdown has two completely original works, two sequels/prequels to original works, and six adaptations or sequels to adaptations. It’s telling that most of the original works are animated, especially from Disney, who used to plumb animated features from fairy tales. Studios just aren’t going to give up the potential income from popular adaptations, no matter the outcry. At this point, original works will need top talent just to get a budget from studios. Depending on the work, an original may need to go to television just to get noticed. For balance, let’s look at the bottom ten.
10) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – fictionalized adaptation of the memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker
9) Assassin’s Creed – adaptation of the video game.
8) Snowden – a biopic of Edward Snowden.
7) Mechanic: Resurrection – sequel to the remake, The Mechanic.
6) Manchester by the Sea – original.
5) Free State of Jones – loosely based on a historical event.
4) Blair Witch – remake of The Blair Witch Project.
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – sequel to a movie based on Rice Broocks’ God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in An Age of Uncertainty.
2) Keanu – original.
1) Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life – adapted from Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts.
Note that Assassin’s Creed is still in theatres after being released on December 21. Manchester by the Sea opened in limited release November 18 and had a full release December 16 and is still in theatres.
The bottom ten has four adaptations, two sequels to adaptations, one original work, and two movies based on real events, including the Snowden biopic. Being at the bottom isn’t necessarily a sign of quality. Manchester by the Sea has been nominated for a number of awards, including Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay, and has been listed on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of the Year. What the bottom ten show is that adaptations run the gamut of popularity and that we’re still in an era where adaptations outnumber original works. However, with two exceptions, every decade in the history of movies shows that trend. The exceptions were the Eighties and Nineties.
Adaptations aren’t going away any time soon. People are still getting out to see them in theatres. At this point, quality is important; repeat audiences are driving the numbers for several films. For now, expect more original works in unexpected media, like animation or television.
* I’d say “shamelessly the most comic book movie,” but the movie lives in audacity, contributing to its popularity.
During a discussion with Steve, the question whether there is a cycle happening, one first started in the Fifties. During the History of Adaptations, the Fifties were discovered to have a low number of original works, something that the Aughts shared. The Fifties also had a number of movie remakes, something the New Teens is seeing.
With the movies remade in the Fifties, the new versions took advantage of the change in filming technology. The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ were both black and white silent films when they were released in the Twenties. Their remakes in the Fifties took advantage of the major advances in movie making – sound and colour. With both films being period pieces, nothing on screen needed to be changed beyond what was essential for the new technologies and grander scales available. The spectacle of both epics were enough to draw in the younger audience while those who saw the originals could see them again with the new dimensions of full colour and sound. Thirty years made a huge difference in the film industry.
Fast forward to now. The entertainment news is filled with remakes. Just from the older news posts for Lost in Translation, I get the following list:
Jem and the Holograms
Big Trouble in Little China
That doesn’t include films like 21 Jump Street, remaking a TV series, and all the Ninties movies being remade like Stargate. Again, the difference is thirty years. The advances in film technology aren’t as obvious, though. The use of computers for special effects has grown over time, but not all the works being remade will benefit from the advance outside the budget. Cecil B. De Mille remade The Ten Commandments because of the sound and colour. The movies listed above and the others are being done because of nostalgia.
It’s the thirty years that raised the question. Thirty years is enough time for a young man to work through the system to get to the point where he can make decisions on what to film. Thirty years ago was 1985, the middle of the decade with the most original popular works made. The chart from last week may help here.
As pointed out last week, part of the issue with the complaints about adaptations is that the Eighties and Nineties, where the original works outnumber the adaptations, were anomalous. Today, if someone wanted to watch a movie from the Eighties, it’s not difficult. Between television reruns, home video and online streaming, chances are good that a movie from the Eighties is available. In the Fifties, those options weren’t available. Movies from Hollywood’s early years might make an appearance on television or appear at repertory cinemas, but the ease of finding them did not exist like it does today.
Is there a cycle restarting? It’s hard to tell. There isn’t enough data yet to make that call. The chart above shows that the New Teens are behaving in a similar manner to the Sixties, but this decade is only half over. A backlash against adaptations is building, but, again, the Eighties and Nineties were exceptions, not the norm, when it comes to original works. It is something to keep an eye on, though. If a cycle is repeating, noting the speed at which the elements appear helps work out how long a given segment will last.
