Last week, Lost in Translation took a look at animated adaptations with a high level view. It’s time to delve into a specific one to get a better view of how such things turn out.
Thanks to the success of Star Wars merchandise in 1977, toys and toy licensing became another way to make money from a movie. Sure, prior to Star Wars, there were toys made for some franchises, but not to the same extent and success. However, many of the most toyetic movies were also R-rated, meaning that the target audience for the toys were not likely to have seen the movie except in ads. However, the reduction of FCC regulations against using children’s entertainment as advertising presented a new way to introduce the characters to the new audience – cartoons. Thus, among other animated adaptations, RoboCop the Animated Series.
The original RoboCop was a violent, over-the-top satire of the Reagan era. Everyone has a gun. Automation destroys jobs. Detroit is bankrupt. The Detroit police get privatized, bought up by Omni-Consumer Products, who saw the city as a test bed for automating law enforcement. The movie wasn’t subtle. Officer Alex Murphy is shot with the symbolism of the Crucifixion. Scenes had to be trimmed to avoid the dreaded X rating, preventing the movie from getting into any theatre. Blood was shed by the barrels.
The perfect movie to adapt for children.
The 2014 remake, with its PG-13 rating, had its violence toned down. No more graphic deaths. No one getting shot with hundreds of rounds by a robot still in beta. It was one of the problems fans of the original movie would cite about the remake. The violence was reigned in. There still was violence. Drones got destroyed. Murphy got shot and burned. But the gore was gone. The remake’s satire hit closer to home, but the violence of the original allowed audiences to take a step back. The PG-13 rating was seen as the problem by fans of the original, not allowing for the over the top violence of the original.
With that in mind, if there was a backlash against the 2014 remake, how do things shake out for 1988’s RoboCop: The Animated Series? If a PG-13 rating forced the 2014 remake to focus the violence on drones, how much is lost for a weekly cartoon? Repeatable violence isn’t allowed. Shooting a gun is repeatable. Punching is repeatable. Running someone over is repeatable. And forget language. Even in syndication, there are words not allowed anywhere near children’s entertainment. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” won’t be heard.
How well did RoboCop survive the translater to animation? First, a look at the the characters themselves. While Orion could license the characters, the studio couldn’t license the appearances of the actors. The actors own their looks. It’s the same reason why the character design for The Real Ghostbusters changed so much. However, the costume for RoboCop hid most of Peter Weller, so the character could be animated as accurately as the production could. Likewise, the ED-260, the upgraded version of the ED-209 from the movie, was accurate, with the new number allowing for differences due to animation.
For characters like Officer Anne Lewis and Sergeant Ross, the animation tries to be close to their looks without necessarily copying their actors. Lewis lost her curls, but the costume – body armour and a helmet with a visor – is close enough. Other characters, like the Old Man, have more extensive changes. However, Clarence Boddicker, the man responsible for killing RoboCop in both the movie and the series, has only minor changes. Boddicker appears in the opening credits and in the episode “Menace of the Mind”.
Animation helps with showing RoboCop’s abilities. The original movie used practical effects and stop-motion; the suit Weller wore slowed him down just from mass. An animated character doesn’t have that limitation, so having RoboCop lift a van by its bumper or run after a perp is easier to show. The technology of the future of Old Detroit changed, too. RoboCop and the rest of the police force use lasers. Some of the criminals still used guns, but since they were shooting RoboCop, there were no bullet wounds, no arterial sprays, nothing to worry parents about what their children were seeing.
Characterization of the characters was off. RoboCop comes off as his RoboCop 2 incarnation after community input forces several hundred new directives installed. Murphy acts more as Murphy’s cheerleader. However, the focus of the series is on action; dialogue is kept to a minimum. Bursts of dialogue aren’t much to build a character on. A few characters do change. SWAT commander Lt. Roger Hedgecock gets promoted from being a minor character in the original to a rival. Hedgecock isn’t a fan of automation and is trying to outshine Murphy. Casey Wong returns as the talking head of “Media Break”, the three-minute news segment that appeared in the movie.
A few characters were added. Dr. McNamara, an OCP designer working on the ED-260 project, wants RoboCop shelved in favour of his Enforcement Drone, and is the mastermind behind the plot in several episodes. The Vandals were a gang that caused problems in Old Detroit until stopped by RoboCop.
