April 2005

Karin Kross and Liz Miller


Sin City: The Adaptation

The buzz over Robert Rodriguez's note-by-note adaptation of Frank Miller's seminal crime series has been getting louder and louder over the past few months -- fanboys and girls alike excited to see what would be wrought from a pure collaboration between comic book creator and filmmaker. So, in that spirit, Karin L. Kross and Liz Miller, Bookslut's Comicbookslut and Hollywood Madam, sat down to discuss cannibals, boobies, and the various other delights to be found in Sin City the comic and Sin City the film.

1. Crime Comics, Classical History, and Sexy Lady Ninjas

Karin: I think that even today, the Sin City comics are something of an anomaly in the American market. Even though the range of genres is bigger than it used to be, you still don't see a lot of crime, noir, or detective stories.

Liz: The Warren Ellis "Imagine an entire bookstore full of nothing but nurse stories" analogy.

Karin: Exactly.

Liz: Though, one might argue that Sin City's success is based in part off Miller's popularity from his work in superheroes, and less because of actual enthusiasm for the genre.

Karin: True; if he hadn't made a name for himself with the Dark Knight books and the others, he'd probably never have had the leverage to make the Sin City books.

Liz: And would anyone have read them? Well, probably. There are a lot of boobies, after all.

Karin: And violence. Never discount boobies and violence. Although I have to say, Miller's books are some of the most violent comics I've ever read that weren't Japanese samurai comics.

Liz: Though most of the violence is masked by the chiaroscuro craziness. I mean, I still knew what was happening... You're right. So violent. I read the three volumes being adapted over the course of about forty-eight hours, and I just felt numb at the end.

Karin: I think the first book, aka The Hard Goodbye, had some of the toughest material as far as the violence and the gore goes. I was really wondering how in the heck it was going to make it on screen. Of course, I've seen From Dusk Till Dawn, so I probably shouldn't have wondered so much.

Liz: It's odd, how the movie comes off as much more violent than the comics.

Karin: Part of that probably comes from the fact that you actually see these things in motion, rather than just the very stylized stills.

Liz: Yes. I'd say that in general, the images in the film packed a bigger punch, because a lot of the comics were puzzles rather than pictures -- you had to deduce the action from the given clues.

Karin: Which very successfully creates a sort of heightened noir atmosphere. Like Raymond Chandler on hallucinogens.

Liz: And for me, that's almost more effective than actually seeing what happens -- the impression of a thing is easier to comprehend, though not any less palatable. The movie isn't much clearer than the books -- it's just slightly more coherent.

Karin: The film retains the very strategic use of color, framing, silhouette -- sometimes blood is just a big splash of white rather than red, for instance. That sort of thing maintains a very strong visual connection to the look and feel of the books.

Liz: It even happens with small details, like a necktie getting whited-out. The choice of what blood goes red and what blood doesn't is an interesting one throughout. I wonder how much of that was because of trying to keep the R rating.

Karin: That's a good question. It does seem to me that this is a, shall we say, very chilly climate to be releasing a film of this kind into -- the sort of climate in which most action movies are PG-13. On the other hand, I don't see how the movie could have been toned down and still retained the essential character of the book. Nor would Miller have stood for it, I think; much has been made of how he resisted selling the film rights until Rodriguez basically proved himself.

Liz: Which kind of gets into the work as a whole. You know the story, right? About how Rodriguez filmed the opening scene of the film as a short, sent it to Miller, and said "Here's what I would do if I were to make your movie?"

Karin: Right. That's the scene that became the pre-credit sequence, isn't it?

Liz: Yeah, with Josh Hartnett and Marley Sheldon. It's an adaptation of the short story "The Customer is Always Right."

Here's my question for you. Beyond being visually awesome, a stylized retread of the crime/noir genre, what do you think Sin City really contributes to the marketplace of ideas? Is it just ultraviolent exploitation? Or is there more going on than just that?

Karin: It varies from story to story, I think. Sometimes, in books like That Yellow Bastard or Family Values, Miller's working through some thoughts on justice, what it means to be the guy who wears the white hat, and so on. Nobody in Sin City has clean hands, no matter who they are. Ultimately it ends up being a matter of why they got their hands dirty, and was it in doing the right thing.

Liz: That website you sent me, detailing the timeline and character bios for all the stories, made an interesting point about Dwight being pretty much the only good guy in the town. Mainly because he doesn't actively seek out to kill anyone.

Karin: Dwight's a good example of that. He does some pretty awful things, but he does them to protect the people he loves, and only when pushed.

Liz: Regarding Miller and justice -- yeah, the different ways that Miller contrasts "modern" justice with more "classical" justice are pretty cool. Dwight's musings about how Marv, the most unapologetic of murderers, would fit right in gladiator days being the most prominent example. It got my attention in the movie because it was the first beat of that story that wasn't a direct lift from The Hard Goodbye.

But the invocation of Western and other influences -- the ambush directly lifted from the story of the Thermopylae invasion -- it's all kind of driving to what you're talking about, about Miller and justice.

