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Comic Book to Screen - Post the first.
thor steve tony
Hollywood steals from everything – books, short stories, TV series, comic books, videogames, fairground rides, real life and even itself. I've had a lot to say in the past about the adaptation of various novels, and the difficulties faced by scriptwriters working on the adaptations. (Not that this doesn't cut both ways: I've yet to read a novelisation of a film or TV show script, or of a comic book that equals the original.) A film is not a book, or a comic book, or a videogame or, indeed, a fairground ride or real life. The structure of these things are not the same as the film, which has been the problem with all three films taken from the Chronicles of Narnia.

It is also no surprise that when a film scriptwriter adapts a novel, TV show or comic book series it often offends many people who know the original if what they consider important is changed. For example, I adore the LotR screenplays, approve of most of the changes and wish that some of the original radical ideas had been carried through, not to mention that the last film had opened at Isengard and stopped at the wedding, but I know many of Tolkien's fans would disagree violently.

In many cases this hardly matters. Even with something like LotR far more people who see the film have never read the books at all than the numbers who can tell you which bit of dialogue has been switched from one character to another, as I can, or could at the time.

Which brings us to the subject of today's post: the adaptation of comic books and graphic novels. It ought to be easy. Both films and comics are framed visuals. They tell stories in very similar ways and tend to be less internalised than books. Of course, you can draw things that used to be very difficult to get on screen but, with the advent of CGI, making you believe a man can fly or swing between buildings on web spun from his fingers is so much easier. Expensive, but easier.

Indeed, when you have a limited series that forms a real graphic novel the adaptation to film can capture the spirit of the original and, sometimes, be very good indeed. I could mention The Road to Perdition or A History of Violence. Some are even almost shot for shot, like 300 and Watchmen and where they have faults, they are to some extent the faults of the originals, in that 300 is really crappy history, violence porn and sex porn, all style and no substance, while the problem with Watchmen is that you have to be a comics geek to know what the satire is about. Likewise, it takes a geek to identify most of the characters that are being satirised. (It is interesting that Watchmen was published almost simultaneously with Mike Grell's The Longbow Hunters in which the mainstream comics character who Silk Spectre most resembles is raped and tortured within an inch of her life.) It's not surprising that everyone outside the comics-reading community was a bit baffled.

On the other hand, the film version of V for Vendetta suffered from the targets of the original satire having vanished, and the updating in wider brushstrokes not really working as well. (It is probably just me, but it also made the superhero connections a lot clearer with V in his V-costume and V-cave.)

However, it's when you adapt a long-running superhero comic book, particularly one that had been adapted before and/or adapted for TV that you run into very deep doo doo indeed.

First problem: even if you don't decide to abandon comic book canon completely (and look how Catwoman turned out when they did) it's not a case of how closely you stick to canon, but what bloody canon are you going to choose? You think there is a lot of Tolkien canon to violate? Try 70 years of Superman and Batman or Captain America (the last interrupted by the 1950s) with one, two, three or even more comic books every month in which the character appears, plus specials, TV series, retcons ("retrospective continuity" changes) and cartoons. It's hardly better for Spider-man or Green Lantern or Iron Man or the various X-Men teams where you are talking about 50 years rather than 70. Nor does it help that Marvel was, not long ago, running three different versions – with different continuity – of a lot of its major characters: the classic Marvel universe (known to everyone but the Marvel bosses as Universe 616, and that implies, by the way, other numbered parallel worlds, some of which have been detailed), the Ultimates (simpler, nastier, darker), and Marvel Adventures (family friendly.) Even with the announced cancellation of the last, that's a lot of canon out there.

Meanwhile, DC's policy has been a cleansing of the hives at regular intervals, though they have now thrown up their hands and started from scratch. Furthermore, a lot of the most famous characters have TV series, or several series, not to mention the cartoons. (There are web-sites out there which detail how each superhero film differs from each canon.)

Millions of people know famous super-hero characters like the X-Men or Batman from animation (an animation often actually based on actual comic book plot) and they, as well as anyone who has ever purchased or read a comic book, or seen the earlier movies, has a view on what is or is not canon and most of it will be contradictory.

Come to think of it, film canon contradicts itself in X-Men: First Class which it is very hard to reconcile with Wolverine or with the X-Men trilogy. There's too much, "Hey, this is a cool character, let's throw them in!" Even Marvel itself finally decided that there were too many mutants in the comics and had the Scarlet Witch throw a wobbly to get rid of most of them in House of M.

Yes, even the origin stories, many of which (the explosion of Krypton and the Kents finding Kal-el in the crashed spaceship, the Waynes shot in the alley, Peter Parker being bitten by a radio-active spider) are iconic, change over the years. They have been told and retold again and again, with variations. The elements of, say, Hal Jordan being chosen as a Green Lantern remain the same – the crashed starship (though why Abin Sur should have been in a spaceship at all – except the obvious answer that John Broome and Gil Kane didn't think it through...), the dying alien, the ring seeking out a man who is "without fear" remain the same, but the retellings in, say Emerald Dawn and Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier are very different. It would have been better all round if the writers on the recent Green Lantern movie had taken hints from either or both and not dived straight in to a long and very confusing narration about the origins of the Guardians and the Green Lantern Corps (not to mention introducing Parallax, a totally unnecessary complication!), and let us discover as much as we all need to understand the plot at the same time Hal does.

Respect for the audience, fellas. If you want to see how to do that kind of thing properly, take a look at Hellboy where three scenes take you through Hellboy's origin, establish the 'present day' situation and catapult you into the plot. The fact that Hellboy's creator worked on the script helped, but we'll go into that later. You could have done the same.