The series did try to work with some themes from the movie. Biting satire is out, but some still slipped in. A section of Old Detroit was called “Trickledown Town” and was where the old abandoned factories were. One episode, “No News Is Good News”, had a Geraldo Riviera parody, chasing non-stories until he focused on destroying RoboCop’s reputation. Even the idea of automating jobs came up for satire with ED-260 being pressed into traffic duty and causing collateral damage after an illegal lane change. Outside the satire, Murphy still had to come to terms with his humanity. While Lewis still saw Murphy as Murphy, others, including Hedgecock and McNamara, saw him as a machine or as a product.
RoboCop is a tough movie to turn into an animated series, especially one aimed at an younger audience. What is allowed in an R rated movie doesn’t get on television in prime time, let alone weekend afternoon for kids. RoboCop: The Animated Series had its fangs pulled because of the the new format. It tries, but the focus is more science fiction action, not violent biting satire of the Eighties. If it was a standalone work; it would be an entertaining series on its own. Tied to the RoboCop movie, the series is sanitized.
The 1980s were a time of excesses. While Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was a reflection, not the cause, one line summed up the corporate mentality; “[G]reed, for a lack of a better word, is good.”* Or, as Newhart‘s Larry, Darryl, and Darryl put it, “Anything for a buck.” Conservative governments in the US, the UK, and Canada embarked on deregulating and privatizing anything possible, regardless of the impact. During this time, the archetypical Cyberpunk novel, William Gibson’s Neuromancer was published, followed two years later by Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired, both taking a hard look at the rise of corporate power and what it meant to the workers and the outsiders.
As the decade began to wrap up in 1987, the movie Robocop hit theatres. The film was billed as a science-fiction action movie, set in the near future. Detroit was bankrupt and was being bought out by Omni Consumer Products. The Detroit Police Department had been privatized, bought by OCP who turned the department into a profit centre through underfunding. OCP has a project in the works to replace the officers in the field with robots; in fact, there are two competing projects. The first is a fully automated law enforcement unit, the ED-209. The second is Robocop. However, the Robocop project requires a human base to be augmented.
Enter Alex Murphy, police officer, family man. Murphy worked on the police as a patrol officer on the dangerous streets of Old Detroit. How dangerous were the streets? Body armour was part of the patrol uniform. Murphy and his new partner, Anne Lewis, respond to a call that led to the chase of Clarence Boddicker, the leader of a criminal gang handling a bit of everything, including cocaine dealing. Murphy and Lewis separated, giving Boddicker the opportunity to kill Murphy brutally.
Lewis discovers Murphy, barely alive. OCP takes over Murphy’s trip to the hospital, leading to Alex being declared dead and a clause in his work contract getting invoked. Bob Morton then takes possession of Murphy, wanting to use him for the Robocop project. The ED-209, championed by OCP VP Dick Jones, had a setback during initial testing, leading to the shooting death of an intern after the prototype failed to recognize the intern had dropped his gun. Morton reveals the new Alex Murphy, Robocop.
Robocop, along with being a violent science-fiction action movie, was a satire of the politics and culture of the 80s. Underfunded police forces, privatization, high level corporate drug use, corporate politics, dangerous streets, anything and everything that hit the news, TV series, or feature films. Yet, today, Detroit is bankrupt and the average police officer on patrol is wearing body armour. While it wasn’t meant to be predictive, Robocop foresaw the rise of corporate power and the militarization of police services.
With the risk aversion in Hollywood studios and the appetite of foreign markets for known franchises, it was almost inevitable that Robocop was remade for 2014. With the original movie having had two sequels, a TV series, a video game, a pinball game, and even a cartoon**, the character of Robocop is a known figure. Over-the-top action transcends language. Robocop was ideal for a remake.
The new Robocop saw a few changes right away, mainly because of cultural and political changes during the intervening twenty-seven years. While Detroit wasn’t mentioned as being bankrupt nor being owned by OCP***, the city was still a dangerous place to live. Murphy became a detective instead of patrolman, as did his partner, Jack Murphy.
