On the Idea of Adaptations
Recently, one of my friends linked me to an article on the upcoming Deadlands TV series, such as it is.
Apparently, it’s one of a second wave of new programming that’s being built for the XBox. This is all part of a move by Microsoft to create original programming for their gaming consoles in an effort to bring in a wider audience than they are currently holding sway over. Their philosophy is that they built both the X360 and the XB-1 as entertainment centers rather than simply platforms for video games, and this is the best way to showcase the idea.
As things go, it’s not a horrible plan. There’s going to be some stuff based on Halo, as it’s the main draw for a lot of people, and there’s going to be exclusive content for things like Bonnaroo. Microsoft has the money and influence to be able to swing exclusivity, so why not try to pull it into a new arena.
Predictably, there’s already a token amount of nerd outrage on the blog front. A few sites I skimmed over have the anticipated froth over ‘being forced to buy an XBox’ for things they want to watch, replete with the ‘I’ll just pirate it instead’ motif quickly following. I wish I could say that I was surprised by the reaction.
So, where do I stand on any of this? After all, I’ve made a point of selling Deadlands as one of my favored systems, partly because it stands as a solid example of horror role playing (usually a good sign, given my tendencies) and partly because it captures the flavor of the Old West with its cards and mechanics. The friend that linked it became an instant convert when I started running the game back in the day, and to see it rising again seems like something that should give me a cautious amount of joy, right? Especially since the announcement back in March that AEG was bringing back Doomtown, the Deadlands CCG from back in the day. It really seems like it’s a food year for Deadlands, crawling its way back from the dead like its signature Harrowed.
Well, that’s the thing.
On one hand, I’m glad that someone is finally recognizing Deadlands for how good it was. I’ve lamented its death in the early 2000’s, and it’s always seemed like there was a lot more that could be done with it. It was a good game, and everyone that has ever played it has raved about their experience of it.
But on the other hand, I don’t think the TV show is going to do anyone any good. There are simply too many factors working against it for it to hit big, and even if the writers manage to work some sort of unforeseen magic, the net effect of the publicity is going to do the exact wrong thing.
Let’s start with the obvious. Deadlands is a Horror Western, with Weird Science. This is an extremely narrow niche for source material. There have been a number of movies done with some of these as a theme in a Western, but they tend to rank as low as possible on the scale for movie quality. The high end of the scale will have movies like The Missing (which has vague supernatural elements) and possibly From Dusk ’till Dawn (if you rebuild the original into a proper Western, instead of the modern setting it has), and even these aren’t universally acclaimed like some of the more regular Westerns. From there, you have a whole slate of fairly awful movies that more or less fit the aesthetic of Deadlands. There’s Wild Wild West, which is probably the closest to the RPG, and no one thinks well of that one, save possibly for Deadlands players. Then there’s Ravenous, which actually deals with the supernatural in the form of a Wendigo and these days, I’m embarrassed to admit that I saw in the theatre. There’s Jonah Hex, Hangman’s Daughter, Tremors 4, Gallowwalker and so on. I will admit that I liked The Burrowers, but at this point, it stands as an outlier.
So, given the track record of Horror Westerns, it’s going to be a hard sell to get anyone to pay attention to Deadlands in the first place. Granted, it will be a captive audience of a sort, given that there will be a limited selection of new and exclusive content for the XBox users, but that’s hardly a draw to bring new people in.
There’s also a likely fear that it might not stay true to source. If you take the example of Jonah Hex, you have the title character being altered in the script to somehow have the power to speak with the dead. Part of the original draw of the comics was that Hex was simply a man with a grim history and a knack for surviving against heavy odds. There had been a well-regarded comic, Two Gun Mojo, that pitted him against zombies, but rather than adapt that, whomever worked up the script chose to do something notably different.
On the other end of the scale, there’s the fear that it might remain too close to source. There aren’t a lot of success stories when it comes to adapting RPG’s into movies or TV series, and one only has to look at the end result of trying to adapt Dragonlance into a cartoon to see where it could go badly. It’s worth noting that the guy responsible for getting the Dragonlance movie out was the same one that had tried to sell Dimension Films on a Deadlands movie back in 2001. For better or worse, he’s not involved in this venture.
And I’m specifically avoiding talking about the Dungeons & Dragons movie.
The best that can be hoped for is that whomever gets hold of the property has the sense to keep it subtle and paint it with a lot more of the Western aspects, rather than diving directly into the Horror parts. When it was first marketed, Deadlands took great pride in the zombies and the implied gore that went with it. “The Spaghetti Western With Meat” served as the tagline throughout 1st Edition, and I’m hoping that this isn’t the idea that sold Microsoft on the concept.