Lost in Translation has looked at the difficulties inherent in adapting a television series to a movie before. However, challenges exist to be met. Let’s take a look at one of the challenges, expanding the audience to pull in more than just the core fandom.
Movies are expensive to make, with the 2015 Jem and the Holograms being an outlier at only US$5 million to make and today’s blockbusters regularly exceeding US$200 million. An adaptation cannot afford to turn away potential audiences, but word of mouth by fans can also break a movie. This is one reason why superhero movies start at the origin; while fans are well aware of how a character got his or her abilities, the average person might not.
Television deals with the problem of getting new viewers up to speed every week. Continuity lockout harms a TV series, preventing new audiences from jumping into the show. Streaming can help, with older episodes available on the network’s website, but that’s a recent technology. In the past, streaming and even video tapes weren’t available to the general audience. Television worked around that, with characters painted with broad strokes and creative use of opening credits. With the broad strokes, characters can be described using short phrases, such as the angry guy, the jokester sidekick, and the long-suffering spouse, all of which is easy to portray in a two-minute clip.
Opening credits, though, can set up the situation faster. While not in use as much today, the expository opening theme outright states what’s going on. Classic examples of such opening credits include Gilligan’s Island, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Powerpuff Girls. Handy, efficient, and not used much in film since the Sixties* as technology progressed enough to overlay titles on action sequences, allowing the film to get to the plot right away.
At the same time, if opening credits aren’t going to be used, how can a film get a new audience up to speed without having fans yawn at old information? Time is limited in a film; few people will sit through a five hour movie. For this analysis, let’s take a look at Mystery Science Theatre 3000. MST3K had a ten year run with three different broadcasters, starting at KTMA in Minneapolis, then moving to Comedy Central and ending at the SciFi/SyFy Channel. During its run, the show used an expository theme song to let audiences know what its premise was. The opening theme was flexible enough to account for a cast change, going from Joel to Mike and even adjusting for a network required ongoing plot. The short version – evil mad scientist inflicts terrible movies on a victim trapped on an orbiting station; the victim builds friends out of spare parts to help make fun of the terrible movies.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie, released in 1996 and riffing on This Island Earth, didn’t make use of the opening theme the TV series had. Instead, the movie opened in Deep 13 with Dr. Clayton Forrester, played by Trace Beaulieu outright telling the audience what will happen. Normally, the adage is “Show, don’t tell,” but this time, the telling was just part of the equation. It’s what is going on while Dr. F is telling the audience what to expect that shows what the movie will be about. As Dr. F monologues, he’s walking through his lab, showing that he’s not all that effective at being an evil mad scientist. Up on the movie-budget upgraded Satelite of Love, Mike Nelson, played by Michael J. Nelson, is in the middle of a 2001: A Space Odyssey parody, running on a giant hamster wheel with Gypsy(Jim Mallon) and Cambot observing when Tom Servo(Kevin Murphy) arrives to warn him about the latest nutty thing Crow T. Robot(Trace Beaulieu). Crow, who has seen one too many World War II prison camp movies, has decided the best way to escape the SOL is to tunnel out. In these two scenes alone, the situation is introduced, the characters are shown for they are, and the movie has started. It took a little longer than the TV series’ opening credits, but here, the audience is brought into the movie, ready to put aside any suspension of disbelief and establishing the film as a comedy.
Given the nature of the series, MST3K has some extra challenges most TV shows don’t have. Most shows use commercial breaks to generate revenue and drop in a minor cliffhanger. When adapted, the show changes to match the format of the big screen, keeping the plot moving through the beat structure of film. MST3K, though, used commercial breaks in part to have the characters react via skit to what they saw and in part to give the audience a respite from the featured movie**. A feature film, though, doesn’t have real commercial breaks; audiences would riot. MST3K: The Movie had to use other means to get to the skits, including a broken film and Mike and the bots just walking out of the theatre to find Servo’s interociter. The result was the same, a break from the film to let the characters react to what they saw and a break for the movie audience from This Island Earth, a slow-paced film that had far too much telling and too little showing, with the alleged main character just along for the ride.
Of course, the movie wasn’t only for new audiences. Long-time viewers could find in-jokes throughout the film, including the use of “Torgo’s Theme” from Manos, The Hands of Fate as Mike uses the external graspers. The movie didn’t rely as much on callbacks as the TV show did, making it a good introduction to new viewers. Any callbacks in the movie, such as “Torgo’s Theme” can give a veteran fan an in to circulate the tapes*** to a new fan. Continuity is important, but a new viewer, especially watching the movie of the TV series, needs to be able to understand what’s going on without needing a ten-page synopsis of the show.
Other movies adapted from a TV series reviewed here at Lost in Translation made an effort to introduce the characters to a new audience. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made sure that the audience knew that Kirk and McCoy were still friends, despite whatever had happened prior to the movie, and that Kirk and Spock were friends, but something happened to the latter before he rejoined the crew of the Enterprise. Likewise, with Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the opening scenes establish who Eddy and Patsy are, two women who refuse to grow up, with Eddy rolling out of her car drunk after a fashion event.
Introducing the characters and situation isn’t a problem for just TV series adapted into film. Other media have the same problem, letting the audience know what’s going on and who the main characters are. With television, though, the medium is similar to film, both being visual, that it can be too easy to forget that the characters need to be re-introduced. Failure to do so locks out a portion of the potential audience, leaving them outside and not watching. Without the extra audience, the film could flop at the box office.
* There are exceptions, such as the entire 007 film run, and even Die Another Day turned the traditional Bond titles into a plot-relevant sequence.
** The series riffed on older B-movies, serials, and shorts, where the quality of the featured film was guaranteed to be bad but with hooks for the riffs. Alien from L.A. was but one film, but represented the type of work found on MST3K, bad but watchable with people having fun with it.
*** The series encouraged fans to circulate tapes of the episodes because of the limited access early audiences had. Not all cable companies carried Comedy Central at the time, and international audiences had to deal with a complex web of rights and licenses that the MST3K crew didn’t have to worry about.