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Panels to Popcorn: A Look at Comic Book Movie Adaptations

At some point, whether it’s been you or someone you know, this scenario has occurred after walking out of a theater after watching a movie adapted from a deeply loved comic book/graphic novel: Arms are up in the air.  Ham-fisted lines from the movie are repeated, dripping with sarcasm and ridicule. Every other sentence starts with “But in the original…” and “He (or she) could have been so much better if…” and it continues this way until eventually the disappointment and rage culminates into a long moan, decrying that the  Hollywood machine has again torn apart and whip-stitched together their favorite story and placed nipples on it, or worse.

This, of course, isn’t new to the average bibliophile; even at the literary novel level, nerds as famous as Salman Rushdie weighed in on why so many books don’t  make for good movies. But for many it seems like it should be different with comics, as they are a visual medium by design, and many filmmakers like to see them as ready-made storyboards for a movie. There is more to it however, and by looking at a couple of examples you’ll see that there are many ways to tackle this type of production.

The first thing to mention is that most moviegoers have been tricked: they’ve seen more comic book adaptations than they care to admit. Sure, not all of them are cape and tights affairs like the Spider-Man and Batman movie series, but there has been accolades for movies like A History of Violence and The Road To Perdition, the latter being an adaptation of one of comic-book writer Frank Miller’s favorites, Lone Wolf and Cub. Even on the more fantastical and blockbuster approach, there have been movies like The Crow and Men In Black, both originally comic books, which have become so wildly popular from their movie adaptations that most fans don’t even know that there was a source material.

On the topic of source material, the idea of the letter and the spirit should be, in theory, what drives any adaptation to a certain degree. Omissions or artistic liberties for the sake of cost or vision will occur, like in any other movie production. It is only in keeping to the comic that the chances a movie becomes another serious misfire like Batman and Robin, CatwomanThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider is diminished.  These are all movies which, when viewed, look as if they threw the source material out the window in order to appease a miscast star actor or to fulfill some sort of fan-fiction fantasy in celluloid form.

With that in mind, let’s go back to Frank Miller. He’s gotten a bit of buzz outside the comic world since he and Robert Rodriguez made what was a shot-by-shot remake of his own Sin City comics on the silver screen to rave reviews on all fronts. However, Miller being Miller, he didn’t stop there and tried his luck with adapting Wil Eisner’s seminal The Spirit. Like his own most recent comic work, it was not well-received, mostly because he forgot that unlike Sin CityThe Spirit wasn’t ultra-violent noir, but a pulp comic. You would think that he, being good friends with the late Eisner, would know that, but it seems like his own ego got in the way of making a good movie.

That’s not to say that a movie made slavishly panel-by-panel from the comic is a guaranteed critical success on either front. For example, look at Watchmen. Director  Zack Snyder was incredibly faithful to the comic, from the visual production that literally took notes from original artist Dave Gibbons down to the use of songs in particular scenes, placed in reference to Alan Moore’s own use of music in his own work. Snyder’s previous movie had also been a shot-by-shot comic-book adaptation, 300, one that fit his hyper-stylized visual style and use of slow motion action scenes.

While that was enough for a sword-and-sandals movie, Snyder could only use that to cover the ultra-violent slow-motion action scenes in Watchmen, while his attempt of  faithfulness to the comic still missed a good deal of the characterization and a depth that Moore filled his story. Instead, it seemed as if he padded it with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a Snyder-styled sex scene and a whole slew of inappropriate soundtrack bites in his attempt make it true to the source. Despite the mixed reviews on both the film and comic critics’ fronts, the movie has been a success, but it does go to show that no matter how devoted to the source material a director is, they will still make decisions that are not congruent with the source.

Adapting a story from its core and omitting certain parts, when done in the right hands, can prove to make the better decision. Going back to A History of Violence, the screenplay written by Josh Olson is a vast departure from the graphic novel (director David Cronenberg hadn’t even heard of the graphic novel until later in production), yet still keeps to the basics of a man hiding from a horrible crime-ridden past and its effects on his family in a small Midwestern town. The movie also gets a lot of casting decisions right with Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, and Ed Harris who all make great performances. Then again, this movie is one of the lucky ones, as the graphic novel’s obscurity and ability for wide cinematic appeal make it a rarity.

How do you do that for comics with either the potential for wide appeal like Kick Ass or the fan boy credibility of Scott Pilgrim? Those two are of course pointed out because they have been recently released and are widely different comics to boot. First, let’s look at Kick-Ass. Despite comic writer Mark Millar’s own over the top pandering, he actually made a smart move by going a route similar to that of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick when they made 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Millar worked concurrently with director Matthew Vaughn, writing the script and the comic at the same time. Clearly this was always part of his plan, as he optioned the comic  to Universal before  the first issue had even hit comic book stores. Say what you will about the comic (Chris Sims over at ComicsAlliance is definitely not a fan), the movie actually takes a story that is basically heroic violence porn and made enough changes in the source material to make a fun, humorous take on the superhero genre.

The story is the same for Scott Pilgrim vs. World, as writer/artist Byran Lee O’Malley helped Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall with their adapted screenplay while he was still working on the Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels. What actually makes this production interesting is in how O’Malley took lines from the screenplay and put it in the comic. Even the Gideon Graves character in comic was heavily influenced by Jason Shwartzman’s portrayal of him in the movie. The word “organic” is used far too many times when describing creative processes, but in this case, it’s a pretty accurate description.

When reality sinks in, however, both movies had a mixed box office reception at best (at least of Kick-Ass), or in the case of Scott Pilgrim overshadowed by movies that grab a wider audience or by ludicrous criticisms of sexism. No matter how someone makes the movie, most comic-book adaptations only get as successful as Ghost World or the Hellboy movies, which barely made enough to cover its budget, but became a cult hit to a niche audience. While it does make perfect sense to make an indie movie out of an indie comic, the truth is most studios are trying to make the next The Dark Knight. With the amount of comic-book adaptations that are on their way, there’s a good chance it might happen, but the law of averages can easily make it so that one movie will send us all back to Schumacher country again.

What is a director/producer/writer to do to make sure that doesn’t happen?  There are two options available now. One is to take an existing A-List character from the Big Two and hope to God that they can find the balance between making a fun movie and a faithful one, lest they get destroyed by both fan boys and the public. The other is to find an indie comic and work under-the-radar to make something unique, and maybe get some critical and financial success, but live on as a 3AM TV favorite for small audiences. New filmmakers need to find a real third option where both of those two are executed. Some are already trying it now, but as moviegoers, we need to support the good ones. That’s the only way we can make more of them happen.

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