Ghost in the Shell: A Case Study in Bad Adaptation

Ghost in the Shell Cover Original Movie

This week I wanted to take a slight detour from my usual range of topics. While I generally cover comic books, I also have an interest in manga, anime and movies. Today’s subject encompasses all three. However, there’s another reason that I’m deviating from the norm. In my last article, I discussed intertextuality, referencing and reimagining. In general, I discussed how Neil Gaiman masterfully reinterprets word mythology, and the works of others, in good faith, complementing their themes and adding meaning to his own stories. This week I want to talk about how that same process can go a bit pear-shaped.

Recently, I saw the Ghost in the Shell live action adaptation. While the movie had many strong points, it fell flat in the end. Running through its pros in my head, there are more than I’d expect from a simply bad movie. As many other critics have noted, the film’s visuals were very polished; the score by Clint Mansel is gorgeous, tastefully remixing parts of Yoko Kanno’s original soundtrack for the anime. The character designs, while not perfect, are translated from the originals with an air of verisimilitude.

Yet the film leaves a lot to be desired overall, in a classic case of the sum being less than the individual parts. The aspect I want to focus on in this article is its failures as an adaptation—its failure, ultimately, to be a Ghost in the Shell movie.

My viewing experience was no doubt shaded by my reverence for the originals. Some might get the impression that that’s unfair to this retelling, but I don’t think so. While I think most movies should be judged independently of all external factors, I tend to make an exception for adaptations. After all, adaptations always ride the coattails of some other work; they should be judged, at least in part, on how well they capture the essence of the original.

The original is a classic, and that’s undeniable, but I’m not blind to its problems. The voice acting can be stiff, which is par for the course for mid-90s anime, and there were definite constraints imposed by the budgets of the animation studios behind the original film, since animation is difficult and expensive and that’s why companies use services of corporate videography when they need a video and animation. Despite this, the story was written and executed flawlessly. Some elements can seem dated, but only because, two decades on, its influence precedes it. Ironically, the live action adaptation even takes many cues from movies that drew inspiration from the original (The Matrix most notably).

To illustrate why the new one misses the mark, I’ll need to examine three of the core scenes that this movie shares with the first animated movie. There are, of course, more commonalities lifted directly, but these three particularly lose the context of the original and lose much of their significance when translated without the relevant motifs of the original. They are exemplary of the style-over-substance nature of this adaptation.

Ghost in the Shell Original vs. Movie Swimming Scene

Scene from the Original anime

The first scene that I want to highlight is the one where the major is swimming in the ocean. Visually, most of these scenes have been copied with a diligent, faithful eye for detail. Thematically, however, they make no sense when transposed to the revamped script. In the original, the major floats steadily to the top of the inkish, deep-blue ocean, seeing a mirror image in the orange-filtered sunset soaked reflective surface world. They head towards each other and coalesce, seemingly becoming one as she exits the surface of the water.

This scene is followed by a conversation with Batou about what she gets out of diving to the bottom of the ocean in a cyborg body that risks sinking to the floor. She answers that when rises back to the top, weightless, she feels she’s becoming someone else, something new. This line and the imagery of her merging with her mirror self foreshadow the merging of her consciousness with that of the Puppet Master. To further drive this point home, the conversation is interrupted by a voice that sounds like the major’s, but in reality is spoken by the Puppet Master.

In the new movie, the scene is played off for a rather dull conversation about how they’re feeling about their predicament. It’s the type of scene you’ve seen in every movie. The buddy cop duo on their time off, one partner offering reassurance while the other is salty about something.

The second crucial scene is the aftermath of the chase in the water. In the interrogation scene in both movies the criminal has implanted memories, part of a scheme that allows the Puppet Master (or Kuze, in the 2017 version) to manipulate others into doing his bidding. In the original the scene serves to reinforce the notion of the thin line separating human memories from artificial programming, one of the central themes of the movie.

In the conversation with Batou during the scene mentioned earlier, the major describes how the essence of her being is not her artificial body, but her personality; her memories are the true indicators of her personhood. In effect, the Puppet Master was toying with and rearranging the fiber of this man’s identity for his own purposes.

