Cowboy Bebop: Adapting a classic

Let’s talk about the question that I had after finishing the Netflix remake of Cowboy Bebop. How do you adapt a classic series into a different medium? This remake has generated a lot of attention on the internet over the last months. And it wasn’t all good. From casting, story decisions and the intro; fans were worried.

The 1998 anime has that place in television history that if you’ve not seen it you have probably heard of it. If both of these do not apply to you let me explain why an animated show created over 2 decades ago still can be the topic of heated conversation. This show is one of the few that made anime popular in the west. It is a serious, character driven series with slick animation and an epic soundtrack. Many people regard it as one of the best or the best anime ever created. Which is a big statement to put on a show. It creates expectations of what it is or isn’t. And though there are certainly many people who don’t like the Cowboy Bebop anime, it is still a show that a great deal of people find entertaining and inspiring to watch.

With the release of the Netflix remake the world could finally give its unfiltered opinion on what the writers and showrunners did with the source material. Everyone who has seen it at least once knows what kind of herculean task it must have been. I’d argue the challenge is equal to adapting The Lord of the Rings into a film trilogy. There are only two options. Succeed and praise will be given in spades. Fail and the masses call “I told you so.” 

I intentionally had my expectations set low. The first reason being that the remake remains a close-media adaptation. Meaning that the original medium (animation) is similar to the medium it’s adapted to. 

Second: There are elements of the original that, in my opinion, work better in animation. And not in live television unless you might have a Foundation sized budget.

Third: I wanted to give the show a fair shot. Especially since I recently gained a deeper understanding of the original. Not just in the context of its animated peers, but also as a piece of art. 

And fourth: the 1998 show has high nostalgia value for me, which means I’m very biased.

Let’s have a look at four elements of the show that are vital to what makes Cowboy Bebop what it is and what happens if you change those.

1. Conceptual

To understand Cowboy Bebop is to understand its core phrase: “it’s not a kind of space opera; it’s a sort of space jazz.” Meaning it’s not an epic story set in a far future with fleets of space ships battling each other. It’s a story about people. In this case, they are bounty hunters. A lonely profession similar to what cowboys are when usually seen in western films. Which is purposfully the first part of the title.

Then there is the second part of the title. While you may not know what Bebop means, it sounds funky and adds a pleasant flow to the word Cowboy. It is there because the story of the people in this show is told in a Bebop way. But what is bebop?

Bebop (or “bop”) is a type of small-band modern jazz music originating in the early 1940s. Bebop has roots in swing music and involves fast tempos, adventurous improvisation, complex harmonies and chord progressions, and a focus on individual virtuosity. The name “bebop” originates from the sound of nonsense syllables that scat singers improvised in vocal jazz performances.

When the associations and (cultural) meaning of both words are combined we get a sort of space jazz. The people in this show are cowboys, Bebop is how the story and action are presented.

The starting point of both shows may be the same. But early on in the remake we clearly see that there is a difference. The remake focuses less on the bounty hunting and more on the characters progression, resulting in a show that is less serialized. The storyline is much more present, giving us a clear ongoing plot. Which is a very modern thing to do. But as a result, the show limits itself in what it can do with the characters.

The original focuses more on bounty hunting as the main narrative of each episode. And we learn things about the characters as we see them react to each situation. There are some character focussed episodes, but even those often start when the characters are hunting a bounty of sorts. We get to see the Bebop presentation used to make the Cowboys shine.  

2. Demystifying characters

Because the original has more focus on showing how characters react to situations and other characters, there is a level of mystique about them. Things aren’t very clear. And only by watching and rewatching episodes one might decipher what is going on. This is one of the strengths of the original and similarly the reason why people turned away from it.1

The remake wanted to make the show accessible for a greater audience and “modernise the characters”. So they expanded the characters’ storylines. They shaped the characters out of their respective tropes into something that could fill the role in the new plot. As an example, I will go with the Vicious and Julia plot. This is the most obvious one and has the greatest impact on the series as a whole.

