Adaptation By Someone Else

One game that got some press at last week’s E3, the game industry’s annual event where games are announced and/or demo’d, was the upcoming Total War: Three Kingdoms. Apparently it was announced back in January, but I hadn’t heard of it until now.

And I am intrigued.

The Total War series are strategy games that unlike, say, StarCraft or Red Alert, tend to focus on real wars, be they Roman, Napoleonic, or set in Feudal Japan. They’ve been on the periphery of my awareness, as games that are cool — and I do like my strategy games — but I’ll probably never check out. But they’re making one set in the Three Kingdoms!

Three Kingdoms, for the uninitiated, refers to a classic period in Chinese history during the fall of the Han dynasty where the realm was split between, well, three warring kingdoms. The stories were more-or-less codified in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of Three Kingdoms, an epic that romanticizes the period in a big way. The book, and the surrounding history, has been the source for countless works in China (and neighboring East Asian countries), be they in film, television, or video games.

So Total War: Three Kingdoms has my attention for turning its attention towards a source you usually don’t see in western media. Despite being incredibly prolific in Asia, you’re not really likely to encounter Romance of Three Kingdoms or anything based on it unless you’re actively looking for it. To see a Western strategy game focus on stories that I heard growing up is really, really neat.

But it also raises some questions.

There’s already been a ridiculous amount of games (and media) based on and around Romance of Three Kingdoms. Dynasty Warriors has been around for over twenty years and we’ve had movies like Red Cliff. What difference does it make that some other group is telling the story? And why is my gut response “oh, cool!”?

Maybe it’s because it’s exciting to see something considered kinda niche be put a little bit closer to the mainstream. These are stories I know about because I grew up in a culture around them (Zhuge Liang was a fixture in bedtime stories) and took a class to study the book in college, but most of my other peers (here, in New York) aren’t terribly aware of them. A western developer making a game about it is sorta uplifting the stories from their corner and into a spotlight.

Which then raises the question of why it seems like it’s being uplifted. Is Romance of Three Kingdoms just being big in Asia not good enough? Why does it getting attention from the West make it seem like more of a big deal? We tend to categorize stories and genres; drama is taken more serious than an action movie, live action taken more serious than animation, and so on. The Three Kingdoms period taking front-and-center in a western video game makes it seem like it’s finally being ‘taken serious,’ but it’s already been taken serious for years (heck, generations), in other parts of the world.

I think this might be something that’s more self-reflective than anything. My excitement at seeing this has to force me to ask myself why do I feel this way about this. ‘cuz all the reactions I write about here are my own, and I have to wonder why I’m so quick to discount Dynasty Warriors or other works based around the Three Kingdoms. It’s a sort of latent colonial thinking, where something from a non-Western group is not as good, or as cool, as something done by a Western group.

None of this, of course, should be seen as a negative take on Total War: Three Kingdoms or the fact that I may actually get this game (I get to field Liu Bei as a hero? Awesome). I still think it’s really cool to see it in the spotlight like this, but I still have to ask myself: why am I excited about it now?

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On Rose and Trolls

The internet is often a place as terrible as it is wonderful. This past week, Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose in The Last Jedi, left Instagram (and social media in general) after months of sexist and racist harassment. Months.

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. Daisy Ridley (aka: Rey) left Instagram for much the same reason. Back in 2016 I wrote about Chelsea Cain leaving Twitter after being bullied for writing Mockingbird. This outpouring of toxicity from so-called fans is nothing new. But I think, as in an incident like this, there’s a conflation of criticism and bullying that creates this awful trolling.

First, a word on trolls: these are folks who make other people feel terrible for sport. That being a racist, sexist dirtbag helps is secondary. There have been trolls about as long as there’s been an internet, but as women and people of color have developed more of a presence online, trolling targeted at race and/or gender has become far more pronounced. Trolls are the people who bullied Kelly Marie Tran off of Instagram. The question here isn’t why these people do what they do, it’s what gives the fuel for what they do.

