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.
With the phenomenal success of Star Wars in 1977, it was inevitable that studios would want to ride the renewed interest in epic space operas. Glen A. Larson was one of the first to get a project out. In 1978, Larson’s Battlestar Galactica aired on ABC and was released to theatres in Canada and Europe. The pilot episode received high ratings. The show detailed life after the Cylons, a mechanical life form, destroyed the Twelve Colonies and the survivors escaping the destruction lead by the titular starship.
The show did well in the ratings, at least at first. However, the network, not happy with the expense of the series, was inconsistent with scheduling, often letting Larson’s production company know only at the last minute if an episode was needed. Given the time slot, Sundays at 7pm, the show could be pushed back or even pre-empted for sports, especially football. Eventually, ABC pulled the plug.
The show was expensive. Special effects were all miniatures based. The bridge set of the Galactica was filled with Tektronics computers. The nature of some effects required precision timing on the part of actors involved. At the same time, the show was a hit.
In 2004, Ronald D. Moore, who had previously worked on Star Trek: Deep Space 9, developed a reimagining of the original Battlestar. The two-part miniseries aired on the Sci-Fi Channel and covered about three-quarters of the original series pilot movie, namely, the destruction of the Twelve Colonies and the gathering of the survivors into a rag-tag fleet. The tone of the reimagined series was notably bleaker than the original. ABC’s Galactica had a current of shining hope that the fleet would find Earth and escape the Cylons. Moore’s version had people wondering who would destroy the fleet first, the Cylons or the refugees themselves.
The mood shift wasn’t the only change. While Moore did use the names from the original, he didn’t necessarily bring the personalities over to the new Galactica. Some changes that annoyed the fandom even before the miniseries aired included gender swapping Starbuck and Boomer (both went from male to female), minor changes to the Galactica’s design, and adding human-form Cylons. The new series also added a focus on how the survivors were coping, the needs of the last humans to survive as a species, and difficult choices being made.*
However, the mood shift reflected the change in the general demeanor of society and the demands viewing audiences had on television. Gone were the days where everything got wrapped up neatly at the end of the day, with the cast having a laugh before the final freeze. The new Battlestar very seldom had things tied up in a nice bow.
This isn’t to say Moore completely ignored the original series. With the new Galactica lasting four seasons, he had more time to develop the setting and the history, both of the Colonies and of the Cylons. The characters moved away from being archetypical (ace, gambler, wise commander) and made them human, with flaws and quirks. The new ship looked much like the original, as did the Vipers.** The original theme became the Colonial anthem.
So, was the 2004 Battlestar Galactica a successful adaptation? With the number of changes made, no, but the core idea remained strong and the creators’ respect for the work could be seen. But, as seen two weeks ago with Real Steel, a not-so-good adaptation can be well worth seeing, and the new Galactica not only fits that bill but also won a Hugo***, several Spaceys****, several Saturns*****, and several Emmys.
Next week, anniversary!
* The first episode, “33” started /in media res/ with everyone on duty suffering from sleep deprivation and ended with Commander Adama having to decide if a civilian vessel that got lost several light jumps back had to be destroyed.
** In fact, two different makes of Vipers appeared. The older model, based on the Vipers in the original /Galactica/ were to be museum pieces from the Colonial-Cylon war fifty years prior to the mini-series before being put back into duty. The new model had problems due to the Cylon ability to hack networks and surviving planes had to be downgraded before being put back into service.
*** For the episode “33”.
**** Presented by the Canadian specialty channel Space
***** Presented by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films
Over the past three decades, comic books have been mined for movies and TV series. The past few years have seen comic book movies bringing droves of people into the theatres. What makes for a successful comic to other media adaptation?
As mentioned many times in Lost in Translation, the bulk of the work is done. The characters are created, their looks are easily found, the setting has already been fleshed out. Many superheroes are well known to the general public, guaranteeing interest in the adaptation. A first draft of the storyboards already exists. There is a built-in crowd already in the readers of the comics. The balancing act lies in maintaining faithfulness to the original work while still making the adaptation palpable to the general audience. There are several ways to go about the process.
Creating an animated adaptation is a natural step. Most comic book adaptations have gone this way; comic to cartoon and manga to anime. The advantages of animating include being able to portray the characters as they appear in the comic, easy to predict costs as compared to live-action adaptations*, and ease of special effects. The drawback is falling into the animation ghetto, where people assume that, since the show or movie is animated, it is automatically for kids. The drawback could limit the size of the audience and how faithful the adaptation is.
With the proper backing and budgeting, a live-action feature film of a comic can be done. The mere fact of a cinematic adaptation can get the fans a-stir and, with a well-known character, might even get non-readers interested enough to see the movie. The catch, though, is that the budget needs to be large enough to cover the necessary special effects for the characters’ powers and to get a name involved to draw in non-fans. As well, fans will become more vocal about the portrayal of the adapted title. Costuming may become difficult or impossible**. Movies that are being touted for a major action blockbuster may also be limited to just the A-listers*** of the publisher to ensure that a return on investment is seen. B-list heroes have been used to various degrees of success, though.
Live-Action Television Series
Sometimes, the best format for a comic is a regular TV series, either on one of the traditional broadcasters or on a specialty channel. Viewers are more likely to give a show an episode or two to find its feet. While having an A-lister as the focus character will get people to watch, a B-lister or even a C-lister could pick up an audience. The drawback returns to budgeting for special effects, though a careful choice of heroes can mitigate the problem.