NBC has announced a remake of the Eighties series, Hart to Hart, with a twist. The original, airing from 1979 to 1984, starred Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, a rich married couple whose hobby was fighting crime. Lionel Stander co-starred as the Harts’ butler and chauffeur. The twist? The new Hart to Hart will be a gay couple, Jonathan Hart and Dan Hartman*, a by-the-book attorney and a free-wheeling journalist, who fight crime.
With just the announcement, there’s some notable differences already. First, the new series has crime fighting part of the couple’s day job. In the original, as I mentioned, it was more a hobby or a side effect of their careers and wealth. The original Harts were independently wealthy, letting them go to wherever needed because they owned their own jet. Hart and Hartman may not have the mobility, but they will have more exposure to local crimes because of their jobs. Second, the wealth factor. Jonathan and Jennifer were rich. Jonathan and Dan should be comfortable enough to purchase or at least expense items, but unless either come from a wealthy family, there’s no butler. For the third difference, the obvious elephant in the room, Hart and Hartman are gay. Really, that shouldn’t be a problem, but with Kim Davis in the news the past few weeks, count on people complaining that there are gays on their TV.
The question, though, is why remake Hart to Hart instead of creating a new series?
Name recognition. Hart to Hart still rings a bell for the older audience and has a good ring to it. The name should pull in viewers who are curious.
Age. The last first-run episode aired over thirty years ago. The series is old enough and and has been off the air long enough that intimate familiarity is lacking. Hart to Hart also doesn’t have the same level of syndication as any of the Star Trek series. This lack of familiarity will let writers focus on the new characters without necessarily causing moments of, “But that’s not what Jonathan would do!”
What a twist! With same-sex marriage a huge topic over the past few years, coupled with the US Supreme Court overturning state level bans against those marriages, the series gains a new level of freshness. The younger audience, the people who poll very favourable to same-sex marriage, will appreciate the approach.
In name only. There are a number of key changes to the premise, as mentioned above. Changing the couple from opposite- to same-sex isn’t a problem, removing the wealth and thus one of TV’s better supporting role is. Again, if one of the pair is wealthy, the butler can remain, but nothing in the article mentioned anything about wealth. There is also nothing said about whether Hart and Hartman are married, though I have thoughts to share below about that.
It’s not its own work. This is the flip side of name recognition, above. The series can become a mainstream hit, showing a couple working together, living together, fighting crime, with the only difference being that they’re both men. But it’ll be known as a remake. Shouldn’t a ground breaking show be its own thing?
A few things I’d do with the show, which may or may not be planned already include working in the marriage and making sure the characters feel real instead of stereotypes. With the marriage, have it as a subplot through the first season. Hart and Hartman keep trying to get the wedding planned, but they keep getting sidetracked by investigations. Jonathan and Jennifer were an established married couple, having a few years of wedded bliss behind them; Jonathan and Dan don’t have that luxury because of legalities**. Given my druthers, I’d change Jonathan Hart to John Soul and change the title to Hartman & Soul, but I don’t work for a network.
If the show is successful, this could open up some older series to be remade with gay couples. Picture Simon & Simon*** remade, with the brothers turned into a gay couple who are private investigators; or McMillan and Wife as a lesbian couple, one being the commissioner of the San Francisco Police Department.
Jokes aside, I do hope the series does well, assuming it makes it to air. Quality work needs to be encouraged.
* Er, so shound’t the series really be called Hart to Hartman?
** Depending on the state. Set the series in California, and they could have been married since 2008.
*** If the Internet was around like today when Simon & Simon aired, the amount of Simcest fanfics would overwhelm the Supernatural Wincest fics.
As seen since the beginning of Lost in Translation, getting an adaptation or a remake right takes a deft hand. There are many ways to just miss being good, either through deliberately not taking the original work seriously enough or through misreading. At the same time, what works for one remake might not work for another. The grim, gritty Battlestar Galactica remake was widely accepted. Going for a realistic Beverly Hillbillies would miss the point.
One element not in the control of production staff is fan expectations. They can be managed, but word of mouth can make or break a movie with near-instantaneous reviews. Pandering to the fans, though, may alienate the general audience. Individual comics issues have sales in the tens of thousands, not enough to fill seats and make a profit. Where repeated theatrical viewings were, if not the norm, possible, thanks to films being allowed to remain in theatres as long as they were drawing audiences, today, it’s rare for a movie to remain in theatres for two months. DVD release dates are being set shortly after a movie opens.
