Science fiction has been used to examine modern problems in a framing that allows for some separation, showing the issue in a way that is non-threatening while still laying out the problem. The separation makes the acceptance of the work palatable. Sometimes, the work can go a little too far, and sometimes, going too far is needed. The Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was blatant about the absurdity of hating people based on skin colour, but the message needed hammering in 1969. However, movies have limited time to delve into deeper ideas. Film has a limited run time, so the action tends to get the lion’s share of screen time. It’s a balancing act.
As seen in the History of Adaptations, the Eighties[http://psychodrivein.com/lost-in-translation-the-history-of-adaptations-1980-89/] saw more popular original works than popular adaptations for the first time in film history. If something became popular, studios tried to jump on the bandwagon only to discover that the bandwagon popped somewhere else. Still, some genres became popular, even if they don’t appear on the list. The buddy cop movie, like the Lethal Weapon series and Beverly Hills Cop movies, did grab attention, especially when the pairing, or grouping as in Beverly Hills Cop, were made of opposites. Still, to get attention even in a popular genre, a film needs to have its own hook.
In 1988, Alien Nation added a science fiction hook to the buddy cop film. Set in the near future of 1991, just three years past the release date, the Earth has been visited by a spaceship filled with alien refugees. Kept in camps until the ACLU argued that the Newcomers still have access to the inalienable rights in the US, they’re allowed out of their camps to find homes and employment. Not everyone is happy about it; some Americans are worried about being able to compete with Newcomers, who are smarter and stronger than humans.
Because of the hostility, Newcomers, called slags by bigots, tend to live in neighbourhoods known as Slagtown. At the same time, companies are just as happy to take Newcomer money as anyone else’s and will tailor ads to the new demographic. The movie frames everything from the view of Detective Matthew Sykes, played by James Caan, who has issues with Newcomers. From his view, they’re alien, odd, and dangerous.
Sykes has reason to believe that, though. He and his partner, Bill Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown), come across an apparently armed robbery at a corner store. Two Newcomers have the Newcomer own and his wife at gunpoint. When the robbery goes apparently wrong, the shopkeeper is killed, and Sykes and Tuggle try to stop the robbers from escaping. When one of the Newcomers has slugs capable of putting holes through cars, things get tense. Tuggle is killed and Sykes is injured while chasing the robbers.
The next day, Sykes gets a new partner, the first Newcomer to make detective, Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin). While his colleagues are surprised that Sykes volunteers to take Francisco as a partner, Sykes has an ulterior motive. His reasoning is that since a Newcomer was responsible for his partner’s death while robbing a Newcomer’s store, a Newcomer partner could shed some light on what’s going on. First, though, Sykes deals with his new partner’s name. He just can’t see anyone taking him seriously when introducing his new partner, Sam Francisco. Newcomers received names when they came off the spaceship and were processed and some of the people providing names got a little silly. Sykes gives Francisco the name George.
Sykes and George get assigned to a different homicide case also involving a Newcomer. Sykes doesn’t mind; he suspects that the cases are related. That case begins in the coroner’s lab. While Sykes talks with the coroner (Keone Young), George notices something off with the Newcomer corpse and talks to the Newcomer assistant.
The case naturally leads to a Newcomer strip club, where Sykes and George are hoping to interview a suspect. Instead, they talk to his girlfriend, Cassandra (Leslie Bevis). The suspect had been killed earlier through immersion in sea water by Newcomer businessman William Harcourt (Terrance Stamp) and his bodyguard, Rudyard Kipling (Kevyn Major Howard). As Sykes and George spend more time with each other, they start trusting each other more. George reveals that narcotics are involved, narcotics far more potent than anything found on Earth, narcotics that were used by the Overseers on the ship to control the Newcomers. However, as Harcourt points out to potential investors, the drug is harmless to humans and isn’t yet classified as a controlled substance in the US.
Sykes and George catch up to Harcourt, leading to a car chase that ends with a crash near the harbour. Harcourt darts into a warehouse with Sykes on his heels. Sykes, having learned the hard way that regular weapons aren’t effective on Newcomers, had picked up heavy artillery in the form of a revolver that fires .454 fusil rounds also capable of shooting through cars. Heavy artillery, though, depends on being able to hit in the right spot, and Harcourt gets away again long enough to take a large dose of the narcotic.
Thinking that Harcourt is dead, Sykes returns outside where police cruisers have arrived. Sykes explains what happened, the dead are picked up and placed into the coroner’s van, and Harcourt’s body is taken away. George compliments Sykes in his shooting. Sykes drops the bombshell; Harcourt overdosed. George knows that Harcourt isn’t dead, but changing. The coroner’s van is found, both attendants dead. When Harcourt is found, he is bigger, stronger, and violence incarnate. He focuses on Sykes, blaming him for destroying his nascent criminal empire, and chases the cop.. Sykes tries to escape by jumping on to a fishing boat, but Harcourt follows. The only solution Sykes has is to tackle Harcourt into the ocean.
The movie hits the buddy cop tropes. Sykes and George are opposites. George is a family man and operates by the book. Everything has a place with him. Sykes is off the rails, though recently pushed that way through the death of his partner. The two start antagoinistic towards each other by figure each other out, leading to George risking losing his arm to pull Sykes out of the ocean. And George helps Sykes in getting to his daughter’s wedding.
The science fiction elements does give enough of a twist to let the movie stand out. There is some work on how different the Newcomers are, from food and drink to sports to language. The alien element has an effect on the plot; it’s not a human businessman pulling string behind the scenes. At the same time, a few things fell by the wayside because of the nature of a theatrical release. The big one, the nature of racism, lurks but doesn’t really get addressed. The audience gets a glimpse at how Newcomers are adjusting to their new lives.
