Netflix gets plenty of well-deserved flack for their original anime unit. But the bigger joke is their live-action adaptation department.
These guys seem to constantly miss, turning beloved franchises into Avatar-level jokes overnight. Look at Death Note, an anime so popular that legions of fans still watch and rewatch the show long after its conclusion. But Netflix took the venerable animated series off its platform so they could replace it with their own live-action version. You might think that, with the appropriate production, this kind of thing would work. I wouldn’t say you’re wrong but more misguided. When Netflix decides to turn a beloved animated series into a live-action show, so many things need to go right.
The Problems of Medium Changes
The animation is a world of its own, with visual rules and logic of its own. The world of live-action doesn’t have nearly the flexibility or adaptability of the animated world. Hammerspace is not a thing in live action shows, and the drastically altered facial expressions for humor or intensity that are so commonly used in anime simply aren’t achievable. So, right away, we’re talking about a serious transfer of medium.
Our options go from the huge palette of animation tools to the comparatively far narrower and less imaginative tools of the live-action film production world. That’s not a transition many shows can make successfully. Very few have a story interesting and durable enough that you can overcome the inherent disappointment of the move to a live action format.
When the moments from the anime that played so beautiful in animation show up in live action, they often look messy, cluttered, or awkward. Jokes don’t land, visuals seem off-kilter, and the design philosophy of the original frames quickly evaporates under the glare of the hot studio lamps.
But let’s consider an adaption that looks like it could be successful. Netflix’s adaptation of The Dark Crystal seems extremely promising. Of course, they made smart decisions. They stuck with the puppetry of the original, avoiding modern 3D modeling techniques. This keeps the look of the show faithful to the original beloved by so many. Not only does this improve the show, but it also generates huge goodwill within the fan base.
When you’re launching an adaptation of a successful show in a new medium, you need the fans of the original to be excited and behind you one-hundred percent. Without their full-throated support and participation, you won’t get nearly the size of the market you could otherwise. And you’ll be leaving opportunities on the table, especially when potential franchise newbies see how much the OG fans dislike the adaptation. It’s hard to like something that everyone else seems to hate, after all, and this network effect should not be ignored by studios.
Casting is the single most important decision in a live-action adaptation. Look at Death Note, where incorrect casting killed that movie in its cradle. Not that casting is easy: there’s virtually no “good” way to cast an animated character into live-action. Once you’ve made them flesh-and-bones, you can be sure to collect complains quickly.
Once you translate an animated world into the three-dimensional meatspace of live action, you can be sure to get piles of caustic letters ripping you for your casting decisions, no matter what they are. If the casting isn’t a problem, it’s the costumes.
If the race of a character changed during casting or adaptation, be prepared to defend that decision on Twitter for weeks. This is especially ironic when the characters within the original animation had no clearly defined race. But all humans have a defined race: we can’t find a person without one. As a result, the casting ends up making statements and decisions that limit the scope of the adaptation. This can derail even faithful interpretations right off the bat.
If the casting choice is wrong, everything else will crumble. Fans of the series need to see the old character in the new. That’s one of the reasons Solo: A Star Wars Story was so unsuccessful. Not many Star Wars fans can see a young Harrison Ford in Alden Ehrenreich. It feels like a cheap comparison. The new model clearly suffers when held up to the obviously better original. Once that comparison is set in your viewers’a mind, you’ll have a hard time shaking it. This means so many projects are sunk as soon as they’re cast.
It’s Hard Out There
Live-action adaptations will always be let down by the necessary and damaging transition from animation to live action. But that doesn’t mean they need to be awful. With attention to detail, respect for the material, and clear communication with the existing fan base, any project can be a success. But it is imperative that the production has the support of the existing fan base. The loss of your original series fans is a blow that an adaptation could likely not recover from.
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