Live Action Adaptation

Comics Theory

Okay, we’re going to talk about something more accessible today: the translation of comics into live action films.

I’ve discussed taking a comic and making it an animated film, but there’s something quite different to be said about moving from illustration to flesh.[1] I’ve seen a few of the live action superhero movies that have come out in recent years (Watchmen, the downright horrible Captain America: The First Avenger, the slightly-less-terrible Fantastic Four), but I want to focus here on a movie that doesn’t distract with its cheesy dialogue and flashy special effects[2]: Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film Ghost World (based on Dan Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name). Whereas a comic like Little Nemo in Slumberland provided the animators of its film adaptation with a pre-established color palette and easily reproducible characters, moving a graphic novel into the realm of live action clearly takes some more imagination.

Ghost World in particular is source material that generally gives little direction in regards to cinematography. The whole book is colored in a turquoise wash and many of the panels are close-up views of one or two characters’ faces. It’s not that Clowes doesn’t create a dynamic environment for the protagonists—Enid Coleslaw (an anagram of “Daniel Clowes”) and Becky Doppelmeyer.[3] But there was certainly more leeway on set design and location scouting than there was to, say, Captain America, with its pre-established color schemes and focus on codified outfits. Here is the busy panel of Captain America wielding his shield. Here is the busy shot of Captain America wielding his shield. Look! A Nazi!

Such business is necessary, especially in franchises like Captain America, to distract from concerns of stylistic consistency. There emerges a forced sense of hegemony when multiple writers and artists work to establish a unified voice. But the more the audience is asked to focus on action and events rather than on style, the easier it becomes to get away with such “sloppiness” and hyper-focus on reproduction, and the easier it becomes to sort of just choose whichever direction someone wants to go in for a film adaptation. Ironically, this seems to work entirely counterintuitively to what the film adaptation is intended to do, and instead returns the viewer to looking for the little discrepancies between the comic and the film. Action can only distract for so long, and the desire to translate the homogeneity of the comics’ style jumps to the fore of any subsequent viewing.

I’m not saying that live action films need to be exact replicas of their comic book sources. But with a work like Ghost World where, by virtue of Clowes being the only writer and artist, a large part of what is at the heart of the story lies in its style: taking the story and ditching the aesthetics of the book for a movie would be stripping away a very serious part of its identity, moreso than in a comic book franchise. Even though you can’t make a live action movie a visual replica of a comic book (hard as The Adventures of Tintin may have tried [am I the only one who was stuck in the uncanny valley?]), Zwigoff’s film got pretty damn close to encapsulating the feel of Clowes’ drawn world. The casting was perfect, for sure (Thora Birch as Enid, Scarlett Johansson as Becky, and Steve Buscemi as the middle-aged sadsack Seymour), but so was the cinematography and everything about the film world that built up around the characters. Luckily, Zwigoff is an intelligent and skilled enough director that he realized all of this. He wrote the screenplay with Clowes, an effort that garnered them an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

It comes down to this: since Clowes does not need to create a false sense of unity in his comic, as long as it is evident in the film that this unity exists, it is no longer of large consideration in the movie’s viewers. The opening credits (see the video below) set the tone for the film and begin by focusing not on Enid but rather on her neighbors. We are meant to become enthralled with the weird minutia of people the way that Enid is. We are meant to want to obsess about them too.

With this set up so early, it becomes easy to accept Buscemi’s character of Seymour even though he does not exist in the original comic. Seymour is at his core a Dan Clowes character—creepy, pathetic, and at the mercy of those around him. Buscemi might as well have been pulled straight from a page drawn by Clowes—the bug eyes, the big forehead, the thin lips.[4] “Like Don Knotts with a homeless tan,” says Enid in the book. Clowes has a real knack for drawing creepy, unsettling characters that create an immediate air of satire and realism (unlike the perfect, good looking characters in, for example, most of Adrian Tomine’s work [which is still fantastic]).

The atmosphere that emerges in the movie is more important than any direct translation of the comic book, but there are still moments (that initially seem unimportant) when the two do overlap. Below is a scene of a “lame comedian” that Becky shows Enid. Both the still and the comic clip represent the same line of dialogue: “Just because I still live with my mother people think I’m peculiar…” Was this a necessary inclusion in the film? No, of course not. But it’s a delicate moment that contextualizes the relationship between the book’s protagonists and reinforces their proclivity for the weird and “pathetic” moments in life—one of the few things that holds the two together at this point in their lives.

peculaircomic peculiarmovie

The more that a unified vision and style are presented in a comic–like in Ghost World–the easier it becomes to make a live action film that stresses its characters and the book’s themes rather than distracting little details about its world. People often focus on the fanaticism of lovers of superhero comics, but that obsession certainly also exists in fans of books like Ghost World. It’s not like people who enjoy Clowes’ work wouldn’t be upset about a bad translation of one of his comics into film (case in point: Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential) the way that superhero comics fans would be–it’s just that this distress comes from a different point of view. Superhero comics stress this unified sense of style in order to keep from distracting from the story, an approach that, again, results somewhat counterintuitively in focus being put on the less important part of any good work.[5] The more a comic tries to maintain this stylistic homogeneity the more difficult it becomes to remember what a story is even about. But when creators like Clowes move their work to film (a good film), that effortless feeling of unity moves along with it. Even when characters change completely–like Seymour–viewers don’t focus on every little detail. Rather, if the character fits into the film’s world, the viewers lose the hyper-focus on small details. They don’t have to hold their breath and make sure that Wonder Woman’s outfit cups her ass just-so. Enid and Becky are allowed to just be Enid and Becky, and the story is allowed to exist in its own world.

[1] Sounds like some serial killer who started out eating pictures of girls.[1a]

[1a] I just eeked myself out. Eek.

[2] Last three words to be read in a grandmother voice.

[3] Becky’s last name is meant to imply the desire to fit in that she adopts towards the end of the story. It’s not “doppelganger,” but Becky is not a perfect replica of what she wants to be. She’ll always have that “meyer” at the end, that little bit of reality that holds her back even if she decides to go by “Rebecca” and dress in sweaters. A character makes a reference to the similarities between Becky’s last name and the word “doppelganger” on the comics’ fourth page (not that it’s really an unnatural connection), so the book itself foreshadows the changes that Becky will undergo.

[4] I kind of can’t believe that Boardwalk Empire manages to turn him into a character who’s almost sexy in the way he wields his power.[1a]

[5] This is frequently the case for any serialized story, like the Harry Potter franchise. People got really upset any time that the movies skipped parts of the books even though it’s impossible to include even some major plot points that appear in J.K. Rowling’s gigantic books.

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