It’s been quite a few years since I watched 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But I distinctly remember the first time I watched it; I had a real sense of joy, of childish wonder, as something that I loved was translated faithfully on to the big screen. Then, partway through the film, there was a moment when the dialogue changed. Instead of Aslan’s presence in Narnia being the cause of hope among the animals, it was the presence of the children. In such a faithful movie, a change on this scale was jarring, and seriously damaged my enjoyment of the film.
It’s an experience that any fan can relate to. Do you like The Hobbit in its original written format? Then there are changes made in the movies that may sit uncomfortably with you. Are you a fan of Iron Man in the comics, and were you looking forward to seeing the menace of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3? Then you may be one of the fans who were furious at the movie’s portrayal. And if you’re an X-Men fan, then you may be constantly railing against Fox, irritated and annoyed as things you’ve read for years change shape and form.
The latest storm was over the appearance of Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse. Entertainment Weekly got some pre-CGI images, and the Internet went ablaze with frustration. But here’s the thing; I think all too often fans are irritated because their expectations aren’t met. I don’t think the design of Apocalypse is necessarily bad; it’s just not what the fans were expecting. But why is this the case?
Let’s borrow an analogy from literary translation. When you translate from one language to another, you can choose two approaches: word-for-word (likely harder to understand, but more faithful to the original form) and thought-for-thought (easier to understand, but plays freely with the original language). I think the same is true with translating from one form (e.g. comics, novels, manga) to another (in this case, to movies). So you can represent it on a sliding scale, sort of like this:
Now let’s examine how different movies have handled things, just to check whether or not the idea works..
I, Robot: Thought for Thought
Based on the worlds of Isaac Asimov, I, Robot streamlines them all down into an action-adventure movie of the kind utterly unfamiliar to fans of the original books. Sure, there’s some name-dropping, but in general the main similarity is to be found in the Laws of Robotics – the centrepiece of Asimov’s novels, and the beating heart of the movie. Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman had taken a single concept from Asimov’s books – albeit the most crucial concept – and based their entire film on it. It’s thought-for-thought, capturing a central concept and making something completely original based upon it.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 – ditching even the thoughts!
Now this is where it gets controversial. The Harry Potter movies had famously taken as close to a word-for-word approach as they could, with a most notable shift in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And then, in the final battle, Steve Kloves chooses to rewrite the whole climatic scene for dramatic effect. The movie was a critical success, winning several awards, but many Harry Potter fans felt the ending was jarring. Opinion was divided as to whether fans preferred the book or the film.
The reason this was so jarring is that Steve Kloves’ script had suddenly changed gears. A franchise noted for being more word-for-word had suddenly played fast and loose with them, pretty much abandoning even the thoughts behind the final battle. The context made this stand out all the more.
Captain America: The First Avenger – middle of the range
Based on comics that are over 50 years old, it’s natural that Captain America: The First Avenger takes liberties with the comic-book canon. At the same time, though, it’s able to draw upon a rich history of continual reinterpretation within comics themselves – this story has been told anew at least twice, with Heroes Reborn in the ‘90s and the Ultimate Universe in the 2000s. Blending these carefully, it still manages to be pretty faithful to the original. It’s roughly middle-of-the-range, but pulling it off with enough style that many fans think it’s much closer to word-for-word.
Iron Man 3 - let controversy abound!
Let's move to one of the interesting ones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - Iron Man 3. In this case, the Mandarin was dramatically redesigned, to the extent that fans were left furious. And again, the principle stands.
Fans have become used to Marvel movies at least seeming to be word-for-word translations. That makes dramatic changes - like the identity of the Mandarin - all the more jarring. It makes this film, which has considerable strong points, sit very uncomfortably among the wider MCU. Context is key here - because the fans are used to word-for-word, this much faster and looser approach stands out like a sore thumb.
And yet, somehow Marvel have managed to keep their reputation as being word-for-word translators. It's actually quite an impressive trick, and only occasionally - as in this case - have they stumbled.
Now back to X-Men: Apocalypse
Comic book fans have been spoiled with the [Marvel Cinematic Universe](tag:1096390), watching with joy as – they believed – comics were translated word-for-word to the big screen.
But Fox have never enjoyed such a reputation for word-for-word. From the outset, they’d redesigned the X-Men to suit the big screen, abandoning superhero costumes in favour of black leather. X-Men: First Class took a step back to the original X-Men costumes, but even this movie still played fast-and-loose with the concepts. The Banshee of X-Men: First Class was a teenager, not a shady ex-espionage agent, and Havok is most certainly not Cyclops' little brother! The same comic book fans who cheer at the Marvel Cinematic Universe for basically being middle-of-the-road in translating comics into films also watch Fox – and they see something very different.
Let’s take a look at some of the designs from Entertainment Weekly, and particularly contrast Psylocke and Apocalypse:
This Psylocke is, frankly, startlingly close to the original design. Sure, you can tell that CGI is going to be deployed strategically – Olivia Munn’s Psylocke will probably look as though she’s showing a bit more cleavage, and the strips of fabric keeping the arm-and-leg-bands in place will no doubt disappear. But when you compare the Psylocke design to the costume the character wore in the 1990s, you’re left with the conclusion that Psylocke has been rendered almost 'word-for-word'. It's actually pretty unusual for Fox (the same is true of Storm's look, incidentally).
Olivia Munn comments like this:
Psylocke’s outfit or uniform or suit or whatever you want to call it is very sexual. I’ve got like my thigh-highs and a halter, but the thing about that, and that was important, is that it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing as long as we’re all aware of who she is. She’s very strong and she’s very lethal and she’s very powerful, and it doesn’t really matter what she’s wearing as long as you have that strength and that presence.
And then we come to Apocalypse. The look and feel remains Egyptian, closer to a design deployed in X-Men: Evolution, an animated TV series – and perhaps crossed with a look he bore in a mini-series entitled Apocalypse Versus Dracula. But other than those mostly-unnoticed overtures, this isn’t the Apocalypse fans would recognise.
It’s worth noting, of course, that again this is pre-CGI – the distinctive face-markings may yet be added through CGI. But this is very much a thought-for-thought interpretation of Apocalypse, more in tune with Fox’s general approach to the X-Men franchise.
The contrast between Psylocke and Apocalypse – one more word-for-word, the other more thought-for-thought – is what makes Apocalypse stand out all the more. And this is why fans have reacted so strongly; in Psylocke, they’re getting what Marvel Studios are conditioning them to expect, whereas in Apocalypse, they’re not. You could plot them on the sliding scale like this:
Now, I actually think that most fans are able to handle this discontinuity. However, to an increasingly vocal minority, Fox are betraying the franchise – and seriously winding them up.