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Does Everything Have to be a Movie?

The implications of filming Watchmen

By Kurt Amacker     February 18, 2009
Source: Mania


No Fly Zone: Does Everything Have to be a Movie?
© Mania

Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another edition of The No-Fly Zone, where we explore the farthest reaches of comicdom, away from the confines of capes and tights. Sure, we talk about superheroes on occasion, but only the ones outside of those “classic” continuities established by DC, Marvel, Image, Top Cow, and the like. Whether it’s a gritty crime comic like, well, Criminal from one of Marvel’s Icon line or a small-press black and white sleeper, we cover the best of the rest. In this week’s installment, we’re going to delve into a little bit of fanboy heresy in the run up to the Watchmen movie, which hits theaters on March 6th.

Let’s be clear and state that, like everyone else, we of The No-Fly Zone will see Watchmen. As much as we love Alan Moore around here, we’re not taking the high road on this one out of reverence for the classic graphic novel. But, the difficult road the film has faced in its 23-year development history raises an important issue—some things simply don’t need to be made into movies. Don’t misunderstand that, Maniacs. Watchmen may turn out to be an amazing film. But, the drive to create it—and the parallel fan obsession with seeing it—speaks of a larger problem in Hollywood, comics, and pop culture.

The comics medium stands as the latest victim of Hollywood and pop culture’s shared notion that a film adaptation represents the zenith of a creative work from any medium. Be it comic book, novel, video game, television show, or toy, it isn’t “finished” until someone’s made a movie out of it—even if that work doesn’t even lend itself to a narrative. Let’s consider a few examples from the dustbin of box office infamy.

Did the world of cinema really need Jerry Springer: Ringmaster?

In the late 1990s, The Jerry Springer Show fueled a sort of guilty-pleasure freak-show revolution in the ratings, as viewers flocked to watch rednecks strangle each other over trailer park love triangles. Since you can’t really turn a talk show into a feature length film, Artisan Entertainment gave us Ringmaster in 1998—a movie about a talk show host very much like Jerry Springer, played by the man himself. When the reality television craze began in the early 1990s, Hollywood forced The Real Cancun on us. When American Idol became a hit, the execrable From Justin to Kelly followed. When wrestling became wildly popular in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, we suffered through Ready to Rumble—a movie about wrestling, since it would be impractical to just show a three-hour pay-per-view in the theater. A couple of years ago, someone decided that the world needed a Bratz movie—a tween flick based on a bunch of fashion dolls.

Virtually none of the inspirations for that rogue’s gallery of bad cinema lend themselves to a feature-length film, but Hollywood tried anyway. If the plebes like watching wrestling, maybe they’ll like a movie about wrestling.

Those movies are extreme examples of the tendency to shoehorn subjects into film. The drive to make a cinematic Watchmen is not quite so egregious. No doubt, director Zack Snyder has great respect for the graphic novel and its creators, and only wants to do right by all of them. And, at least there’s a story to adapt in the first place, instead of a certain style of hat or a line of trading cards but, while the oft-heard cry that “Watchmen is un-filmable” clearly hasn’t held water in this case, there’s a reason so many people said that before the project really got moving.

The graphic novel is done almost entirely in nine-panel grids for a little over 400 pages

The graphic novel is done almost entirely in nine-panel grids for a little over 400 pages. It is a comic book meditation on the nature of comics and superheroes. Its medium reflects and comments upon its subject matter. It was simply not designed as a blueprint for a film. Anyone making comics with the express purpose of developing films should consider a job as a screenwriter. Watchmen was not somehow incomplete or lacking without a cinematic rendering. It stands as a brilliant work worth reading and rereading.

It’s all rather typical, though. Instead of making original films that serve that medium well, Hollywood mines pop culture. Old movies are remade. Television shows, comics, and novels are adapted. Video games are rewritten to confirm to a more linear narrative befitting a film. That’s not to discount all adaptations, because there are some that even supercede their source material.

Steven Weber as Jack Torrance in 1997's THE SHINING

Stanley Kubrick’s (here we go) The Shining works incredibly well as a film in its own right, despite its unfaithfulness to Stephen King’s novel. In 1997, ABC ran Stephen King’s The Shining—a three-part miniseries supervised by King that adapted his story more faithfully. The world answered with a collective “eh.” It was fine, but it didn’t hold a candle to Kubrick’s version to anyone except die-hard King fans, who discounted a very fine film for its lack of faithfulness to the source material. Here’s the kicker, though—no two mediums work entirely alike. What works in a novel doesn’t always work on film. Granted, a visual medium like comics—or television, for that matter—lends itself to adaptation more easily than a novel, but that still doesn’t create some sort of divine mandate to make a movie out of everything. Only the almighty dollar makes such demands.