The Last Jedi merrily deconstructs a lot of the Star Wars saga. Director Rian Johnson torches much of what we expect from a Star Wars film, like making Luke into a guilt-ridden recluse and questioning the need for Jedi. This is a movie that subverts a lot of expectations for the film and feels no need to appease whatever it is a fanboy might want. As Kylo Ren says, it’s time to let the past die, and that means letting go of a lotta ideas of what a Star Wars movie has.

Now, Rose has proven a pretty controversial character in an already controversial movie. She is Star Wars’ anti-establishment, anti-militarism bent at its most pronounced, a character disgusted by the military industrial complex present on Canto Bight. She’s an idealist, a character archetype that’s falling out of vogue in the tendency for stories to be cynical and gritty. Her arc culminates in stopping Finn’s suicide run, saying to save what they love instead of fighting what they hate. More than anything, she’s someone who genuinely believes in the Resistance making the galaxy a better place, and not in it for the vainglorious fight against the First Order (like Poe), or Finn’s need to save himself (as she’s foiled against). Depending on who you ask, she’s a welcome addition to the franchise or a cheesy character who adds nothing. Obviously, I’m of the former opinion (I am here for idealists!). There’s also the fact that she’s played by an Asian woman, and we need more non-sexualized Asian women in genre fiction.

But if people have an issue with The Last Jedi and what it does with Star Wars, Rose is an easy scapegoat. She’s another addition to the saga’s stable of heroic characters who aren’t white guys and she’s a source of romantic idealism in a movie that’s rather bleak. If you’re someone pissed off at a perceived “social justice agenda” that’s ruining the movies, here’s a sure sign of it all. And then this negativism feeds the trolls and then the lines between criticism and bullying get blurred. Trolls can claim they’re just criticizing Rose and The Last Jedi and any criticism of the film can be grouped in with the trolling.

And it’s awful, and that really goes without saying. Because, again, Kelly Marie Tran is absolutely wonderful as Rose, but even if she wasn’t, even if The Last Jedi sucked, that doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk on the internet. When it comes down to it, the vitriol she’s faced online stems from the sexism and racism still entrenched in much of nerd culture (see also: anytime comics attempt to diversify, Anita Sarkeesian and video games). It’s inexcusable, plain and simple. And I don’t know what the solution is, besides people not being terrible human beings. Maybe one day diversity will become so normal that people won’t have the need to pick on people for being different.

But really, shouldn’t it be like that already?

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Genre Bending

Altered Carbon is an oddball of a show. It’s got a science fiction setting, but primarily draws on noir for a lot of its narrative structure. Beyond that, though, it draws on a whole host of other science fiction media for inspiration, to varying effect.

The show is science fiction noir in the stylings of Blade Runner. And it’s really, really heavily cribbing from the Blade Runner stylebook. You’ve got flying cars that don’t look a hair out of place flying around a dingy, multicultural metropolis that’s pretty often rain soaked. There’s also a pervasive existential theme, owing to Altered Carbon’s conceit that human consciousness is held in a chip and thus the relationship between body and identity is a lot more tenuous than normal. A lot of this can be chalked up to the noir genre, what with gumshoes hired to take on a case and all that. The atmosphere, for the most part, is appropriately heavy and somber for the most part. It’s a crappy future, the rich get away with all sorts of (futuristic!) crime and the police are powerless. Like I said, very noir. Altered Carbon, however, goes in some very different places over its ten episodes.

For all its noir trappings, Altered Carbon is really loathe to give up the gunfight. In lieu of tense shootouts that are the hallmark of noir films (and Blade Runner, which, this cannot be overstated, is a massive influence on Altered Carbon), we get a lotta gun play straight out of your big action movie of choice. Heck, there’s a sequence where two characters are surrounded by Yakuza and soldiers out to kill them and, what do they do? They go back-to-back to shoot the attackers in a sequence ripped straight out of the video game Army of Two. Now, I’m all for Big Action Scenes and I strongly support borrowing from video games for inspiration, but it all feels so incongruous set against what’s supposedly a very noir story. Altered Carbon tries to move around genres, but its noir trappings end up feeling like concrete shoes when it adds these odd things to the mix.

