Comic Book Adaptations

One of the most critically lauded works in a field still shorted mainstream respect, Allan Moore's 1986-87 short run series "Watchmen" sees its big-screen adaptation glow to life in early March. Moore has a history of prickly behavior when it comes to Hollywood's take on his work, but there appears to be a groundswell of support among fans and the general public alike for director Zach Snyder's interpretation. The rush of comic book and graphic novel adaptations has accelerated over the last few years as studios look for projects with built-in brand recognition, and it shows no sign of slowing. With this ToM, we'll look at a few adaptations and consider what they may have done right and wrong. There are many we'll miss (some with good reason, others without) - as always, you're encouraged to agree / disagree / digress below…

Blueberry - Jan Kounen's ultra-trippy, surrealist western reps an instance of my coming to a comic after first seeing its adaptation (English translations of the series proved somewhat difficult to find) – I understood Kounen took liberties, but was unprepared for just how far afield he wound up in bringing the story of laconic hero Mike Blueberry to the big screen. Kounen's prior experience of producing an immersive documentary on Shamanism clearly weighed like a ton of bricks on his creative process here; the film deals more with Vincent Cassel's Blueberry and his ties to Native American spirituality than the books' traditional, gritty horse operas. Had I been a fan of the series prior to seeing the film, Blueberry might have rubbed me the wrong way – as it stands I find it a highly personal, gorgeous piece of pop art that far out-strips its source material's artistic underpinnings.

The Hulk - making its second appearance in one of my ToM entries. A big fan of the Hulk growing up – from his comic book origin to Lou Ferrigno's TV incarnation – I was excited to see the results a group so esoteric as the one assembled for 2003's adaptation would yield; turned out I was one of an apparent handful satisfied with the end results. Universal should've known better than to turn the reigns of what they surely expected to be a franchise starter over to as idiosyncratic a filmmaker as Ang Lee – the finished product, a series of clashing love stories (mother / father, father / son, father / daughter, man / woman) woven around action sequences staged in an almost belligerently atypical style, alienated fans of the pulpier source material and failed to connect with audiences the way Lee's wuxia offering Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a few years prior. Hulk stands as another instance of a filmmaker taking a comic book's core story and running with it to places unknown and unexpected.

Road to Perdition - Sam Mendes' adaptation of Max Allan Collins' somewhat obscure graphic novel – itself a gloss on the notoriously over-the-top "Lone Wolf and Cub" manga series – manages to follow the spirit of the original work while toning down its more outré elements. Mendes' film works thanks in large part to many of the changes he and writer David Self (with Collins' advisement and consent) put in place while adapting the work – pruning away lines of dialog and acts of violence save those most meaning and inserting Jude Law's malicious tabloid photographer. In terms of style, Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall Jr. copy artist Richard Piers Rayner shot-for-panel in multiple instances, cloaking everything in shade and fog. The weighty sub-texts of the film – not always handled in subtle fashion but appreciable nonetheless – are carried over from Collins' work as well.

The Dark Knight - at this point I don't think it's possible to pull such a list together without including a mention of Christopher Nolan's maddeningly successful second go-round with the Caped Crusader. Smartly touching on thematic material normally verboten in big-budget popcorn fare, the film takes hold of the base characteristics of Bruce Wayne / Batman and layers on surprising amounts of emotional complexity. Melding elements from the comic's introduction of the Joker and Two-Face's origin story, the script (by Nolan with regular collaborators Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer) clips along at a fairly breathless pace while never shorting the difficult ideas it attempts to wrangle. The Batman character serves as an example of how Hollywood can get it very right and very wrong with the same comic over time.

Batman and Robin - here's that "very wrong" mentioned above. Hollywood is strange – a property can be re-worked so many times it can become difficult to remember why it mattered in the first place. Burton and Nolan's two respective films hit the Bat-nail on the Bat-head in terms of substance and style. Joel Schumacher's two offerings – especially the latter – do not. With Batman and Robin Schumacher seemed to be looking more at previous distillations of the material (the campy '60s TV series, the cartoons, the toys) than the material itself, and we all know what happens when you make a copy of copy – the quality suffers. Boy, did it ever suffer. Ridiculous in all the wrong extremes, the film managed to derail the careers of most involved for varying periods of time (Schumacher still hasn't really righted his ship, save perhaps for Tigerland).

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