In 1989, the still growing Fox network was looking to expand from Saturday and Sunday programming. Alien Nation, having been released by 20th Century Fox, had enough going for it to make the jump to the small screen, becoming a science fiction police procedural. The new cast included Gary Graham as Sykes, Eric Pierpont as George Francisco, Michele Scarabelli as George’s wife Susan. New characters came on board; George’s family expanded from one nameless son to a son, Buck (Sean Six) and Emily (Lauren Woodland), and the recurring character Uncle Moodri (James Greene), who may have found a way for Newcomers to adapt to their new home. At the precinct, a new captain, Bryon Grazer (Ron Fassler) is brought in. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs appears as Sergeant Dobbs, replacing the colleagues in the movie. Jeff Marcus plays Albert Einstein, an awkward Newcomer who is the janitor at the precinct. Rounding out the new cast is Molly Morgan, playing Jill, Emily’s best friend, and Terri Treas as Cathy Frankel, Sykes neighbour and possible love interest.
The new format allowed for more drama to happen, with character arcs that can play out over the series. George’s homelife isn’t idyllic; Buck gets involved with the wrong crowd and is arrested and convicted of minor crimes. Susan has her own career. George and Susan decide to have a third child, and it is George who carries the fetus through its development. For all their alieness, though, the Franciscos have recognizable problems.
Sykes has his own problems. Like his movie counterpart, he is divorced with a daughter in college. He’s being forced to examine his bias against Newcomers, not just because of George and his family, but also because of his new neighbour, Cathy. It gets hard to hate someone if you know them. Sykes’ daughter appears and while he wants to be the cool dad, he has to step up and parent.
The cases Sykes and George take on are a mix. Some deal with Newcomer culture and history, delving into what happened on the spaceship before landing and how the Newcomers are faring in their new world. Others deal with the human side of the equation. The focus is more on the life that refugees and immigrants face, having moved to a strange new land. That the refugees and immigrants are aliens not from Earth add to the adjustment that everyone, Newcomer and human, have to make.
With the extra time that a 22 episode season provides, there’s more room to explore the themes of racism, of immigration, of refugees, of adapting, of the other and the lack of differences with them. But the series was cancelled after one season. The fledgling Fox network ran into financial problems and cancelled all their dramas, Alien Nation included. In the 90s, though, five made for TV movies with the original cast were made.
For a science fiction series that tackled the issues of the late 80s, it is a show that still resonates, particularly now. Immigrants and refugees arriving in the US are not treated well. Alien Nation is something that should not be needed today, but is.
Movies based on TV series can go in one of two routes. The first is the remake, where a TV series is used as the basis of a movie. CHiPS and the Mission: Impossible series of movies are a good example. Sometimes the remake works; sometimes it doesn’t. The other approach is to either continue a TV series or give the series an ending. Typically done with the same cast, the movie provides fans a chance to see the characters at least one last time. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Serenity, and Veronica Mars are examples here. Of course, there are movies based on TV series that don’t fit into either category. Batman (1966) was created to advertise the TV series in the new markets it was going to. And then there’s The Simpsons Movie.
The Simpsons began as a feature on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. The popularity of the shorts increased their frequency over the run over The Tracey Ullman Show, leading to the creation of the TV series in 1989. The Simpsons has been running for thirty-one seasons as of this writing with no signs of stopping. The series had a short time being aired on Thursdays, defeating NBC’s powerhouse, The Cosby Show, in the ratings, before being moved to Sundays. The series is now the longest running American prime time series, live action or animated. Soap operas and sports broadcasts are the only TV series that have lasted longer. There are people watching The Simpsons that were born after the series started.
The Simpsons have been around long enough that anything that they could parody has long since ended. The show is now the media standard it made fun of in the past. What more can the Simpson family – Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie – get up to? America’s animated nuclear family, with a mother, a father, and 2.3 kids, has been through a lot, including moving their hometown of Springfield due to pollution. The series has a loose continuity. Big events tend to have echoes in later episodes, but other events are remembered when convenient.
A typical episode has one of the Simpsons, most likely Homer or Bart but even Maggie has instigated a plot or two, coming up with a scheme that backfires horribly. The rest of the episode has the cast trying to clean up the mess. The series has a large supporting cast thanks to being a long runner. It’s very possible now for a season to focus on a different character each episode and run out of time before running out of characters.
The year 2007 was twenty years after the first appearance of the Simpsons. The characters had evolved a lot in their animation style since their Tracey Ullman days. The only thing left was to go full CGI. The Simpsons Movie broke that barrier in glorious 2-D. With the same cast and crew as the TV series, the movie could easily keep to the core of what makes The Simpsons tick. It’s just a matter of what goes into the movie.
To no surprise, really, The Simpsons Movie plays as an extended episode of the TV series, just bigger thanks to the size of a movie screen. Things go horribly wrong yet again thanks to Homer. The fate of Springfield and all its inhabitants is sealed when Homer thinks with his stomach and makes the city’s already terrible pollution worse. The EPA cuts off Springfield from the rest of the world with a dome, with only the Simpsons able to escape.the city, just ahead of a lynch mob.
The movie plays with the idea of being based on a TV series, with screen crawls and a fade to black with “To Be Continued” on screen. Any character who appeared in the TV series appears in the movie with the possible exception of Side Show Bob. There’s an extended “Itchy & Scratchy” short to open the film before the opening credits, a more orchestrated version of the TV show’s credit sequence but ends with Green Day instead of a couch gag. The movie is The Simpsons, with more time to let the story idea play out and all the extras, such as cameos, that are expected.
The Simpsons Movie is just that, The Simpsons as a movie. The differences are in the budget, allowing for better animation for the bug screen, a fuller orchestration of the soundtrack, and higher stakes. For those expecting more than that, disappointment awaits. However, The Simpsons Movie delivers on the expectations set by The Simpsons.
Studios will mine anything for an adaptation – popular books, classic literature, remakes of popular movies, television, games of all sorts. If there’s an audience, a studio will try to get its attention with a big screen adaptation. Sometimes, adapting a work may be the only way a project gets greenlit.
