Adapting Newspaper Comic Strips

The next edition of adapting non-superhero comics will have to wait — today we’re talking about newspaper strips!

Newspaper comics operate by very different rules than comic serials and graphic novels. When tasked with risking having a different audience each day, and not having a lot of drawing or writing room to provide context, most of the medium are usually short character-based gag strips or single images with text punchlines. The ones that do make the long-running narrative work still have to write a different way and pace the narrative differently too, as exposition per strip need to have climaxes on their own, the word count must not be overwhelming, and the medium is much more binding than it is experimental — no bleeding over the borders or full page spreads for these kind of comics!

This isn’t to say gag strips don’t have their own decisions to commit to. How do you keep making new jokes for old characters? How dynamic is the world the characters live in, or are they forever bound in one setting? How do you introduce new recurring characters? How do you stay true to the character’s dependable character traits without becoming new monotonous? How you gain a new audience if everything stays the same?

With all these problems of the medium, you think it would be impossible to adapt this format to film. And yet lo and behold, the movie making machine never does cease…

Tamara Drewe
Directed by Stephen Frears, Starring Gemma Arterton, Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam
Genre: Dramedy

A british newspaper article, with both the tone and humor of Bridget Jones. Technically, it’s an adaptation as well — a modernization of “Far from the Madding Crowd”, although it may be difficult to pick up at first. Sexy journalist and aspiring novelist Tamara Drewe returns to her English countryside home to restore her family’s old cottage, and in doing so, throws the lives of her whole acquaintances into disarray — including the handyman she used to have a crush on, the successful writer she used to look up to, the writer’s wife, the rockstar she’s assigned to interview, the resident fangirl of said rockstar, etc.

Tamara Drewe is a dramedy through and through. Unlike the gag strips that will be mentioned later in this article, the newspaper serial had an ongoing storyline, with a clear storyline start, middle, and end. That clear story was easy to transpose onto film, even with the characters’ looks as the comics had sort of a realistic style. There is no capitalizing on visual gags or nuances. Sensory wise, the only thing that truly elevates the narrative is being able to hear the music of Ben Sergeant, and being able to really feel the sex appeal rolling off of Gemma Arterton that might not have been as clear in drawn format. Otherwise, the film is pretty cleanly translated, with the only clear exception being that there is a much happier conclusion onscreen rather than the jarringly dismal one in the comics. At the end of the day, the film is charming. Like the comics it’s based on — nothing award-winning, but sufficiently funny, sufficiently sexy, sufficiently dramatic.

Further reading: Books-Into-Movies: “Tamara Drewe” (based on Tamara Drewe) // Even with sexual superpowers, the Tamara Drewe comic book movie spells U.S. wet noodle

Garfield
Directed by Peter Hewitt, starring Bill Murray, Breckin Meyer, Jennifer Love Hewitt
Genre: Comedy

Garfield, our favorite cat with a penchant for lasagna and inconveniencing owner Jon, has been a staple in newspapers all over the world for years and years. He’s lazy, he’s sarcastic, he hates Jon’s happy dog Odie, and he’s always, always hungry.

The movie version of Garfield — and hell if I know who pitched this and actually thought it would be a good idea — is crap on a stick, for several reasons. The foremost is of course that the comic book’s humor and color did not translate at all onscreen. Looking at the other entries on this blog post, you could argue that Garfield had the most difficult situation: it doesn’t have the benefit of a long-running narrative, but it doesn’t have the benefit of having only single-frame gags that can be endlessly elaborated on either. So it was always inevitable that the humor would be lost onscreen. What Garfield the comics did have are established, much beloved characters, who could be relied upon to deliver a punchline — something the movie had absolutely no idea how to capitalize on. All the characters were so different in personality and image as to be recognizable. And that plot?? Overall, there was simply no effort on anyone’s part, save the CGI-ing of Garfield, that never ceased to look grossly misplaced in the setting wherein even Odie was a real dog. The result was that every part of the film became grating after the first five minutes, and the entire franchise has now been forever stained with this turd of an adaptation.

Further reading: pluggedin: Garfield The Movie // IGN: Garfield The Movie

The Addams Family
Directed by Barry Sonnenfield, starring Rael Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Christina Ricci
Genre: Comedy, horror

Bud-a-bu-bum snap snap! Everybody knows the Addams family — they dress in black, they interact with monsters like it’s nothing, they attempt bodily injury to each other and consider it play time, they have Frankenstein’s monster as a butler, they have a disembodied hand as a pet… and yet they’re perfectly pleasant and friendly, and just want to get along with all the normies! What is not as widely known is that The Addams Family — now a musical, a series of live action films, an animated cartoon, a television show, and with an upcoming animated film directed by Tim Burton allegedly in the works — was originally a newspaper comic by cartoonist, Charles Adams.

