Lost in Translation continues its retrospective with a fresh look at comic book adaptations.
There has been some uproar in the past few years about the number of adaptations being made by Hollywood. Looking at the past decade, there were no original works among the popular movies, with fourteen adaptations. Of those adaptations, eight came from comic books. Chances are good that if those eight were from a more literary source, which also excludes such genres such as science fiction & fantasy, romance, and all of young adult, there wouldn’t be an outcry.
But comic books are low brow, and thus are looked down on. Comics are for the masses. The studios, though, need the masses to be profitable. Some obscure yet acclaimed literary work just won’t hit screens outside specialty theatres. This isn’t to say that a comic book movie can’t be deep or moving. The issue is accessibility to the general public.
However, superhero movies, separating them from other comic book movies, are spectaculars. They’re big, loud, and filled with explosions. And they’re not going away, not anytime soon. Marvel is having a renaissance with its cinematic universe. DC is having success with the Arrowverse on TV. Until both Marvel and DC have a run of flops, they’re going to keep creating movies and TV series.
The advantage of comic books is that they are already a visual medium. The books can be used as a storyboard; this is what essentially happened with Scott Pilgrim vs the World. There’s no need to hunt through a tome to find descriptions of characters; they’re all there on the page. Superhero comics are built on action and drama with some titles having soap opera levels of inter[character conflict. Everything that a work would want to have.
The disadvantage, though, is that comics have a lot going on that just can’t fit into a 2 to 2.5 hour movie. The more characters there are to spotlight, the less that can be showcased. Finite time requires details to be dropped. With a TV series, there is more time to expand beyond the basics, but the budget per episode can’t match what a studio can throw at a blockbuster. There’s give and take.
One problem that’s starting to creep in that plagues long standing ongoing comics is continuity lockout. New readers can find that details a story leans on is in a hard-to-find long out-of-print issue. Crossovers bring their own problems. A storyline that requires readers to search for the other titles involved is a marketing move to generate more sales by introducing new readers to other titles. The drawback is that if a crossover goes on too long, the regular stories in a title get shunted to the side, especially in a company-wide crossover. Too many interruptions in the regular storyline will drive readers away.
With the Marvel movies, if someone missed a film leading to an Avengers movie, they may not know who a character is and why that character was there. Thanks to some deals made, Marvel Studios doesn’t have access to every Marvel character, most notably mutants related to the X-Men. Yes, there are exceptions, thanks to how fluid teams are in the Marvelverse, which causes headaches in lawyers and writers. Right now, most of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are origin stories, so not knowing how, say, Ant-Man became a hero isn’t important. Missing Captain America: Civil War could affect how a view sees the subsequent Avengers film.
It’s a balancing act. A shared universe means that characters can and will interact. Fans will try to get out to all the films, but it is possible to miss one, either due to timing, budget, or pandemic, and audiences shouldn’t feel like they’re missing a chunk because they weren’t interested in or able to see a specific film.
As with anything, if something is popular, Hollywood will exploit it. Right now, superheroes are big and are in no hurry to leave. They’re filling the role that the Western and the police investigation used to have, with none of the baggage of either. Non-superhero comics can and will slip in with some members of the audience none the wiser. There is plenty of depth to plumb from the medium. We should expect more adaptations and works inspired by comics to keep appearing for some time yet.
Video game adaptations, especially from Hollywood, are given the side eye. Hollywood adaptations have a poor reputation, earned thanks to the likes of Double Dragon and Super Mario Bros. But, Hollywood persisted, because where there is a large enough number of people, studios will exploit. And in 1994, $studio exploited the names of actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, singer/actress Kylie Minogue, and actor Raul Julia along with the video game Street Fighter.
Street Fighter – The Movie did not do well with initial audiences. The tone of the film was not what anyone expected – Van Damme’s acting style was better suited for movies with more action and less acting, the film was almost four-colour at a time when the approach was to go darker and grittier, and the studio got too involved. However, on retrospection, Street Fighter – The Movie isn’t in the same league as the worst video game movies made.
The video game has backstory on who all the characters are, why they are fighting, and why they’re after M. Bison. The game play, though, is a fighting game. That’s the draw of the game, not the backstory. The backstory is there to give a reason for the player to beat up opponents but via the game manual. However, that backstory can be adapted, if loosely.
The movie had a few strikes against it on release. The rep of video game movies and the acting capabilities of the leads, with the exception of Raul Julia. The movie tried to include every character from the video game, even if it was for a brief appearance. The result could be a complete mess.
