The film market nowadays is saturated with Superhero film fodder, with explosive budgets, out-of-this world visuals, and months of press tours wherein the cast discusses what makes their character both classic and new. And while this trend is unlikely to die in the next decade, its’ biggest shame is in reworking the public imagination to read “comics” as equal to superhero films.
The fact of the matter is that comics and graphic novels cover the whole gamut of genres, just like films do. There are slice-of-life comics, action comics, horror comics, and all other sorts that capitalize on different art and writing style to tell their stories.
When a comic-book movie is not reliant on a known property, an iconic villain, a team on team showdown, or an established mythology, then what legs does it have to stand on? How does it distinguish itself as adaptation and good film? Does it benefit these films to pay homage and respect to their comic book counterparts, the way that superhero films are always bound to to appease generations of fans?
Below, we have a few examples (and there’ll be more in future articles!) in which we try to quickly answer some of these questions.
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho, starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton
Genre: (Dystopic) Sci-Fi
This french graphic novel about a train, hurtling through an iced over world, holding the only human beings left segregated according to class in the train compartments, is a story about humanity. In the comics, a man from the back of the train struggles to escape the cramped hellhole, and aspire to a better life in the middle or front of the train. Of course the powers-that-be won’t have this — and so begins an escalation of events that will make you question just how much you are willing to give up to be “free”, or if there truly is a place for everyone that everyone must simply live with.
Bong-Joon Ho took this theme and reworked it completely. No longer about one man, it follows a whole revolution from the back of the train, trying to usurp the natural order. As it follows, the main character is different as well, and the characters he interacts with different and with differing skills, in service to a narrative that is a bit more heavy-handed on the political commentary on class divide than the original. Whether this story works and is able to effectively suspend the audiences’ belief seems to vary from review to review. But we must pay respect where it is due: Bong-Joon Ho’s challenge was technical in many respects. Aside from adapting a graphic novel from one language to another, and dealing with editing points and characters, he had to deal with the production issue of having to film a whole movie in the “train” setting in a way that would feel appropriately roomy enough for the action but suffocating enough to get the message across. Ho’s dynamic direction makes the whole movie work, despite the hammer-over-the-head commentary and the snag of pacing towards the end. He imbues the whole thing with more color and action than the comics does and imbues backstories and subtle interactions in both relationships and environment interactions, and in doing so elevates the whole narrative into feeling more high stakes for both characters and audience.
30 Days of Night
Directed by David Slade, starring Ethan Hawke
In the icy ends of the world, the sun disappears for months at the time — a perfect place for vampires to thrive. This story of a small northern community at the mercy of a vampire attack during the winter solstice is told through muted colours, non-defined lines, simplistic figures, and and lots of dashes and smudges and blurs. I do not mean that in a condescending way — the graphic novel takes a very shapes-and-colors approach to the art, in the way Dave McKean does, and it is very aesthetically distinct, pleasing, and jarring in its’ exaggeration during all the horror bits. And while the writing is not exactly perfect and the action’s a bit hard to follow, the art does a good job communicating the bleakness of the people’s hope, dwindling night by night, and makes the vampires suitably scary. These aren’t your everyday vampires, nor are they the vampires that we see as romance heroes — they are organized, strangely amiable, frighteningly intelligent, and worst of all, hungry.
The comics were actually one of the publications that made pitching graphic novels to film producers en vogue again. After a focus on the growing superhero boom, 30 Days of Night proved that non-property, non-franchise graphic novels could have a place on the big screen too. There was also the advantage of having a bare-bones original story, as the numerous volume and world expansions would only be published after the movie’s release.The original volume’s story was simple enough for no one to have to fuss over the nitty-gritty, and the characters dropped enough hints about their back stories that the actors and directors could work with and expand as necessary. The result was not going to win any Oscars, but it was an effective horror film that, like its’ comic book counterpart, was able to stand apart from others of its’ kind at the time. It was a different sort of survival thriller, a different sort of vampire movie, a different sort of comic book movie, a different sort of action movie — overall, a very solid piece of work.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, starring Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson
Genre: Noir, action, romance
Frank Miller has written many stories exploring the lives of the different cops, criminals, and whores fending for themselves in the dark, neo-noir world of Sin City. The most popular characters by far are Marv: a practically unkillable thug with a heart of gold, a fist covered with dry blood, and a face that only a mother could love, and Miho: A Japanese ninja girl who serves to protect the girls of Old Town; she never speaks, and she never fails to kill a target. But these two are only the cherries on top of a ruinously rich sundae of character tropes. All this, combined with Frank Miller’s very striking play of shapes and hard black-and-white-blocking and his penchant for having very strange happy endings, makes Sin City a singularly unique graphic novel series that is almost universally loved.