The creators of the cinematic Watchmen have lauded their own faithfulness to Moore and Gibbons’s vision. They’ve even gone so far as releasing Tales of the Black Freighter—the pirate comic that occurs within Watchmen and parallels it—as an animated DVD, to later be incorporated into a special edition DVD of the main film. Everyone assumed that the story-within-the-story would be the first thing on the chopping block for a Watchmen movie, and they’ve even kept that in tact. Good on them for it, to be sure. But, while that kind of reverence is preferable to the disdainful indifference towards source material revealed by something like Constantine, it doesn’t necessarily make for a good film.

The aforementioned Shining miniseries may not have failed for its faithfulness to King’s novel, but that certainly didn’t help the situation. Just because something duplicates all of the details doesn’t mean it’s any good. Sin City pulled it off, but only by filming the visual excesses of the comic and not setting the movie in “the real world.” Still, the creators of the cinematic Watchmen have something of a challenge ahead of them. Comic fans demand unwavering faithfulness to source material, whether it serves the final work or not. Failure to adhere means years of whining on message boards, fan edits, and abandoned first screenplays—ones that will tell the real story of Whatever Man. But, regardless of the subjectivity of such claims, more faith doesn’t always mean better films.

WATCHMEN: Tales of the Black Freighter DVD artwork

There’s already been some controversy over the reported changing of the film’s ending, which now doesn’t involve a giant squid. Granted, Snyder commissioned Gibbons and the comic’s colorist, John Higgins, to storyboard a new ending with a similar premise and conclusion, but the principle still stands. The squid means faithfulness. One can probably—though not with total assurance—assume that the squid was removed because it would look silly on-screen. Any films derived from other works should be assessed on their own merits, and not for their transcription of their source material. In that regard, Watchmen has its work cut out—too faithful, and it might suffer for it (see giant squid); not faithful enough, and it won’t matter how good it is for much of comic fandom.

This all leads to a logical and somewhat troubling question: if the film—or any film—is so utterly faithful to be as indistinguishable from its source material as possible, why create it in the first place? Why even have endless arguments over the faithfulness to source material when there are original ideas out there? There’s simply nothing wrong with enjoying a creative work in another medium for what it is. Many comics work perfectly well as such, as do many films (most comics licensed from films are dreck, anyway). One would almost think that Hollywood and popular culture collectively see all other works outside of film as somehow incomplete. This is especially troubling for the comics medium, because movies are all the rage now. It seems fans, publishers, and creators alike want movies made from comics more than they want comics themselves. Any creator or fan more concerned with cinematic adaptations should consider refocusing their interests. Hollywood clearly needs creative minds.

We’ll certainly see Watchmen. If it’s good, we’ll say as much without hesitation. This week’s No-Fly Zone doesn’t mean to suggest that the movie will be terrible because it can never be as good as the comic. It may very well be brilliant in its own right, and we hope that’s the case—who wants any movie to be bad, really? It’s just the implications that are more troubling—that any comic worth its salt needs to be made into a movie, even if there are original ideas more suitable to film worth exploring. This is especially true in the case of Watchmen, which stands as a brilliant comic about the medium itself and the superheroes that populate it.

You are now exiting The No-Fly Zone.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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AntoBlueberry 2/18/2009 1:08:51 AM

Really, how can the writer of the piece compare something like the movie version of a reality show (a form of entertainment that supposedly doesn't have a narrative structure) to the adaptation of something with such a strong narrative form as Watchmen? While Watchmen uses cleverly some trick only possible in the comic-medium it also steals techniques from the movie field, like the cross-fading flashbacks. And while it's not a given that a movie adaptation (as in Shining) is due to bring everything that's on paper to the screen, today's technology enables us viewers to get on DVD an experience as satisfactory as the novel itself, with the Black Freighter animation and the "Under the Hood" mockumentary. Add to that the NewFrontiersman web site that builds on the fictional reality of Watchmen, and you'll have te result that as an entertainment experience the movie will (probably) end up being as satisfying as the novel.

Why make it in the first place? Well, movies always cannibalized other forms of expression looking for good stories or simply good concepts. I’d prefer a Watchmen movie to the endless series of brainless and tired remakes. And as the sales of the volume in the last months proved, the movie really works as a big ad for the comic-book.