Police procedurals have been around for some time. Dragnet, the prototypical police procedural, began on the radio before moving to TV. Webb followed up with Adam-12, a series about two LA police officers and the calls they responded to during the day, and Emergency!, a paramedic procedural following the calls taken by the fictional Squad 51. The two series also went into some depth on what the characters did between calls.
In 1977, NBC added a new element to the police procedural. /CHiPs/ was typical for police procedurals, with a mix of action, drama, and comedy, but emphasized the buddy cop aspect that was still nascent in the previous series. Starring Larry Wilcox as Officer Jon Baker and Erik Estrada as Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, CHiPs ran six seasons, gaining a fan base. The characters were typical of a duo at the time, one stoic, the other hot blooded, but the buddy cop archetype has to start somewhere, taking cues from The Odd Couple. Each standalone episode had a mix of comedic and dramatic police calls, threaded together by a subplot involving the main characters in their downtime. Even the supporting cast, including Randi Oakes, Paul Linke, Robert Pine, and Michael Dorn.
The series is memorable, at least among the older audiences, and the name stands out. This made it prime for adaptation, which Dax Shepard did with the 2017 release, CHIPS, starring Shepard as Jon and Michael Peña and Ponch. Shepard had been trying to get a movie starring himself and Peña, a comedy about motor sports, but studios kept turning him down. He decided to adapt CHiPs and the studio, Warner Bros Pictures, green lit the project.
The movie made a few changes to the characters. Jon became the CHP’s oldest rookie after he went through the police academy to try to win back his wife. Before that, he was a professional motocross rider, with the injuries that built up over his career, including gaining a titanium humerus among all his scars. Rainy days are not his friend. “Ponch”, really FBI Special Agent Castillo, is an undercover operative, being sent into different organizations to infiltrate and expose crime. The movie begins with him being the getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers.
In LA, a number of armoured car robberies have been going on with precision, leaving no one dead at the scene of the heist. One of the robbers even moves a young woman out of the way of the shaped charge, dragging her from the car. However, during the robbery, a CHP cruiser arrives. The ringleader takes the driver of the armoured car with him, holding him hostage as a CHP helicopter hovers overhead. The catch, the driver is in on the crime, as is the helicopter pilot. The ringleader forces a choice, and the pilot takes a dive out of the chopper.
The FBI sends in Castillo as Poncherello to infiltrate the CHP the same day Jon is given an ultimatum. Due to his poor marks at the academy, Jon has to finish in the top ten percent in performance or be washed out of the CHP. The only area he has top marks in is motorcycle riding. Jon gets paired with new transfer Ponch and the two begin their patrol. Ponch starts his assigned investigation, only to be hindered by Jon ticketing for every possible offense. However, Jon turns out to be more observant than Ponch, noticing in a brief look that the home of the dead pilot’s widow didn’t have any sign that they were even together.
The investigation keeps building, leading to chasing of the ringleader’s son after a drug deal. The ringleader isn’t out to get rich but to get his kid to a place where he can kick his drug habit. The death of his son in the chase pushes him over the edge, leading to a campaign to get his revenge on Jon and Ponch.
The film makes changes to the original. Ponch and Jon are the more obvious change from the original. The movie shakes up the characters, making Jon not so much straitlaced as out of touch. Ponch is professional but is very likely to succumb to his weakness, mainly women wearing yoga pants. Shepard describes the difference between them as female energy (Jon) and male energy (Ponch). Neither is shown as being the better; each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The cast is more diverse than the original series, with a more even mix of men and women in uniform plus a few gay men. The script doesn’t quite take full advantage, but some plot points did slip in. The movie, though, tends to be more bro humour, low brow. CHIPS is rated R for good reason. It’s not necessarily a bad movie. The new approach, though, may be jarring to anyone expecting something like the original.
The main thing holding the movie back from being a good adaptation is that Dax Shepard took advantage of current studio thinking. Original works are risky; adaptations aren’t. Attach a known name to a project and the studio will fund. Given that, there is effort to recreate the original series even while using its name to push through a project that would otherwise not get funded. There is action, there is comedy, there is drama, and there is thought put behind the villain’s motives for what he’s doing, as well as motives for the other characters involved. The result is a movie that at times is held back because it had to be filmed under the banner of another work.
Lost in Translation has covered how TV viewing habits have changed since Philo Farnsworth created the cathode ray tube TV in 1927. Television has gone from a three-to-five local over-the-air channels to the Big Three networks and PBS plus local indies to cable bringing in distant channels clearly to Pay TV and having fifty-seven channels and still nothing on, to now with the infinite channels. There’s the rub.
In the past, viewers just needed a television. Sure, at one point, TVs were luxuries, but they became an appliance much as a washer or an over. Televisions replaced radios and fireplaces as the place families gathered in front of. As the cost of TVs came down, it was possible to have a spare one in a bedroom for late night viewing. Add in the silicon chip, broadband Internet delivery, and the decreasing costs of computers and even cellular phones with increasing capabilities, it is possible for the viewing audience to have multiple ways to view content.
Naturally, content providers expand to take advantage of the new capabilities. Cable had tiers of service, but audiences just needed the one provider. In many areas, there wasn’t a choice of cable companies due to how the signal was delivered. Cities that had multiple providers often had a physical separation between the areas covered. Take Ottawa of the Seventies and Eighties; the city had two providers, Ottawa Cablevision and Skyline Cablevision. To choose one over the other meant deciding on which side of the Rideau River to live on. The two services had separate cables underground to deliver the TV signal, so each provider had a slightly different line up of channels. Viewers still had to pay the cable bill, but the signal was clear.
With the Internet becoming as necessary as a phone line was in the past, new ways of delivering content came about. Netflix, originally a mail-order DVD rental service, saw that streaming over the Internet could be lucrative. The company was right. Its main competitor, Blockbuster, didn’t make the change over, leading to the demise of the video rental powerhouse and leaving Netflix alone in the field. Netflix started with just providing the movies it was renting through mail-order, but expanded to become a creator as well, with notable series such as Stranger Things, the One Day at a Time remake, and Blazing Transfer Students REBORN.
