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From space opera to space sitcom

Just weeks into its release, Netflix has cancelled its poorly-received Cowboy Bebop remake

By Zeeshan Ahmad |
PUBLISHED December 19, 2021

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

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

Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is not the first live action adaptation of a beloved franchise to go wrong. Nor will it be the last. However, producers and writers of such adaptations these days have developed a playbook of responses to inevitable cancellations. Toxic fandoms or gatekeeping fans are the new fall guys used in defence of bad adaptations. We heard it with the prophetically named The Last Jedi not too long ago and we are hearing it now, yet again.

To be fair, hardcore fans can tend to be overly judgemental, even when a new adaptation has barely been announced. Still, there is a sense of scapegoating rather than soul-searching among media practitioners considering the string of bad adaptations we have seen.

In search of nuance

Perhaps the best evidence of how off the mark the Cowboy Bebop adaptation was is in the various re-edits circulating on YouTube that add a laugh track to its characters’ ‘punchlines’. So, what went wrong? Of course, true knowledge of the show’s development process will only be held by its developers. Were they ‘real fans’ of the original, as they exhorted in the various promotional puff pieces in the lead up to the show? Or were the cynics right and the writers and producers were pretenders looking to cash in on yet another franchise opportunity? We can let the gods of anime decide that one.

We can, however, tease out a pattern. This is, after all, not US media’s first misfire trying to adapt a Japanese property (does anyone even remember the 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell movie featuring Scarlett Johansson). We also have better received adaptations to compare. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance, can claim a phenomenal reputation with even weaker entries generally receiving favourable feedback from critics and old and new fans alike. So too can other many other American comic book adaptations, although there are still hits and misses in that realm. Sony’s original Spiderman trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films and the two Hellboy movies have achieved critical and popular success amid varying levels of faithfulness. Hollywood in particular and American media in general has an even better track record with adapting stories from the Western canon, be they books, plays or other films. Hollywood remakes of Hollywood classics, more often than not, tend to do exceptionally well with critics.

Part of the issue with adapting a foreign property then may be cultural. Anime, manga and other Japanese media are ‘unashamedly Japanese’, in a manner of speaking. What that means is they are primarily intended for a homegrown audience with any foreign-appeal coming as welcome surplus. This is true even when Japanese productions draw on foreign influences, like in the case of the original Bebop. From anime to live-action cinema, Japanese media has a sensibility and stylistic cadence of its own.

This is something very hard to pin down for any media or art that is grounded in its own regional and historical tradition. For the society it belongs to, it is an effortless quality – it simply is. To be adapted to a foreign tradition, one must first be able to articulate what is to be adapted.

The aesthetics of animation

A second aspect is shaped by the limitations of the tools used. Adaptations of animated works usually suffer a similar issue to adaptations of video games. At least partly, they miss on what makes the original ‘fun’. Live action cinema provides a very limited canvas compared to both. In the case of video games for instance, interaction is the bigger draw than compelling story. When it comes to animation, the possibilities allowed by the medium are simply greater.

Take world-building: animated worlds can be intricate and aesthetic beyond film’s best 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, similarly, is something nearly impossible to aesthetically nail when translating from animated format to live-action. Action-oriented anime series owe part of their charm to gracefully choreographed animated sequences. In the original Cowboy Bebop, frantic Kung-Fu fights and aerial battles scored against energetic freestyle jazz contrasted against the blues-set meditative moments to give the show its stylistic charm. Even a perfect live-action remake would always have been a step down.

Spiritual successors and toxic fans

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

By paying homage instead of outright remaking a beloved property, writers and producers not only sidestep a ‘gatekeeping’ fandom, but court their positive attention as well. But why should gatekeeping fans be given so much stake in the first place, some may ask. A certain obnoxious segment of fans, to be fair, can take their ‘love’ of a certain media property to an extreme that ranges from unfounded negativity to online harassment of writers, producers and other fans. This can never be condoned. Liking a product before someone else does not give anyone the right to mean. Audiences should behave civil, no matter how much they feel ‘disappointed’.

That said, adapting a popular franchise does not have to be a zero-sum game between new and old audiences. It is possible to appeal to both sensibilities, as adaptations done right show. An insidious trend across many media industries, including ours in Pakistan, is to pin failure on uncooperative audiences. Good or bad – whether you pour your heart and soul, blood, sweat and tears – no audience owes a product viewership.