ChadDerdowski 2/18/2009 6:11:40 AM

Well said, Kurt.  I have had very similar conversations with friends: Why is film considered the be-all-end-all of entertainment?  Or, as you put it, why are things considered "unfinished" until the movie has been made?  Why can't something simply exist in the medium it was intended for?

I think it's fair to say that Hollywood simply does not and really never has had an original idea.  While a lot of folks consider a movie to be the final product, it's probably closer to the truth to say that a film is the last gasping spurt of cream being milked from the teat of entertainment. 

That being said, I'm in the same boat as you: I'm not so high-and-mighty that I won't be seeing Watchmen.  Probably even on opening day.  I'm of the mind that a film is a film and a book is a book: the Watchmen movie won't ruin the copy of the book that sits proudly on my shelf (when it isn't being lent out to friends)... my only regret is that the rich experience that the book gives will be diluted for those who see the movie first.  As Antonio said above me though, robust sales of the comic in recent months suggest that people are taking the time to read the source material prior to the film's release.  That sets my heart at ease somewhat.

ChadDerdowski 2/18/2009 6:35:01 AM

... okay, maybe it's unfair to say that Hollywood has never had an original idea, but you get my point.

MrJawbreakingEquilibrium 2/18/2009 7:35:11 AM

I don't see what the big deal of making a comic or a book into the movie is.  If somebody wants to do it, let them do it.  I'll give it a shot.  Of course it can either be horrible or it could be good, sometimes it could be fantastic.  But you know what works the same exact way?  Original ideas.  Stand-alone movies.  And the same goes for remakes.  Does it ruin my love for the source material if they make a movie?  No, and anybody that complains about remakes and movie versions of whatever it is has lost their mind.  Why wouldn't I want to see how close somebody can come to bringing what I like or love to life?  Sometimes I think it's fun to see if we're on the same page or how far apart they are from what I envisioned.  The problem is when the studios butcher the source material.  Of course I've heard the horror stories Neil Gaiman, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Chuck Pahlaniuk, and Clive Barker have told about their adaptations.  But all these authors now usually have full control of their work now...and I want to see their work on the screen.

There are a lot of times that people have gotten the movie right, plenty of times they've gotten it wrong.  But no harm, no foul.  What's the big deal?

mbeckham1 2/18/2009 8:01:34 AM

It's niot that hollywood cant be original they ust don't wat to be.  They want the comicbook publishers and the noel pulihers to be original so they can sit back iand sree which originnal idea draws an audience.  Which makes sense, movies ar massiively expensivve and take a long time, as in a lot of ays weeks and months to revery hour we see on screen.  When they do tha they want to know tyheir gnnba have an audience, not hoe their gonna have a audience.  And comics make more sense than most mediums, the attract the age group that spensds the most money on movies, and they reall do muc the same jonbb, using images and dialogue to tell a story.  In fact if you've ever see a stryoard, perhaps on a DVD extra, it does ok a lot like a a page of comicbook panels.  The two tripping hazards are the diffewrence between serial story telling in 26 page blocks and storytelling serial or not in two hour blocks.   You can' condence 30years of X-Men, Spiderman, or Batman history into one movie.    You have to make a story up that capturesthe essence, that speaks he tephemeral elements that rew the readers in the first place, you need some who understands fiction, and maybe even someone wo is a member of that audience. 

Whicjhh is where we fall into the other stumbling block.  After letting the novel publishers and the comicbook publishers do ther research for them, ften the studios get cold feeyt about  trusting that reaserch. Sudeny, after buying the rights they don't know what anyone ever saw in their new potential product.  And if unlike the Two Towers, Gandalf heWhite dosn't show up at the critical moment of their crisi t o tell them what's what, they pani and turn to the same short list of safe directors, that drunken teenagers love and that fansf he souce material will generally hate.  Fortunately, we do sometimesget a Gandalf the White moment  and Chris Nolan or Stanlley Kubrick shows up to show em how its done.  As to faithfulnessto source, when and when not , and why the author sometimes, especially the good authors, arent lways the right people to judge the translation, that's a whole other kettle of fish.     