With the success of Netflix, everyone wants their own streaming service. That’s already bad news for Netflix. Amazon is just a competitor here, trying to get access to the same content Netflix has while creating their own. When content creators get into distribution, the usual middlemen get cut out. In this case, with Disney and CBS having their own streaming services means content that Netflix has now may not be available in the future. Disney’s streaming service, Disney +, is going to have Disney movies and not just the animated works. Disney owns ABC, ESPN, Marvel Studios and Star Wars, a huge draw that can suddenly go exclusive to just Disney +. CBS All Access has every show CBS owns, including Star Trek: Discovery, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and Elementary. NBCUniversal is planning on its own streaming service.
As it stands right now, Netflix is joined by not just Amazon and CBS, but Hulu, Sling TV, DirecTV, Playstation Vue (and Playstation is planning on getting into film and television productions), and YouTube TV. If other studios and networks start getting into the streaming game, it’s going to get harder to find the gems. As it stands right now, word of mouth is the most effective way of a production getting known. Audiences won’t be able to afford every streaming service available. YouTube TV costs $40 per month, and another $10 per month for YouTube Red and its original works. Few people can afford all the streaming services, and no one has the time to watch them all.
The result will be a balkanization of television. Audiences will be split, trying to find the streaming service that provides what they want without too much cruft. With audiences split, advertisers have to work out where their targets have gone. In the old three-channel universe, once ratings came out, it was easy to find what a demographic was watching. Recorders, video or digital, allowed audiences to skip ads, leading to new techniques to get the message across. With subscription fees, though, audiences may not be as tolerant of ads as in the past. The problem there is that advertising paid for shows’ production. Subscription fees may not cover the full amount.
To illustrate the effects, let’s take three popular TV series and the viewers for their last episodes. M*A*S*H, with “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (airdate 28/02/1983), had 106 million viewers, a record broken by the 2010 Super Bowl and not matched by any TV series. Seinfeld‘s finale, “The Finale” (airdate 14/05/1998), had 76 million viewers. The Big Bang Theory‘s last episode, “The Stockholm Syndrome” (airdate 16/05/2019), only had 18 million viewers. M*A*S*H came from the end of the three-channel universe, just as cable television and Pay TV was starting to catch on. Seinfeld saw an expansion of offerings plus recording technology allowing for time-shifted viewing. The Big Bang Theory comes from the expansion into the infinite channel universe, where there is heavy competition for attention. The numbers “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” saw may never happen again outside special events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics. There may be more viewers now than in 1983, but there’s also more choices.
The challenge for television today, as it has been since the industry started airing, is to find an audience. Advertisers want viewers, too. If they can’t find any, they’re not going to buy air time. No ads, no money for production. At the same time, because of the sheer amount of choice now, all TV content creators, traditional networks and streaming services alike, need to create content that will draw in audiences. While streaming services have access to a number of second run and syndicated series and movies, if one starts creating original content or adapting new series, like Amazon and Good Omens, then the others will have to follow just to keep pace.
As the balkanization happens, audiences aren’t going to keep up. Much like cable in the Seventies and Eighties pulled together a number of stations and subscription channels, there’ll be room for a service that curates the disparate streaming services for audiences. Internet service providers have filled this role before, but as the smaller ISPs have been swallowed by the bigger ones, they’re now adding their own services, adding to the balkanization.
Then there’s the indies. Smaller studios who would normally be shut out can now carve a niche online, getting a small but wanted audience. While not a streaming service, these indies, including fan-creations, will just add to the fragmentation of television. The wide range of choice is a blessing for indies, a chance to compete with the majors on a playing field getting levelled.
As the balkanization grows, the best hope an audience has is word of mouth and happy accidents. There’s not enough time to watch everything or even everything that looks interesting. Each member of the audience has a different definition of “interesting,” too. There’s no more catering to the lowest common denominator. The audience is fragmented, just like television. TV has to provide compelling programming to remain competitive with all other forms of entertainment.
Viewing habits have changed drastically over the past few decades. Changes in technology are allowing for more choice of not only what to watch but when. Lost in Translation will take a look at how watching TV has evolved.
The first electronic television set was invented by Philo Farnsworth in 1927, using cathode ray tubes to display the images on a screen. The first TV station, WRGB is still on the air today having started in 1926 for mechanical TVs. Between the ubiquity of radio and the Great Depression starting in 1929, it took time for the new medium to be accepted. Radio already had been accepted and had support and listeners; television was a new luxury at a time when basics couldn’t be afforded. Once World War II started, though, TVs started to sell commercially. With the war effort needing more people working, basic needs could be covered by wages, leaving room for a luxury.
By the Fifties, TV had replaced radio in the family living room. Four networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and, from 1946 to 1956, DuMont – provided programming, with independent stations filling in gaps. Programming was either live or prerecorded, and if a viewer missed an episode, they had to wait for summer reruns. The rerun itself was new in the Fifties, first used with I Love Lucy (1951-1957), allowing viewers a second chance to watch an episode. As a result, most series were episodic, one-and-
done stories that didn’t affect what came afterwards. Once second-run syndication began, with I Love Lucy being the forerunner there, too, viewers had more opportunity to re-watch a favourite episode. That’s not to say that multi-part episodes didn’t happen. Splitting an episode over two or three parts meant that viewers would have to tune in the following weeks to see how the story ended. They were rare and used for key episodes in a series.
Colour came along in the Sixties, with NBC the first network to go to colour-only in 1965. Reruns and syndication were both well in place, allowing viewers to watch a missed episode or re-watch a favourite one. Time-shifting of viewing, though, wasn’t widely available. With radio, as long as someone could be around to start and stop the tape recorder, a show could be recorded to listen to later. Recording a TV series would have to wait for the Sony Betamax, released in 1975. Networks weren’t thrilled with the idea of audiences recording their shows, but after the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Sony’s favour, they didn’t get much say. The original Betamax tapes could only hold about an hour’s worth of programming. The VHS format, released in 1976, originally held two hours and, later, could get up to six to eight hours of programming. Audiences could record a show and watch it anytime, as long as the videotape recorder, or VCR, was properly programmed.