As for the film, it’s literally only as strong as its’ source material. There’s a reason why Frank Miller is also credited as a director alongside Robert Rodriguez — it’s because Rodriguez literally followed the graphic novels, panel by panel, in his film. He had the book open, the panels shot accordingly, the script following nearly word for word, the costumes completely the same, and the color scheme redone to go full black and white. Rodriguez says he didn’t even feel he was adapting the comic book, so much as just putting it on the big screen. And to his credit, it largely worked — Sin City is an enjoyable piece of cinema, that pays homage to noir without skimping on the funny and sexy bits too. The cast also has a big hand in this, going full camp and comical, and delivering the cheesy, 30’s-esque lines with gusto. Everyone pulls their weight in this dark, black and white flick. And while the sequel left much to be desired, this first film is still widely applauded both commercially and critically for pulling off an adaptation in a way no one thought possible.
Directed by Zack Snyder, starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro
Genre: Action, historical
The 300 graphic novel was something singularly unexpected from Frank Miller, who was, until then, known for pulpy, sexy, violent reimaginings. This had the pulp, and absolutely had the sex and the violence, but its’ situation in a historical myth made it all the more interesting. His unapologetic catering to the male gaze in nonsensical brief-armor and the like worked perfectly with his heavy ink strokes, bold bold BOLD text, and liberal use of blood splatter. True, it was nowhere near accurate towards the known historical event. But that wasn’t what Miller was going for, and what he went for, he got.
How does someone like Zack Snyder interpret Miller’s penchant for heavy-handed inking and liberal cheesecake and make it work onscreen? Notably, he did four things: The first was intensify the colour palette saturation, really making the movie still look very comics-y and giving you the signal that this is neither historically accurate or meant to be taken over-dramatically. The second was keeping all the hammed up dialogue from the graphic novel, and hamming it up even more — WE DINE IN HELLLLLLL, and all that — intensifying the signals from the first point, and getting the audience really hyped for the all the action parts. The third was using the graphic novel as a screenplay, in much the same way Sin City did. The fourth was slow motion — and we all know this, it’s practically memetic at this point. The quick-quick-slooooow cut of the action sequences allowed Snyder to play with comical (but not funny, mind) over-violence and excess in the way Miller does, making the action scenes less about the choreography and more about the visual moments-by-moments.
Scott Pilgrm vs. The World
Directed by , starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartz
Genre: Comedy, action, magic-realism
Scott Pilgrim was a several-volume series, that was basically a video game that was also a comic book. Hard to explain? Well, it’s also hard to hate. The fact of the matter is creator Bryan Lee O’ Malley loves his video game and anime and comics tropes. And so this hilarious and yer touching graphic novel plays on tropes excessively — the characters have random stats that pop up, people fight for no reason, swords swishing in the air leave neon-bright trails. These fantastic bits fit seamlessly into Scott’s otherwise normal life — he’s just a guy, trying to make it big with his band, and falling in love with a girl he literally met in his dreams. Scott’s immaturity and his struggle to come to terms with growing up and getting it together is the meatier part of his war against Ramona’s coalition of seven evil exes, and a cast of amazing supporting characters that play off of him well without overshadowing him just makes the whole story readable over and over again.
How does the movie capitalize on this? Really well, as far as tone goes. With the choice of directly translating frames to film, sometimes complete with floating text boxes and split screens to depict panels, there was really no worry that it would not visually come across. The effect is just as funny as it is in the comics, with the added benefit of incorporating all those classic video game sounds too alongside the seriously bomb soundtrack that finally lets your hear what Scott’s scrappy band sounds like. Unfortunately, the story did not translate quite as well — the exclusion of characters like Knives’s father and the whole sequence of the twins being reduced to a battle of the bands are relatively forgivable, but less so are the omission of both the sub-theme of mental and emotional manipulation that was so prominent to Ramona’s character and Scott’s struggle with accepting the parts of himself he doesn’t like. You can only cram so much of the 6 volumes into the two hour film, and in this case, what made it is amazing but what could have been still stings. I’d also say the film is bogged down a bit by the amazing supporting cast — Brie Larson! Brandon Routh! Stephen Schwartz! Chris Pine! Allison Pill! — completely overshadowing our main couple in ability and charisma, but that’s a personal quibble now.