From space opera to space sitcom

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PUBLISHED December 19, 2021

KARACHI:

It took 21 days – five less than the original’s final episode count – for Netflix’s live-action remake of Cowboy Bebop to be officially banned from production purgatory. Following a string of bad reviews and a lukewarm reception to the best of the audience, the writing seemed to be on the wall.

“Maybe next time, Space Cowboy – this live Bebop has a pretty fun crew to hang out with, but it disappointingly replaces the soul of the source material with kitsch,” the ‘ Critics Consensus’ from popular critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The series holds a final review score of 45% on the same and a slightly better audience score of 57%. Not enough to save him.

Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop isn’t the first live-action adaptation of a beloved franchise to go wrong. It won’t be the last either. However, the producers and writers of such adaptations these days have developed a book of answers to the inevitable cancellations. Toxic fandoms or Guardian fans are the new types of fall used to defend bad adaptations. We heard it with the prophetic name The Last Jedi not too long ago and we hear it now, once again.

To be fair, die-hard fans can tend to judge too much, even when a new adaptation has barely been announced. Still, there’s a feeling of a scapegoat rather than soul-searching among media practitioners given the series of bad adaptations we’ve seen.

In search of nuance

Perhaps the best proof of the Cowboy Bebop adaptation gap is in the various reissues circulating on YouTube that add a trail of laughter to its characters’ “punches”. So what went wrong? Of course, the true knowledge of the series’ development process will be held only by its developers. Were they “true fans” of the original, as they urged in various promotional pieces before the show? Or were the cynics right and the writers and producers contenders looking to cash in on another franchise opportunity? We can let the anime gods decide on that one.

We can, however, identify a pattern. This is, after all, not the first US media dud trying to adapt a Japanese property (anyone even remembers the 2017 live-action film Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson). We also have better-received adaptations for comparison. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, can claim a phenomenal reputation with even lower entries generally receiving favorable reviews from critics and old and new fans. The same is true of many other adaptations of American comics, although there are still successes and failures in this area. Sony’s original Spiderman trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films, and the two Hellboy films have achieved critical and popular success among varying levels of loyalty. Hollywood in particular and the American media in general have an even better record with adapting stories from Western canon, be it books, plays, or other films. Hollywood remakes of Hollywood classics, more often than not, tend to be exceptionally well received by critics.

Part of the problem with adapting foreign ownership can then be cultural. Japanese anime, manga, and other media are “shameless Japanese” in a way. This means that they are primarily aimed at a local audience, with any foreign call being a welcome surplus. This is true even when Japanese productions draw on foreign influences, as in the case of the original Bebop. From anime to live movies, Japanese media have their own unique sensibility and stylistic cadence.

This is something very difficult to pin down for any medium or art rooted in its own regional and historical tradition. For the company to which it belongs, this is an effortless quality – it just is. To adapt to a foreign tradition, you must first know how to articulate what needs to be adapted.

The aesthetics of animation

A second aspect is shaped by the limits of the tools used. Adaptations of animated works generally suffer from a similar problem as adaptations of video games. At least in part, they’re missing what makes the original “fun”. Live action cinema provides a very limited canvas compared to the two. In the case of video games, for example, the interaction is more appealing than the gripping story. In terms of animation, the possibilities offered by the medium are simply greater.

Take World Building: Animated worlds can be intricate and beautiful beyond the best film possibilities for a fraction of the cost. Even with an unlimited budget, the most skilled production team will have to work around physical limitations. Movement, likewise, is something almost impossible to master aesthetically when translating from animated format to live action. Action-oriented animated series owe some of their charm to gracefully choreographed animated sequences. In the original Cowboy Bebop, frantic Kung-Fu fights and aerial battles against energetic freestyle jazz contrasted with the meditative moments of the blues to give the show its stylistic charm. Even a perfect live-action remake would always have been a step backwards.

Spiritual successors and toxic fans

Interestingly, it can be said that Cowboy Bebop and other animated series like Ghost in the Shell already have live-action spiritual adaptations in Western media. The Matrix trilogy has long been known to be at least partially inspired by the latter. The 2002 Firefly series and more recently The Mandalorian owe at least some of their inspiration to Cowboy Bebop as they follow in his footsteps in the Space Western genre.

By paying homage instead of outright remaking a beloved property, writers and producers not only eschew a “gatekeeper” fandom, but also crave their positive attention. But why should Control fans have so much interest in the first place, some may ask. To be fair, a certain obnoxious segment of fans can push their “love” for certain media ownership to extremes ranging from unfounded negativity to online harassment of writers, producers and other fans. It can never be tolerated. Liking a product before someone else doesn’t give anyone the right to say. The public should behave in a courteous manner, no matter how “disappointed” they feel.

That said, adapting a popular franchise doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game between new and old audiences. It is possible to appeal to both sensitivities, as shown by well-made adaptations. An insidious trend in many media industries, including ours in Pakistan, is to attribute failure to an uncooperative audience. Good or bad – whether you shed your heart and soul, blood, sweat and tears – no audience should an audience for a product.


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