Karin: I'm also reminded, inevitably, of Lone Wolf and Cub, the influence of which Miller has acknowledged (and even given a rather hilarious nod to, in To Hell and Back). There's another society in which serving justice isn't always pretty, or morally unambiguous.

Liz: When was Sin City coming out? Because a fun thing to do is connect the anarchic sensibility of 80s comics with Reagan and Iran-Contra. Though I guess you can just chalk that up to Miller's general aesthetic.

Karin: The first Sin City book, the one now called The Hard Goodbye, came out in 1993. Although Miller has noted in interviews that he was obsessed with crime stories well before he even got the Dark Knight gig.

Liz: Which isn't so surprising -- it shows up a lot in his Daredevil work. He essentially made Daredevil into a crime series -- but with sexy lady ninja assassins!

Karin: I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't read the Daredevil stories that he wrote.

Liz: They're pretty good. His take on the Daredevil origin story is by far one of my favorite trade paperbacks ever: Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.

Karin: Noted; will look it up on the next run to the comics shop.

Liz: It's got the same stylized beat that he uses with Sin City, though toned down a little. And the story is actually really good -- a nice integration of superhero and crime. Which is one thing I'll say about Miller. He's just great at blending genres. I mean, Sin City's noir, but noir with sexy lady ninjas, cannibals, genetic mutants and a little Western art deco on the side.

Karin: He definitely understands all the conventions, the beats, and the archetypes. I think that's why he's able to pull off that sort of thing.

Liz: It never feels like pastiche.

Karin: Right. It's not done with any sense of irony or sarcasm; it is what it is.

2. Adaptation vs. Translation, or, Can a Film Be Too Faithful To Its Source?

Karin: To shift the topic a little, here's a question I've been pondering since I saw the film. There's been a lot about how "faithful" this film adaptation is, how you can hold up frames of the comic next to frames of the film and see how well they match, that sort of thing. What I'm wondering is, is this a good thing? I get annoyed at lousy film adaptations as much as anyone, but I wonder if there's a point at which it's "too faithful."

Liz: This is an excellent question, and one we really weren't able to ask until now, I feel. Because as far as I know, this is really the first film to really redefine the notion of a verbatim adaptation. It doesn't even mess with the structure of the stories. It's just presented as a series of vignettes.

Karin: The creator was working side by side with the filmmaker -- hell, he was a co-filmmaker.

Liz: And Rodriguez is such a fanboy about it. It's really kinda cute.

Karin: I bumped into Rodriguez at the Austin premiere of Shaun of the Dead. He was wearing his trademark cowboy hat and a Sin City t-shirt... Anyhow, I'm so of two minds about this thing. On the one hand, I think the closeness of the adaptation is really quite neat, and the enthusiasm of the cast and crew is infectious; but on the other, I wonder, "Why not just read the damn book?"

Liz: And there are a ton of different ways to answer that. Because on the one hand, if you prefer one medium to the other, you still get the striking visual experience. Given that Miller uses the film noir style for the comics, it makes sense for the comic to translate visually back to film so well. And still I was continually surprised by the cinematography; so beautifully German Expressionist, with the extreme shadows and angles... The cinematography alone is almost worth the price of admission.

Karin: It makes the experience available to a wider range of people, perhaps -- people who'd never pick up a comic, but they'll go see Bruce Willis's latest film.

Liz: As a promotional tool for comics it could be invaluable. And I think that there might be elements that work better on film, too.

Karin: Dynamic, motion-heavy scenes like car chases are definitely more cinematic.

Liz: The characters are easier to gel with, because you can see that there's a living person inside the frame. And one thing I'm really glad it doesn't do is the split-screening that Hulk tried.

Karin: Yes. That's just a little too emphatic, in the end.

Liz: Though it helps that most of the comic's pages are two panels or fewer.

What's interesting, about your earlier question, is that I was wondering "What's the point?" as well, but that was more because of the story in general. If you asked me to describe the themes of the movie, I could talk about the corruption of society some. But I don't know if there's anything really concluded about that -- which is all right, especially when it's a stylistic exercise. But what's this movie really about? Is it just another exercise in cool? The fact that Tarantino is credited as a guest director doesn't help my perspective much, because everything he makes is a stylistic exercise in being cool.

Karin: Miller has frequently acknowledged his debt to film noir; so what you've got is 1940s film noir filtered through a 1980s-1990s "dark" comics sensibility, and now it's come back around into a film. I sort of hate to say it, but it doesn't really help my sense of most media today as one big echo chamber.

Liz: That's a cool way of putting it. These postmodern times we live in.

Karin: Sometimes it seems like almost everything is an adaptation of, homage to, parody of, or (my least-favorite) "re-imagining of" something else.

Liz: Which makes this the perfect project for Rodriguez.

Karin: Yes. He's got that same love of genre-bending and blending that Miller has.

Liz: Plus, his style is totally born of his hyperkinetic shooting methods. He shot the Josh Hartnett/Marley Sheldon short in ten hours, apparently. But this is possibly the best film he's ever made, and a lot of that comes from having ready-made script and storyboards to work off.