Nobody on the face of the planet thinks the Addams Family films are bad adaptations, whether you consider them adaptations of the television series or of the original newspaper comic serials. The newspaper comics were limited to little snapshots of the Addams’s life and punchlines, while the movie took the aesthetics and elevated them into whole sprawling comedic sequences with zinger after zinger. While having free reign to flesh out characters and plots that the original format could never afford, and despite ocassionally elevating the humor to less family-friendly realms, the greatest success of the film is that it stayed true to what made the original funny — that despite appearances, the Addams’s are more functional and loving than any family you know — and it stayed true to the look. I mean, Christopher Lloyd absolutely committed to that no-neck hunch! And Raul Julia with the mustache and Anjelica Huston with the eerie lighting always on her face absolutely murdered this film, in the absolute best way.

Further reading: The Addams Family Movie Is Proof Of How Perfectly Faithful An Adaptation Can Be // LOST IN TRANSLATION 209: ADAPTING A CHARACTER

St. Trinian’s
Directed by Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson, starring Gemma Arterton, Russell Brand, Rupert Everett Colin Firth
Genre: Comedy

St. Trinian’s is a school for the bad girls who don’t listen to rules and take no prisoners. But of course St. Trinian’s doesn’t try to iron them out — of course not! The teachers are every bit as diabolical as their students, and as a whole, the boarding school is out there to wreak havoc and anarchy to all the other stuffy members of society. This popular gag comic book serial was adapted into an animated television show, and several sets of movies, with the latest iteration being the one we’re discussing in brief today.

Our second Gemma Arterton starrer on this list was a lot less dramatic and a lot less well received. I don’t blame the film. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely. Despite being clunky and corny, it’s still a ton of fun and the aesthetic, music, and costumes are real bangers. The cast clearly commits to the purposeful hamminess too — Rupert Everett and Colin Firth completely sell there inexplicable romance, Lena Headey is unrecognizable as the fidgety new teacher, and every time Celia Imrie is onscreen you just can’t help but laugh out loud. However, there isn’t much of a place for a truly comical comic film nowadays. This would have fit in a time when adaptations were more Adam West’s Batman than Christian Bale’s Dark Knight. However, today, that it lacks any higher purpose over paying homage to the outlandish humour and “girl power!” tone of the comics makes it a difficult sell. This is especially true to audiences who knew nothing about the franchise and had nothing but very british humour to tether their attention to. Also of note, John Patterson, in the article found in the second link underneath, says that he worst part about adaptations of the strip is the loss of commentary in the necessary humorous and setting anachronisms, and that these fundamentally altered what original creator Ronald Searle would have wanted.

Further reading: Can the bad girls of St Trinian’s save the British film industry? // When St Trinian’s was top of the class

Popeye
Directed by Robert Altman, starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall
Genre: Comedy, action

Dear sweet Olive Oyl is always getting into trouble with louts like Brutus constantly on her case. Luckily, her sailor beau Popeye is always there to protect her! When he pops a can of spinach, he gets the strength of a hundred men, and sends Brutus running every single time — and this is true, whether we’re talking about the original newspaper comic strips from the 1930’s, the animated series, or the 1980 film.

The movie is considered a “cult film” for a reason — it’s a pretty specific subject that people would deem just too outlandish and visually defined to work on film. How does one depict Olive’s noodle-like skininess? Popeye’s distinct chin and arms that literally grow in size when he down the spinach? On paper, none of it should work. And yet no one does “real life cartoon character” better than the late Robin Williams, and Sissy Spacek style is a believable Olive Oyl. With them at the helm, the movie is visually and aurally distinct enough to be identifiable to the original, and fun and hammy enough to work as a campy, entertaining movie that doesn’t aspire to be anything more. That the added characters are all as outlandish and comical as the main three helps. I can’t say much more on the subject as it’s been years since I watched the film, but do check out the second link below is an article by J.V. on blog Uncle John’s Crazy Towen. He does an excellent job of delineating the problems with adapting the classic comic strips — what had to be lost in order for a cinematic sensibility to be gained, including a historicity of the comic strip, the writer, and the character.

Further Reading: Popeye Is the Best Movie Robin Williams Ever Made // Popeye Don’t Get No Respeck

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