This leaves the question: “What can be done to manage expectations?” How can a studio ensure that fans don’t leave with a bad taste while still getting a general audience in? Movie makers need to be aware of the general impression a work has outside fandom. The 1989 Batman movie was facing such a problem. Fans of the comic were well aware of the Denny O’Neill run that turned Batman into a noir costumed detective, with a grittier approach. The general audience, however, was more aware of the Adam West Batman TV series, a camp comedy. Add in the casting of Michael Keaton, primarily known for comedies, as Bruce Wayne, and disaster was looming. With Tim Burton combining the aspects of both comic and TV series, Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and marketing that focused on the darker elements, Batman was successful at the box office.
The first means to manage expectations is the trailer. The trailer is the first view of a movie an audience gets. Well done trailers get sought out and spread over the Internet, increasing the dollar value of the advertising for no extra effort. Through the use of music and selected shots from the movie, the trailer can give audiences a good idea of what to expect. The first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy showed the main characters being booked into prison, followed by the song, “Hooked on a Feeling”, implying that the heroes weren’t chisel-chinned upholders of the law and that the movie would be fun. The box office returns show that audiences agreed.
The next means is to figure out what fans of the original work enjoyed about it. Pandering to the fans is never a good idea. Neither is flipping fans the bird. The remake of Land of the Lost left fans with a bitter taste. The original was a low-budget science-fiction series that managed to weave a coherent story, thanks to having science-fiction writers such as Larry Niven and Ben Bova contribute scripts. The remake was a Will Farrell comedy vehicle. The trailers, while they did show Farrell, didn’t quite show the level of humour of the movie.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to read a potential audience. Both the original Battlestar Galactica and the remake were about the search for Earth by survivors of the Thirteen Colonies. The original had a far more optimistic approach, even with it showing problems with food, the dangers of relying on a small number of food-producing vessels, and the logistics of maintaining a fleet of civilians. At the end of an episode, viewers had the feeling that the ragtag fleet would someday find Earth. The new Galactica had rumours of main characters getting gender-flipped, which had fans in a minor uproar. However, the miniseries showed what the remake was aiming for; a grittier, more realistic look at the problems the ragtag fleet would face. Survival of humanity was never a given, even after the appearance of the Pegasus. While the new characters weren’t like the originals, they fit better in the remake. It just goes to show that a read on the fanbase is not the only aspect to look at. Sometimes, current events plays a role.
With Hollywood studios risk-adverse to the point of needing instant hits with movie releases, especially blockbusters, maximizing the potential audience. Adaptations come with a built-in audience, but that very same audience may not appreciate drastic changes. Pandering is inevitable; keeping the existing fanbase happy means a quick, positive word of mouth on opening. Pandering, though, doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie or a good adaptation. Studios need to strive for more than just pleasing the fanbase, a fickle entity that may not appreciate even an accurate adaptation.
Next week, back to the reviews.
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.
A change of plans this week. I’ve been holding on to some items too long and I realized that I hadn’t had a round up last month. On with the show!
A Game of Thrones, the Movie
With the TV series catching up to George R.R. Martin’s writing, something needs to be done. One potential fix, feature-length movies. The movies would be prequels, set 90 years prior to the start of the books. This should give Martin the time to finish or at least pad out the series long enough to prevent the TV series from overtaking.
Jem and the Holograms to get film treatment.
Truly outrageous! The movie has a webpage set up where fans can make suggestions on plot and casting and submit audition video. However, Christy Marx, the creator of the original series, is not involved. How this will affect the movie remains to be seen.
No more Inspector Morse adaptations?
Creator Colin Dexter has added a clause in his will that will prevent other actors from playing Inspector Morse. He feels that the performances of both John Thaw and Shaun Evans cannot be surpassed. The clause can be challenged, but it is likely that Dexter’s estate will agree with him.
Left Behind movie series to be rebooted.
Nicholas Cage will star in the remake of the adaptation of the first of the Left Behind books. Release date has been announced for October 3. The first adaptation was by Kirk Cameron in 2000, with the sequels released direct-to-video.
Fox to spin-off a Mystique movie while Sony does the same with the Sinister Six.
While Marvel Studios is busy with the Avengers, the licensees aren’t content to be left in the dust. Fox has plans for a Mystique movie to go along with the Wolverine series. Over at Sony, the Sinister Six, Spider-foes each and every one of them, has signed on director Drew Goddard. The movies mean that Marvel will have more characters on screen than rival DC Comics, despite the latter’s owner, Warner, having not licensed any character to another studio.
New Sailor Moon series to debut July, broadcast includes Internet streaming.