But the bottom line to be remembered is, no adapttion good or bad can make the original  source material exist any less.  i love the Lord of the Rings Movies, I love the novels, I consider the two s compleytely different experiences, as much so as watching any movie is to reading any novel.

mbeckham1 2/18/2009 8:13:49 AM

Though itb doeas bring up a similar question I'vree had reason to ask.  With all the dptations of anime, Why does everything have to be live action?  Or even more to he point, Why does evetrything have to be Americanized?  Just dub it and run it.  And if its from Britain or Astrailia or or Canada, just run it. 

Somehow it never seems to occure to the people with their ear to the groun that the reason Anime and Britcoms and the like hae an audience in America is because They're smething a little bit differentthan what we usually get in our home grown media. 

Wiseguy 2/18/2009 9:08:30 AM

I don't have a problem but I do get nervous. If the film bombs and it's something I really love, will that influence the publisher. Will that character get vanished from the spinner rack

On the other hand if it does well maybe it'll bring in new readers, that may be wishful thinking. More likely it'll just make people wait for the film adaptation instead of getting the comic book.

shadow1701 2/18/2009 11:41:27 AM

  Well, here's my worthless 2 cents on this. I would have to say I'm on eof those "faithfull adaptation" people who bitch and whine at things sometimes. My problem with it all is the fact that the studois want to make money, so they look around and see things like Comic books are selling well, certain novels are doing well, and so on. So they get the bright idea to say "Hey, that story (inwhatever form) is selling well, lets jump on the bandwagon and maove a movie about it.  Well, they seem to forget that the main reason the mook, comic book, etc is selling so weel is that we, the readers, like the story enough, we told someone else, and they liked the story enough, and so on.
  Being one of "those people", if I hear hollywood say, "we're gonna make a move from this book!! You love it", then damnit, follow the book. I dont' want the director to say, "well, I didn't like this part of the story, so I'm gonna change the whole back drama part of it" Uh, hold on a sec, that back stoary, drama bit, memory flashback, whater was probably important to the story, and you might not want to change/ delete it. 
  I know, I can hear people saying, well, what if the movie changed something, it's the directors "vision". Ok, he cribed the story from an author or his/her estate, so no, it isn't "HIS" vision. So if the director want sto translate the story to movie, then follow the book, or have the author make some changes.
  One of my all time favorite books is Starship Troopers from Robert Heinlein. The movie, to me, was terrible. the whole idea of the drop tube, as well as the powered armor  was completely written out. If you don't know what I mean, read it and see. That was the "heart and soul of the book"
Mostly, I guess it all falls back to the old adage "the book was better". Like Jurt says, some books just can't be brought to the screen. Too bad the studio heads can't figure that out.
 

gauleyboy420 2/18/2009 3:25:49 PM

To ask why or say it shouldn't be done is just wrong to me. Thats like saying,"why climb that Mountain?" or Why raft those whitewater rapids?" Because it's there, it's the way we're wired.

I also think that if an artist wants to create a version of something they love in their medium , let them.

Why did the Dark Tower need to be turned into a comic? Because there ARE people out there that want to see movie versions of their favorite characters. It doesn't take anything away from the original version in it's original medium.

So I should be denied the chance to see a movie version of something I like, because of the pretentiousness of a few others that stick their nose up in the air, and say "Hmmph, why even make it into a movie?"

This is a pretty pretentious article, and I wasn't aware how mindless and controlled by Hollywood I am. Thanks for pointing out how stupid and just one of the sheep.

I WANT TO SEE MY CHILDHOOD TOYS AS LIVE ACTION MOVIES!

I WANT TO SEE MY FAVORITE COMICS AS LIVE ACTION MOVIES!

And I'm not alone.

Furthermore, to say that the meticulous format of 9 panel grid isn't going to lend itself to flming is assinine.

Comics are as close to film as yu can get while still remaining a printed medium. AND the consistency in the size of the ppanels lends itself to the screen even more for the fact that the screen stays the same size, as do most of the panels.

AND ONE MORE THING,

IT'S A COMIC BOOK, COLLECTED INTO A TRADE!!!! It is not a graphic novel. It's a fucking cool awesome read, and doesn't need the wrongfully used graphic novel title to describe it.

Comics are cool, stop trrying to make yourselves sound more adult, or cooler or whatever your trying by calling every collected comic book a GRAPHIC NOVEL!!!!

Jeebus!

mortellan 2/18/2009 10:21:37 PM

I'm pretty sure back in the 80's when Watchmen was compiled, Graphic Novels weren't all that common, certainly trade paperbacks weren't even around yet. So in its current form is where its probably found most of its sales, not the original issue run. I could be wrong. Anyone?

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