The movie begins with The Novak Element, a cable news program with high tech flash that wouldn’t be out of place on Fox or CNN. Pat Novak, played by Samuel L. Jackson, goes on a rant on how drones, being used for peacekeeping in American-occupied Tehran, can’t be used for law enforcement thanks to a popular law passed by Congress. Omnicorp, a division of OCP, is seeing hundreds of millions in unrealized sales, and a plan gets hatched to turn popular opinion against the Act. Raymond Sellars, CEO of Omnicorp, finds a loophole that lets him get his wedge; drones aren’t allowed, but a machine with a man inside isn’t covered. All he needs is a suitable candidate.
Meanwhile, Detectives Alex Murphy and Jack Lewis have been on the trail of Antoine Vallon, gang leader with fingers in a number of rackets, including selling guns from the Detroit Police Department’s evidence lockers. Hampering the investigation is the possibility that Vallon has several police detectives on his payroll. Murphy and Lewis arrange a meeting with Vallon, but have their covers blown. Lewis is shot and wounded during the firefight while Vallon escapes. Vallon later arranges for a bomb to be placed in Murphy’s car. The explosion all but kills Alex.
Alex’s wife, Clara, is approached by Omnicorp to keep him alive. There’s not much after the blast and the fourth-degree burns, but Omnicorp and its division Omni Life have made strides with cybernetic technology. Murphy is rebuilt, augmented, and turned into Robocop. The movie takes the time to cover Murphy’s transformation from barely-living to cyborg law enforcement officer. The conflict between Murphy and Omnicorp also grows; to the corporation, Murphy is product.
The original Robocop was known for its satire and for being over-the-top violent, almost getting an X-rating from the violence. At the same time, the movie had its moments of humour, despite the grimness of the setting. In the new version, the satire is still around, but it hits closer to home. Drone use by law enforcement is a hot issue, and today’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles aren’t the combat model EM-208 and ED-209 robots of the movie, just remotely piloted aircraft missiles. Likewise, corporate influence on government is a concern; Omnicorp’s manipulation of public opinion and rules-lawyering is a little too close for comfort. Whether that’s a plus or a minus is up to the individual viewer; satire is a way to get a message across but does need a deft hand.
One big difference between the two movies is the level of violence. As mentioned above, the original movie was violent and brutal, setting a mark for other movies of what could and couldn’t be done and still stay R-rated. The remake, however, went for a PG-13 rating. PG-13 hits the sweet spot for blockbusters; it allows younger audiences in to watch the movie while signalling that it isn’t sanitized. An R-movie prevents viewers under seventeen in, losing a major market. To get a PG-13 rating, though, the level of violence had to be toned down. Robocop’s primary pistol is a variable-setting taser instead of a beefed-up machine pistol. The amount of blood and gore shown is minimal; there is no one getting doused in toxic waste then splattered across the the front of a step van like in the original. To make up, the fighting became more personal. Murphy isn’t showing off his shooting skills; he’s hunting down his own killers, defending himself, or fighting the combat drones.
As its own movie, the Robocop remake holds up well. It’s a science-fiction action movie that reflects its time. As a remake, that reflection creates a few problems. It’s not the almost cartoonishly violent movie that the original was. Nor does it take the theme of what it means to be human. Instead, the remake looks at the human spirit, what keeps a man going despite everything that has happened to him. It also looks at the degree of leniency that corporations enjoy today, something the original just scratched the surface of. The remake is Robocop, but it’s the Robocop of the new millenium, not of the 80s.
Next week, a look at methdology used when writing Lost in Translation.
* It was lost on people championing the line that the character who said it, Gordon Gekko, was indicted in the film for insider trading.
** The 80s were known for seeing R-rated movies getting cartoons. See also, Rambo.
*** A deleted scene from the remake does have the CEO of Omnicorp making an offer to the mayor of Detroit to buy the police department.
During my review of Dredd, I touched upon the idea of a work being influenced by the current events of its day. Judge Dredd was influenced by movies like Dirty Harry, the beginning of Thatcherism, and the fascism of Spain’s Francisco Franco to become the dystopian future shown in the pages of 2000 AD. While some works can be seen in their historical setting, fantasy and science fiction is meant to transcend the era of creation while still providing a look at society and humanity of the day. Other works, already historical, like Westerns, can still reflect the mores of the time of creation.
