The adaptation of a creative piece from one medium to another is a very popular technique in the world of film. Many well respected films throughout history are ones that originally began as a novel or short story have been expanded into a visual piece for audiences to love all over again, writes FMR’s Mike Gifford.
In some cases, like Argo (2012), a film can be adapted from something as simple as a news article in a magazine. However, something that was often overlooked until recently is the adaptation of a comic book into a film. It seems like the perfect and easiest medium to translate from paper to the big screen, but this isn’t always true.
Why is it so difficult?
Filmmakers have previously established visuals to live up to. This is unlike the adaptation of a novel to a film because even the most descriptive terms to create an image of a character, situation, or a setting in a reader’s mind, will not always be uniform in the mind’s of every reader. That’s just audience freedom in its purest form. Let me make a quick example. I show you a still of Superman with his red cape and blue suit with red trunks. I tell you that this is Superman and you understand this is what he looks like. From now on for the rest of the feature your mind will associate the red cape and getup with Superman. You’re not likely to stare at Superman and think, “Well, I always pictured his cape as green, so I’m calling it green now.”…That is unless you happened to be colorblind, but I digress. Or, even worse, you could think this looks good…
Another major difficulty faced is the origin story. This can be said about any writing medium being translated to film and even about screenwriting itself, however, the origin of many superheroes are usually very unique and captivating to their fans. The superhero origin is the foundation by which these figurative giants stand. A film based on any one of these iconic heroes has to portray the origin story in the same light as the comic book or it will be plagued with “Well, actually…” comments from the fans for the rest of eternity.
Sadly, the origin stories of many comic book characters have been manipulated for their film versions. It wasn’t until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) did a major character get a proper origin. I choose to disregard Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) strictly because the origin was true (for the most part), until the web-shooters were neglected and all origin credit was flushed
Who pulled it off?
So, what are good examples of this transformation? Well, there are a few. For my money, the best overall transfer from comic to film is Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005). Now, I might be just a touch bias because I have been a fan of Miller’s for many years, but this was one of the few films that was able to nail the look and feel of the comic, as well as the characters and even the voiceover narration. Another Frank Miller story, 300 (2007), was translated well but it falls short of Sin City in my book. The fanboy in me wants to add Watchmen (2009) to this list, but the complete change to the end of the film all but makes it ineligible.
The other end of the spectrum…
The list of poor examples of comic book films might stretch longer than this article, but a few more recent films would include: The Green Lantern (2011), Daredevil (2003), Elektra (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Hulk (2003), and The Punisher (2004). These films are pretty horrendous as a whole and do little to no justice for any of the characters involved.
On a short side tangent…since this is on the topic of comic books in film, I think it’s necessary to at least mention the impact of The Walking Dead comic as it’s translation to the world of TV. The series is killing the cable ratings. The numbers reported every week as incredible as it has grown to become a huge success for AMC. Lucky for AMC, a wide array of their viewers either never knew it was a comic, or did and never read it. The comic series is one that I have been following from the first few issues all the way to the current ones. The comic was very good and has been up and down like the show. However, I know this isn’t a popular opinion, but the show lacks is so many departments that I don’t want to even get started about it. The show has become a story influenced by the comic, not based upon it. The differences are glaring, repetitive, and underwritten just like the rest of the show. Any fan of the comic should be as angry as I am, but to each his own.
Changes for the better
Sometimes a little change to the story laid out in a comic can help it translate better to the big screen. My favorite example of major changes to the film version and still put out a great end product is David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). There are endless changes to the story all the way down to the character names, but the bare bones of the story remain. The film threw in a brotherly aspect to the story, but it works. It also doesn’t hurt to have a cast featuring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt. Josh Olson’s screenplay features a third act that basically never existed in the comic, but the changes keep the overall feel of the film.
The world of comic books is slowly becoming one that is no longer associated with young fans. The fans of these great stories are devoted and eager for their favorite characters to have due diligence in the film world. The next major comic film to be released in the upcoming Man of Steel (2013). I have hope that a Superman origin story will once again work on the big screen and any changes to the story will be for the better. I think Zack Snyder is a great director and with Christopher Nolan producing; you seemingly can’t go wrong. There are many hopeful fans like myself who are anxious for the release to see a new Superman film that isn’t Superman Returns (2006), but more so ready for more Justice League foundation to be laid.