VCRs gave audiences a way to watch when they were available. Broadcasters and advertisers, though, remained focused on the live audience. The VCR had a drawback – it could only record one thing at a time. If there was a conflict in what to record, only one show in a time slot could be chosen. However, this gave audiences a bit more flexibility if they were at home; they could record one show while watching another. The other catch was that the VCR could record or replay, but not both at the same time.
The Eighties saw the role of cable expand. Originally mainly used to provide a clear picture from over-the-air broadcasters, both locally and from elsewhere, specialty channels bloomed and spread, giving audiences something else demanding their attention. To fill the time, the new specialty channels cycled their line up every eight hours, giving viewers a chance to watch a show that might air when they’re not available. With the expansion beyond the Big Three networks, four when Fox started in 1986, viewers had much more to choose from to the point where one VCR wouldn’t be enough to keep up in a household.
The first commercial digital video recorder (DVR), also known as personal video recorders (PVR), came out in 2001, taking advantage of the revolution in home computing. By using digital storage such as hard drives instead of magnetic tape, the PVR removed the need to store video cassettes and allowed for even more hours of storage. As the technology improved, PVRs were able to both record and replay at the same time and to record from multiple channels at once. With the expanded storage, a viewer could binge watch an entire season at once.
The year 2001 also marked the beginning of commercially available broadband Internet service. As the speeds increased, the ability to stream TV-quality video improved to the point where cable, once the main delivery method for television, started to wane. Streaming services could offer entire seasons at once, either of old series or, especially recently, new series only available through the service. Binge watching is commonplace today, something not even possible in 1951.
Going back to the VCR and its successor, the DVD, both provided another way to catch up on missed episodes – the outright purchasing of entire seasons. With the VCR, a full season would be bulky and take up storage space. Stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video rented out prerecorded, commercially available tapes of movies and some TV series. The DVD, which allowed for more storage space in a digital format, made it possible for entire seasons to take up less physical room than two episodes on a VHS cassette and provided another revenue stream for the studios. Viewers using this route had to wait until the season was over and risked the series not being renewed due to lack of live and time-shifted audiences for the advertisers.
Time-shifting and binge watching provides producers a way past the problem of viewers missing an episode. Today, a viewer would have to work at missing a show with the options available. Studios can produce multi-part episodes and even series with both season-long and show-long arcs without having to worry that the audience will miss something crucial. While shows like Babylon 5 and daytime soap operas paved the way for the idea of ongoing storylines that aren’t wrapped up in one episode, it took advances in technology to bring the concept to prime time. Even in sitcoms, the idea of characters remaining static is being left behind. Development happens over a season and over the run of a series.
To add to the mix, televisions aren’t the only way to watch shows today. With laptops, tablets, and smartphones, viewers aren’t stuck to the one room with a TV anymore. Online streaming, built-in DVD drives, and downloads allows viewers to watch anywhere without needing an over-the-air antenna or a cable subscription. The audience has grown but it also has fragmented. Lowest common denominator programming now competes with specialty channels aimed at a narrower audience who no longer has to negotiate for the use of the lone TV set. The challenge is finding viewers in a fragmented populace.
When it comes to adaptations, today’s television is much more friendlier to longer works than before. In the past, shows adapted from elsewhere either took the characters and created new situations for them, eg, M*A*S*H and The Incredible Hulk, or turned the work into a major event miniseries, such as Roots and Lonesome Dove. Today, books are being turned into TV seasons; A Game of Thrones being the forefront with such series as Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, adapted as The Shannara Chronicles, following to take advantage of the demand. Even older series being remade are less episodic, as the new Battlestar Galactica can attest.
With the changes in how people watch TV today, television may be the best route for adaptation. While each episode is far shorter than a movie on the silver screen, a season of television provides for more time to delve into the characters, the setting, and the plot. Viewers are more willing to follow a season-long arc now that they don’t have to worry about missing an episode, thanks to time shifting. Television might be regarded as being lesser than film, but the medium now provides for more for both creators and viewers.
Since the dawn of television, the medium has been seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Film was seen as more prestigious. Today, though, the situation has reversed. While film adaptations are still desired by fans, television may be the better medium, allowing for greater depth. What happened?
In the US, television became dominated by three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. While there were other options, including the public broadcaster PBS, those three networks aired the bulk of TV series. The nature of ratings meant that, on average, a network could expect a third of the viewing audience for any given time slot. To attract a broader audience, the network would need a show with broad appeal, something that attracted families during the early evening and something that brought in adults later in the night. An inexpensive family drama could survive longer than an expensive high-brow science fiction series that needed special effects and dedicated sets. Broadcasters also could let a series find an audience. Even a 20 share meant that the network could sell the show to sponsors.
Film, however, was where the glamour was. Movies had an edge on television just on relative longevity alone. In the Fifties, colour was the norm for film, shown on a large screen. The stars were larger than life, thanks to the Hollywood glam machine. Even as televisions became more affordable, a weekly night out at the movies wasn’t a hardship. Studios still had limitations, though. The “voluntary” Hays Code, taking effect in 1930, put limits on what could be shown, leading to writers leaving what happened off-screen to the audience’s imagination. Beginning in the late Fifties, with Some Like it Hot, directors and studios started ignoring the Code, or, in the case of foreign film makers, weren’t bound by it in the first place. As a result, the MPAA introduced a classification system in 1968 that would let audiences decide for themselves what they were comfortable with.
Early television couldn’t compete with film. Television sets were small, with grainy black and white pictures, and very dependent on the strength of the broadcast signal. Movies were backed by studios with a good distribution system, shown on large screens that directors took full use of. Actors used television as a stepping stone towards a career in film. Better televisions were available, and colour became the standard for TV in the Sixties, but film still got the lion’s share of attention.
