A milestone passed by me back in May – a guest post by me about the nature of adaptations, reboots, and remakes. Coming up in July is the one year anniversary of Lost in Translation here on Fan To Pro. Over the past year, a number of remakes and adaptations were reviewed as I tried to find out what made them work and what made them fail. The key, as this column keeps repeating, is respect. Respect for the original work, for the fans, for the original creator.
Respect is not the only key. Although related, support is also an issue. Unless the body backing the remake/adaptation is on board, a lot of hard work can be tossed during post-production. At the same time, a studio can put their weight behind a project that probably shouldn’t have been greenlit in the first place, or can interfere with the best of intentions only to create a problem. Examples of post-production meddling for the worse can be seen in Johnny Mnemonic and John Carter. In the former, an executive had the movie re-edited after filming was completed, turning a cyberpunk story into a minor action movie. With John Carter, the film was essentially denied by a new executive, with minimal promotion and even the cutting of the title (from John Carter of Mars, a name that actually means something in the realm of science fiction fandom). However, having execs on board doesn’t make things a smooth sail. Flash Gordon had Dino Di Laurentiis’ full attention, including “helpful” suggestions such as getting casting suggestions from his wife, and input (monetary and creative) from Bob Guccione of Penthouse fame. Fortunately, the director had some leeway with minor characters and recruited from Britain’s stage actors.
How can a studio properly support a project while still get a good return on investment without interfering too much?
Be Aware of the Existing Fandom
While a smaller part of the total audience a studio wants, the existing fandom will have some of the loudest reviews and the Internet tends to amplify. While it is true there will be fans that won’t be happy at all with an adaptation or a reboot, the goal is to make sure that most objections will be answered in the final product. Michael Bey’s Transformers had a short mollification of the fanbase after the announcement of Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime.*
Know the Original
People going to see a reboot or an adaptation will already have some idea of the original. With a popular franchise, such as Superman or Harry Potter, pop osmosis means that even people unaware of the original will know details, like Superman being from Krypton or Harry goes to Hogwart’s for wizard lessons. Deviating from these details will cause outcry. The studio should save the alternate universe-style stories for later works, once it has proved that it can handle the original work to everyone’s satisfaction. Batman does not dress up in bright clothes. Captain Jean-Luc Picard doesn’t immediately arm phasers at the first sign of an anomaly and definitely won’t be the first to fire a torpedo. Characters need to be familiar, even if making changes to them. Too far out of character and the audience will wonder why the work wasn’t made under a different name.
Make Sure the Creative Staff is Aware
Usually, the creative staff – the writers, the directors, the cast, the crew – are aware of the above points. Sometimes, the creative staff is part of the fandom and understands what needs to be done. Sometimes, especially when the adaptation originates from the top down, creative staff need a reminder that they’re dealing with an existing work, not something completely new. Before Superman Returns, there were several false starts on a Superman movie. Part of the problem were writers and directors wanting to give the Man of Steel new powers or wanting to take existing characters and change them into something unidentifiable. Fortunately, DC and Warner Brothers pulled the plug before anything could get started. The companies realized that the property was too valuable to muck up and that their audience would turn away.
Guide; Not Interfere
Micromanaging a project is a great way to get people irritated, no matter what the field. At some point, the studio will have to trust the cast and crew to get things done. It’s one thing to get weekly or even daily updates, including film snippets. In fact, it’s a good way to head off a problem before it begins. However, getting hourly updates or even spending time on the set and second guessing the director will just increase tension and possibly get some of the crew to walk out. There’s a fine line, but guidance has always worked better in employee-labour relations.**
Know When to Fold
Sometimes, a train wreck is the only outcome. Part of the battle is knowing when to scrap a project as being a total write-off. There is no good reason to throw good money after bad; a bad movie is a bad movie, and, sometimes, a script doctor or a different director is just not going to make a difference. Ideally, problems should be identified early enough to pull the plug (assuming the issues aren’t fixable). However, economics can sometimes get in the way. The studio may have sunk several million into the project and shareholders will demand a return on their investment, even if the project isn’t likely to even bring in the original budget. At this point, the best that can be done is to find the takeaway from the mess for future works.
There are other elements of support. Budgeting is important, but just like there can be too little, there can be too much. Selecting a director, a writer, crew, and cast can be an artform, making sure that the different people can meld together. Like respect, studio support for an adaptation can make a huge difference in the success of a work.
Next week, adapting in the black.
* Also helping, multiple series of Transformers that had their own continuity. The fandom was able to accept the film franchise as yet another continuity.
** Employee/Labour relations, however, can be filed under slash fic. “Oh, Labour, your ability to keep the factory running just turns me on, you big stud.”