The new movie neglects all of these themes or glosses over them, not giving them the weight they deserve. In the live action remake, this plot point kicks off a Robocop-meets-Bourne-Identity-style plot point where the major has to uncover her “true” past. The movie foregoes the depth of the original to play out a character arc which comes across as drawn-out and done to death.

It’s also indicative of the “Americanness” of this version. While a lot of noise has been made about the film’s white-washing (which is addressed with an in-universe explanation in the worst way possible), the true problem goes even deeper. The movie is more interested in doing a Hollywood paint-job over the Japanese original than understanding what made the original such an iconic work. This is even more apparent in the finale.

Ghost in the Shell Movie Still Scarlett Johansen

The third and final scene is the battle with the spider-tank. In the 1995 original this scene takes place in a cordoned-off area; in the 2017 version it’s instead on an open highway of sorts. This drains the claustrophobic tension of the original scene, with its dark corridors and circular Colosseum-esque lobby. And there is, really, no good reason for the change; it serves only to rob the scene of its atmospheric anxiety.

In both movies, the major defeats the spider-tank but falls to the floor limbless and battered, having pushed her body to its limit. In the original, this happens for more thematically relevant reasons. Near the end she merges consciousnesses with the Puppet Master. She wrecks her body andrisks her life saving this new consciousness, and when they merge she awakens in a youthful frame, part Kusanagi, part Puppet Master, and at the same time something entirely new.

In the final scenes she walks off as a new entity, having performed the only act that separates humanity from cybernetic species: bearing new life. As the only individual of her new kind, she wonders what she’ll do now, and what her place in the world is. The ending is ambiguous—if we can call it an ending at all.

How does this compare with the live action version? Here, Kuze dies, and the major delivers a monologue while plummeting from a skyscraper. The ending restores the status quo, aside perhaps from her acceptance of her original name (which apes Robocop a bit too closely for my taste). It manages a contrived restoration of the status quo that would feel strained in even the most straightforward of comedies. It’s indicative of the spinelessness of this adaptation. It completely lacks the fangs of the original.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that Hollywood needs to learn that visual cues and lip-service is not the same thing as actually fleshing out the story of an adaptation’s source material. This may facilitate a brief rush of nostalgia, the familiarity necessary for those of us fond of checking off the easter egg list, but it must also be done well. It comes off as shallow in many aspects. In the end, the filmmakers simply delivered a shallow, unthoughtful rewrite of a property that rose to prominence for it’s uncompromised vision and philosophical content.

About Rawal Ahmed (23 Articles)
Rawal Ahmed is a freelance writer with an interest in politics, music, comic books, and technology. More of his work is available at

2 Comments on Ghost in the Shell: A Case Study in Bad Adaptation

  1. I’ve been meaning to comment for a while and say how much I’ve enjoyed your recent articles. I didn’t log into my profile here but wanted to leave a comment anyway.

    Thanks for this in-depth breakdown of why the GITS movie adaption failed to be true to the original source material. It seems that Hollywood just tried to map the aesthetics of GITS over the framework of a superhero movie.

    Do you think a Western live action adaption of a manga/anime could work? In your mind, what would be required to make such an adaption a success?

    • Thanks a lot LJ! I try to answer as many comments as I can manage so always feel free to leave a message.

      The sad part is that this movie could have been great. A lot of the necessary pieces are there but they fail to amount to anything greater. There’s no reason to believe anime can’t be adapted.

      The problem is always that they never go the full route. They try to make it like the Japanese originals but then they chicken out as if some producer walks in and gives them notes on how it “should” be.

      The character dynamics are always reduced in some form or another and the general tonal pallet that hollywood ends up using is always derived from other hollywood movies. I feel this is the case because it’s the “safer” bet for multi-million dollar projects.

      Thus, what many adaptations fail to capture is the story (even if they manage the general beats of the plot). A lot of them just end up missing the point of the original. The major’s journey as a character was in many ways diametrically opposite to the one from the original.

      I suppose if any anime can be adapted it would have to be Cowboy Bebop. It’s aesthetics, story and character arcs are derived entirely from Hollywood and old-school film genres, so they might be able to manage it (even if some of the joy of that beautiful hand-drawn animation will be lost in live-action).

      I think Oldboy was adapted from a manga, so I suppose movie adaptations can be done.


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