Karin: The comics are practically storyboards all by themselves, hardly any adjustment needed.

Liz: Exactly. And really, the strength of the visuals almost makes acting a secondary concern. Though I will say that with a few exceptions, the acting was pretty great.

Karin: I think it's some of Mickey Rourke's best work in a long time, actually.

Liz: Yeah, he's just terrific. And I have to say that Rosario Dawson held her own to some degree. She at least wore the outfit well.

Karin: All the women wore their outfits well. One thing I like about the women of Sin City is that while they're very much noir-tradition "dames," they're still interesting characters. They have inner lives, desires, ambitions. In the film, I thought that Alexis Bledel as Becky was a real standout.

Liz: Yeah, she was great. I think the women of Sin City come off much better than the men, in the long run -- maybe it's a function of being "tough dames" but Miller's much more generous to them than the noir genre normally allows. They don't get manipulated and pushed around nearly so much, they generally have good intentions when they do horrible things. Whereas, as my friend said right before the screening, "If you're a guy in this movie, odds are good you're a child molester or a cannibal." Oh, Elijah Wood. Nothing has given me the giggles recently quite like Elijah Wood as Kevin.

Karin: As one of my friends says, "You couldn't say 'I AM NOT FRODO' more clearly than that." It's a gorgeous subversion of his "type." It made the character of Kevin all the creepier, really.

Liz: Yes. Nick Stahl, too. Nick Stahl's really working his range as "Scruffy, Dirty Guy Who's Either The Savior of Humanity or A Complete And Utter Freak." And actually, I have to say that of everyone, Nick Stahl really moved that character from illustration to person.

Karin: That particular character doesn't offer much to work with, and Stahl does a good job making him something more than he is on the page.

Liz: His is an actual case of adaptation rather than translation, which brings me back, once again, to your earlier point.

Karin: That's a very good distinction there.

Liz: And it's what Rodriguez is conscientiously aiming to do. I couldn't point to a single frame in the movie and say, oh, yeah, that's totally a RR moment.

Karin: Every second of it has Frank Miller all over it.

Liz: Exactly, which is awesome, except for the part where we already have the comics. This is part of why I get annoyed with people who instantly write off adaptations. "Oh, it's not going to be as good as the book," people will say, and very often they're right, because a film is just pounded with outside influences whereas a book can, to some degree, be an individual artistic statement.

But part of adaptation is a group of creative people approaching a pre-existing work and adding their own insight to it. Cool stuff can come out of that. Ideas built upon and expanded.

Karin: I'm in complete agreement with you on that. A good adaptation may not have every single word of the source translated to film, but it should capture the mood and the theme of the original, and synthesize that with the director's own sensibilities. The Spider-Man films are excellent examples of that, I think.

Liz: They are. They have their failings, but they're not afraid to really jump from book to film. Sin City as a movie does make excellent advantage of filmic elements, but in an extremely limited way.

Karin: And that limitation is entirely self-imposed -- in the interest of frame-to-frame fidelity to the comic.

Liz: Yeah. I think there were definitely ways to add a bit more to the stories without losing their impact. Like using the timeline more.

Karin: I think that was my one big quibble with the movie from a technical/structural standpoint, actually. Hartigan's and Marv's stories are presented out of internal, story-time order (even though they're presented more or less in the order in which they were published), which would be a little confusing for a viewer unfamiliar with the stories.

Liz: One of the things I liked about reading these all at once was seeing how the characters were all mixed up in each other's worlds. I think you could have done a linear adaptation that was still extremely faithful to the stories, but would have better illustrated the Sin City universe.

Karin: It would have also given more unity to the entire piece -- made them all part of one bigger story. As it is, they remain pretty discrete.

Liz: Yes, and I did like seeing how well they translated. It really brought home how cinematic the comic book form really can be. At least, the Sin City version, with the minimal use of panels.

Karin: I suppose that in the end, one of the best outcomes of the success of the Sin City film would be increased attention for the comics. There are, after all, still plenty more of the books to read.

Liz: Though Rodriguez apparently wants to film them all.

Karin: Miller says he's got more stories up his sleeve as well. Being that it's been a few years since To Hell and Back, I'd be curious to see what he's got.

Liz: I think the thing to say is, if you've read the books, and you've read them recently, then you've seen the movie. And you be the judge of whether or not that's a good thing.

Karin: That about sums it up.

Sin City
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
A Dimension Films and Troublemaker Studios production

Sin City: The Hard Goodbye
Dark Horse
ISBN: 1593072937

Sin City: That Yellow Bastard
Dark Horse
ISBN: 1593072961

Sin City: The Big Fat Kill
Dark Horse
ISBN: 1593072953

Sin City: Family Values
Dark Horse (March 2, 2005)
ISBN: 159307297X

Sin City: Booze, Broads, and Bullets
Dark Horse
ISBN: 1569713669

Sin City: To Hell and Back
Dark Horse
ISBN: 1569714819