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      I'm pinch hitting for Ellid who's on the disabled list (Get well soon!). For tonight's exercise I thought I'd take a look at something I'll call Lost In Translation. No, this isn't about bad translations of books into different languages, or bad books translated etc. etc. (although I'm sure there are some real horror stories out there.) I'm thinking of a different kind of translation.

     Here's the scenario. Imagine you have a hit movie that did well at the box office - or maybe just so-so. Or it doesn't have to be a movie - television shows also fall into this area. What you also have is a fan base, people who collectively constitute enough eyeballs that finding something else to put in front of them is potentially profitable. Cranking out another movie can take time; ditto for a TV show. BUT... how about a book of some kind?

      Everyone knows what the characters look like, sound like, and what kind of world they inhabit. Translating that into words on a page (or reader display) ought to be easy, because so much of the heavy lifting of character development and scene setting has already been done. What could possibly go wrong?

      More below the Orange Omnilepticon.

UPDATE: Whoops - I published before I realized louisev had already put up a BSBTG diary several hours earlier. My bad, sigh. Double the fun at no extra charge. Enjoy!

           Most people are aware of how it usually works: a successful book (and lately a lot of comic books)  will get translated into a movie or TV show. It's become a joke actually - people will head off questions about whether they've read fill in the blank by saying "I'm waiting for the movie to come out." The increasing length of Harry Potter books as the series progressed probably had more than a few people seriously thinking about that option. The point is, movies and TV shows are so expensive to make, it's a lot easier to line up financing if you know there's already a potential audience already out there.

         Of course, that translation process isn't always smooth. (Matthew Inman, the Oatmeal, illustrates what can happen.)

         But - it's become more and more common for movies to include a novelization in those cases where the movie comes first. It's part of a marketing plan - Hollywood has become very aware that if you can get enough people to enjoy a film, they'll be ready to buy stuff related to that film, and not just books depending on what kind of movie it is. (I recall reading an interview years ago where David Morrell who came up with the Rambo character was very happy to find his agent had gotten the contract to include payments for spin-offs like toys, comic books, novelizations, sequels, etc.)

       And if you really want to see how movies can spin off quite a bit more, you have only to look at the empire that is the various incarnations of Walt Disney's original efforts. A Disney film isn't just about pulling people into the theaters - it's about how the film can become part of the Disney brand and all the merchandising based on it. Alas, what happened to Merida of "Brave" shows how the translation can go wrong.

      See, what happens is a question of vision. An author can do a great job creating characters and building a story - but it doesn't stop there. When a book gets the movie treatment, that usually involves not one but a bunch of people turning it into a script, deciding what to put in, what to leave out, how to turn words into images, and how to make characters come to life. (Even more fun now that we have synthetic computer-generated actors.) There's a similar process that goes into making television shows as well. (John Rogers over at Kung Fu Monkey has written some fascinating behind the scenes stuff on this.)

      Plus, there are always trade offs once shooting starts. (Star Trek TOS came up with transporters because they didn't want to spend half an episode having the Enterprise land and take off. Now you can't set a story in the Star Trek universe without 'em.) Dialog may not work, a scene may  be critical, but putting it on camera may be next to impossible. Plus inspiration may strike which takes things in a different direction. Actors ad-lib; directors decide how to interpret the script - maybe multiple ways to see what works.

       And somewhere behind it all is the suits who write the checks, who insist on changes, rewrites, and demonstrating their own peculiar brand of 'creativity'. Imagine "Breakfast at Tiffanys" without Moon River, Spock without pointed ears, or "The Wizard of Oz" without Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It almost happened. And if Mel Brooks had paid attention to everything the suits found objectionable, "Blazing Saddles" would have been about 5 minutes long. The original script may suddenly not pass muster and get thrown out; new directors, new actors get brought in, and so on and so on. It's a wonder any books survive the translation process to emerge in recognizable form.

       Now think about the opposite process, Movies or TV shows getting adapted into books. It can be as simple as turning the screenplay into a fairly direct transcription, or it can be an extrapolation based on the characters and story arcs to create something new. (One warning sign is the disclaimer somewhere saying "Based on...) Granted, the book loses the soundtrack in the process, but there are other advantages.

      Need a battle scene with thousands of troops and war machines locked in combat? No problem. Want to add in a steamy scene between the romantic leads? You don't have to worry about ratings. Want to know what the characters are really thinking?  No problem - you can do that with words. Want to fill in some details the movie glossed over, or invent some plausible back story? Give it a shot.

