Sunday, June 17, 2007

Comic book adapation

My recent experience watching the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider movies (chronicled in more detail here) has me thinking on the subject of comic movie adaptation more.

Adaptation is a tricky business any circumstances. Stories drawn from long-running serial medium will almost inevitably have periods of change, adjustment with the times, changes in creative teams, etc. Those changes lead to preferences, and nowhere are those preferences more divisive than in the world of comic book fandom.

For the record, I don't entirely understand why they've continued Fantastic Four past the initial run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In fact, my perfect movie adaptation would take place in 1961 and not vary at all from the tone of the original comics... the only changes I'd want would be of addition, filling out the stories as they exist.

That's probably not big hit material and had they come to me to write or direct the movie, I would have worked to conceive a compromise. I think there has to be a way to update Doom, for example, without making him a wiener or a poor imitation of other supervillains, even less both of those things.

I think the key in there somewhere in starting with the core of what makes the character or concept work. Some characters this seems like it should be easy. I think Bryan Singer's The X-Men got the core concept of The X-Men, while his Superman Returns was shockingly off-target in capturing what makes Superman work (my experience chronicled in more detail here).

Batman, of course, creates no end of trouble with the vast differences between different versions and personalities over the years. Not only that, the different versions all have their own group of fans, many of whom, like the children in Legends of the Dark Knight, that their favorite/familiar version is the only correct one.

I thought overall Ghost Rider did a solid job of taking things from various periods in Ghost Rider history and blending them into something that could have been satisfying to fans of any or all of those periods... or would have if the movie itself had been more interesting in itself.

The Fantastic Four is possibly more complicated. There's the family issue. That's a big deal and they certainly shot for that.

I have to say that, in my opinion, the movie was missing the imagination of it. The boundless spirit of a group of scientific adventurers who could somehow stumble onto anything.

Mind you, this has not been true of every run of the comic either. I'm hardly the first to make the comparison, but here's where we must note that Lee and Kirby were very much the Lennon/McCartney of comics and new creative teams are stuck being something like guys trying to write songs for new Beatles albums. Usually it's considered safest to go with simple imitation, which, of course, misses a substantial part of the charms in itself.

But, man, that run, that spirit, is a comic book! And it could be a movie, if they'd at least try...

I want to make a side note here. One of the big selling points of Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer seems to be the "family friendly" nature of them. All I know is that I have no specific interest, as a creative artist, in creating "family friendly" material, but my version, I would not have made Sue Storm get naked on the Brooklyn Bridge.

I don't know that I have any simple answers. I understand that there's huge amounts of money going into those movies. I also understand that there's tons of pressure from studios and fans not to make one of those movies, something that will embarrass everyone. I just think that too many of these movies are missing some spark of life, a spark that's there on the page, and I'd like to see it.


Cinebeats said...

I just think that too many of these movies are missing some spark of life, a spark that's there on the page, and I'd like to see it.

As a fellow comic book geek, I could not agree with you more. I watch almost all of the big-budget comic book flicks that are produced and always think they could have been much better. Fantastic Four was dreadful, The X-Men movies were okay, but left me cold. The Batman franchise has always left me wanting, I enjoyed the first few Superman movies but I don't think they really did the character justice. I don't understand the appeal of the Spiderman movies since the first one managed to bore me to death. The Blade movies and Hellboy were probably some of the better comic book films I've seen but they were lacking as well. I think Guillermo del Toro has what it takes to make the best comic book adaptations but he always seem to hold back and go for WOW effects and style over substance. If he can find a balance, I'd love to see what he could do with a Batman movie for instance or something less well known series like Preacher, Grim Jack, Shade the Changing Man or Mister X.

I've been watching the Heroes TV show and I think it seems to have what so many of these big budget movies lack. A TV season offers the time needed to tell long comic book style stories and get an audience to care about the characters. The movie format just might not work for comic book stories, but TV when done right (as Heroes in my opinion), can be a great medium for telling comic book stories.

Short graphic novels which are more like books seem to make the best movies. Cronenberg's History of Violence is a great example of this, but then again maybe that's because he's a great filmmaker and had a great cast to work with. Also films like Ghost World and American Splendor were really impressive in my opinion.

Neil Sarver said...

It's odd. It seems somehow like it should be easier to breath life into a movie, with the motion and the actual living persons.

I've gone over my thoughts on Fantastic Four in more detail than I had any intention of.

I liked The X-Men and Spider-Man both quite a bit, although the sequels to both became (or seem to have become, in the case of Spider-Man 3) increasingly difficult. In both cases the second movie was treated as better by many critics and fans but both felt lacking to me, less vibrant and more unfocused.

Batman and Superman both have the wonderful animated series. The live action movies are more problematic. I have a soft spot for Superman: The Movie and Superman II, owing at least in part to my age when they came out. I, of course, also have a wonderful warm place for the original "Batman" series as a piece of '60s camp. Tim Burton's Batman has some wonderful elements, but doesn't work for me overall. Batman Returns is a one of the better big Hollywood Tim Burton movies, but only as a Tim Burton movie, not at all as Batman. Batman Begins comes close for me, but still falls short of the animated series.

I basically liked Blade, but it fell short in terms of engaging me, while I did like Blade II very, very much. Blade: Trinity, however, I thought was awful.

Hellboy was interesting and a lot of fun, but missed a certain whimsy that I enjoy so much in the comics. The animated movies restore that, to their great benefit.

I agree that Guillermo del Toro seems to have an understanding of the balances better than anyone else offhand, so I'd continue to see whatever efforts he might make in the future.

I've not gotten around to "Heroes". The early comparisons were to Unbreakable, which I absolutely hated, so I got off on the wrong foot with my interest. I agree that the serial format had more potential, especially in recreating another serial format.

I loved all three of the graphic novel adaptations you mentioned, and I agree that it's an easier format to start from, although I'm quite certain that's not a given. I'm not even certain it's logically a rule of thumb, like "novellas make better movies than novels or short stories". It should be fairly easy to rise above.

It merely seems to be it works with the limited imaginations of people involved. Look at something like the coming of Galactus. That's a perfectly sized story. It just required a level of creative courage that it's difficult to find in big budget filmmaking, which is the reason, I think, so few ever reach for anything beyond a kind of moderately entertaining quality and even fewer come close to doing more than that.

I see the level on which this seems to make business sense to studio money people, but seriously, the ones that are most successful, say Superman, The X-Men and Spider-Man, regardless of one's opinions of how successful they were, are clearly reaching for more, even when they don't quite succeed.

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