How We Are Failing the Adaptation

Ghost in the Shell 001

By: Michael Miller Jr.

My idea for this discussion came from watching a video, in which an article about how to do anime adaptations right was read and discussed. As I watched it, my DCEU Phase 1 PTSD flashbacks kicked into full force. Paraphrasing the article: “There is a formula that must be adhered to for these movies to be good”. ‘What is this?’ ‘Where have I heard this before?’ These were the questions I was asking myself. This is when I realized that while anime, which cared little about my opinion of it, was safe from the ideologies expressed in that article. The adaptations, specifically from Hollywood, were not. With that said, I thought the current mentality around Hollywood adaptations of Japanese comics and cartoons would be an interesting one to explore.

The western anime audience of which I myself am a part, is legitimately small. It’s growing, but it’s small nevertheless. Adaptations and other derivative forms of anime content are not abundant enough to give a large enough sample size to represent all of anime, but that is a discussion for the future. Obviously, it doesn’t hurt for a film to have the backing of the fans of the source material, but the unfortunate truth is that you do not need their backing. The source material will have the backing of the movie if the movie lands with the “general audience” which we have seen in pop culture again and again. Films have a much further reach and the fans of those films supply the source material’s fanbase with new curious members. The community of the source material get the greatest benefit from this relationship. It’s simple mathematics. Doing the opposite is preaching to the choir.

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To understand what makes an anime adaptation work, is the same as understanding the dynamics of any adaptation. However, before you discuss what makes an adaptation “work”, you must come to an agreement as to what “work” actually means. This is where things get a little tricky. Obviously, we all have our own opinion, and this is a matter of semantics, but I think the colloquial definition for “work” in this context is “be financially and ideally, critically successful”. I personally don’t believe I am qualified to speak on the merits of marketing a film. I am not here to denounce other journalists, bloggers and podcasters who take a more contemporary view on adaptations. However, I am going to give my clear and concise opinions on adaptations, specifically that of anime and manga.

The idea people have in their heads about the source material of any adaptation are all different. We all experience film uniquely as we do the source material that inspired them. I did not read more than a chapter or 2 of “Battle Angel Alita”, and when I had, it was many years ago. I am not an avid Batman comic book fan, but I really enjoyed “The Dark Knight” and see it as one of the best films in the last decade (11 years ago to be exact) as many of you likely do as well. Would I have enjoyed “Alita: Battle Angel” more if it had been like the manga in a greater capacity? I couldn’t possibly tell you. I am a superfan of this film, but I will not tell you that I am a superfan of this franchise. All I know is that I loved that movie for what it was, for what it is. Trying to retroactively validate how good something is by its success and then saying it was because of its similarities to the source material is a disingenuous and revisionist ideology. It’s shoehorning pop culture blockbuster gatekeeping onto these films, all the while revoking the hard work that goes into these adaptation and their source material. All of that is assuming you have knowledge of the source material to begin with. Assuming that is, we are going to believe that having that knowledge matters at all. To be frank, these assumptions shows a clear ignorance about how stories are made.

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The writer of the article I was reading initially mentioned that an anime adaptation had to capture “What it felt like to watch anime”. This is a sentiment that I have seen in regards to other adaptations, but I cannot help but assume that this kind of thinking is from someone who has no knowledge of anime. Or if they did, they certainly had a deep-seated disdain for it, as if all anime is the same and has a “feel”. I hear the same sentiments made regarding comic book and comic book adjacent adaptations from people who think there is a “formula” for how all adaptations should be done. Naturally, I disagree with that. The goal should be to create most sincere product.

On the same line I hear the claim that adaptations must grasp the intrinsic absurdity of the “genre”, presuming that all anime is absurd. This ties back into my comments about formula. Certainly, embracing the elements of a story that made it unique, all the while writing the story well could only help to capture the original audience while gathering potential new fans. Of course this is easier said than done. Yes, the adaptation must be earnest in its approach, but to insinuate that earnestness is only as good as far as it embraces absurdity, is in itself absurd.

I believe they need to make a film earnestly and not try to “Marvel Studios” their content by making themselves into a joke (Bathos) to avoid being criticized. You don’t make a product that stands the test of time that way.

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Most journalists that I have read seem to think that fictional content, superheroes and cartoons (anime) etc, are always better when they don’t take themselves “too seriously”. Of course, you can never not be serious enough according to many of these same people. Once again. Look at Alita. It took itself very seriously and was a phenomenal movie that got a passionate response from fans of the film. Look at The Dark Knight. I find the idea these adaptations shouldn’t be taken seriously to be an insult to the films, to the source material and its creators. I cannot help but repeat that these claims are not new. To be blunt, these criticisms have been levied at comic book adaptations time and time again, particularly that of the PG-13, DCEU, post Avengers variety. Comic books, anime and their creators as we know, take themselves incredibly seriously.

There seems to be this fetish for irreverence in these films, specifically among the bloggersphere (which I am a part) and I believe it’s killing cinema. I am also not saying that no adaptation can be irreverent, but here is where the disconnect lies. You will hear many speak about “getting the formula right” to all comic book and anime adaptations, they won’t however acknowledge that there isn’t a formula to the comics and anime themselves. While the stories, characters and aesthetic transfer once adapted, apparently the diversity and creative freedom do not. All the while, adaptations are only as good as their adherence to said source material. In other words, it makes no sense.

This logic is a square block and the issue, a round hole, in that there are no clear edges. Filmmaking is not that simple.


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