In the original we didn’t know Vicious and Julia because we didn’t need to. We could clearly see that Julia was the one person Spike always followed. Every single shred of information he followed in a way that Jet “Black Dog” Black would be jealous of in his younger years. We see her maybe 5 times, and each time leaves an impression because we know how important she is to Spike. Vicious is a fearsome enemy because we only see him enough to get a basic understanding of his personality. One that thrives in chaos and bloodshed. Which makes him a formidable enemy. Not because he instills fear in the people surrounding him, but because of his charisma and how it affects those around him. These characters have a certain mystique because we know so little and yet so much about them. I agree with the assessment in the Glass Reflections video that they are a respective shadow and ghost because of the roles they play in the original. Vicious and Julia are side characters that serve as a tool for the viewer to understand the main characters. They are used as plot progression and fade into the background until they are needed again.2

The remake put these characters front and center to tell the expanded story which the original (partly) implies. This decision changes the role these characters play in the overarching narrative. Which changes the dynamic between (all of) the characters. It is sad that this change isn’t taken into account and the remake leans heavily on certain moments that were key in the original, but greatly devalued in the remake. An example would be those flashes we see in Ballad of Fallen Angels when Spike falls out of the church. The scene is copied into the remake and then rendered worthless because of the creators decision to tell us exactly everything that happened between the characters.

3. Show or tell

Show or tell is a balancing act. One that every writer should know. The original was more on the showing side of things. Because of that approach the dialogue was short and on point. If it didn’t need to be said, it wasn’t spoken. 

The Netflix remake is quite the opposite. Characters talk a lot. And while I find some of the banter between the main cast amusing at times, it often is a bit much for my personal tastes. Especially when characters are info dumping. Then there is this show‘s nasty habit of naming things. For example: they gave Spike the most stupid, on point nickname. Sure, it is a representation of his behaviour in his past life, but of all the times characters spoke the name Fearless, only 1 or 2 times were justified. The other 9 billion times they just could’ve referred to Spike as “Him” and everybody would’ve understood who the subject matter was.3

In the end the remake failed to use the visual medium that tv is. There are some genuinely great shots and some of the set pieces are really cool, but this show fails at delivering on promises given. 

4. Character stories

To me, the original is ultimately a story about broken people. People without a place in the system. People who don’t belong anywhere except with this little family they’ve created. They live on the fringes of society, trying to forget or escape from their past. That is part of the reason why Toys in the Attic takes place in the void of space. It is in that limbo that the main cast recites their (life) lessons. Lessons that are integral to their character’s plot over the show’s runtime. While it may not always be apparent, it is what caused them pain in the past. And this experience is part of what gives them their view on life. It is part of what makes them three-dimensional characters.

Which makes it sad that they changed the core of the characters in the remake. Sometimes to a point that they just aren’t who they were in the original. Or worse, when characters become caricatures of their former self. For example, Vicious is changed into a non-threatening antagonist. He is never a real danger. The moment he kills the elders, it feels like the height of his viciousness. It’s like changing Sauron into Lawrence Limburger. Everybody knows the latter will always lose while the former will be a threat until the end.

Adapting a classic

Adapting a classic is never easy, especially when the source material is in a similar medium then the one you’re adapting it to. I’m glad they went in their own direction and did not copy the original 1:1. Because that would be an unrealistic bar to reach. While the remake tries to do it’s own thing, most of the ten episodes suffer from the poorly written dialogue, badly shot scenes and broken worldbuilding. But the entire show suffers from the removal of the most important elements of the original: Cowboy and Bebop. It also doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. So it ends up being a jack of all trades but a master of none. It is not a goofy sci-fi buddy-comedy. And not a thought-provoking show about the human condition.

It is a show that would’ve fared better without the link to the original, or even without the original characters. The world of Cowboy Bebop is interesting and could’ve given us a great show with the original cast popping in on familiar events. But to paraphrase Spike: “whatever happened, happened. “

My wish is that this remake draws people into the original and into the broader world of animation. Because there are genuinely great shows that will blow your mind. The 1998 anime Cowboy Bebop is a great example of that. One that will pull people in because it is what it is: The work, which becomes a new genre by itself.

See you Space Cowboy

  1. At least I believe so because it makes everything a bit vague. Which is not something everyone likes.
  2. This is exactly what I mean: only important in the moment
  3. Sidenote: In the anime everybody calls him Spike.