Then came the 500-channel universe. As cable grew, the choices available went from local and nearby broadcast stations to specialty channels available through subscription. Audiences could find a niche they wanted. Advertisers could target their market with more precision. Sports fans had several channels available to them, as did lovers of classic films and science fiction aficionados. With the expanded range available, specialty channels didn’t have to worry about the lowest common denominator. Networks, though, took time to learn the lesson. With the expanded competition, though, the quality of even the lowest of the low still had to improve. Add in time-shifting technologies as video cassette recorders and digital recording, viewers no longer had to plan around their favourite shows.
Film ran into new problems. The competition in television meant that there was less time for the weekly movie outing. The economic woes meant that nights out became rarer, especially after the Great Recession of 2007. Coupled with rising ticket and popcorn costs at theatres, who were trying to find ways to stay afloat despite record blockbusters, a movie night became a luxury. Not helping was the ballooning costs of making movies. Comedies were starting to cost as much as special effects laden science fiction movies; The Hangover 3 cost as much to make as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Studios now need films to be popular not just in the US, but also around the world. This need means aiming for the lowest common denominator, one that transcends international borders.
In contrast, televisions main problem is filling all the hours. Stations, broadcast and specialty alike, will still fill time by airing old programming. Sports stations will show classic games of the past; science fiction stations show older series that still have a following, like Star Trek; movie channels will show classic films of yesteryear. The stations will also create new programming as well. The quality may not be great, but even Sharktopus brings in an audience. Budget is a concern, but specialty channels can create TV series that brings in subscribers.
For adaptations, this reversal of roles means that television is the better medium, especially for long form works like novels. HBO’s success with A Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and AMC’s similar success with The Walking Dead, based on the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, showed that it is possible to create a series that resonates with audiences. Naturally, there were follow-the-leader adaptations, especially in fantasy with MTV adapting Terry Brooks’ Shannara series as The Shannara Chronicles. Television allows for greater depth over a season than possible in a two hour film, allowing the adaptation to take the time it needs to present the characters properly.
Film still has its glamour, though. Movies have budgets that television can only dream of. The same budgets, though, mean that most studios aren’t going to take huge risks. Deadpool, an R-rated superhero raunchy comedy, would never have been made if the X-Men franchise didn’t get past the first movie. With television’s lower budgets, a failed pilot isn’t as much of a loss as a blockbuster dud, and the expectation of TV pilots is lower.
The reversal of roles between film and television is recent and the root is economic. Adaptations of longer works, including series of novels, television has become the medium of choice. Film’s competitive edge has eroded, and television is coming into its own.
A few weeks ago, I looked at the issues surrounding adapting a work to the silver screen. This week, I look at the smaller screen – television.
With movie adaptations, the big sacrifice is depth for time. Few people will sit in a theatre for longer than three hours, meaning that a lot of detail from novels especially gets lost. There just isn’t the time to do worldbuilding. Television allows for the build up of a storyline over a longer period of time, allowing characters to grow, allowing plots to wind around and find fertile ground.
What television lacks compares to movies is budget. A typical movie adaptations will have a large enough budget to cover salaries and special effects*. In a TV series, even the series has an overall cost similar to a blockbuster, that budget needs to be divided over the run of the season. A big effect at the start of the series may drain the FX budget for several weeks or even the rest of the season. There are ways to get around the cost, mainly through creative accounting**, but there is a limit on what can be done. Stock footage helps, to a degree. In the Stargate series, the whoosh of the stargate could be reused through out the franchise, allowing the crew to create different views to give the illusion of new effects. However, in the original Battlestar Galactica, starfighter combat boiled down to mixing up the same stock footage into different orders; there was always a scene where a Colonial Viper fired at the middle Cylon of a three-fighter formation, causing the other two Cylon fighters to break away from each other. With CGI, though, the effects team can create the needed elements once and then animate as needed at a lower cost. When the new budget comes around, the elements can be upgraded, which did happen with the Stargate whoosh.
Television is also very much ratings driven. A seven year arc is rare; studios need to know that the audience will not only be around for season one, but also for season seven, and that later seasons can draw in more people. Depending on the network or cable channel, the series may have two months to establish itself, or just one airing. The days where a show like M*A*S*H could linger near the bottom of the ratings until discovered by audiences is long gone. Shows now need to be instant hits from the beginning or so cheap that even a bottom rating still means the series makes money. The latter is typically filled by reality TV. A series could be cancelled before the planned arc is finished, because of low ratings, a change in the executive suite, or a network retool. A long arc will be left dangling.
One problem longer works may face is the slow switch from episodic to series arcs that’s happening. Most historical TV series were written so that each episode could stand alone, allowing networks to rerun episodes without disturbing continuity. Soap operas, both daytime and prime time, were the exception to the rule, but the idea of a non-soap that had a longer storyline was unheard of until relatively recently. Some network executives still aren’t fully aware of the idea; Firefly suffered when the series was aired out of order, destroying several storylines.
With the increased time available for a TV series***, it’s very possible that the show will outstrip the original work. Anime is well known for this phenonenom; it would be easier to list the number of series that didn’t outstrip the original manga. The possibility also exists in the North American market. A Song of Ice and Fire could run into this issue. George R.R. Martin can only write so fast and has released five books so far. The HBO adaptation A Game of Thrones has three seasons completed and has been renewed for a fourth, just one book back unless season four covers a smaller portion to give season five breather space. Completed book series won’t have this problem, but a TV series based on those books using the same approach as A Game of Thrones, that is, a book per season, then filler may be needed.
Actor availability is a rare issue, but can crop up. Usually, an actor is signed for the duration of a TV series. However, it is not unknown for an actor to want out of his contract. The reasons vary; conflicts with production staff or even the cast, a break of a lifetime comes up, injury, even pregnancy can require an actor to leave. If the actor is in a critical role, recasting becomes difficult. Movie series have also run into the same problem; in the Harry Potter movies, the death of Richard Harris required Warner Bros. to recast Dumbledore with Michael Gambon. And while most original TV series can write out a character and introduce a new one, adaptations aren’t as flexible if the goal is to remain accurate.