There are some bright sides that save the movie, beyond just Raul Julia. The supporting cast, which includes Ming-Na Wen, pulled their weight, though, carrying the film. The movie’s writing has a strong pedigree with Lorenzo Semple, Jr, handling the duties. Semple also wrote the 1980 Flash Gordon and was on the writing staff for the 1966 Batman TV series. The humour from Flash Gordon appears in Street Fighter, little things that come naturally in the situation without feeling forced. Watching the movie through the lens of an action comedy, the tone clicks. The four-colour approach works. Raul Julia knew exactly what sort of movie he was in and played M. Bison the same way Leslie Nielsen played Dr. Womack in Airplane!; straighter than straight to the point of being funny. His speech to Chun-Li about him not remembering invading her village is a great example of what he was doing.
Street Fighter – The Movie is a cult classic. Time has given audiences time to figure out what it is without marketing trying to set the genre in minds beforehand. The bright colours turn the film into something timeless, separated from grim and gritty. There are little things to noticed with every viewing, including the Armed Forces radio announcer, Adrian Cronauer, who was the inspiration for Good Morning, Vietnam. Yes, the movie parodied Good Morning, Vietnam with the real AFRS DJ. That’s going the extra step.
It’s such steps that elevate Street Fighter – The Movie. It may not be a great film, but it is a fun movie, well worth the watch.
Lost in Translation is approaching a major anniversary mark, so it’s a good time to look back over the years. Today, let’s start at the beginning, with the first review posted, Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the early days of Lost in Translation, I went after the easier, low-hanging fruit, and ST:TNG was well in reach. I had watched both the original and the then new Trek when TNG first aired in 1987.
When TNG’s pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint”, first aired, the original had been in syndication for eighteen years, gaining a fan base that was too young to watch the series when it first aired. In between the last original Trek episode and “Encounter at Farpoint”, there had been an animated series and four films, beginning with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, all with the original cast. TNG, though, guaranteed a weekly hit of Star Trek, thanks to first-run syndication; ratings weren’t going to be an issue, just sales to TV stations.
The first two seasons were rough. TNG re-used some scripts for a proposed but unfulfilled Star Trek II TV series with the original crew of the Enterprise. The Star Trek II series ultimately became ST:TMP, and the mappings of characters can be seen between the movie and TNG. The obvious ones are Kirk and Decker to Riker, Xon, the Vulcan science officer who died in a transporter accident, to Data, Ilya to Troi, and Argyle and MacDougal to Scotty. The mappings aren’t perfect; there was an effort to make the new characters their own selves. With Troi, some of the Deltan culture, such as openness to sex, had to be toned down for television. Data’s quest for humanity mirrors Spock’s quest to balance and integrate his Vulcan and Human halves, but the paths each took are different.
It does take time for a TV series to get settled in, for character to develop to what fans will remember. TNG was no different. Season three was when the characters sorted themselves out. Still, the worst episode of TNG, the second season flashback episode “Shades of Gray”, is still better than TOS‘ worst, the third season’s “Spock’s Brain”. Meanwhile, the best of TNG pushed the envelope of Trek storytelling. “Darmok” explored the language gap in first contact while bypassing the universal translator.
In the time since the last TNG episode, the two-parter “All Good Things…”, in 1994, more Trek has been made. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which began during TNG‘s run and Star Trek:Voyager began the year after TNG‘s end. Star Trek: Enterprise began after Voyager‘s run ended. Today, there are three concurrent Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks. Picard is a direct sequel to TNG while Lower Decks follows the crew of another starship in the same era. At this point, TNG is the more familiar Trek series, thanks to having a longer run and and the subsequent series set in the same era.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is a good example of a successful reboot, matching the original series in quality, both highs and lows, and becoming its own entity.
And here we are, the last Agile principle. Appropriately, it’s about review
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
It’s another piece of simplicity – the team regularly reviews on how to become more effective then adjusts. It’s one of those things that should have gone without saying, which is why a bunch of people had to say it.
This is one that doesn’t have to be changed or altered for creative teams. But let’s take a look at what it means for creatives by breaking it down.
Reviewing is done at regular intervals – happening every x days or y weeks, or z months. Not “whenever” or “when we have time.” Reguarly. This is important.
First, this regularity means that the review is guaranteed – you know it’s coming and when so you can prepare for it. If you’ve got a hectic or unpredictable schedule, this provides an anchor so you’re ready.
Secondly, this regular review means you hold it no matter what. There’s no saying “we didn’t learn anything” or ‘we can’t improve.” It’s a great way to break people’s habits and challenge any assumptions there’s “nothing to learn.” – and can get things out into the open and stimulate conversation. In creative works this is vital, since the unpredictable nature of the work may mean lessons are not immediately obvious – besides we know creative folks can build who ideas that they know something and be wrong (I’ve certainly done that).
