5 Rules for Adapting a Comic Book to Film - Mania.com

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5 Rules for Adapting a Comic Book to Film

If you want to do it right, know the ground rules.

By Chad Derdowski     January 14, 2011

5 Rules for Adapting a Comic Book to Film
© Sony Pictures/Robert Trate

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.


Read a Comic Book

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.


Get the Tone Right

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.


Respect the Characters/Respect the Readers

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.


Don’t Be a Slave to the Page

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.


For God’s Sake, Keep the Masks On!

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.



Showing items 1 - 10 of 26
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Jonblaze1107 1/14/2011 3:00:30 AM

 I couldn't have said it any better...

raa2001 1/14/2011 4:01:11 AM

 nice points. would be nice if you can show this to some of the execs in hollywood.  


on a side note:  Mania, I know that you have to pay your bills but please relieve us of page size ads.  It is very very very annoying.

redhairs99 1/14/2011 4:36:57 AM

Especially page size ads that are video TRAILERS!

Yeah, keeping the damn masks on would be a great start.  Even Keaton's Batman couldn't keep his damn cowl on. 

And I wasn't real sure given the way the article was written, did you like the Flash TV series?  I love that old show.  That was probably the first time I can ever remember really becoming a fan of the character.

Wiseguy 1/14/2011 5:27:56 AM

Agree with all the points in general but not with all your examples. 

I can see The Flash working out. He was a forensic scientist so I could see what they mean by citing Silence of the Lambs and Se7en

I disagree with your example about being ok with a tall handsome Wolverine yet have a problem with putting Punisher in Florida. Wolverine's height is a big contributor to his nastiness while Tampa or NYC doesn't necessarily define the character.

jppintar326 1/14/2011 5:37:39 AM

#6:  Casting is important.  The late Christopher Reeve was pefect as Superman in the original Superman movies.  he was watchable even when the movies turned mediocore.  On the other hand, Kate Bosworth was all wrong as Lois Lane in Superman Returns.  She was too young for the part in the movie and made Lois Lane shrill and unlikable.

ChadDerdowski 1/14/2011 6:26:19 AM

Wiseguy - I see what you're saying about Barry Allen being a forensic scientist as far as the technical side of things goes, but Silence of the Lambs is a very, very dark film (as is Se7en)... that's not Barry Allen.  He might be clinical and methodical in his approach to solving crimes and he obviously has seen some pretty nasty stuff, but he's not a nasty character.

Se7en is a movie about police officers.  So is Lethal Weapon... but the tone of these two films couldn't be more different.  I'm not saying that I want to see Barry Allen on an exploding toilet, but I certainly don't want to see him find Iris' head in a box either.

Re: Wolverine - I understand this is a sore spot with a lot of people and I will concede that you have a good point as far as his height being a big part of his character.  Myself, I wish they would've used some LOTR-style trick photography to make Hugh Jackman appear shorter.  But I'm more concerned with the fact that Jackman gave one hell of a great performance and really captured the character.  I get where you're coming from though and in a perfect world, I'd like a short Wolvie too.

As far as Tampa and NYC go... I would've agreed with you, had I not visited both cities.  Just like people, places have personalities all their own.  Yeah, they both have organized crime, but Tampa and New York have very different personalities and the personality of Frank Castle is New York.  The Punisher is Death Wish and the Destroyer and Dirty Harry rolled into one.  Just as Superman fits Metropolis and Batman fits Gotham, Frank fits New York.  There's a reason why a Superman story in Gotham is a big deal and a reason why Spider-Man in outer space always feels odd - they're out of their element.  That's not a knock on NYC or Tampa... it's just part of the character.  The character of NY and the character of Frank Castle.

Tevii 1/14/2011 7:01:29 AM

Love this list. "Get the tone right" - NO EFFING KIDDING WARNER BROS!!!!!!!!!!!!

@wiseguy- I know what your saying about Flash....if Flash is the humor or light-hearted part of the dark Se7en-ish movie, THEN it could work. BUT if they make Flash himself a dark or brooding character, then its all wrong and very stupid.


Rheul_home 1/14/2011 7:24:43 AM

Wiseguy@ The setting of The Punisher really hurt that film in my eyes. Punisher belongs in NY as much as Spidey does. He needs to be on the dark gritty mean streets. Not a tropical paradise. Setting is extremly important.

zopilotez 1/14/2011 7:38:19 AM

I´ve liked better that Flash movie when it was called DARKMAN...

What comic book movies needed are guys with the enough balls to making us fanboy whine while surprising us when the real movie comes out, alas Sam Raimi on Spider-Man and his organic shooters

LocoLobo73 1/14/2011 8:19:59 AM

Like d the article , and I agree with what you said, I also would like to say Chad I think your absolutely right I had less problems with Jackman as wolvie then i did with the way they portrayed Scott or Storm, whom I think was really bad, if Jackman is to short then Berry was way way way to short.

As far as the Seven Style Flash Movie, im not sure if anyone read old flash comics, But I have and even though Barry was a forensic Scientist that did nt make him a detective, cause he wasnt.  There is a big difference between a crime fighter and a detective.

But i think we are getting away from the point and that is be faithful to the core of the character but you dont have to be a slave to them.

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