Readers of The Lost Art

Turning pictures into pictures: looking at comic-to-film adaptations

February 22nd, 2010

Author: Oscillating Brow

In the modern era, the comics industry has perpetually been dwarfed in both commercial and critical terms by its somewhat younger sibling, the moving image industry. However, particularly over the last two decades, Hollywood has been taking great interest in the world of funnybooks, adapting numerous and varied comics and graphic novels into high-profile films.

Admittedly, it’s not only comics that are getting plundered to feed the voracious appetite of the movie industry; there are many adaptations from prose sources, and everything from computer games to theme-park rides have somehow made a transition to screen. With cinemas also flooded with sequels and remakes (and remakes of remakes), it’s easy to view the number of films adapted from comics as simply representative of a general dearth of original ideas in mainstream movies, with studios unwilling to invest in anything other than ‘bankable’ concepts with an existing audience.

 Whatever the reasons, this new relationship is undoubtedly having a major impact on the comics industry; yet for all the conjecture and analysis that this invites, it also affords an interesting opportunity to scrutinise the films themselves and how they relate to their source material. Despite their superficial similarities, the two media have very different narrative techniques and protocols. This article aims to investigate that process of comic-to-film adaptation. What works? What doesn’t? Why?

Admittedly, this will only scratch the surface of the topic. There are hundreds of films adapted from sequential art sources, so an in-depth assessment would be a substantial undertaking, requiring extensive comparison of the visual syntax of both media. However, this brief look at some of the more interesting recent examples will hopefully provide some insight into which methods of adaptation are or aren’t effective (at least in the opinion of this author).


Watchmen, lynchpin of the modern comics era, was eventually adapted to film in 2009, and seems the ideal place to start this discussion. Almost ever since the comic first hit the shelves in 1986 and revolutionised the superhero genre, the prospect of an adaptation has tantalised Hollywood; yet it was long considered an impossible project, essentially unfilmable.

Advances in computer-generated imagery may have finally opened the door to the physical possibility of the film, but the real ‘unfilmable’ difficulties were much more profound and intractable. The main reason why Watchmen was such a landmark was its focus on the medium – in both its technical storytelling and its reflection on the nature and history of superhero comics. Surely then, any attempt to transpose the story to film would miss the point of a story so firmly rooted in sequential art?

This fundamental chasm between the two media seems to be one of the major reasons for Alan Moore (who has always been concerned with pushing the boundaries of the medium) having such short shrift for film adaptations of his work. His decision to publicly distance himself from them has been vindicated by films themselves, which have all been notably inferior to the graphic novels.

The adaptation of the 500-page tome, From Hell, was another ‘impossible’ project – not so much for the art or storytelling techniques (though of course the film could never capture Eddie Campbell’s distinctively scratchy art style), but simply because the book had far too much grimy historical depth and density for a two hour film. Predictably it was horribly dumbed-down.

V for Vendetta is usually regarded as the best film adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel but still has problems. Whilst the book is very much grounded in the social and political climate of 1980’s Britain, the film tries to shift the key plot points into a new setting to try and reflect more contemporary issues. The changes do provide a certain degree of relevance but leave the film feeling slightly uneven and off-the-mark, lacking the finesse of the book’s sophisticated political message.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film is generally pilloried, but, personally, it seems the least offensive, since although it is a stupid adventure romp, the original book, for all its literary references, is one of Moore’s less thematically sophisticated works and is essentially a bit of a stupid adventure romp itself (except not anywhere near as stupid as the film).

Watchmen is by far the closest adaptation of any of Moore’s works in terms of story, but this highlights the main problem – Watchmen has a fairly good story but it’s a great graphic novel for other reasons. Ambitious storytelling devices and references to superhero history which work impressively in print mostly do not translate to screen. As a simple example, one of the book’s most important stylistic feats is to ape the visual style of classic superhero strips to more directly comment on the history of comics and nature of superhero stories. Because this look simply doesn’t work on film, the costumes in the film are slick and space-age, thus missing the point. (It could perhaps be argued that the film may have been able to refer to the heritage of superhero films, but there is nowhere near enough of that yet to get the same resonance the book gets, and it would be a totally different tone anyway.)