Third, it gets people into an improvement mindset. In my experience the more you do these reviews, the more you learn, but also the more people improve outside of the reviews. Self-review and self-improvement is a skillset, and doing this develops it. There’s nothing like turning an imaginative team loose on self-improvement.
Fourth, it encourages applying lessons that can be used. In creative works, projects may differ wildly, so a regular review will in general lead to developing improvements that apply well into the future. Yes, short temporary changes may come up and be made, but in time you’ll improve longer and longer term as repeating issues come up and new insights get put into long-term practice.
Fifth, people don’t have to worry about missing opportunities or remembering everything they want to improve. Their work, especially creative works, may be seen differently in retrospect or with a marketing change. A person may have a hundred ideas but only remember five. Regular reviews mean you’ll be able to get back to forgotten ideas later or incorporate new views of old work. You can relax – you’re less likely to miss something.
There’s two parts to this section.
The team is who does these regular reviews so they can improve – not just as individuals but a team. Now we have to ask who is the team?
To me the team is usually the folks doing the work – in the case of creatives those doing said work and their support team. But does that include consultants? The client? Beta testers? The legal team? Asking this question is probably going to lead to unexpected and important answers:
By the way, no I can’t give you an obvious answer. But I can say in creative teams that it gets a bit hairy because that’s a place “things come together.” So your “team” may not just be people doing what you think is the work, but:
Ask who the team is. The answer may surprise you.
Being More Effective:
Reflecting on being more effective sounds great, but there’s an issue. What does it mean for your team to be “more effective.”
It’s not an obvious question, which is why the importance is in how we answer it! How do you measure effectiveness so you know you’re getting better.
I often solve this by asking the team how they want to measure effectiveness and then going around until we have an agreement and a way to do it. For many it’s a simple general gut check of “did we get the work done and signed off on” but you may find a few additional factors come in. You may also find that it changes over time.
The best way, of course, is to focus on Value – did you deliver what people valued. But the way there, that may take some consideration, analysis, and arguments.
In creative teams, where metrics may be hard to come by and subjectivity is an issue, this question is very important. It may help to ask now and then just what effectiveness is and how you measure it.
Ah, yes the end goal of these regular reviews with the team – you review how you did and then figure how to tune and adjust what you do accordingly. In short, you decide how to improve your behavior, approach, actions, tools, and methods. you hold these reviews and then create *takeaways.*
I can’t emphasize this enough. Make sure that these reviews lead to concrete goals for the team that you can measure, and tasks for the team or individuals so you can say “it’s done.” I’ve seen people who do reviews insist everything be something that can be tracked as simple as a piece of work – and I have to say it’s effective.
Make sure your team comes up with concrete suggestions that you can move on. In fact, when I do this I review them reguarly, often during other meetings and definitely at the start of the next review.
This is needed in creative works because of the many variables, obvious, but also for another reason. Creative works, with their infinite options, also provide us many ways to improve. Having solid choices is a nice way to narrow things down to workable selections.
Having definite choices also keeps people from overloading themselves. After all, you can’t improve if all you’re doing for a few weeks is doing things better – so you have no time to DO the things you want to do better.
A final important note – improvements for individuals should be called out by the individuals themselves. The team’s goals are to improve as a team, and blame-slinging (even if true) is pretty disruptive at these meetings. I found a way to make this easier is to see if people have any personal improvement goals they want to call out to encourage personal improvement – but note the team has to support these people.
Note: If your team has too many improvements to make, have them force-rank them in order and pick what they think they can do in the next time period. That helps them prioritize (and deprioritize) and focus.
Yes. You should do your own reviews even if it’s just you. Even if you don’t review with a client. Even if it’s just personal work. Sit down and go over what you did, how you’re doing and how to improve.
Remember, never assume there’s no way to get better . . . even if you’re awesome on your own.
So there it is, the Twelfth Agile principle – go and review sutff regularly with the right people and make concrete improvements.
I find these reviews are almost comforting in any practice. In creative practices you’ll always be focused on going forwards, on lessons learned, on getting better. it adds a structure where needed – while also breaking you out of any assumptions or mental straightjackets.
Besides, creative people asked to “make something better” can often take off when given a chance . . .
A few quick roundups:
And that’s it folks! The Twelve Agile Principles for creatives. Now you’ll be pleased to know this isn’t the end – I’m using this as raw material for a book. So in a few months get ready for something even more awesome . . . and probably better edited.