     Of course, it helps if the writer doing this has actually seen the show in question, is familiar with the "bible" of continuity, and is on speaking terms with the original creator(s) of the show. (Think of all the books you've seen with bad cover art, and then imagine the corresponding literary equivalent - if you dare!) Sometimes an adaptation of a show can be really good - especially if the suits who oversee the deal in the first place put the task in the hands of a capable writer.  But don't count on it.

     So, let's look at one case that comes to mind: the Original Star Wars movie. It came out of nowhere - Lucas had this idea to update the old adventure serial type movie into a space opera format. It didn't have any really big name actors (aside from Alec Guiness), wasn't based on a best selling book, and there was nothing really like it out there. The studio hoped it would do well, but they weren't expecting it to turn into a blockbuster.

    Oh boy.

     Needless to say, there was a certain amount of scrambling to get on top of this thing and ride that sucker for all it was worth. Talking about mega-bad translations, the Star Wars Holiday Special is still one of the most mind-bogglingly awful creations to air on television. It didn't help that many critical speeches were in Wookie, without subtitles. And if you can imagine Bea Arthur running the cantina at Mos Eisley...

    Never mind. The show didn't quite manage to kill off the franchise Star Wars would become, and it did introduce a few things that would turn up in the sequels. But something interesting was going on at around the same time. A book came out based on the movie following up events after the destruction of the first death star. It was written by a writer of some repute: Alan Dean Foster. It was titled Splinter of the Mind's Eye, and it centered around Luke and Leia's attempts to acquire a gem with mysterious powers related to The Force while avoiding capture by the Imperials and Darth Vader.

     According to the wikipedia links above, Foster had been brought in to write the novelization for Star Wars working from Lucas's original screenplay. While doing so, he also fleshed out the Star Wars universe, adding a lot of details, history and ideas which would become canon. Splinter of the Mind's Eye was intended to be a low-budget sequel to Star Wars, if the movie only did so-so. The success of Star Wars killed that idea, but the novelization of Splinter was ready to go, and was released.

     Now whether or not the wikipedia entry is accurate on this, Splinter of the Mind's Eye did contain a lot of material that is regarded as part of the Star Wars universe and wasn't that bad a story at all. The problem is, Lucas decided to take the story in a different direction with "The Empire Strikes Back" and made some critical changes. And that had consequences for one of the plot elements in Splinter.

     Based on the first movie, Foster not surprisingly advanced the romantic entanglement between Luke and Leia. It was more than enough to be just a little bit creepy in light of what the second movie revealed about their backstory. And, since Luke hadn't yet made that trip to meet Yoda and get more Jedi training, his eventual fight scene with Darth Vader has him doing quite a bit better than expected. It's not that bad a book on its own. The problem is, it isn't on its own and never can be. It's one of those "What if..." Lucas had never made the rest of those movies and had gone with Foster's intent, a source for endless debate and discussion.

     Foster could, I suspect, be the subject of an entire BSBTG diary on his own, what with his prolific output of novels, novelizations of movies, and screenplays. For all of the vast outpouring of material based on the Star Wars universe, I will admit running across a few I found pretty good in their own right. Timothy Zahn did what I thought was good series on a story line after the founding of the new Republic, creating some memorable characters. Brian Daley did a trilogy based on Han Solo's adventures before encountering Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. Han Solo at Star's End is a credible romp. And who would have thought Wedge Antilles would accumulate such a following?

But let us move on.

     A long running British TV show, which made the transition from black & white to color, a number of cast swaps, a reboot after some years, and even a movie, was "The Avengers". Featuring John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and a number of serial female partners, it was an action-adventure series centered on counter espionage/ crime fighting stories. Tales usually turned on a specific macguffin - i.e.: robot duplicates, assassin clowns, shrink rays, mind games, etc. with a few deaths mixed in (usually with some black humor), and some banter between Steed and his partner. The resolution generally came about by The Avengers figuring out what was going on, and countering it in a climactic battle/encounter, followed by a brief epilogue in which they celebrated their triumph.

      While I'm not aware of the show spinning off any action figures or lunch boxes, there were a few novelizations, or so I can conclude by my possession of The Avengers #6 "The Drowned Queen", by Keith Laumer. In my opinion, Laumer was an excellent choice for a novelization. His experience as an officer in the Air Force and as a diplomat gave him a background not incompatible with the world of the Avengers, and his Retief stories were a comparable mix of derring-do action and  adventure.

