Dec 10, 2013

Stop the Adaptation!

(Don’t) Adapt or Die! 
Matt

It is time, as always, for a contrarian view point. Consider the following:

The problem, as I see it, with comic book movies is that they inevitably will disappoint a vocal, if tiny, audience. Sometimes the critiques are legitimate, but often, they seem to misunderstand the purpose of different media. When adapting a story to a different medium, it is important to understand the benefits and limitations of this transition. I fully understand and appreciate an artist/writer/director wanting to be true to the source material, but in the end, too much of the wrong technique hurts your adaptation. So, everyone just needs to stop adapting things and create completely new ideas all the time. It’s simple.

Unreasonable you say? Perhaps, but it would clearly solve the problem of original source fanatics. What are the limits of a comic book? Primarily, sound and motion. These aspects need to be conveyed with art or with words, but ultimately lose the flavor one can get from moving pictures with sound (movies or talkies if you prefer). Ok, so you’re going to address the limits of comic books by migrating the idea to a movie, what’s next?

Have you consider the limits of movies? One major limit is time. If every Spider-Man movie must retell Peter Parker’s origin or if every Batman movie must revisit Crime Alley, you lose precious time. The average major motion picture length is about 2 hours. If you lose 15-30 minutes rehashing a character’s origin, you’ve lost ⅛ to ¼ of your movie. That’s a lot of time to make up. So, you sacrifice character development or plot sealing (there will be holes, accept it) and get a lackluster product. Honing too close to source material is dangerous in other ways.

The problem with comic book source material is two-fold. One is pace and the other is amount. Pacing in comics is distinctly different than movies. A 12-issue series has time to set up characters, develop them in communion with the plot, develop plausible/serious threats and then proceed through a climax and denouement (Look, you’re getting a vocab lesson here, enjoy it). Movies can accomplish this feat, but the pace is much faster and if there are requisite scenes that must be done (see above), then you lose time and the pace is even faster. It’s a vicious cycle that is readily noticeable in films no one remembers a year later (e.g. Green Lantern or any Hulk film).

The second problem with a comic adaptation is just the sheer amount of the material. Even in a limited series like Watchmen or the Phoenix Saga, the amount of material you’d have to cover or explain is tremendous. If, as the Watchmen film did, you hone to the wording and pacing of the text (largely), you lose the flavor of the story and the point of the novel as a tool for demonstrating the maximum effectiveness of the comic medium.

Watchmen the comic, in terms of plot and dialogue is fairly accurately depicted in the movie. It’s a pretty rudimentary story, but what sets it apart in the comic is the subtext. That was what required 12 issues to layer and that is one of the reasons you can go back and discover something new on your 10th or 100th reading. That subtext can be developed, but not in a two and a half hour movie. You just end up asking too much of a medium incapable of delivering it and too much from a creative team that cannot meet the monumental task. It also doesn’t help if your script and actors aren’t great.

Can adaptation overcome these limitations? Sure, but it’s not easy and I would recommend against it. What was the big deal in Green Lantern? Spider-Man 3? I don’t want to pick on one studio or another here, the problem is the genre and the teams put together to execute. The Avengers was a superbly done adaptation, but it achieved this result with a few cheats. It didn’t need to tell the origin story of all 6 members (four had their own movies), it was the origin story of the team. It honed closely to the idea of the team without sticking too closely to any one story. It also ignored aspects of the past (e.g. none of the non-powered, non-armored characters are original Avengers). The Avengers and the Avengers-related Marvel movies are the exception to the rule. They are not the norm (and even Iron Man 2 was pretty mediocre and also every Hulk movie).

So, adaptations are hard, what are movie makers to do? Create! Great things can happen when you get to make up origin stories, plots and characters. I take, for cherry-picked example, The Incredibles. It is a superhero movie that is not bogged down by history, makes use of visual and sound cues to indicate powers and actions and spends the time to develop characters and legitimate threats. The movie makes obvious homages that work for the adults seeing the film and combines that with a story that children can appreciate too. If live action or darker films are your preference, I’d recommend checking out Darkman. It’s a cult-classicy, but involves Liam Neeson’s face melting off. It’s also a Sam Raimi film, but more in the Evil Dead style than his later works.

Does creating new ideas for comic-esque movies present greater difficulty? Sure. Does it mean that there might not be as many comics movies coming out? Sure, but that’s probably not a bad thing. Does it do anything to necessarily improve quality? No, but quality never stops films from coming out. Clearly, the problem with comics movies is that they are based off comics and inevitably, the vast majority lose something in the adaptation. If you truly love your comics, my recommendation would be to fight vigorously against any change in medium. Otherwise, just accept that things will be different and stop complaining about it.

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