At this point, we don’t even have to open with a statement like “comic book movies are all the rage these days” because these days, films based on comics are as commonplace as a drama, an action film or a bad romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston that will undoubtedly perform poorly at the box office, leaving executives scratching their heads wondering why America’s Girl Next Door didn’t pull ‘em in this time. But we digress…
Just because we see a lot of funny book films grace the silver screen doesn’t mean they’re all good. Actually, sometimes it seems like the vast majority of them are kind of mediocre with only a mere handful rising up to “awesome” status. For every Dark Knight or Iron Man, there’s an Elektra, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, Catwoman or… well, you get the point.
In order to remedy this situation, Mania has compiled a list of simple rules to follow when adapting a comic book property to film. It’s fairly simple and should be common sense. Should be, but quite often isn’t. Since most comic to film adaptations involve superheroes, our list will be a bit skewed toward the metahuman set. But with a little imagination, you should be able to apply these rules to any film adaptation.
Obviously graphic novels and film are two very different mediums and despite what the uninitiated and uninformed might tell you, comic books aren’t “just like storyboards, but with words.” But if you’re going to turn sequential art into live-action, it might help to understand a bit about the medium you’re adapting and why we love it so much. Does that mean we want to see literal, panel-for-panel recreations of a comic book? Well, if it works, sure; but don’t feel like you have to. Does it mean a writer or director has to come equipped with a detailed knowledge of Spider-Man’s continuity before beginning work? Not necessarily, but we won’t argue if you do. Overall, we just want you to have at least a basic knowledge of how and why these characters work and a healthy respect for the source material if you’re going to get paid to make a movie about it.
So you’ve read a few Flash comics and you’ve gotten to know the character, right? You understand what makes him tick, what drives him and why he does what he does, right? So clearly you must understand how incredibly stupid it sounds when you say that you’re drawing inspiration from films like Silence of the Lambs and Se7en when writing the Flash screenplay, right? Right?
Batman is dark and brooding. It makes sense to put him in a dark world full of moral ambiguity where he can fight for justice while brooding in the shadows and acting all spooky-like. Superman is a source of inspiration for us all, a shining pinnacle to which we can all aspire. Having him cry in his beer and use his x-ray vision to spy on his old girlfriend? Well, that’s not really too inspiring, nor does it give us much hope for mankind.
If you wanna make a superhero version of Se7en, adapt something dark and creepy. Maybe Spawn. But if you wanna make a Flash movie, make a Flash movie.
For years, X-Men fans dreamed of seeing the merry mutants on the big screen. When they finally got their wish, they found that while director Bryan Singer got the overall concept right, he struggled with the details. Rather than getting the conflicted yet brave Scott Summers they’d been reading about for 30+ years, they got a whiny bitch. Remember how we all loved seeing Nightcrawler act as a swashbuckling, Errol Flynn-esque character in the comics? Remember how he was depicted as a morose freak obsessed with religious scarification in the movie?
How many Christians would be thrilled with the concept of Jesus depicted as an unforgiving, gun-toting jerk in a movie adaptation? Okay, maybe a few… okay, maybe a few more than we’re comfortable with. But overall, most folks would be upset if a filmmaker took their Lord and Savior in such an uncharacteristic direction. Hollywood needs to realize that in a sense, comics are our religion and that handling these characters in such an improper way is tantamount to blasphemy. Or to put it in layman’s terms: if you’re gonna do it, do it right. If you don’t know the difference between Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy, maybe you shouldn’t include both of them in a movie.
All that stuff we just said about respecting the source material, treating these characters with love and staying true to the comic books upon which they are based? It’s not worth spit if you aren’t willing to take some chances and put your own spin on things. Remember who’s in charge here.
The danger of having a fanboy in charge of a comic adaptation is the tendency to want to adhere so closely to the source material that it doesn’t properly translate to film. These are two separate mediums we’re talking about here, folks -- some things have to be altered. Not only that, most of these characters have been reimagined many times over the course of their history, so it only makes sense that they’d be reimagined again when making the jump from the printed page to the big screen.
Don’t worry about those folks who will nitpick the details in Iron Man’s armor or complain that Wolverine’s too tall. The key here is to not make unnecessary changes that will only convolute the script or water down the essence of the character, like making the Hulk’s dad the Absorbing Man or putting the Punisher in Florida.
You’re making a superhero movie? Superheroes wear masks. You’re starring in a superhero movie? Well, you’d better get used to wearing a mask. Check your ego at the door and learn that an actor acts. Hell, Hugo Weaving never did take that mask off in V for Vendetta, and we’re pretty sure it didn’t hurt his career. Stallone, on the other hand, still hasn’t gotten the egg off of his face for the whole Judge Dredd thing, and while it was clever when Spider-Man ended the first movie without a mask, but it was a joke by the second one and embarrassing by the third. This might seem like a minor, nitpicky thing but… hey, that’s what we do. And comics (and superheroes) are what we love. It all goes back to that “respecting the characters and the fans” thing we mentioned earlier.
What each and every one of these rules boils down to is toeing a fine line between a filmmaker putting their own mark on a creation and staying true to the spirit of said creation. Richard Donner introduced the idea that Superman’s logo was a family crest -- that’s not the kind of thing we’re going to nitpick over, as it enhances the character and the story. Nipples on a batsuit or the inclusion of Absorbing Dad? Unnecessary and over-the-top. No matter what you do, someone on the internet will bitch about it, but if you treat these characters with the same love and respect that we do (and a bit less of the obsession), then you’ll do just fine.