      In "The Drowned Queen" John Steed and his partner Tara King are given undercover assignments on the maiden voyage of the Atlantic Queen, a luxury submarine ocean liner. Almost immediately they encounter suspicious characters, hints that things are amiss, and opportunities for sophisticated back and forth dialog while they attempt to come to grips with the unknown enemies. Here's a sample from the book: the Queen has been attacked in mid ocean, has sunk to the bottom far deeper than she should have gone - and Steed and King have been forced to escape in an untested submarine lifeboat, and only barely evade being snared by mermen with a net, strands of which tangle in the prop...

 "Maybe we've cleared ourselves," Tara said. Steed tried the engines, was rewarded with a grinding sound and a flash of warning lights on the panel.
   "We're still moving," Steed said.
   "Then why can't we hear the cable dragging?"
   The nose of the unpowered boat was drooping. Through the thinning cloud of dye, only an unbroken vista of bottomless black showed ahead.
    "Because," Steed said, "we've gone over the edge."
     "Which means we're headed for the bottom, half a mile down," Tara said tightly.
    "Unless a miracle saves us," Steed agreed, as they sank down, down, at an ever increasing rate.
     With a sharp grating sound, the forward motion was abruptly arrested. The prow of the boat continued to sag until the vessel hung almost vertically.
    "The trailing gear seems to have fouled on something," Steed said hopefully. "Let's hope it holds."
     In the the tense silence, they waited. A minute ticked past. Steed let out the breath  he had been holding.
    "It appears we are safe for the moment," he said.
    "If dangling over a cliff a thousand feet under water, surrounded by hostile mermen is safe," Tara said, "what would you call dangerous?"
    Steed sighed. "Pass that untested diving suit over," he said, "and I'll demonstrate."
     I have to confess this translation rather appeals to me, not for least of which is the way in which Laumer makes a pretty good stab at capturing the spirit of the show. And the advantage here is that, while this could have made a pretty decent television episode of the series, there is no way the show's budget could have supported all of the special effects and underwater filming this would have required. If The Avengers was one of your guilty pleasures, this book is just bad enough in the right way to be fun.

     For my final subject in this exploration of Lost in Translation, let's consider the oeuvre of Leslie Charteris and his incomparable archetype of hero, Simon Templar, the Saint.

     The Saint had a long, long run: decades. Appearing in short stories, magazines, serializations, full length novels, and in various other media, Charteris still managed to keep the Saint in accord with the times and yet still retain his essential character. A subject of a number of movies, Charteris had fun in subsequent works by having his fictional character comment on Charteris as his chronicler. In some of the Saint's adventures, he encountered Hollywood types and got some of his own back at what the studios had done to him. There's a nice collection of material about Simon Templar at this website here, if the wikipedia entry isn't enough for you.

   Towards the end of his career, Charteris began partnering with other writers. A collection of Saint stories were put out by Charteris based on television episodes. Charteris had looked them over, found a few were surprisingly good, and reworked them a bit.

    Harry Harrison ghost wrote "Vendetta for the Saint", and then Charteris edited it to his taste. Harrison went on to offer a sort of tribute to the Saint by incorporating a character which seems pretty obviously based on him in one of the adventures of Slippery Jim DiGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat. The Bishop was a master criminal who became a mentor to the young DiGriz.

    Poul Anderson also paid tribute to the Saint, when his character David Falkayne needs an alias and comes up with Sebastian Tombs, a favorite alias of Simon Templar. Falkayne has a passing thought about the chance that had thrown those old books his way when he was growing up...

     Despite the wide-ranging collection of assorted realizations of Simon Templar in a variety of formats, I'm not sure how well Charteris regarded the efforts that did not come directly from his own hand. Most people may remember Roger Moore as the Saint from the 1960s televison show - but Moore is rather different from the physical descriptions Charteris supplied. There are suggestions Patrick McGoohan was offered the role, but turned it down because of some objections he had about the morality of the Saint. He certainly was a closer physical match, and there are a number of episodes of Danger Man that could have been turned into Simon Templar adventures with a few minor tweaks. The Saint is still intriguing enough that proposals for a new set of adventures keep popping up...

     Well, what have you run across where something was lost in translation? Good movies turning into bad books, or vice versa? How about things that were improved by translation? Feel free to share - and good wishes for a speedy recovery by Ellid while we're at it.

Originally posted to xaxnar on Sat Jun 29, 2013 at 06:51 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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