Genre bending is totally possible, and it can be done well. I’m not just talking about mashing two together, like Spider-Man: Homecoming taking a John Hughesian teen movie and smooshing it with a superhero story, but rather a story that jumps around its genres. Consider Community: ostensibly it’s a sitcom set in a community college about a ragtag group of friends. In actuality, it’s a show that contains within its six seasons pastiches of gangster films, Apollo 13, Die Hard, zombie movies, Law and Order, and a Ken Burns documentary — amongst much more. It works, in no small part because Community sets itself up as being perfectly aware of what genre it exists in and by playing every genre/narrative to the hilt. It bends its genres to tell the story it wants to tell; how better to explore a rift between best friends Troy and Abed than by a Civil War-style documentary? The show also sets itself up as a very silly world, so spending a half hour in a spy movie is hardly out of the ordinary — especially as it does it with aplomb.

Similarly, Cowboy Bebop (which I will not shut up about) refuses to be confined to any specific genre. Right off the bat, it sets itself firmly at the intersection of the western, gangster, and noir genres (in space!), leaning more into each of the three when necessary. Digging into Spike’s story lends itself well to taking on the hallmarks of a gangster movie, but following Jet means we’re in for a much more noir narrative. Throughout it all, though, Bebop keeps its other inspirations close at hand, it’s noir episodes have hints of Westerns sprinkled throughout. And, because Bebop positions itself at an intersection of genre, it’s perfectly in keeping with its stylings when it borrows from other genres, be they cyberpunk or horror. Bebop is a show so sure of itself that it can play around with its makeup and never lose its DNA. Conversely, Altered Carbon sets itself up so strongly in the noir genre that whenever it strays outside (ninjas! anti-establishment rebellion!) it feels like we’ve lost the plot. Genre bending is a lotta fun, but the trick is to do it within what you’ve set as the boundaries. The more flexible those boundaries, the more wild the story can go.

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Space Cowboys

I’m honestly surprised I didn’t stumble upon Cowboy Bebop earlier. It’s got a lotta my favorite things (cool ships, genre blending, a ragtag crew) and it is a maddeningly good show.

It also bears more than a few resemblances to another show about space cowboys that I love: Firefly. Or more Firefly resembles Cowboy Bebop, given that the former show came a few years after Bebop. Now, there’s a wealth of writing to be had about the similarities between the shows. For one, and not just the idea of a crew on a ramshackle ship trying to make ends meet. There’s their setting on, for the most part, the edges of civilization. The civilization present is a mismatch of contemporary cultures; Firefly is a mix of American and Chinese, Bebop a jazzy blend with a little of everything. Aesthetically, both draw on the Western, telling stories about what are inarguably cowboys. Characters too bear more than a passing resemblance to each other; Spike Spiegel and Malcolm Reynolds are both cool gunslingers who give off an aura of being disaffected loners but really have hearts of gold beneath. These may sound like broad strokes individually, but the gestalt of these elements is more than a little suspect (that the makers of Firefly have stayed mum on the topic of Bebop doesn’t help). Again, there’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s not what we’re gonna talk about today.

Rather, let’s focus on how both these shows have one season and a movie, but do totally different things.

This similarity is, at least, wholly coincidental. Firefly was, sadly, canceled early in its run and was clearly intended to last for a few seasons. Bebop tells the story it wants to tell in its 26 episodes and resolves itself. As such, their movies do different things.

Let’s talk about Serenity first, Firefly’s movie. Given the show’s abrupt ending, the film does a lot of work to create a proper resolution and give some closure to the narrative. Serenity succeeds, it brings back these characters for a final hurrah and gives ‘em a big quest. Would it have been better suited to play out over a couple years of television? Certainly. As it is, the film takes elements of the show (River’s past, the mysterious Reavers, Simon and Kaylee) and develops them further. We find out what made River the way she is and the sexual tension between Simon and Kaylee is finally resolved. Serenity provides Firefly with the ending it never got.