The Pretty Soldier-Sailor is returning and can be seen through Niconico Douga, a video streaming site similar to YouTube. An account will be needed to watch but the new Sailor Moon will be available internationally. The build up has been kept low, with very little hype to create expectations.
Cracked.com lists the five adaptations that are overdone.
Beyond just naming, Cracked looks at why the movies don’t work well. The key appears to be the creativity ends with the original idea and doesn’t continue through the actual production.
Mrs. Doubtfire sequel being written.
Chris Columbus, the director of the original, has been signed, as has Mrs. Doubtfire himself, Robin Williams. The original movie hit theatres in 1993, and a sequel was attempted in 2001 but never got past pre-production. Given the age of the original movie, it may be Williams’ name that proves to be the draw.
Princess Jellyfish to get live-action adaptation.
The manga Princess Jellyfish, aka Kuragame Hime, will be getting the live-action treatement. The official site is now up. Release date is December, 2014.
More news links while I’m on hiatus.
Garth Ennis’ Preacher may be developed for television.
While the news is so far unconfirmed, it looks like AMC, the nice folk who brought us Breaking Bad, has ordered a pilot for the comic adaptation. The question becomes how much of the comic makes it through the transition. Preacher is known for pushing boundaries.
It’s a Wonderful Sequel
It took Hollywood sixty-nine years, but the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life is getting a sequel. It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story follows George Bailey’s grandson, who, in a twist everyone could see coming, is unlikable. Karolyn Grimes, who played Bailey’s daughter in the original movie, will return as an angel. Other surviving cast members are being asked to reprise roles. Why? My guess is the studio wants the residuals the sequel will get when stations air it after the original during the holiday season.
Even Lifetime is getting in on the adaptation train.
Lifetime will air Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, starring Christina Ricci, in the new year, based on the murder of Abby and Andrew Borden, Lizzie’s parents, in 1892 and the subsequent nursery rhyme.
The Strain becoming a TV series.
Guillermo del Toro’s vampire trilogy, The Strain, is being developed for FX with a 13 epsiode season. Chuck Hogan, del Toro’s co-writer for the books, is on board for the series. The pilot should air July 2014.
Beetlejuice 2 getting more alumni.
Everything is still in rumour stage, but Winona Ryder may return for Beetlejuice 2 as Lydia. Michael Keaton is confirmed as the titular character, and Tim Burton is in talks to direct.
Fan favourite character to return in Star Wars: Episode VII.
R2-D2 will return for Episode VII. Disney and LucasFilm confirmed that the plucky droid will be back. With R2, two new employees for the Creatures Effects team are joining the movie. Lee Towersey and Oliver Steeples were part of the R2-D2 Builders Club and met producer Kathleen Kennedy over the summer. She recommended them to the executive producer who hired them for the film. Lesson here: Embrace your inner geek and network.
MuseHack’s Serdar reviews Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
Read why Serdar thinks the movie missed its mark.
Mad Max being re-imagined.
Where re-imagined means remade. Expected release date of Mad Max: Fury Road is May 2015, about 30 years after the release of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Little is known about what the movie at this point.
Hammer Films dips into archives for a remake.
Hammer Films, known for their genre horror movies, is remaking The Abominable Snowman. The intent is to put a modern twist of the 1957 original. Remember, not all remakes are bad.
News has broken about NBC remaking the murder mystery series, Murder, She Wrote. This time around, Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role in The Help, will star as Jessica “J.B.” Fletcher, mystery writer and angel of death*. A few changes are being made to the series, beyond having an actress younger than Angela Lansbury was when she played Jessica. First, instead of the main character being a widow who wrote mysteries to supplement her income and getting a break, the new JB Fletcher will be a hospital administrator in her day job. With Jessica having a regular job, she won’t be able to travel around as much as in the original series. Second, Jessica will be a self-published author instead of going through a publishing company. This reflects the huge changes in the publishing industry since the original series left the air.
The usual question when anything is remade is, “Why do a remake?” In this case, NBC is still rebuilding after the fiasco of moving Jay Leno to a 10pm time slot, losing five dramas including the long-running Law & Order. NBC is still rebuilding, trying to regain the lost audience, a tough chore when the options available are almost boundless. The network has already cancelled one remake, Ironside, after three episodes, replacing it with Dateline for the most part in the time slot**.
