The myriad of superhero movies released annually belie the fact that the world of graphic novels is rich and vast. By traveling outside of the more popular Marvel and DC titles, one is easily introduced to a remarkable universe that uses the medium to tell remarkable stories that use their visual components as well as (albeit differently than) many movies. A surprisingly few number of features have taken advantage of these books, and it’s interesting to look at a couple of the better ones and how they’ve managed to show the potential in these adaptations.
Sin City (2005)
Much like Zack Snyder’s 300 two years later (and also based on a Frank Miller comic book), Sin City successfully utilized special effects to bring to life the unique visual palette that graphic novels, more than any other art form, have the freedom to produce. Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (as well as special guest co-director Quentin Tarantino) did not feel constrained by any real world limitations as they recreated the EXTREME NOIR black-and-white universe from the Sin City tales, and in doing so, generated a memorable moviegoing experience. The world was populated with monstrous characters that never felt out of place and a hypercharged 1940’s/1950’s-inspired neo noir style that never felt out of date. It was of its own time and of its own place and we believed in it Furthermore, its superb ensemble cast and interconnected stories further allowed Sin City to become something more than a generic crime story (even a fantastic looking one) and become a universe unto itself.
The sequel, 2014’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For was unable to live up to its predecessor’s critical or commercial success ($76 million domestic gross vs. $13 million). Perhaps because it felt like more of the same, except without the novelty. Perhaps because the decade in between films deadened the impact. But the original still remains a remarkable achievement, even if just to show how a graphic novel can make the transition to film without losing its impact or distinctive style.
A History of Violence (2005) / Road to Perdition (2002)
Graphic novels can also provide more than ultrastylized violence and characters, they can also be used to create “legitimate” stories, particularly through noir-inspired crime dramas.
Although bearing some noticeable changes from the source material, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence also had its birth in a graphic novel (this one from John Wagner and Vince Locke). Cronenberg used the story to explore how the revelation of a father’s (a fantastic Viggo Mortensen) secret criminal past can virtually destroy an entire family, not even from a barrage of bullets but from the loss of trust. This modern noir earned William Hurt an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, as well as a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for John Olson.
In a similar fashion, Sam Mendes also used a crime-based graphic novel (Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins) for his follow-up to the Best Picture-winning American Beauty. His adaptation of Road to Perdition (which I would easily rank better than American Beauty) featured Tom Hanks as mob hitman Michael Sullivan on the run from mob boss John Rooney (a terrific Paul Newman in his final film role, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor) with his last surviving son, Michael Sullivan Jr. Set during six weeks in 1931, Road to Perdition makes some of the best use of Great Depression landscapes, clothing, and set design since Miller’s Crossing, and it won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Although not as common, non-crime based graphic novels have also made their way to theaters. Most notably, Edgar Wright converted Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World into a movie with the same name. What could have possibly become unbearably pretentious in less capable hands, the movie became one of the more unique and appealing romantic comedy films of the past several years. Along with utilizing the book’s nature to create over-the-top, video-game style fights as well as dream sequences, on screen commentary, and other meta elements, Wright (one of the best action directors working today) instilled the movie with a genuine heart so that we legitimately cared about the relationship between the titular character and his aspiring love Ramona Flowers.
American Splendor (2003) / Persepolis (2007)
In an even more unconventional approach, some biopics have also had their start in graphic novels.
Starring Paul Giamatti in arguably his best role as artist/writer Harvey Pekar, American Splendor used the autobiographical comic book series of the same name to generate a look at Pekar’s life before and after he obtained fame as a comics creator. The books became popular by being unlike others of their ilk and being about real life issues. They showed the author’s existence as a real everyman, including his job as a file clerk at a VA hospital, and featured his issues with anxiety and depression. The film similarly captured these aspects while also including elements such as the real subjects giving insights into their own lives. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Surprisingly, it’s hard to find a comic book/graphic novel converted into an animated feature. However one that did so successfully was 2007’s Persepolis. Another biopic, Persepolis was based on Marjane Satrapi two-book graphic novel series about her life in Iran during (and following) the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Using Satrapi’s distinctive visual style (she also co-directed), the movie was co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
The Walking Dead (2010 – )
Although this is a movie site, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what is probably the most successful adaptation of a non-superhero comic book to date: The Walking Dead. Based on the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, the AMC zombie show has constantly broken ratings records since its premiere in 2010. Despite the show’s various flaws, it remains one of the most popular scripted series on all television and is probably (unfortunately) a major reason why the zombie trend won’t fade away.
However, the series shows a major benefit in taking these stories from comics to television rather than to movies. While some graphic novels tell a complete story, most comic books come out with issues monthly, so they’re already suited for the episodic format. And unlike superhero stories which have to contend with different Earths, Elseworld tales, and so many reboots and universes that it’s hard to know what canon is being followed and why, The Walking Dead has continued to tell the same story over many years, which means it is inherently character-based (even if I’d be hard pressed to say the characters on The Walking Dead are terribly multidimensional five seasons in).
Preacher / Sandman (The Future)
For all of the superhero movies coming out, there seems to be very few non-superhero graphic novel movies on the horizon. However, two have gotten a lot of attention despite still being in pre-production (or pre-production hell depending on how you look at things). For many years, Hollywood has tried to bring Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s supernatural Western Preacher to the big screen only to have failed every time. However, in 2014, producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg took the reins along with TV writer/producer Sam Catlin to launch it on AMC. They wrote the pilot script, but as of yet the show only has a pilot commitment with no guarantee of series.
Most interesting is the alleged feature film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman produced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As I wrote in an earlier article, “its 75 issues are a landmark in the genre, and show how the interplay of design and dialogue can turn comics into a true art form. These books are transcendent and produce a visceral, cerebral experience that crosses time, dimensions, and philosophies.” To do Sandman properly would require an “intricate understanding of how to use tone and emotion to tell humanistic stories mixed with a surrealistic visual sense…esoteric art house drama at is best.” Will it work as a movie? Can it work as a movie?
Regardless of what happens with any of these properties, the important thing to realize is that graphic novels have evolved significantly from the days when all you had was the traditional smiling superhero. Looking into these more adult, obscure, and serious books – or even going back to the pre-Comics Code Authority horror books – opens up a wide variety of stories just ripe for harvest.