Cowboy Bebop, however, decidedly ends. The major plot threads scattered around the show, particularly Spike’s history with the Syndicate, Julia, and Vicious, and Faye’s mysterious past, are wrapped up by the end of the show. Or a lease as wrapped up as they mean to be. Bebop thrives off suggestion rather than explanation and there are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the final episode, but it is a complete resolution. The show has told the story it wants to tell and it’s done. If you watch the movie looking to to see if Spike and Faye get together or to see the triumphant reunion of Ed and Ein with the rest of the crew, then, well, tough. The movie is essentially a really long episode, which is a lotta fun because, well, extra long episode. But it doesn’t add to the overarching narrative of the show in the way Serenity does. That’s in no small part because Cowboy Bebop doesn’t need any more resolution than it has. To add more to it, to explain away some of what was left hanging, would diminish the show as a complete work.

Every now and then people talk about making a movie based on a tv show. Community had the refrain of Six Seasons and A Movie and everyone and then there’s some fan buzz about making a Chuck movie. But there’s never much question of what those movies would entail. Community wrapped up nicely, do we need to add another chunk of plot? Conversely, bringing the bang back together for one last mission in Chuck would be a lot of fun, but it would by nature have to remove all ambiguity from the show’s ending. And though Firefly and Cowboy Bebop have a lot in common, their different narratives necessitated different sorts of movies. There’s no one-size-fit-all trick to stories, and really, that’s part of the fun.

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Motivated Acceleration

I am endlessly fascinated by mediums. No, not people who claim to talk to ghosts; rather the forms that stories can take. Why does this story work better as a novel? Why this a video game? Why that a play?

It’s usually adaptations where you can see the cracks that are the chasms between mediums. Consider the recent comic adaptation of The Last Jedi, which is essentially a beat-for-beat retelling, it doesn’t quite capture all the visual splendor of the movie. BB-8 trying a variety of attempts to fix Poe’s X-Wing is far less interesting on the page. There are other additions that use the strength of comics, though. But point is, there are some things that would only really work on in one medium.

And Infinity War has a fantastic moment that could only have worked on film. Consider this a mild spoiler warning for someone who hasn’t seen any trailers and really doesn’t know what’s going on in that movie.

In the third act, a group of heroes prepare to defend Wakanda from the Black Order and their army. A gap is opened in the shield to funnel in the advancing bad guys, and the heroes prepare to attack. Black Panther gives an order to his soldiers, they ready their weapons, he yells “Wakanda Forever!” and leads the charge. He, Okoye, Captain America, Black Widow, Bucky, War Machine, and the others rush forward together. This is a terrifically epic moment in and of itself, but it’s what comes next that I wanna talk about. As the good guys run towards the advancing Outriders, two people pull ahead of the pack: Captain America and Black Panther. It makes perfect sense within the lore: they’re both extra fast because of the super-soldier serum and heart-shaped herb, respectively; and they’re also two of the bravest characters in the MCU. Seeing these two lead the charge is a delightful visual gag.

And it’s one that only works in film (we’re gonna ignore tv for now because budget constraints).

It wouldn’t work quite as well in prose, given that a strong part of what makes the beat work is the visual of it. Being able to see the scale of it all as well as seeing Cap and T’Challa pull ahead on film. The thrill of it would play out differently, and probably a little less viscerally. This you gotta see for it to work as it does.

So let’s go back to comics, y’know, where these characters came from. As dope a splash page as the beat would look, it doesn’t convey a key part of the gag: acceleration. Everyone starts out together, but it’s only those two who are absolutely racing towards the bad guys. They didn’t get a head start, they’re just that much faster. Ah, but the joy of comics is that they can be sequential panels. The first panel has them all together, second has Cap and T’Challa a little ahead, and in the third they’re attacking Outriders while the others lag behind. Classic three beat structure. But that’s three panels; panels take up space, and space implies importance. What was a quick moment in the film is now made more important than it was. Still cool, but no longer the quick gag.

