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On the adaption of animated stories into live action films - A Sorta Fairytale
October 2013
 
 
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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Thu, Jul. 1st, 2010 02:21 pm
On the adaption of animated stories into live action films

I just wanted to repost here a comment I made to spin1978 about anime-to-film adaptations. Of course, this line of thought flows partly from the general adaptation-fail (not just the racefail) of The Last Airbender, but it's largely inspired by an interesting point that Ebert--himself a fan of Hayao Miyazaki's anime films--brought up in his review of TLA. Here's the relevant quote:

The first fatal decision was to make a live-action film out of material that was born to be anime. The animation of the Nickelodeon TV series drew on the bright colors and "clear line" style of such masters as Miyazaki, and was a pleasure to observe. It's in the very nature of animation to make absurd visual sights more plausible.

Since "Airbender" involves the human manipulation of the forces of air, earth, water and fire, there is hardly an event that can be rendered plausibly in live action. That said, its special effects are atrocious. The first time the waterbender Katara summons a globe of water, which then splashes (offscreen) on her brother Sokka, he doesn't even get wet. Firebenders' flames don't seem to really burn, and so on.


I'm not sure if this is the sort of problem spin1978 had in mind when he made the offhand comment to me that "most [anime] would be better left as anime," but it's what I immediately thought of. So here is my response:

To me, that's kind of like saying since novels are almost always better than their respective film adaptations, they'd be "better left as books". I can't really fault people for wanting to try taking a good story and changing it from one medium to another. But changing media successfully is tough. Hollywood has had many years of practice at changing book-to-film, and so it has managed to eek out a fair number of successful adaptions (at the cost of a huge number of failures, of course). In recent years, it's also starting to get the hang of Western comics to film adaptations.

Manga/anime to film adaptations, though, it has very little practice with, so of course it's understandable to be skeptical that they can pull it off. I prefer to be a little more hopeful. I realize that one of the trickiest challenges they will face (if they're smart enough to realize it) is how to translate fantastical and even absurd images that are easier to believe in animated form into something realistic-looking enough for live-action. I can only begin to guess how that problem might be solved, but I think it's worth a try. They might consider borrowing the approach of some of the better Western comics to film adaptions like the Batman Begins/Dark Knight series, since those were dealing with essentially the same problem. How, for example, can you take a character like The Joker and put him in "real life" and make him seem realistic rather than cartoony? Well, you cast a good actor who can play a nuanced villain, and put him in makeup that looks like the amateur job a real psychotic criminal would put on himself, rather than what a professional Hollywood makeup artist would put on an actor.

I've heard that Tolkien didn't want his books to be made into live-action films, either, for essentially the same reason. Well, he died before the technology that made it possible even existed. But technology alone is not enough--a successful adaption has to balance respect for the source material with a willingness to make changes where needed to make the story appropriate to the new medium. That's something Peter Jackson and his team did very well. The films weren't perfect, of course, but they were very good--and hugely successful as a result. I'd say most of the Potter franchise came close enough to the right balance, too.

Anyway, I'm not going to rule out the possibility that Hollywood can make good film adaptations of popular anime. Between technology and a few smart decisions--like The Joker's makeup job--and, of course, sensible casting (which means, in the vast majority of cases, that they're going to have to start grooming good Asain-American actors instead of whitewashing stories that are clearly steeped in East Asian culture), I do think it's possible.


peachespig also brought up the problem of squeezing a large amount of story (20 epsidoes, in the case of TLA) into one feature-length film. This is, of course, also a problem with novel-to-film, and even MORE of a problem with Western comics-to-film. Again, I don't think this problem is insurmountable, and I think considering how much broader of an audience can be reached by live action films compared to anime (which has grown over the past 20 years from a niche market to a larger but still not-quite-mainstream market in the US), I really can't blame Hollywood for wanting to try.

Joie

ETA: io9 has posted a hilarious satirical review of TLA. It's the funniest thing I've seen all day:

Later in the film, Katara says my favorite line ever, "We need to show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in their beliefs." It's as if Shyamalan had a cue card that he was planning to turn into an actual bit of dialog, but he forgot. There's a lot of cue-card writing in this film, and it feels like Shyamalan is leaving things as sign-posty as possible, in order to make fun of the by-the-numbers storytelling in so many Hollywood epics. The master has come to school us all.

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orcapotter
orcapotter
Orca キンバリー
Thu, Jul. 1st, 2010 06:44 pm (UTC)

Totally, totally agree on this :3


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peachespig
peachespig
peachespig
Thu, Jul. 1st, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)

I know what you mean, and although I am feeling pretty negative about it right now, I acknowledge that a lot of my negativity really comes from this particular adaptation, and not adaptations in general. But a couple things:

To me, that's kind of like saying since novels are almost always better than their respective film adaptations, they'd be "better left as books".

See, I don't think this is the same, because I think it's very different adapting a textual medium to a visual one, versus one visual medium to another. If you make a movie of a book, there's a simple wow factor of "I've never seen this with my eyes before!" If you make TV into a movie, they are much more overlapping, and so you have to do more to make what you are doing different. Which leads me to....

peachespig also brought up the problem of squeezing a large amount of story (20 epsidoes, in the case of TLA) into one feature-length film. This is, of course, also a problem with novel-to-film, and even MORE of a problem with Western comics-to-film.