Another similar example is that the action scenes in the film are much too slick and stylised, again missing the book’s point that real life does not follow the simplified conventions of the fantasy world of comics. There are other more technical examples of untranslatable elements (such as the ‘Black Freighter’ sequences) but to assess them in greater depth is unnecessary: simply, the film fails at a conceptual level, rendering it ineffective as an adaptation of its source.

Sometimes fairly straight adaptations can work successfully. Consider Road to Perdition, a reasonably successful film (both critically and commercially), which was adapted with moderate fidelity from a graphic novel. However, in contrast to Watchmen, in this case the story was the most important factor. The original book was relatively obscure so the impetus for adaptation was not to cash in on demand from fans of the original, simply that the story was strong. Furthermore, the sequential art techniques in the book were focused on the delivery of the story (rather than Moore-esque experimentation with the medium) so no essential element of the work was lost when necessary changes were made to show the story on film.

This is not an isolated example, other films like A History of Violence have also been fairly successful story-driven adaptations; however, more often than not, the question of how to translate the visual style of a comic cannot be easily sidestepped.

Films adapted from comics with a distinctive style have often struggled to replicate that style on the screen. The adaptations of Ghost World and Hellboy demonstrate this problem clearly. In both cases, the original comics were written and drawn by a single creator with a strong visual/narrative style (Dan Clowes and Mike Mignola respectively). Both creators had substantial input into the films yet although the results were quite entertaining, both definitely lost something tangible in the transition to screen. Clowes’ deadpan misanthropic clarity and Mignola’s tongue-in-cheek gothic angularity are integral to the tone of their comics but could not be translated into the live-action films.

Sometimes, films are able to emulate the style of their source material. Robert Rodriguez managed to take the black-and-white hyper-noir visual style of Frank Miller’s Sin City artwork and make it work on-screen. Other than the fact that the episodic nature would have better suited a television series, the film was a faithful and effective adaptation. Similarly, Miller’s graphic novel 300 was adapted into a film with a certain overblown visual and tonal panache that again matched the source material quite successfully. It is perhaps Miller’s emphasis on striking visual imagery (maybe sometimes at the expense of story depth) that makes his work so adaptable to film.

So what is most important – to be true to the story or the visual style? Does it depend on the material? The film version of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis manages both, and in many ways is the most faithful comic-to-film adaptation, being an animated feature using Satrapi’s artwork as the basis for all the animation. It works very well, keeping the film authentic to its source but adding in transitions and sequences only available in the new medium. It could be argued that this is therefore the best comic-to-film adaptation – but it is also a victim of its success. In making the film so closely resemble the book, the second version (be that the film or the book) that a viewer experiences will surely prompt the viewer to think back to compare it with the first version, examining the similarities and differences, thus preventing them from fully engaging with what they’re reading/watching.

Similar issues arise in other animated adaptations, such as Akira, in which the effect is compounded by the fact that although the film does look a lot like the graphic novels, substantial abridgement was required to adapt 2000-pages of story into a single film. It is perhaps a truism to say that any form of adaptation encourages comparison between the different versions of the same story. However, animation’s potential for very direct comic-to-film adaptations does seem to risk encouraging more scrutiny, diminishing the impact of whichever version is experienced second.

So what can qualify as the ‘best’ adaptations? If excessive similarity to source material runs a risk of being distracting, can deliberately differing from the source material avoid this? In some cases, most definitely so, as demonstrated by some of the Batman films.

Since Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman started the current vogue for comic adaptations, it and its sequel, Batman Returns, have stood as successful re-imaginings of the Batman character. They were successful because they kept the essence of the character but remained loftily free of specific continuity to let Burton make the best films he could, carving out the character himself with his own distinctive visual style.

Although Joel Schumacher’s lesser efforts should be forgotten for being fairly awful, Christopher Nolan has reinvigorated Batman in his own style too. Whilst Batman Begins was perhaps a little bogged down in back-story and had some predictable elements, in The Dark Knight, Nolan triumphed. It touches on some classic Batman stories and characters, and remains true to those roots, but at the same time it works as an original film entirely in its own right. It’s a crime film, dealing with difficult social issues, featuring extraordinary characters, told with a strong sense of style… that also has Batman in (not that he’s in any way superfluous, but the film uses the character rather than the other way round).