The difference, though, between Ironside and Murder, She Wrote is familiarity. The original Ironside starred Raymond Burr, who was better known for Perry Mason. The old series, while falling one short of having 200 episodes over eight seasons, never received much syndication beyond the 70s; Murder, She Wrote lasted twelve seasons with 284 episodes, plus came out when syndication was far more established with the 500 channel cable line up looming. Murder, She Wrote had a larger impact, and, having ended its twelve season run in 1996, is better remembered. NBC may be counting on people wondering about the differences between the original and the remake to get a decent number of viewers for the pilot episode.
There will be complaints. With the Internet and social media, people have many places to vent about a series sight unseen. There are three areas of contention that I can see. First, Jessica has a day job. The original series was more an anthology series featuring whodunits, and with JB Fletcher being a successful author able to live off her royalties, there was no need to anchor her to any one location. If one episode needed her in LA one week and the next week’s show needed her in Miami, the script writers could hand wave her being in both cities as being on a book signing tour. Or she could visit friends and relatives anywhere in the world*** for any number of reasons. The new Jessica Fletcher, though, has a day job – hospital administrator. The new Jessica can’t gallivant around the country. Being self-published, she can’t yet live off her royalties. Book tours would either be self-funded or virtual. However, being at a hospital means that she would see the bodies that come in, giving her a chance to notice that the odd death isn’t of natural causes. This also means that, in a large enough city, she’s not going to be the harbinger of death. In the original Murder, She Wrote, everywhere JB Fletcher went, someone died, to the point where people could call her Entertainment’s most successful serial killer.
The second area of contention is the choice of actress in the new series. As mentioned about, Spencer is an Oscar winner. However, Angela Lansbury was much beloved in the role. It may be difficult to separate her from JB Fletcher. I’d have called it unremakable, alongside Columbo, for the same reason; the lead character and her actress have become one and the same to many viewers. Spencer will have to bring her own interpretation to the character and hope that people are willing to accept her version.
The third issue is tone. Remakes tend to go in one of two directions, the comedic approach or the dark and gritty approach. The original Murder, She Wrote was light fare. Sure, there was at least one body per episode, but to have a murder mystery, there needs to be a murder. At the same time, Jessica made the rounds, talking to suspects and investigating the crime scene, giving the viewers a way to solve the mystery alongside her. The end reveal showed the clues, letting viewers know that there wasn’t anything pulled out of thin air. The new series needs to keep the mystery aspect, keep the viewers following for clues. The level of gore might be raisable, thanks to shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and still remain light entertainment.
This isn’t to say that the show will be bad. Nothing has been filmed yet. The show can still succeed or fail on its own merits. NBC needs to have a deft touch with the new series, to bring in fans of the original, while still satisfying new viewers. Best of luck!
* Everywhere Jessica went, someone died. Her hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine, was probably happy to see her leave for a book signing; it gave the townsfolk a breather from waiting for the next murder.
** Also coming up in the Ironside timeslot, a live version of The Sound of Music.
*** World being, for the most part, the Lower 48 States with maybe a detour into Canada. Maybe.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with Serdar about remakes, specifically, why remake a work when the result winds up being the same. This got me to thinking about the nature of a remake. Serdar’s thoughts can be seen on his blog, and are well worth reading on their own, too.
What is the purpose of the remake? Sure, at some point, it’s “make money”. Beyond that, why remake? Is there a new interpretation to explore? Is the focus changing to a different character? Or, as in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, a shot for shot remake? Lost in Translation has looked at many adaptations and remakes. One could argue that an adaptation is just a remake in a different medium. In this case, though, the purpose is to interpret the original work in a new medium. Look at the number of books adapted as movies and television series. Just the going through the book and finding the key scenes alone means that someone is already creating a new interpretation. When remaking in the same medium, a new interpretation is needed.
Compare the two Battlestar Galactica TV series. The original was space opera, coming on the heels of Star Wars, telling the tale of a ragtag band of refugees of worlds lost to killer robots. The remake’s twist on the original was to remove the space opera. The remake took a hard look at the needs of maintaining the human race in a hostile environment while still being chased by the exterminators. The original, there was hope that humanity would survive, even if the discovery of Earth wasn’t shown.* The remake, on the other hand, kept a close track of the number of survivors, and an increase was a major point of celebration; humanity’s survival wasn’t certain. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Psycho remake was shot for shot the same. There was nothing new that an audience couldn’t get from the original. That’s a danger; if a remake gets audiences to go back to the original and not see the new version, something has gone wrong. Something to remember – novels don’t get remade, just reissued. There’s little point for an author copying an existing story word for word. At most, an author will revise a story to reflect changes in the real world.
