With great power: adaptations to and from comics
Remodelling stories for a new audience comes with all sorts of problems for fans and creators, but what is it we really want from comics adaptations?
When we talk about adaptations being “faithful” to their source material we rely on pre-existing interpretations of what that really means. As an audience our tastes are obviously as varied as we are, but there is also the canon of previous adaptations that sets our expectations, as well as the specific iconography within a text that becomes symbolic when compared to our own personal history and experience.
One of the more contentious subjects that has come up around adaptation recently, particularly when moving from comics to screen, is that of character appearance, and more specifically, race. In director Josh Trank’s 2015 interpretation of Fantastic Four there was backlash from some fans for casting black actor Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch.
Defending this decision, as well as his choice to have Ben Grimm/The Thing played by smaller-built actor Jamie Bell, Trank told the LA Times Magazine ahead of the film’s release that he “gets it”, but that “you can’t just keep telling it the same way over and over again.”
The discussion returned the following year when Ruth Negga became the TV incarnation of Tulip in the AMC adaptation of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. Although less heated, remembering this portion of the debate it seems far more insidious because, not only was Negga seen by some as “wrong” for the previously white and blonde character because of her skin colour, she was somehow considered unable to portray the sexual appeal of an overly-sexualised character for the same reason.
Due to the social climate that is the set piece for discussions of these examples, it’s easy to dismiss the points of the miffed fans by calling them bigotry. But, given the culture of fandom that has its own long history and even extends into realms of its own “faithful” recreations in arts like cosplay, it seems unlikely that racism is the real reason for such dissatisfaction.
Edward Ross, creator of Filmish, a comic examining the history and technical theory of film, believes that carrying over the essence of the original is more important than any specific detail:
“I think being too faithful can be as bad as being too blasé with the source material. For me, the most important thing is that those doing the adaptation dig down to the stuff under the surface that makes something work - the spirit of the story, the core motivations that drive the characters, the themes at the heart of the work.
“Considering how often Hollywood messes up adaptations due to their lack of respect for the source material, I can see why a lot of these fans are expressing their concern. But really, the physical appearance of these characters shouldn’t be what we’re worrying about.”
The idea of new creators not handling the source material with respect may get closer to the heart of the adaptation problem. There seems little reason beyond pure capitalism to take the lead in reproducing a work of art that you don’t love and admire in its original form.
Ross’s own work is a good example of this. Although not an adaptation of any one film, he reproduces iconic frames from significant titles - such as Die Hard, Taxi Driver and even the "simple spectacle" of the 1896 piece Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat - to explore the possibilities of the medium. His clear love of film and creative use of its parts lead to an analysis that is engaging as a text but also promotes understanding through empathy when he inserts himself into a famous movie.
“At its most simple,” he says, “An adaptation of any story should involve staying true to what makes the original piece special, while bringing something new to the story that couldn’t be achieved in its original form.”
From page to screen
From a marketing point of view, turning superhero comics into blockbusters and addictive Netflix series is a lucrative idea, but there are many reasons why it’s exciting to put these characters into a different set of boundaries.
At a very basic level, there’s a distinct thrill in seeing beloved fictional people come to life. To be able to see and hear their experiences in a closer-to-life setting creates a new relationship, a new level of empathy with those characters and the text. The most important thing perhaps is seeing them represented in brand new situations, and see things that only seemed possible in the seemingly limitless world of comics be transposed into something familiar but really very different.
This works to great effect in the Netflix adaptation of Marvel hero Jessica Jones. The character of Jessica is faithful to her portrayal in Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias in that she has the same values and underlying flaws, and suffers from the same mental health issues caused by the same trauma. However, because director Melissa Rosenberg acknowledged that a great deal of Alias is unadaptable she drew smaller character arcs and themes from the source material and amplified them to create the dramatic tension necessary for a TV series.
In contrast, many fans deride Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Watchmen as being a series of poorly-connected tableaux straight from the panels of Alan Moore's comic.
There are limits on the length of a story in any medium, but film probably suffers the most for not having room for the nuance of a comic that inspires it. Steve Walsh, expert comics seller at London’s Gosh! Comics acknowledges that losing detail in transit upsets people but thinks that film has found a happy medium:
“If you are aiming for a mainstream audience, you will sometimes have to sacrifice some continuity-dependent stuff that will chew up screen time while you establish and explain it for people new to a story. For me, that's the beauty of easter eggs in the current wave of superhero films. If you get it, there’s a little treat for you, but if you don't, it washes over you and you're not distracted from the story at hand.”
Franchising through comics
Working the other way, films that are adapted into comics get less buzz, but their responsibilities are the same. In 1976 Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia’s published a comic book adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself an adaptation of a short story by Arthur C. Clarke (which Clarke and Kubrick novelised together and published the same year as the film was released).
Kirby’s take certainly doesn’t mimic any of Kubrick’s subtlety. Words are abundant, filling up much of each panel so that we get our information through dialogue and description rather than by interpreting the space between them and the colossal vastness that Kubrick exposes us to in the film. Because all of Kirby’s busy contrasts so obliquely with Kubrick’s silence, we might argue that, in both narrative style and atmosphere, the comic is not a faithful adaptation. But the story does get told and, if you happen to like Jack Kirby, it gets told well. Although aesthetically different, it carries the spirit of the original, which, as Ross and Walsh both point out, is what’s essential.
“You can see that very well with examples like Deadpool and Batman V Superman,” says Walsh. “One is true to the spirit of the original material and one very pointedly isn't. There are other strengths and flaws in those films but for me the relative faithfulness they have to the spirit of the source material is key.”
Joss Whedon’s Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse comics are a natural extension of his TV series because of the episodic nature of their narratives, and they succeed because the majority of his projects for television ended before they had the chance to explore the full range of potential stories. Here, we see accurate visual representations of the actors for consistency - although even Whedon points out the gratuitous expansion of some body parts - which is obviously necessary in a continuation of a series. Other franchises like Alien, Transformers and even the cult Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, have transitioned to comics for sequels because they are more cost-effective for the niche markets they attract. An added advantage to catering for cult is that the pressures of mainstream entertainment discussed above are no longer an issue.
Comics adapted from prose succeed when they take advantage of the room they have to tell the same story with all the description removed. As well as the obvious visual advantages of having a character revealed with all their body language and facial expressions available, the medium of comics has unique ways of approaching time, space and the motion between those things.
As Scott McCloud explains in Understanding Comics, “Our perception of ‘reality’ is an act of faith, based on mere fragments.” The diverse methods of handling of those fragments allow comics creators to propel us through a story and direct our brains in ways they might resist against in film or TV.
Unfortunately, weak-minded humans that we are, change is something that we struggle to deal with, no matter how inevitable. If we return to Josh Trank’s LA Times Magazine interview, he explains:
“I have a lot of friends older than me who are comic fans and it’s really hard for them to be on board with a change. Fantastic Four has been theirs for longer than I’ve been alive. It hasn’t been mine.”
This idea of fan ownership is interesting. And it’s true. A project, even one as small as a tweet, is only yours until you put it out into the world. After that the ideas and interpretations of them become public domain.
All of these elements make it difficult to judge a new incarnation of a story, especially within a different medium, because until we see it we may not even know what we’re looking for. Ultimately, it seems to be about trust in the creator and the strength of the source material. At the very worst, we’ll always have the original to return to.
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