March 2005

Karin L. Kross


From Comics to Crap

Ever since Avi Arad took over at Marvel and began rushing their properties to screen as fast as possible, comics have become very hot intellectual property in Hollywood. Marvel and DC can't turn their books into film quickly enough, and the rising tide has also lifted other boats, including that of the forthcoming Sin City (which our esteemed Hollywood Madam and I will be discussing in a few months' time). Overall results from the last several years have been predictably mixed. You certainly don't need me to remind you about the usual inverse relationship between big studio money and film quality.

That relationship is especially clear once you get away from the superhero A-List, at which point you find yourself picking over the grim results of what happened when Alan Moore's creations got translated to the big screen. Warren Ellis, in a recent missive to the Bad Signal mailing list, observed gloomily: "I'm constantly fascinated at how Hollywood can always find the hook of an Alan Moore work and then toss only that hook away." The most extreme example, of course, is the mangling of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Just about every critic on the planet made careful note of the risibility of the film, while being equally careful to state that the comic is, in fact, really good. What made the comic so good, of course, was not simply the affectionate blending of beloved or notorious characters of nineteenth-century popular fiction; it was the intelligence with which the characters were written, and the story of how genteel society owes its existence to the outsiders that it shuns -- a "fallen" woman, a decrepit opium addict, a pirate, a mad scientist, and a sociopath. The film stripped out the complexity, relying instead on glitz, 'splosions, and cheap humour, and sidelining the book's emotional anchor, Mina Murray, as a leather-clad vampire babe.

The adaptation of From Hell suffered a similar fate, although the result was a somewhat better movie. It's certainly arguable that an epic meditation on history and the serial killer as the father of the twentieth century is not exactly summer blockbuster material, and I give the Hughes Brothers a bit of credit for attempting a nod or two in that general direction. But their opium-addicted psychic version of Detective Abberline wandered in from some other story, and in the end we were left with a fairly run of the mill Jack the Ripper tale, albeit perhaps better filmed than most. A film of V for Vendetta (discussed earlier in this space) is in the works, and according to Variety, it takes place in an alternate future where Germany won World War II. I assumed there was sloppy journalism at work when I first read this, but it seems to have been correct, and I'm sorry for it. The original V for Vendetta in fact takes place in an alternate 1990s after World War III, in which a fascist government comes to power in Britain. Changing this setting is sort of like rewriting 1984 such that Oceania is actually what happened when Britain was conquered by the Soviet Union. It misses the point.

Contemplation of this particular subject was, as you might guess, inspired by the film Constantine. The title character was born in the pages of Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, and has since been written by Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey, and more in the 200+-issue-strong Hellblazer. There has been more than enough wailing and gnashing of teeth in the comics community over everything the film got wrong: the American setting; the "working-class warlock" from Liverpool turned into an L.A. "supernatural detective"; Chas's transformation from a hard-bitten cabbie to a wide-eyed Robin sort; what Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat called "the Holy Shotgun of Antioch"; and the last-minute gag with the nicotine gum (the thing is, it's not that John Constantine never learns: it's that he thinks he can get away with it next time). I'm not demanding slavish accuracy in my movie adaptations, but alterations like these raise a larger question that arches over the other comics I've mentioned already: why would any studio buy a property if all they're going to do is strip the life out of it, and in doing so warp it into unrecognizability?

I mean, you can see it, can't you? A film of Transmetropolitan where Spider Jerusalem is a younger, better-looking blogger, without the dangerous drugs and with lots of comic-romantic tension with his (no longer so Filthy) Assistant. Only one, of course, to keep that particular storyline simple. Or the LXG-esque mess that would be an Invisibles movie, warped to the point where people think it's a Matrix rip-off. (Much to Grant Morrison's chagrin, no doubt, as he has observed that it might well be the other way around.) And in today's wintry social climate, you can pretty much forget about a Preacher movie. There is no way that anyone is going to touch one of the rudest comics ever written, about a guy who's gotten the power of the Word of God from the offspring of an angel and a demon, and whose supporting cast includes a kid they call Arseface.

There are several factors at work here. For one thing, almost any pre-existing intellectual property is easier to sell, develop, and shop to stars and directors. Then there is the oft-lamented inability of large studios to do anything very risky with an expensive movie with expensive stars in it, and "risky" generally seems to equate to "too much talking," especially where comic book properties are concerned. And this is the other major factor. Several comic book adaptations, such as Spider-Man and X-Men, have been very good, but they're fundamentally different from their non-superhero-book cousins. With something like Spider-Man, you have decades' worth of characters and continuity from which to choose for your stories, and you are not particularly bound to any one story arc. There is the potential for franchising. And the stories themselves are, in general, simpler -- which, I emphasize, does not make them any better or worse. They are superhero stories; they are what they are. (Crap superhero comic adaptations, incidentally, are gist for another column. And oh, do we have material for that.)

But it's a mistake for directors and screenwriters to try and treat a non-superhero book or a graphic novel (for lack of a better phrase) in the same way as X-Men; to try and shove something like From Hell into the well-established "comic book adaptation" genre box. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in particular suffered from this misconception. At first glance, it certainly looks a lot like a superhero-team comic, but treating it as such resulted in a denatured second-rate action flick with no particular redeeming qualities. A large portion of the film industry errs in treating all comics equally; some of them should be treated as novels. The smaller films are the ones that get it right, like American Splendor and Ghost World. Of course, they can afford to; they aren't paying for big-budget special effects or celebrity actors.

In the end, of course, there's not much that any of us here on the ground can do about it. It's annoying, though, to think that anyone might be getting bad impressions of good comics from incompetent films. Those of us who love comics can really only keep doing what we've always done: keep boosting the books. And who knows. Maybe someone who saw Constantine will pick up the omnibus trade paperback that's also got some of the original series in it: Jamie Delano's "Newcastle: A Taste of Things to Come," Neil Gaiman's "Hold Me," and part one of Garth Ennis's "Dangerous Habits." It would be a start, right?