The essence of the Batman character is so simple and strong, and has been re-used and re-interpreted so many times, that any extraneous back-story elements have been rendered largely irrelevant. This enables filmmakers to use the strengths of the core ideas, while retaining the freedom to make the best film they can. It’s also interesting to note that the Batman animated television series have been good – like the films, they’re very stylised and self-contained.

So do superhero stories that have been retold many times in many styles, provide the best basis for movies that adapt the core elements in some imaginative new way? Clearly not. The 1978 Richard Donner Superman film might be considered a success in these terms, but few others have accomplished the feat. The vast majority of recent mainstream comic adaptations have been disappointing, including: the glut of Marvel films (Spider-man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Punisher, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, etc.), DC’s Superman Returns, and even ‘indie’ titles like Wanted and Judge Dredd.

They all stuck close enough to key areas of their sources to tick off fanboy wish-lists, then blended in enough CGI-heavy Hollywood action clichés to make the films palatable to a wider audience too. The outcome: largely tedious mediocrity. With diffuse source material encompassing years of stories, there was great potential for the adaptations to be true to the essence of the stories and less tied to specific sequences, yet this potential was squandered. In failing to engage with the material other than on a superficial level, the results are just inane action films peppered with confusing nods back to the comics.

Some films of this ilk have been better than others. Iron Man is probably the only film in this bracket worthy of much note, though that is largely down to the astute casting of the charismatic Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. One of the worst recent adaptations, The Spirit, is not just a bad film but a terrible adaptation, as it keeps none of the qualities of Will Eisner’s original comics and is delivered with bizarre style and plotting that is totally unsuitable for the story.

The variation in results of comic-to-film adaptations show that there is no single overriding factor influencing the process. Some films are good, some are not so good, but good adaptation relies upon understanding what is important about the original material – it may be the plot details, it may be the visual style, it may be the essence of the characters, it may be a mix of several factors – and then using this to its fullest potential.

Watchmen demonstrates the problem of adapting a comic where the important thing about it is that it is a comic, but can films successfully refer to the nature of sequential art? Often there are cursory nods to it; Ang Lee’s Hulk film sporadically uses a visual narrative effect where several images are presented in a comic-like panel layout; it’s an interesting attempt at direct imitation but it doesn’t really represent the way sequential art works. However, one film based on a comic does manage to reflect upon the narrative process of comics and in doing so, proves itself, slightly unexpectedly, to be probably the best comic-to-film adaptation made so far. That film is American Splendor.

The comic, written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by various artists, is deliberately mundane and autobiographical, recounting mildly interesting anecdotes from Pekar’s life. Notable for its frankness and Pekar’s determination to represent real life truthfully in a non-dramatic and non-sensational way, it often features Pekar talking directly to the reader.

The film adaptation ingeniously expands the fourth-wall-breaking elements of the comic to investigate the nature of representation and truth, blurring the boundaries between film, comic and real life. It’s essentially just a docu-drama, showing the story of Pekar and the comic, but due to the format of the comic, this means the film is also a brilliantly appropriate adaptation of the comic itself.

The most obvious technique it uses is that the real Harvey Pekar provides first-person voiceover narration, but he breaks continuity to comment on, for example, the way that the lead actor (Paul Giamatti) doesn’t look much like him. Pekar also appears in some brief interview segments, real life documentary footage and archive footage from his odd progression of appearances on the David Letterman television chat show.

The films also blends in illustrations of Pekar – cunningly at a point where another character is wondering which artist’s version of Harvey is most representative of the real one, heightening the way the film prompts the audience to question the gap between reality and representation.

Probably least amongst the film’s many clever devices is that the introductory credits sequence accomplishes what the Hulk film fails to do and captures (to some extent) the process of sequential art storytelling. The camera follows through a comics-page of panels, moving from one panel to the next, representing the process of reading them. Some are illustrations, as if direct from the American Splendor comic, some are film – but they only ‘play’ when the camera is directly on them, i.e. when they’re being ‘read’. It’s not entirely un-gimmicky, but crucially, it does succeed in comparing and contrasting the two media in a meaningful way, and effectively sets up the film’s narrative style and tone.

The thought that has clearly been put into the film’s visual style (heightened by the fact that the biographical story of human frustration and honesty is thoroughly engaging) makes this a totally original bit of filmmaking, and one which is totally true to its source material, demonstrating that finding the right way of telling the right story can make absolutely fantastic comic-to-film adaptations.

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