Of course, sometimes you have to mess with origin stories simply because times have changed. Even back in the 1970s, it was felt expedient, in a family TV show, to change the Hulk's origin.

Comics geeks, even lapsed ones like me, know that in the original comics Bruce Banner was a scientist working on a gamma ray bomb (comic book science, please not to try and make sense of it) who was irradiated while saving a teenager called Rick Jones (everyone's sidekick) from a weapons test. But weapons scientists aren't exactly flavour of the month, and so Bruce's origin (and his name, in the TV series) was changed both there and in the Ang Lee film Hulk.

It took Tony Stark forty years of 'real world' time and ten of internal comic book time-line to stop making weapons, while in Iron Man he was convinced to do so in less than half the movie. Weapons manufacturers are not heroes nowadays. (An even bigger problem was that the iconic Iron Man villain is a stereotypical Chinese Fu Manchu figure called 'The Mandarin' who wears 'magic' rings, and there are all sorts of reasons why that wouldn't fly, though there is a reference to 'Ten Rings' as the group who captured Tony Stark in the first movie as a little hat-tip fan service.)

You can often see why particular choices have been made, even though you may have wished the changes had been a bit more radical. As an example, in Captain America – the First Avenger they had to leave the actual origin much as it was in the 1940s (despite some unease being expressed about the super-soldier serum in the 1960s) because this is another one that really is iconic. However, kid sidekicks are out, so Bucky Barnes (who has possibly been the major comics character who stayed dead longest, like over 40 years) was turned into Steve Rogers' contemporary. His death must occur to give Captain America his long-established guilt trip/motivation, but was deliberately left open because Joe Johnson, the director, really, really, really wants to be allowed to do the Winter Soldier storyline.

Peggy Carter, an invention of the 60s/70s, was given a more prominent role for a lot of very good reasons, including a lack of women in the original origin story, and made to be there from the beginning. (The comics canon is that she was working with the Resistance when Cap met and fell in love with her a few weeks before he went MIA.) More importantly, she is included because her sister/niece (and now possibly grand-niece, because time marches on) Sharon Carter/Agent 13 is destined to become Captain America's on-off love interest in comics canon and, apparently, in The Avengers movie.

Baron Zemo, the original villain who launched the plane which caused the (presumed) death of both Captain America and Bucky, was not very visual (think a guy in a hood) nor as (in)famous as the Red Skull (who, like Zemo, was an original 40s villain) so the obvious decision was to replace one with t'other. The plane was beefed up (really beefed up) because this is, like an international threat and, you know, establishing Hydra. (We will see more of Hydra.) The glowing Asgardian thingy/tesseract/cosmic cube is needed to tie it to Thor.

Nick Fury, already established as alive in the noughties in previous Marvel movies, was abstracted from the leadership of the Howling Commandos (who were always a racially integrated unit) and the role given to Captain America. Presumably this is because the backstory for the movie Fury is plainly closer to the Ultimates version, and does not include near-immortality. Also to demonstrate what Cap was actually doing during WW2, and his canonical leadership qualities and tactical genius.

Howard Stark (who must have been getting on a bit when Tony was born) is needed to tie it to Iron Man and, no doubt, to provide friction between Tony Stark – who has Daddy issues – and Steve Rogers in The Avengers.

Whew! You can see why this film is a bit of a mess. Throwing in all that fan service and Avengers references does not leave much room for characterisation and plot, and, even with background comics knowledge, you can get very confused. It should have been simplified and the plot made stronger, while the all the movie references from Indiana Jones to A Matter of Life and Death could have been lost. In Avengers #4, the whole background to the discovery of Captain America frozen in the ice was dealt with in less than half a dozen pages, and the actual plane crash in two panels. Now, that is economical storytelling.

(The 616 canon crossovers with Wolverine could not be included because Marvel sold the rights to all the X-characters to Sony. Otherwise I'm sure he would have popped up. There is an infamous occasion where Wolvie is pictured on a cover with a little footnote saying "Wolverine does not appear in this issue.")

It could have been worse. It could have been Green Lantern.

(to be continued, maybe indefinitely.)

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This is fascinating: thank you. Most of the adaptations I know best are Japanese, where there tends to be more fidelity to the manga original, apart from OAVs, which can be waaay too fan-service-y.

I'm not going there, mainly because I don't know the manga well enough. However, the Japanese-made Mingola scripted animations of Hellboy are superb.

I haven't seen those. Will look out for them.

I'm not really into American superhero comics, but I remember what a mess they made of Judge Dredd. And now, I gather, there's a new Dredd movie on the way, and they've deliberately excised all the craziness and satire that defined the strip to concentrate on a straight-up scifi action movie. [Sigh.]

I want a proper good true-to-source Strontium Dog movie and I want it yesterday.

The really annoying thing about the original Judge Dredd movie was that it had the perfect physical casting for Dredd (that chin!) and just lost it in a bad script. This often happens with indies - Tank Girl is an obvious example.

Maybe this time they will do Dredd right... as Batman Begins (of which more in the next instalment) did it right. Well, much righter than Burton's Batman. I'm not a great 2000 AD fan, mainly because I don't like any of the characters, and my fondness is for soap opera and sitcom with intricate plotting and worldbuilding and a dislike a lot of the art.

Edited at 2012-01-05 06:56 pm (UTC)

Thank you, that was fascinating.

(Here via philmophlegm, but I seem to have various bits of fandom in common with you.)

You are now!

(If that was what you were asking...)

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