Society isn’t static. Mixed-race marriages, for example, was scandalous in 1910 but is mostly a given in 2014*. Adaptations need to adjust for changes in sensibilities. The casual racism in early works such as 1929’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. just won’t fly today and didn’t in the 1979 television adaptation. At the same time, as seen throughout Lost in Translation, the best adaptations come when the crew of the new work respect both the original work and its fans. While the loss of the racism in Buck Rogers didn’t hurt the series, the same couldn’t be said for an All in the Family remake. Groundbreaking for its time, All in the Family looked at bigotry and bigots through the character of Archie Bunker. A remake of the series might not be possible today.
Westerns are in a similar bind. Once the staple of serials, movies, and television, Westerns went through years of desconstruction, especially with Spaghetti Westerns like Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy** before being mostly abandoned after Heaven’s Gate bombed. Westerns would return, reconstructed, but no longer had the cachet that they had in the early years of Hollywood. Even then, many early tropes had been disproven by the advancement of history and the changing view of the era from Wild West to the march of civilization across new states.
Science fiction, as mentioned above, is also vulnerable to the passage of time. I’ve touched on changing technology in an earlier column, but this goes beyond just tech. Take Star Trek. The original Star Trek aired during the Space Race and the Cold War, where exploring the final frontier just beyond Earth’s atmosphere was a competition between the US and the USSR. When Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired in 1987, the Soviet Union had just started a policy of peristroika, reformation of the Communist Party, and glasnost, openess, essentially bringing the Cold War to a close. Space exploration was being done through unmanned probes, satellites, and ground-based installations. Skylab, launched in 1973, had fallen from orbit and disintegrated in the atmosphere in 1979. The trend of cocooning, where people stayed home with families instead of going out, was starting, though wouldn’t get named until the 1990s. Star Trek: TNG reflected the changes. Gone was the maverick captain, commanding the only ship in the sector. Captain Picard reflected a new style of management, one where he weighed the opinions of his officers and crew, and acted in a more deliberate manner.
What happens when the era of the original isn’t taken into account? Or, what if the era of the original is seen as irrelevant? Let’s take a look at two recent financial flops, 2014’s Robocop and 2013’s The Lone Ranger. Please note that I have not yet reviewed the movies as adaptations.
First, Robocop. The original Robocop was released in 1987, near the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term as President of the US. The movie, while being a science fiction action flick, contained heavy amounts of satire of Reagan-era policies. TV series had boiled down to T&A with catch phrases, ie, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” The ozone layer had been destroyed. Detroit had gone bankrupt and was owned by a corporation, with police services privatized. In 2014, it’s not as funny. Television is recovering from being a wasteland, mainly through expanded cable stations and competition with other streams of entertainment on the Internet, but catch phrases still come up in sitcoms. The destruction of the ozone layer has led to drastic climate change over the past decade, with weather records broken yearly and tropical storms growing worse. Detroit, while in shaky financial shape in the 1980s, has declared bankruptcy, though police services haven’t yet been privatized. Military services, though, have, with Blackwater/Xe/Academi LLC being one of many private “security” firms to receive contracts from the US government during both the Afghanistan invasion and the Iraq war. Suddenly, the satire, pointed but exaggerated, in the original Robocop seems prophetic and painful now. Removing that satire, though, removes a lot of the heart of the movie.
The Lone Ranger, on the other hand, had other problems. The big one was the change in how audiences approach Westerns. The classic trope of good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats has given way to nuance. The idea of a First Nation person being a sidekick doesn’t sit well anymore. A series with a long history, the original Lone Ranger appeared on the radio, in books, on television, and in movies, but had all but disappeared after 1961, with the exception of the 1981 The Legend of the Lone Ranger, which had the controversy of Clayton Moore, TV’s Lone Ranger, being sued to not use the trademark mask, and a pilot to a shelved 2003 WB network series. Modern audiences who hadn’t grown up with Westerns as an entertainment staple, simply weren’t drawn in, even with Johnny Depp as Tonto.
The time a work was originally created is, indeed, a factor in how successful an adaptation can be. A remake or an adaptation that fails to account for the change in societal acceptances since the creation of the original may fall flat. Future reviews will take into account how the difference in time affects the newer work.
Next week, Gnomeo and Juliet.
* Depending on location, but areas where mixed-race marriages are forbidden are well in the minority.
** A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.