Video games are visual and those visuals move, so maybe here we have a strong contender. Let’s not imagine this as a cutscene (because what are cutscenes other than short films?) but rather a playable segment. By virtue of games’ interactivity you’re immediately given a leg up on being a visceral thing. You’re part of the charge. But, if you’re playing as Steve Rogers or T’Challa will you notice that you’re ahead? If you’re a foot soldier or Bucky Barnes will you be too preoccupied with your assault to notice? The interactivity of games also means there’s an element of subjectivity. Playing Halo’s The Silent Cartographer on a difficult level is a solo affair, with most of the AI marines being picked off by the Covenant early on, but if you’re playing it on easy you’re part of a small army. Or it could be not getting a certain plot point in a Mass Effect game for not going on a certain sidequest. In essence, there’s no way to guarantee something lands, that the player experiences a certain thing a certain way (without taking control away from the player).

Which I guess is where film shines. Not only does it have visual storytelling, but the fact that the camera is motivated lets us see exactly what the storyteller wants us to see. Consider the shot in question again: we see everyone running forward, then the camera follows Captain America and Black Panther as the pull ahead and lead the way into the fray. The shot lasts barely a couple of seconds (if that), but it’s a fantastic little moment. We take it in and process it instantly. It’s a terrific beat, and one that would only spent the way it does in film.

You could have a similar gag in another medium, but it wouldn’t work quite the same way. A comic’s narration could draw attention to it in one panel, a game could use characters’ stats to similar effect. There are elements to media that really make them unique, and taking advantage of those elements will yield something really special.

Which is a really roundabout to say that guys, Infinity War is a lotta fun and an epic movie.

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Between a Wookie and a Hard Place

A recent trailer for Solo, that new Star Wars movie about, uh, Han Solo, ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. A (space) train hurtles along its tracks around a mountain as a battle rages atop it. It comes close to the cliff side and hanging out the train is none other then Chewbacca, and he is heading straight for an outcropping. The Wookie appears destined to certain doom as the trailer ends.

The question of whether Chewie survives became an ironic question in the wake of the trailer’s release. A particularly tongue-in-cheek theory was that the Chewbacca we meet in A New Hope is actually the son/clone of the Chewbacca in Solo. The meaning behind the joke was clear: why is this trailer trying to fake us out with these stakes when we know Chewbacca survives to the Original Trilogy?

So here I am, finding myself talking about stakes again, but it’s late and I’ve spent the whole day on set so I’m allowed to ramble.

Whether or not Chewbacca survives is a bit of a boring question, as there are only two answers and we already know which one is right. Hinging all the tension on something that simple isn’t terribly narratively interesting. But if we know that Chewbacca survives, we can then ask a more productive question: how does Chewie survive? Does Han tug him in? Does Lando grab him? Does a Stormtrooper’s heart grow three sizes? Does he pull himself in?

In some ways, it’s the relief of a spoiler. In a time when so many storytellers like to keep their audience on bated breath by making them ask if these characters will survive, it’s kinda nice to know that “hey, these guys make it out alright.”

Prequels are movies that inherently have seemingly low tension. We know Obi-Wan and Anakin are gonna survive Episodes I-III because, duh. But the interesting question is how does Anakin become a Jedi and then betray them all. That such a loaded question is given such a weak answer may be one of the prequels greatest failings. Think of all the potential “how”s that were answered with, well, Anankin walking into Palpatine’s office at the wrong moment. Not a terribly satisfying answer.

For a better example, maybe look at Monsters University. We know, because of Monsters, Inc. that Sully and Mike are best buds. We know that Mike is not gonna end up as a scarer, but we also know that he’s okay with that. The start of University sees a very excited, hopeful Mike whose heart is set on becoming a scarer. How does he end up where he ends up? It’s a pretty meaty question, seeing as it involves a protagonist’s goal shifting so wildly. University answered it by letting us know that what Mike wants isn’t what he needs. Though where he ends up might be a foregone conclusion, the process of getting there is interesting. Again, if knowing how it ends spoils it, why would a movie be worth rewatching? Why hear a story again?

