Comics to Films

Partially inspired by Ralph’s mini rant about the Dragonball movie, I thought I’d take a post to talk about the current speight of comic (or graphic novel, if you can’t bear to call them comics) to film translations.

First a confession, WE3 is one of my favourite comics. Written by Grant Morrisson, it sympathetically evokes moments of horror and hubris, cruelty and compassion; the book should appeal to anyone who ever felt any kind of emotion for an animal. Helped along by the quite brilliant Frank Quitely providing some of the greatest layouts I can remember the whole thing sticks together in my mind as one of the best examples of what a comic can achieve. I still can’t read the whole thing through without filling up. Just a little, mind.

I’d completely missed the announcement that WE3 was going to be adapted into a film, and I have to admit I have mixed reactions to this news. Part of this trepidation is at the root of a lot of problems I have with comic adaptations in general. Comics are contained within their own world; they seem less constrianed by the necessities of realism that film requires. Let’s look at WE3 as an example, in the book the protagonists are kidnapped household pets plugged into killer mech suits while we are shown the moral of the tale through the actions of the humans. Outlandish, no? It’s because of this freedom to juxtapose the bizarre with the humane that sets comics aside for me. Few live action films successfully make this blend work. Don’t get me wrong, sporadically a film will do so with astounding results such as Pan’s Labyrinth, but I feel that this kind of filmmaking is rare at best.

In fact this proximity of the surreal to the humanistic viewpoint continues through some of my favourite comic books and for my money is the real strength of the graphic novel format. In film a serious message is often overlooked if elements of the storytelling are overtly fantastical, often leading to a dilution of the message either by making it’s goals more abstract (Lord of the Rings) or removing any moral message more complex than a Saturday Special (Transformers et al.) This is not a failing of film, it’s just not the norm nor particualrily welcomed. As mentioned previously Guillermo Del Toro could be the arbiter of a shift in expectations, paving the ground with Pan’s Labyrinth and his adaptions of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics, he has a keen eye for the visual design of a film and can deliver touching and relevant scenes even if his characters are a fish man and a demon.

Other translations are more direct. The recent success of Persepolis, co-directed by Marjane Satrapi; the writer and artist of the original work closely mirrors the visual style of the book version, adding flourishes of hand drawn animation it turns it into more of a living comic than a film. Frank Miller has also been throwing his hat into the ring, overseeing adaptations of his lauded 300 and Sin City books (possibly due to the butchering of his script for Robocop 2) managed to work with directors and staff commited to bringing the visual style of the books to the screen. While these approaches are valid and produce extraordianry results, they seem to be gimmicky to me neither examples giving the emotional response nor depth of character that I see when I read Transmetropolitan, Fluffy or Pride of Baghdad. Maybe it’s just my preference of film, but I can’t see a comic book film ever succeed at being taken as a ‘serious’ movie.

Apparently there’s ongoing effort to translate Preacher to the cinema. Preacher is a book I grew to love comics with, it threw taste to the wind, mixing cowboy themes with a buddy comedy, slapstick and an overarching message about belief. It was huge, sprawling, filled with insane characters, belly laughs and quotable lines aplenty. Successfully making a movie from the wonderful mess of the comic series would be a feat in itself. Making it true to the spirit of the original may be nothing short of a miracle.