Reconstructing a Classic: Alita, Battle Angel

Okay, I saw it, and I liked it. At the same time, I can see why it’s doing mediocre at the box office. Alita, Battle Angel reminded me of Dune: if you knew what was going on already it was so very cool, but if you didn’t, it was gibberish.

Plus the dialog was hokey at times. Let’s not mention that. I liked the chemistry between Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz A LOT, but sometimes their lines were so dumb it was hard to keep a straight face. Since there were only four of us in the theater, I didn’t try.

This isn’t a review. You can read reviews anywhere. But I did want to slip this in before the film disappeared entirely.

What’s of interest to me as a writer/animator/storyteller was the changes that Cameron and Rodriguez made in order to adapt a well-beloved manga (and two-episode anime) into one two-hour movie (that left the possibility of sequels on the table).

That’s not an easy job. Ask Harry Potter fans.

Okay, so what did they do?

Alita Twins

Rosa Salazar, right, was good. Alita, left, is great.

First, they changed the theme. In the manga Alita’s journey is to find her humanity. In the movie, it’s to find her identity.

That seems like a big change and it is. I liked the movie but thought it lacked the profundity of the manga and for this exact reason. Alita (in both) is an amnesiac. Who she is underlies a lot of what she does. But WHAT she is is a much less superficial question.

At the same time, Cameron doesn’t have all the time in the world to develop Alita’s character. He’s got two hours. If he makes her engaging – and oh, my god, she’s such a dear, just as much in the manga – and gives her ONE question to deal with, he’s got the tension he needs to drive the plot. I didn’t like the change in theme, BUT I understand that film and print are different media with different needs, and the question of who Alita is is adequate to drive this film, as well as the (unlikely) sequel(s).

It gets the job done. Fair enough.

That decision focuses things in a way. For instance, part of Alita’s development in the manga is the motherly/protective feelings she has for Koyomi, who is a baby at this part of the story. In the manga Alita saves Koyomi’s life, and at various point in the future they are seen together. But if the story is not about Alita’s human feelings and instead about her memories you don’t need Koyomi, and so she’s disappeared.

For the movie they also pulled a couple things from later manga episodes into the early stories in order to create an active narrative structure. Specifically, they brought the game of motorball forward to the early parts of the story, and pulled a character from later in the manga, Nova, to the front of the story.

I understand why they wanted Nova introduced so early. He’s the evil overlord, the President Salt, the leader of the anti-Alita forces. Nova’s introduction shifts the focus of conflict from Alita vs. various critters (exemplified by Grewishka, the killer cyborg) to Alita vs. Nova.

That’s actually a neat decision. We as viewers don’t know a lot about Nova and his capabilities/minions. The Nova/Alita conflict can be used to set up all sorts of conflict down the road, as it is in the manga. You have the impassive, cold, intelligent Nova using whatever minions he can recruit/cook up against the passionate, physical Alita, and you have continued sources of conflict. Narratively, that seems like a good decision.

They also pull the motorball game into the first part of the show. Structurally, that gives Alita and Hugo something to bond over, and since we need them bonded (in both manga and film), that’s a shortcut. (In a film sense, it also helps set up the sequel, as it does in the manga.) Not only does it give them something to bond over, but it also creates action. Motorball is visual, and film is a visual medium.

I don’t think it hurts the story to have Alita and Hugo bond over motorball. What’s important to the story is that they are bonded; the mechanism doesn’t matter.

Finally, they did something really odd, and grabbed a character that’s not from the manga but from the anime and gave her an important role: Chiren. Earlier, I noted that in the anime Chiren changes the story from a Voyage of Discovery meta-plot to Overcoming the Monster; that was a key difference between the Alita manga and her anime.

Here they have Chiren, but IT’S NOT THE SAME CHIREN. Cute, boys, cute.

In the anime Chiren is the antagonist. In the movie that role is usurped by Nova. So what has Chiren to do?

Well, in the movie she’s Doctor Ido’s ex, which creates tension, and she’s Alita’s surrogate mom, which drives plot at a critical point. I mean, if you get to invent (essentially) a character, she can do anything you need. I would not classify Chiren as a central character, but she’s a critical character in both the anime and the movie. But the need of the anime was for an antagonist to drive the action to completion.

But the movie didn’t need that. It had Nova for an antagonist. So what happens?

Character development: Which characters develop across the film?

Alita grows up to a degree, moving from child to adult. But her secrets remain secrets; they were saved for the sequels that won’t be made. (We’ll never see them, alas.)

Ido? Nope.

Hugo is redeemed, but by the end he’s dead in both movie and manga. His function is mostly to create sympathy for Alita. She’s like imprinted on Hugo like a baby bird (this is actually handled better in the film, where their shared love of motorball is clear), and he croaks. Cue the tears.

Nova’s barely there in terms of development, simply a sinister element. Vector is just the personification of selfishness.

Who’s left?

Yup, it’s Chiren whose character develops, who changes from fulfilling her selfish desires to loving and helping her “daughter.” Yes, Alita, who is named after her own daughter, who is the surrogate daughter of her estranged husband who has given Alita her daughter’s cyborg body, and who Chiren comes to love as a daughter herself.

Chiren is the character who develops. Cool. That’s something you need to tell a story and there she is. So what they did was say, “You know, we need someone who plays that role, we’re saving Alita for the sequels, so who changes?” So they pulled the Chiren concept out of the anime, broke her in half, and gave her a new job.

If you’re interested in stories and how they are constructed, look at the Alita movie, the manga, and the anime all together. You can see it. You can see how James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez pulled elements from the anime and the manga to create to construct a story that worked as a film.

Fun.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

4 thoughts on “Reconstructing a Classic: Alita, Battle Angel

  1. “if you knew what was going on already it was so very cool, but if you didn’t, it was gibberish.”

    Gibberish by what measure? Nobody I was with has read the manga or seen the anime, and I knew the most about it – which was practically nothing. Yet I could easily follow the story and the characters, and none of my companions indicated any confusion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! That’s useful for me, since I wasn’t coming at it fresh, so to speak. I thought the motivations of the antagonists, especially Nova and Grewishka, were especially perplexing. In the manga Grewishka is just played as a complete psycho, though, so his motivations are just as underdeveloped there.

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  2. I had never heard of Alita before the movie came out. Normally I would have skipped it, but I decided to see it because the audience reviews were very good. It wasn’t the least bit difficult to understand. It was well written, with solid, three-dimensional characters and an interesting background universe that I would like to learn more about. I like this film better than Avatar. Now I am interested in reading the original manga.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The manga are available as a set of five hardcover books from Kodansha. They’re expensive but you can get them from Amazon or Right Stuff at a discount. Alita’s story end in a second series, Last Order. There’s also a prequel series, Mars Chronicles. Right Stuff also carries the anime, just called Battle Angel. It’s only two episodes. Wait for them to go on sale!

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