I realize I’ve spent an inane amount of words talking about a simple beat in the Solo trailer that exists just for that tension you want in a trailer. Chewie probably just pulls himself back in. Heck, the shot may be from another sequence and it’s just cut that way to look dangerous. Solo will probably still work even though we know Han, Chewbacca, and Lando are gonna make it out alright. I wanna know how they make it out — and what happens along the way.

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Top Nine Movies of 2017

So it’s almost halfway through the year and I’m finally putting together my year end list. For 2017. Yeah. Kinda forgot about it. And by forgot about I mean procrastinated.

Anyway! Here we go! Top Nine; leaving a space just in case there was something amazing I missed.

9. Logan

This one edges out Thor Ragnarok just by virtue of how singular it is (though Ragnarok is also quite singular in a different way). Logan takes the idea of a dark and gritty superhero film but, rather than using this just to show how adult and grownup it is, it funnels it into a heavy atmosphere that evokes a Morricone western by way of The Last of Us. The result is a beautiful contradiction, the pulpy fun of a superhero story set in a harsh, unforgiving mood. That Logan has something to say and it’s not just “look how gritty and violent I can be with my R-rating” is the icing on its brutal cake.

8. Coco

Where do I begin. It’s no exaggeration when I say that Pixar is home to some of the best storytellers in the world, and Coco proves that point over and over again. It’s a fantasy, but one that draws on Mexican traditions rather than western ones. Not content with just being a fairy tale with a Latinx cast, Coco revels in its beauty and celebrates love and family.

7. Lady Bird

It’s so seldom that we see a movie about being a teenager that presents it as, well, just how it is. Lady Bird makes no attempt to overly romanticize or deglamorize turning eighteen and the result is a movie that feels beautifully, brutally honest. There’s no judgement of poor decisions, no moralizing, it’s just life.

6. The Big Sick

Like Lady Bird right above, The Big Sick tells a very specific, personal story (that of the co-writers’) and in doing so tells a story that feels very personal. Maybe I’m biased, given that I’ve spent my time in and around hospitals and am currently in an interracial relationship, but isn’t the point of art the way it affects you the viewer? Plus, the movie has heart to spare and I will never not be happy to see mixed race relationships on screen.

5. Get Out

Speaking of interracial relationships! It’s a horror movie where white people are the monster. If that’s not inventive enough to warrant Get Out a place on this list, than know that the movie operates with such craft and imagination that it never feels like a one trick pony getting by on that conceit. At times both funny and terrifyingly tragic, Get Out is a great movie that looks at race relations with a horror movie’s lens. And hot damn, it works.

4. Atomic Blonde

There is always a joy in finding a movie that knows exactly what sort of movie it is and then plays it to the hilt. Atomic Blonde is a stylish, sexy spy movie whose Cold War Berlin punk influences permeate every aspect of its design. Throw in some terrific action scenes and more style than half the movies released last year combined and you have the recipe for a really kickass action movie.

3. Baby Driver

One of my favorite parts about driving is listening to music. Baby Driver makes that element of soundtrack vital to its slick, slick style. Technically excellent (that editing! that sound design! that driving!), it also tells a really fun story with some really fun characters. Edgar Wright is one of my favorite directors, and Baby Driver does not disappoint.

2. The Last Jedi

Where The Force Awakens was a celebration of what made the original movies so great, The Last Jedi forges a path into what Star Wars can be. I’ve written a bunch about it on this blog, and suffice to say, it finds ways to reinvent and play with the Star Wars mythos without losing the heart of the saga. Plus, the Throne Room fight is one of the best action sequences in a Star Wars film.

1. Your Name

It’s an anime where two teenagers, a boy living in the city and a girl in the countryside, wake up in each other’s bodies. And it will make you cry as it runs circles around whatever genre (rom-com, teenager comedy, etc) you try and pin it in.. It’s so hard for me to sum up why I love this movie so I’m just gonna make quick statements. It’s really funny. It does a lot with its fantastical elements. It’s uniquely Japanese. The music. The animation. The feels. Your Name is a movie that can somehow only exists within the innate magical realism of an anime. It’s really a wonderful, wonderful film.

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