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October 28, 2015

From Watchmen to 300—my top five comic adaptations

by Ross Kitson

It was one of the more satisfying features of my adolescence that the maturity of the comics I chose to read evolved with me. The Eighties represented a turning point for comics, with the big two—Marvel and DC—taking greater risks with content, and a greater diversity of writers. What we now accept as a norm in even mainstream comics found its origins both in the UK comic scene (of 2000AD and it compatriots) and in the US with titles such as Swamp Thing, Sandman, and the seminal Watchmen. Even old fogies like Batman got a grittier style, with Frank Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns, following his remarkable run on Daredevil.

Much in the way that CGI has meant that old favourites such as Spiderman, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, The Avengers and many others have had a successful transformation to big screen, we are now seeing increasingly good quality TV series, from Netflix’s Daredevil, to Gotham, Arrow, Flash and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. But not very comic adaptation involves underpants and super suits. Some other excellent comics have undergone the big screen treatment, and here are five of my favourites, with the deliberate exclusion of Manga/Anime films of which I have little knowledge!!!

1. Watchmen
How could I not start with Alan Moore’s seminal work? Watchmen marked a sea-change in comics for many, with the pursuance of how the existence of superheroes, particularly one with genuine powers, would alter world history. A work as intricate and multi-layered as this was never going to be easy to film and, barring a mini-series, some material would have to go. Yet Zack Snyder, a huge Moore fan himself, did an excellent job in my opinion. Capturing especially the characters of Rorschach and Dr Manhattan there was no scrimping on the definite mature content of the film and it probably remains the best film version from Moore’s broad catalogue—although the man himself is rarely impressed with film versions of his own work.

Image: Rotten Tomatoes

2. Road to Perdition
A film by Sam Mendes starring Hollywood A-listers Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig and Jude Law was originally a series of graphic novels by Max Allan Collins. Set in the great Depression it follows the story of Michael Sullivan, a mob enforcer, who flees his former patron after his son witnesses a mob shooting. It’s a wonderful tale of the emotional ties of parenthood and patronage set against the classic era of gangsters in the US, and stays reasonably faithful to its source material—with perhaps spicier language, and less gratuitous violence.


3. Sin City
I found this film fascinating—a very unusual style which attempted to recreate a comic style on film with variable success. Sin City was based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels which portray a set of pulp/ noir characters embroiled in crime in the ‘Sin’ city of Basin City. Its gritty locales of the Projects, the Docks, Kadie’s Club Pecos, and the Tar Pits are brought to the screen using a digital technique making the film black and white with odd parts of colour in it. In an unusual step, the director Rodriguez shared credits with Frank Miller, and indeed the film is a very accurate depiction of the comics. Rodriguez commented that the film is ‘less of an adaptation, than a translation.’

4. V for Vendetta
Can’t get over my love for Alan Moore’s work, this was a comic from the early Eighties that I partly read in its original (incomplete) format in the UK comic, Warrior. It was completed, in colour, by Vertigo press in a limited edition series of comics later in the Eighties. V for Vendetta tells the story of an Orwellian dystopian Britain in which the heroine, Eve, becomes involved with a mask-wearing terrorist , ‘V.’ The central theme of anarchy vs. fascism felt diluted in the film to me, and Moore shared that opinion, although the artist David Lloyd liked it. The film was adapted by the Wachowski brothers, of Matrix fame, and retains much of their stylistic action and dialogue, despite it having a different director. V is also rather too heroic rather than callous, and Eve’s transformation by V although traumatic in the film isn’t a patch on the comic. Nonetheless, compared to many adaptations, it is still a good job and an enjoyable film.

Image: Vertigo copyright DC comics 2006

5. 300
My last choice was a tough one—between 300, A History Of Violence, and Kick Ass. I’ve not seen A History of Violence, although I hear it was a superb thriller, and Kick Ass is still a sort of super-hero work, so with due apology to John Wagner and Mark Millar, it’s Frank Miller’s second adaptation on my list: 300. Directed by Zack Snyder, and utilising the digital technology similar to Sin City, it tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, between the Spartans and Persians. The film utilises a lot of the comic book’s panels and visuals as a storyboard, and the stylised violence and controversial political undertones were not to everyone’s tastes. However at the box office it performed head and shoulders above the others on my list: $456 million, compared to the other four which all grossed in the $132-185 range. So evidently stylised violence, and Gerard Butler’s buff torso, is worth a bob or two.

‘300’ by Miller and Varley © Dark Horse comics 2007

So many won’t agree with my list, and there’s the whole anime scene to consider, but there’s no doubt that adaptations are on the increase. With the success of TV shows I can see more comics heading to the small screen, and the runaway success of the incredible shows Daredevil, and Gotham, add strength to that. If I had a wish list of comics I’d love to see get screen versions, then I’d add in a second Judge Dredd film, Bryan Talbot’s ‘the Adventures of Luther Arkwright’ and ‘Grandeville’, and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ (which keeps getting close, oh so close to being done). Would be great to know any other comic fans out there and their wish lists!

top photo credit: IMG_7611 via photopin (license)
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