And how do they do it in comics? They make movies that don't try to tell an entire huge story, but take the basic themes are rework them into something that fits in the time allowed. I find it sort of sad and ironic that I am saying this, but it seems like one of Shyamalan's mistakes was trying to be too faithful to the narrative arc of the first season. It seems too hard to do 20 episodes into a movie; you have to make something different. Comic books have the property that their continuities have been rebooted, reimagined, and relaunched so many times that there is no single "This is the story" to adapt. Instead, there are themes and archetypal events that you take from the source, and then make something new around them.

M. Night treated Avatar the way filmmakers treater Harry Potter or LotR, rather than how they treat comics: not just the characters, but the entire story had to be transferred as faithfully as possible. Absolutely it's what I really want in my heart — imagine him making a new Avatar plot from scratch! — but it just seems very hard.

I've heard that Tolkien didn't want his books to be made into live-action films, either, for essentially the same reason.

Remembering from his letters, Tolkien was initially open to the idea and read through a script/treatment for a film adaptation. What he read was so unpleasant to him (Lorien turned into a fairy city, eagles used to being the Fellowship halfway to Mordor, mangled and inconsistent characterization) that he was turned off the whole idea. I think it's possible, had he read/seen what Peter Jackson was doing, that he would have endorsed it and even been enthusiastic, though he still would have complained about certain changes (Faramir's actions come to mind).


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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Thu, Jul. 1st, 2010 08:47 pm (UTC)

I'm pretty sure I came across a quote of Tolkien's where he specifically said he didn't think the story would work as a live action film because he didn't think it was possible to translate many of the story elements to screen realistically enough. He might have had other objections, too, but I was trying to address that one specifically. Sorry I can't find the quote. I can't think of any google search terms to use that don't pull up a lot of unrelated stuff.

M. Night treated Avatar the way filmmakers treater Harry Potter or LotR, rather than how they treat comics: not just the characters, but the entire story had to be transferred as faithfully as possible. Absolutely it's what I really want in my heart — imagine him making a new Avatar plot from scratch! — but it just seems very hard.

Hard, but not impossible. You're right about the approach to Western comics--I hadn't really thought of it that way. But in this case, I think M. Night had the right idea, he just failed in the execution. I'd say the amount of story in season 1 of ATLA is comparable to the amount of story in fantasy novels like The Fellowship of the Ring or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You will have to make some cuts--some pretty deep cuts that might disappoint fans--but you can still tell a good approximation of the story. If it had been up to me, I would have focused on two things from season one--Aang and Katara's drive to get to the Northern water tribe and learn waterbending, and Zuko's history and pursuit of the Avatar, both culminating in the North pole battle. (People will complain about the cutting of Suki and Jet, but really, I think those cuts are understandable.) And maybe that's what they tried to do with this film. I really don't think that's what killed it--I think its failure has a lot more to do with the fact that they apparently cut all the humor and depth out of the characters. (In other words, cutting Katara's moment of gaining the upper hand on Zuko at the Spirit Oasis is worse than cutting Suki and all the Kyoshi warriors. You will have to cut some plot points, but whatever plot points you do include, be sure to do them right.) Oh, and trying to squeeze it into a film of less than two hours was suicide--which means they also made the mistake of thinking their target audience was children under 10. Instead, they should have been aiming for the Harry Potter crowd, which includes young children, but not ONLY young children--and the young children it does include have better attention spans than they are given credit for.


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spin1978
spin1978
Kyouraku Shunsui
Thu, Jul. 1st, 2010 11:51 pm (UTC)

I'm still developing a proper response, but here's what I think is the critical element between a good cinematic adaptation and a bad cinematic adaptation of fantastic or speculative-fictional source material -

Certain stories lend themselves better towards adaptation. For example, the rebooted Batman franchise is simply very well done urban crime drama with a protagonist who benefits from being a world-class athlete, filthy rich, and into playing dress-up. And that's, after a fashion, very faithfully representing the comics at their best. It didn't require extensive shoe-horning into the film format. With the X-Men franchise, a lot of the fun and otherworldly elements had to be cut from the comics to get it into the sci-fi-like niche it ended up occupying, and the response to each movie varied - it was not as consistent as the rebooted Batman flicks.

With stories like HP and LotR, both fit fairly nicely into the fantasy niche, although, of course, in their own unique and special way (HP being much heavier on the coming of age component and LotR with the standard epic "in a land far away" fantasy element).

I also suspect that the element of a visual component to the source material's storytelling may subconsciously bias us. I think I tend to be more lenient with book adaptations, since I don't have that visual memory lurking in my mind waiting to trigger my griping.


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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Fri, Jul. 2nd, 2010 04:37 am (UTC)

I see. I think, perhaps, each individual story has its own set of challenges to face in the process of adapting. Anime is so diverse that some stories may be more challenging to adapt to film than others. I do see the point about translating one visual media to another as being especially problematic, but...personally, I can't imagine it being a major issue for me. I'm more concerned with whether an adaption is true to the characters and themes of the story--faithfulness to particular plot points or a particular "look" is far less important to me. But I can see how it would be an issue for a lot of fans.

On another note, I've always thought it would be cool to see visual media--any visual media--adapted into a good novel. You sometimes see film novelizations, but I've never seen any that were actually good. That's because they always just take the script and write it out in novel format with a little bit of description added. If someone were to take a film (or a TV series or even a manga series) and truly translate it into a good novel, fleshing out the inner dialog of the characters, extending the world-building to new corners, grafting in new material that flows well with the original story--in essence, re-imagining it as if it had been the original source from which the visual version had to have things "cut"--that would be pretty cool.


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