What types of remakes are possible, then? I’ve grouped a few, and these may not be comprehensive or completely exclusive ways, but I’ve added examples to try to make things clearer.
Shot for Shot Remake: Like it says on the tin, the remake redoes the original work using the same approach. If the original work is an older movie filmed in black and white, the new version may just add colour. Once again, Psycho is the best example. Unless a great deal of time has passed between the original work and the remake, most people will prefer the original.
Remake with a Twist: This sort of remake changes something in the original, whether it is the main character, the setting, or the mood, among many other elements. This sort of remake doesn’t need to be “official”. An example of changing the setting is The Magnificent Seven, a Western take on The Seven Samurai. The seven ronin (masterless samurai) become gunslingers in the remake, thus changing expectations of the characters. Battlestar Galactica is a great example of a change in mood, plus changes in characters.
Remake Continuation: Instead of remaking the original work, the remake continues from where the original left off. Usually, the new work acknowledges what has happened before. Best example of this is Star Trek: The Next Generation, which advanced the timeline of the Star Trek universe to show how the voyages of the USS Enterprise has affected the galaxy. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek could fit here, too, except instead of continuing, it fills in details of the characters before they were first seen in the original series.
Cross-media Remake: Usually called an adaptation, this is when a work in one medium is adapted for another. Typically, the path is from long-form (novels, television series) to short-form (movies, video games**). Sometimes, though, a movie will be adapted as a TV series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and there are the rare novels that go beyond being just a tie-in to a TV series.
As I mentioned, these are not exclusive. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek falls under both Remake with a Twist and Remake Continuation. The animated film Gnomeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s*** Romeo and Juliet only done with garden gnomes, covers Remake with a Twist/ (they’re garden gnomes!) and Cross-media Remake (animated garden gnomes!).
What does this mean for people hoping to remake a work? At a minimum, figure out what you want to do with the work. Few people are going to want to see a shot-for-shot remake*** when the original is still around. There needs to be a reason for the remake to exist. Otherwise, why bother?
Next week, superhero universes and adaptations, on the road to The Avengers Adaptation.
* Galactica 1980 is being ignored here, for many reasons.
** Some video games. Video gaming is turning into its own creative endeavor. See the works of Bioware and Bethesda as examples.
*** The Bard may be an exception to the problems of a shot-for-shot remake. Filming one of Shakespeare’s plays usually requires staying true to the original script. Anything else is just an adaptation.
**** No, I meant three stars. The previous footnote still applies.
First of all, welcome to the fiftieth installment of Lost in Translation. I’ve learned a lot about the process of adapting a work over the past almost two years. I’ve watched shows and movies, both good and bad, to try to work out the common factors that work towards a good adaptation. The word “respect” kept popping up over and over.
However, older works do not stand up well to social progress. Pulp-era stories were aimed at a specific audience – men. Older science fiction and fantasy evolved out of those stories and kept the same biases. The main characters were men, and women, if they were in the story, were relegated to supporting cast. Many times, the woman in the story was the damsel to be distressed by the villain.
Times have changed. Audiences expect a more diverse cast. Women aren’t background characters anymore; neither are minorities. Marketing departments have realized this and will insist on adding the missing elements. A good example of a woman being added to a movie is The Hobbit. Galadriel was added in a scene to offset the rest of the entirely male cast. The original story featured thirteen dwarves and a hobbit, all men, going on an adventure. The novel represented JRR Tolkien’s background where men went to war and women tended the homefires.
These days, though, women can serve on the front lines. What was once chivalric is at best quaint and at worst sexist. The audience has changed. What was accepted before isn’t anymore. When it comes to adapting, though, making a change needs to be a delicate operation, especially if the original has a sizable fanbase. Composite characters can be used; audiences tend to understand the need to keep the cast manageable. But gender-switching can cause outrage. The Battlestar Galactica remake was running into this issue by changing Starbuck’s gender. However, as in Galactica‘s case, a well done final product can, if not remove, then ease the issue.
Creators now, though, can help in the adaptation process, and may already be doing so without realizing it. As mentioned above, a diverse cast goes a long way to help the production crew. If the elements already exist, there’s no need to add more. Sure, there are still other problems to deal with, such as studios not believing that a woman can carry an action movie.*
On a more celebratory note, I’ll pose a question. What do you feel were the best adaptations and remakes? What were the worst? And what ones should I take a look at in the future?
Next week, superheroes and origins.
* Conveniently forgetting both The Hunger Games and Tomb Raider.