Akira and the Art of AdaptationPosted: January 25, 2014
In case you hadn’t heard, word came down yesterday that Rupert Sanders is attached to direct the live-action American redo of Ghost in the Shell. Given that Sanders has only directed one movie (Snow White and the Huntsmen) and is known as much for his affair with Kristen Stewart as anything else, it’s a move that screams “unmotivated corporate cash-in!” And I have no reason to think Sanders won’t do a decent job, but he also doesn’t seem like the sort of filmmaker that has a really unique stamp to put on any given project; he seems more the sort to just take work-for-hire jobs and then execute them as well as possible. And in thinking about this, I was reminded of all the hoopla and vitriol surrounding the recent attempts at a live-action Akira, and found myself reconsidering the unending difficulty of how to make adaptations work. So if you’ll permit me, I’ll explore that topic after the jump:
It’s worth pointing out that doing an American Ghost in the Shell should be a relatively straightforward process. Aside from some musings on the nature of the soul and cyborgs (which can be tackled in any culture in any medium), it’s mostly just a futuristic police procedural, and as far as animes go it should be a easy transition into the Hollywood blockbuster formula. Akira, on the other hand, is a much deeper and more thematic narrative, that is so married to the cultural context in which it was created, that any attempt to Americanize it is fraught with great peril.
Having said that, I don’t think it’s impossible; it just requires a level of forethought and personality that a Hollywood studio is not going to bother with. Realistically, it requires a high-level distinctive filmmaker with a clear voice and vision of what to do with the narrative; y’know, the kind of filmmaker that would probably know better than to try and redo Akira in the first place. But even in that case, there is a great deal to consider. Akira is so built on its origins (1980s Japan, a country still scarred by the atom bomb, anxious about its youth and seeing a resurgence of militant nationalism) that trying to remove the story from that context is very likely a fool’s errand. It’s an issue that highlights the distinction between narrative and theme, and whether the two can be separated without completely changing the property (and how much change is acceptable for an adaptation).
The key to adapting something like Akira is to completely take it apart, find out how all the various parts work together, and then replace the ones that don’t fit with the best corollary possible. It’s something that Kubrick did repeatedly throughout his career (Dr. Strangelove, for example, highlights the absurdities of nuclear annihilation, but it was working off the narrative of what was actually a Clancyesque thriller initially), and many of the best adaptations do the same. So let’s consider Akira. On the surface, it’s a dystopian scifi about a group of young street punks who get caught up in a revolution against a militant government that’s using psychic children as weapons, all of it connecting in some way to the titular long-lost psychic. If you take that basic narrative framework, you could replace Japanese militant nationalism with the War on Terror surveillance state, swap mistrusted and disenfranchised youth with struggling immigrants, and exchange the trauma of a nuclear attack with the lingering fears of 9/11 and Katrina. By approaching the same basic narrative with a wholly different cultural context (not just “Hey let’s cast white people and set it in New York), you end up with a movie that stays true to the spirit of the original Akira without feeling like a cynical misuse of its story.
(Of course you could just create an all-new dystopian narrative that’s specifically designed to handle those themes instead of hitching them to an already-established concept, but I’d rather get a smart reimagining than nothing at all, which is unfortunately the choice more often as not.)
This does of course raise the question of why even bother with the adaptation if it’s going to change so much; while that might not matter much to the suits it’s something worth considering from an artistic storytelling perspective. For the most part I think that using the basic framework of a previously existing story to highlight new, more unique themes is a valid artistic choice… but it does have to be artistic. The big issue with the attempts at American Akira is that they’re bringing in filmmakers like the Hughes Brothers and Jaume Collet-Serra, who are fine enough filmmakers but also seem to be in the Rupert Sanders mold. If Akira is going to get done correctly, you need a strong, definitive filmmaking voice driving it, who recognizes how closely the narrative is tied to the themes and culture and that an American version needs to be adjusted accordingly, similar to what I just did above.
Fans, then, need to ask if they’d rather have an adaptation that closely mirrors the original plotwise (but is shallow and uninspired) or something that uses the architecture and iconography to tell a different story for a different time and place. For my money, I’d rather see the legacy of Akira be expanded and deepened rather than cheapened and action-ed up. All told, I feel that adaptations (and remakes) are not inherently a bad idea; it’s just that the standard Hollywood approach to them is very misguided and based more on broad strokes and easy marketing than any artistic guiding light. Or to put all of this another way:
But there is still an artistic process in retelling a story, and like any other artistic process if you strangle it there will be missteps and failures. Moral of the story: if you HAVE to repurpose someone else’s movie, get some A-list talent, give them free reign to make it their way, make sure they bring some new ideas to the table and the movie will be much better for it. And then pigs will fly.