A few years ago, Lost in Translation looked at the movie, Real Steel, which was loosely based on the 1956 Richard Matheson short story, “Steel”. Real Steel used some of the ideas from the original, but took on its own direction as the story became one of a father and son bonding. The movie wasn’t the first adaptation of “Steel”. Matheson was a frequent contributor to The Twilight Zone, writing both original screenplays and adapting from his own work. “Steel” was one of the stories he adapted; the episode, the same name as the short story, was the second aired in the show’s fifth season in 1963.
The episode starts in the distant future of August 1974* as two men wheel a large human form covered by a glossy blanket and hood. A piece falls off the form’s boot, but is quickly reattached. The two men, “Steel” Kelly (played by Lee Marvin) and Pole (Joe Mantell), find a restaurant to sit down and have a beer in. The two are the owners of Battling Maxo (Tipp McClure), a worn out B2 boxing robot that is the figure being hauled around. The B2-series is an older model; parts are hard to find as a result. Unfortunately for Steel and Pole, the part to have Maxo in the night’s fight isn’t available in town.
However, before regular boxing was outlawed, Steel was a boxer himself. The prize money for appearing would be enough to get Maxo repaired, so Steel suggests that he takes the robot’s place. He figures that, since there aren’t any parts for a B2 in town, no one really knows what one should look like. The night of the fight, instead of Maxo under the hood, it’s Steel. He faces the Maynard Flash (Chuck Hicks), a modern B7 model robot. The ruse works, though Steel’s absense is questioned. Pole just says that Steel is in the seats, watching the bout.
The fight between man and machine begins. Steel gets a few good hits in, but the expression on the B7’s face never changes. The Maynard Flash doesn’t even slow down, not even after a cheap shot Steel gets in on the back of the B7’s head. Steel, however, does after taking a beating. He drops after not even two and a half minutes into the first round. Pole wheels him out on Maxo’s carrier, out of the arena and to the locker room. Steel collapses once Pole closes the door. Barely conscious, Steel tells Pole to get the fight money owed to them. The promoter only provides half, claiming that he wanted the fight to last more than one round.
The episode follows the original story closely, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Matheson adapted his own work to the screenplay, so there wasn’t a layer of separation, unlike Real Steel. As seen with “Casting the Runes” Part 1 and Part 2, the format of the adaptation can play a part in its success. With the exception of the fourth season**, each episode of The Twilight Zone ran thirty minutes, including breaks for advertising and station identification. Matheson, having written episodes for the series already, was well aware of the time available to him.
Scriptwriters, though, aren’t the only members of the crew of a television series. There are directors, producers, camera operators, casting agents, network executives, and advertisers, among others, who affect the final result shown. The Twilight Zone had directors who understood what Rod Serling laid out for the series. Network executives and advertisers are a far more nervous lot, risk adverse, and more concerned about the bottom line than creativity. A popular show can push the limits. An anthology series, such as The Twilight Zone, can tailor an episode to deal with concerns from above to mollify them long enough to get another episode past the radar. The original story was about a man desperate to keep his robot working to the point where he’d willingly step into a boxing ring against a machine. The episode showed that same desperation, with only Serling’s closing monologue adding a new dimension, the human spirit. The monologue, though, is a valid interpretation of the story. Steel knew what would happen in the ring and still went in to fight.
The adaptation is faithful. Having the original writer adapt his own work into a format he’s familiar with on a series that was known for the type of work being adapted helped immensely, preventing the adaptation from wandering away from its roots.
* Again, the air date was 1963, placing the episode ten years into the future. Matheson was only off by 13 years; Critter Crunch debuted at the MileHiCon in Denver in 1987, with Robot Wars airing on the BBC in 1998.
** The fourth season saw The Twilight Zone expand to fill an hour slot, filling in for a series that had been there prior.
In 1956, Richard Matheson had his short story “Steel” published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, later published in Steel and Other Stories. The story told of a former boxer, “Steel” Kelly, who turned to robot fighting with an older model and how Kelly steps into the ring to raise money to fix the robot. The brutality of boxing wasn’t minced, nor was Kelly’s desperation. Every body blow could be felt while reading. Interestingly, the story predicted the existence of a robot fighting league long before shows like Battlebots (2000) and Robot Wars (1998).
In 2011, Touchstone and Dreamworks teamed up with several other companies to adapt the story to the big screen. The movie, called Real Steel, followed a former boxer who was trying to raise money to fix his old robot. However, the movie breaks away from the original story at this point. Instead of following a washed-up boxer into the ring to fight a robot, the story focuses on the gulf between Charlie Kenton and his son Max. The movie more or less follows the formula for father-son bonding after being estranged, using the robot fighting leagues to symbolize how the two become more attached. The ending did deviate from most boxing movies; instead of a knockout, the final fight ends up being decided by the judges.
Real Steel is the one movie I’ve been looking to review in this column. As an adaptation, it’s a failure. The story and the characters are changed greatly to the point where there’s very little beyond the backstory of how robot fighting came to the fore. At the same time, despite the formulaic plot of a father and son working past their estrangement, the movie is worth watching because of solid performances from Hugh Jackman (Charlie) and Dakota Goyo (Max) and well done special effects of the robot gladiators.
As an adaptation, the movie fails early. As mentioned, the story and characters were completely changed from the original short story. Instead of Kelly going into the ring, the closest Real Steel shows Charlie boxing is in the final fight, using the “shadow function” of Max’s robot to keep the ‘bot going against the favourite and self-updating Zeus.* Even the tone of the story was different. “Steel” had an air of desperation as Kelly did everything he could to get his robot repaired, even if it meant injury and death. Real Steel had an undercurrent of hope that built up as father and son bonded.
However, the movie does show that while a film might not be a good adaptation, it can still be worth watching. As above, every actor in the movie gives strong performances. The special effects are well done and believable. The boxing scenes are well researched, with the film makers having Sugar Ray Leonard as a consultant. A difference can be seen between the robots managed by fighters and the ones programmed by programmers, with the latter going for more flash. What helps the movie is that the original story was fifty-five years old and relatively unknown to the target audience. Changes could be made and the audience wouldn’t know the difference.
Overall, Real Steel pays lip service to the original work, using ideas from the short story to build a completely different one. As an adaptation, it’s a failure. But the movie shows that even a bad adaptation can be a good movie, provided that the audience isn’t aware of the original work and that the studio puts an effort into making the film.
Next time, hopefully off into the black.
* In a perfectly good example of missing a twist, Max’s robot Atom could have had his shadow function turned on while facing Zeus in a case of Zeus constantly having to outfight itself. However, narrative requirements needed Charlie to fight.