Television brings its own unique problems to adapting a work. With the smaller budget and push for ratings, a movie adaptation looks far better.
Next week, The Mechanic.
* Depending on the effect. Progress in technology allows for cost reductions over time, but early adopters pay more.
** In the first season of The Muppet Show, a prop that was meant to be used just once was used instead in three separate episodes, allowing its cost to also be split split over the episodes.
*** At about 45 minutes per episode and a 13 to 22 episode season, that’s about nine to seventeen hours available for storytelling in a broadcast year.
Early in Lost in Translation‘s run, I covered Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The movie, while being successful at the box office, had its problems – awkward moments, odd pacing, weak writing. The entire Star Wars prequel series shared the problems, with a romance between Padmé and Anakin that felt rushed in Attack of the Clones. The sheer amount of events to be covered in just three movies was one of the primary causes; at best, only highlights of the Clone Wars, specifically, the beginning and the end, could be touched. Characters came and went without much fanfare but with backstory connected to the main characters; Clone Commander Cody and General Grievous both appeared from nowhere* but had met Obi-Wan previously.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe may hold the key to fixing the problems the prequels had, though. Instead of patching in details afterwards, the concept of a larger universe could be built up prior to the first production’s release. The idea changes from filling in plot holes and introducing characters who become important in a movie to laying out groundwork for projects that connect as a whole. The rushed romance in Attack of the Clones can be expanded on and given the time it needs in a televison series, which was the case with the Star Wars: The Clone Wars CGI-animated series. The animated series also showed Anakin’s slow fall to the Dark Side, making his Face-Heel Turn in Revenge of the Sith far more believable.
The key to this approach is to capture the audience’s attention and curiosity. In the past, the goal of a TV series, especially a science fiction series, was to get enough episodes for syndication and enough of a following to justify a movie. Books are routinely turned into films. Right now, there is a massive boom in comic book movies. Even tabletop role-playing games aren’t immune; Gary Gygax had been trying to get his Dungeons & Dragons RPG for two decades. The silver screen has been considered the ultimate production for some time now. However, Hollywood is running into problems. We here at Musehack have been covering it, from The Lone Ranger‘s belly-flop** to movie fatigue to Steve’s look at the inevitable bubble popping. Cable television is getting more attention, thanks to series like Dexter, True Blood, and A Game of Thrones. Even animated series are getting attention. Thus, use the movie as a pilot. Plan out movies to deal with big events in the plot line and use television to deal with reactions, romances, and slower moving yet still needed plotlines. Movies have limited run times; few people will sit for longer than two hours unless the movie is riveting. Television, however, allows for a more expanded plot. If the villain is manipulating people like pawns, a movie will make him or her obvious, while a television series can use subtle moments that lead to the reveal. The Clone Wars is a great example of watching a chessmaster play both sides of a conflict.
Let’s take Star Wars as an example. George Lucas released the original Star Wars first because it was self-contained and it got to the heart of the main conflict. If the movie failed, no cliffhangers would be left dangling. Star Wars would still be the first movie to be released if everything was pre-planned. Get the audience’s attention with leading edge special effects and a classic storyline. Afterwards, a TV series showing the fighting between the Rebellion and the Empire, introducing more setting elements and Vader’s search for the pilot who destroyed the Death Star, with everything leading up to The Empire Strikes Back. People following the TV series would know why the Rebels are on Hoth and the screen crawl would catch others up on events. Following Empire, a new TV series that leads people up to the events of Return of the Jedi, including Luke’s training, the search for Han, and the discovery of the second Death Star. The prequels can follow a similar format. The Phantom Menace introduces the new series, shows the beginning of the fall of the Republic. The follow-up TV series shows Anakin’s training, the budding romance between Anakin and Padmé, and early machinations of Darth Sidious, leading to Attack of the Clones. The next TV series is, essentially, The Clone Wars, leading to Revenge of the Sith. Optional TV series or series of series to bridge the gap between the fall of the Republic and the attack on the first Death Star.
The problem is audience fatigue. Star Trek ran into the fatigue problem when Star Trek: Enterprise lost its audience. Enterprise followed directly after fourteen straight years of Trek, from the beginning of The Next Generation to the end of Voyager, with a seven year period where Deep Space Nine accompanied the other two series***. The franchise should have allowed to lie fallow for a few years, until viewers wanted more instead of just expected a Trek show to be on. A project that incorporated both movies and television would need to be aware of the risk of a falling audience. The other problem is trying to get the audience in the first place. If the first movie fails, the audience for the project may not exist; no studio is going to throw more money into a project that has already floundered. The work put into the setting up the film-and-TV series will go to waste, possibly to be integrated into other works.
Back-filling, for now, may be how movies get plot holes fixed. With Hollywood seeing a burst bubble on the horizon, a new approach may be needed.
Next week, Ma and Pa Kettle.
* Actually, in non-movie works. Grievous first appeared in a Star Wars comic.
** Despite having a shirtless Johnny Depp in leather pants.
*** Three year overlap with TNG, four years with Voyager. Twenty-one years of Star Trek in a fourteen year period, ignoring syndicated reruns of the original series.
Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.
Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games
Boardgames and card games are the oldest form of gaming, found in all cultures throughout history. From mere diversions to gambling to war preparations, boardgaming has spread far and wide. While there are some games designed for just one person, such as the various solitaire games for cards, the vast majority of games require at least two people. And, yet, there are few projects based on a boardgame. There are many movies that feature a game or are centred on a game, but very few that bring the game to the screen. Part of the reason is that the conflict is between the players. The musical Chess** features the drama between two chess players during the Cold War. Poker is a fixture in many movies, from Maverick to God of Gamblers where, again, the conflict between the poker players is the focus. Battleship became part of the plot in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
As for boardgame movies, there is Clue and there is Battleship. Jumanji, for all its appearances of being based on a boardgame, is based on a short story. The boardgame came out after the movie. Hasbro does have some movies in the works based on their game lines, detailed earlier.