One thing that will come up in a superhero adaptation is the origin story, how the hero came to be. While some heroes have a well-know background – Superman’s flight from his doomed homeworld Krypton and being raised by the Kents; the death of Batman’s parents and his quest to keep the city of Gotham safe – others are only aware to comic book fans. Time will be spent on the origin. Ideally, the hero is an active participant in the origin; early conflict and drama will keep viewers hooked before the main plot starts. Spider-Man’s origin is a good example of the hero being involved; Peter Parker may have been bit by a radioactive spider, but his reaction after discovering his powers and the fateful choice to not get involved leading to the death of his uncle is all under his control. Superman’s origin, however, is more passive; he was rescued and sent off in a rocket as a baby while his world exploded and was raised right by a couple who couldn’t have children of their own. The conflict and drama are lacking in Superman’s case.
In most successful superhero movies, the villain either has a personal link to the hero (for example, Norman Osbourne in Spider-Man and Obadiah Stane in Iron Man), represents the diametric opposite of the hero (the Joker in Batman), or cannot be defeated using the hero’s main abilities (Lex Luthor in Superman). Sometimes, a theme starts appearing in a hero’s rogue’s gallery that emphasizes the hero’s abilities. Spider-Man’s gallery has a scientific bent with Doctor Octopus and the Lizard. Batman’s rogues run the gamut of mental health disorders. The catch, though, is that the villain shouldn’t be killed off by the end the episode or the movie. Very few villains die in the comics, and fewer still stay dead.
Historically, most comics are set in New York City. This came about because the publishers, writers, and artists were in New York City. DC writers tended to rename the city while Marvel kept their characters in a facsimile of the real world. The city becomes another character, lending its air to the work. The dark, foreboding atmosphere of Gotham City adds to the Batman stories while the brightness of Metropolis**** reflect Superman’s fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Even the real New York City can present different atmospheres. The busy Midtown Manhattan, where Spider-Man fights crime and villainy, allows the Webhead to make snappy comments as he batters his opponents with verbal quips. Meanwhile, the rundown area of Hell’s Kitchen provides a backdrop for both Daredevil and Cloak & Dagger‘s fight for the disadvantages against the those who would steamroller them.
Bringing Things Together
To show how the adaptations could work, I’ll use several examples in parallel. First, an A-list example for a hypothetical live action movie – DC’s Wonder Woman. Next, for a live-action TV series, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger. Finally, to go through the thought process that I hope gets used, one of my own works, Subject 13.
Starting off, I already know how I’m adapting both Wonder Woman and Cloak & Dagger. However, Subject 13‘s format is in the air. Given the strong language used by the main character, an animated adaptation is out of the question unless aired late at night on a specialty channel. A live-action movie won’t work as well as I’d hope because the character is practically unknown. That leaves the live-action TV series on a specialty channel, unless there’s a way to reduce the language without losing characterization.
The setting is the next. Wonder Woman is based out of two locations, New York City and Themyscira. Given those locations, she’s set for a story that combines modern sensibilities with Greek myths and the conflict between the two. Cloak & Dagger are based out of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, suitable to tell stories about fighting for the underdog and of survival. /Subject 13/ is, at least at the beginning, also set in New Yotk City, a mix of working class apartment neighbourhood and a private school, allowing for a fish out of water backdrop to the main character’s discovery of her abilities and figuring out what she’s doing.
The origin of each will be dealt with. Wonder Woman’s is fairly quick – she was made from clay then given life after her mother prayed to the Greek goddesses. Cloak & Dagger’s origin can easily fill an episode as two teens from opposite sides of society are kidnapped and given an experimental drug that triggered their mutant abilities. Their origin can return as they deal with elements from the gang that was looking for a new street drug. Subject 13‘s origin is important to the storyline, as she escapes from an evil consortium, but the actual moment where she becomes a hero could be done during the opening credits of the pilot.
Depiction of powers needs to be looked at, mainly for budget issues. Since my hypothetical Wonder Woman adaptation is meant to be a summer blockbuster, her powers won’t have limits. However, since her powers include super-strength, the Lasso of Truth, and invulnerability, portraying them won’t be difficult, just using camera tricks and props. Cloak & Dagger might get expensive for television; Cloak is a gateway into a dimension of darkness while Dagger generates living light. Fortunately, decades of science fiction has made laser blasts easy to do and Cloak’s power can be simulated with lighting when needed. As for Subject 13, she has a powered punch that flares when she hits. The power isn’t used often as it tends to end fights when she connects; the budget for the power should be easy to control.
The villains for the adaptations now comes into play. Wonder Woman’s rogues gallery tends to come from Greek myth. Tie in the locations, and Ares trying to start World War III through manipulating the United Nations makes for a good baseline for a plot. For Cloak & Dagger, the general theme for the first season is survival and adapting to being on the outside of society. Villains can include various gangs and, if we look at later works featuring the characters, toss in D’Spayre, a demon who can resist both characters’ powers, at the end of the season. In /Subject 13/, the origin ties directly to the villains, an evil consortium who was responsible for her getting her powers.
To sum up, Wonder Woman, if done well, should get a good audience. The adapters will have to make sure that the costume reminds the casual fan of her classic one. Cloak & Dagger, being a lesser known title, could work on TV if the drama is played up. Meanwhile, Subject 13, even with the language issue, could work as a live-action series with its on going plot, though her complete lack of fame in the general population without any ties to an existing property could work against the show’s survival
Next time, more stuff!
* Crew, cast, computer equipment (having replaced cels, paint, and ink) vs costs of different special effects based on the needs of the episode/movie.
** Particularly for the women in the film. Some comic costumes defy the laws of physics while revealing more skin than most bikinis.
*** The characters that are known far and wide. DC’s A-listers include Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Marvel’s are Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America and, as groups, the X-Men and the Avenger. A-listers get on the list by wide exposure through comics, animated adaptations, movie adaptations, and cultural drift.
**** Technically, originally modelled on Toronto.