Last week, I listed key elements that needed to be dealt with to adapt well: plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. Unlike video games where the game needs an icon for the player***, boardgames might just have a coloured token that has no backstory at all. Game bits may include money equivalents, miniatures to represent items, tokens for keeping score, and parts to add to the board. In a few games, the players’ pieces are identified by colour, with the shape of the tokens representing in-game elements.
For the vast majority of movies centred around games, the game shows up as itself within the work. The plot comes from the drama and conflict between the players as they play the game. Gambling games tend to be the focus of this type of movie. It isn’t the poker tournament that is the focus, but the players in it. The setting is where the game is played, whether it’s a saloon on the American frontier, a high class casino in Europe, or a back room in a seedy neighbourhood pool hall. The gameplay is on screen, performed by the characters.
Lately, though, as Lost in Translation previewed last year, boardgames are now being adapted as movies. Monopoly, Risk, Candyland, and a remake of Clue have all been announced. Risk and the similar in scope Axis and Allies involve a world at war, the former set in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the latter during World War II. Typically, movies set during wars of those times would focus on a particular historical element or figure and not need the game at all. Boardgames like Monopoly are about trading and getting rich, again, plots that can be handled easily without the baggage that a boardgame would bring. Monopoly, however, does bring with it a setting, Atlantic City.
For traditional boardgames, the plot can be pulled from the game itself, based on what the winning condition is. Some games, such as The Game of Life and Redneck Life, fit the bill poorly, covering the lifespan of the player’s token. Others, like Battleship, handwave away why there is a conflict between the players, assuming that if the players didn’t want to play the game, they wouldn’t. This leads to the writing staff having to create the reason for the conflict.
In terms of characters, again, few boardgames name their tokens, with Clue being the main exception. Some characters may be named, such as Monopoly‘s Rich Uncle Pennybags and Redneck Life‘s Uncle Clem, but they’re not playable. Typically, the players aren’t placed into a role. They just play the game. To adapt a game, characters will have to be created and cast; few people will pay to see a giant dog token hop down the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Boardgames do give the adapters a break on setting. The board itself can be turned into the setting. The movie Clue adapted the game’s board well, including the secret passageways and the relative locations of all the rooms. Battleship was set on the Pacific Ocean, providing the nice rich blue sea the game’s boards represent. The exceptions are games similar to Life and Redneck Life, where the boards represent a metaphorical journey instead of a physical one.
Gameplay is going to be the hardest part to adapt properly. Unlike games, people don’t walk a number of steps based on a die roll and don’t move one at a time in order. Games that have inter-player negotiation, such as Monopoly and Diplomacy**** fare a little better here, as players interact with each other in a dramatic conflict, as dramatic as the players want to get.+ In a work of fiction, the desires of both sides of the negotiations can be played up and the movement on the board can be downplayed.
Boardgames will take a deft hand to adapt properly, to keep the feel of the game while still producing characters and a plot that works within the constraints of the original work. The difficulties explain why few boardgames have been adapted directly. Clue managed to keep the feel of the game and worked with the existing characters to produce an entertaining movie. Battleship tried, hard, but might have been a better movie without the name attached.
Next week, part III looks at adapting tabletop role-playing games and wargames.
* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** Someone made the leap.
*** Yes, there are exceptions like Duck Hunt, but the player still is represented by the crosshairs.
**** Diplomacy and, to a lesser degree, Risk and Axis & Allies could also be covered next week as wargames.
+ “Hey, want Reading and B&O for Illinois and Oriental?” “Only if you toss in Boardwalk.”
Finally, the one I’ve been hinting at for far too long.
With the success of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Joss Whedon proposed to Fox a space western. Whedon had been inspired by The Killer Angels, a book chronicling the Battle of Gettysburg, and wanted to the series to follow a group of people trying to continue their lives after being on the losing side of a civil war. Firefly featured a Stagecoach-esque ensemble cast of characters. However, problems with the network started early, with Fox wanting a second pilot, citing the original as being too dour and not having enough action. Worse, Fox would air episodes out of order, and Firefly didn’t have the magic reset button installed to make episodes interchangeable. The show, ultimately, was cancelled after one season with several filmed episodes not aired. However, fans picked up on the show’s potential despite the network meddling. When the DVD boxed set was released, several episodes were corrected back to the original concept, with additional parts removed because the show could be watched in a proper order.
The cancellation and the lack of interest by other networks in the series led Whedon to try selling Firefly as a movie. Universal Pictures signed on after the President of Production watched the series on DVD. After a few rewrites, the script for what would become Serenity was finished and filming started. The movie, Serenity, would wrap up several dangling plot threads from the series, including the Hands of Blue and what happened to River before Firefly began.
The movie was released in 2005, remaining in theatres for five weeks. During that time, Serenity fell short of recouping its budget. Despite the lack of financial success, critics were positive about the movie. Part of the failure at the box office might be from the idea of /Firefly/ being a “failed” TV series, despite the failure being caused by network interference. The original show also didn’t have a large fanbase, though said fans were enthusiastic about getting people out to the movie. Yet, DVD sales, especially the HD DVD*, were high.
So, successful? Financially, Serenity failed in theatres, but DVD sales will have helped make up the small shortfall between box office and budget. Yet, the movie continued the series and used the big screen to tell the tale. Serenity wasn’t just a double-length episode of Firefly. The film used the larger format and the budget to tell a tale that both fit within the setting but felt more epic. With the original cast and Whedon still there, respect** for the original work was more than present. Universal was willing to support the effort. What might have helped Serenity was having Firefly treated properly by Fox; but, if that happened, there might not have been the need for the movie.
Next week, super adaptation!
* Yes, HD DVD lost in the DVD wars, but the victor wouldn’t be decided for several years. /Serenity/ was one of the first movies released in the format.
** Yep, there’s that word again.