Adapting Graphic Novels

Earlier this week, Girish asked for your favorite literary adpatations and your reasons for liking them. Like Girish, I’m not a fan of films that slavishly imitate the book’s narrative, realizing in pictorial form what I’ve already read. Instead, I prefer films that borrow creatively from a written source, including those that offer compelling reinterpretations of the prior material. In that regard, Kubrick’s take on The Shining is compelling in part because of its departure from King’s novel. Altman’s Short Cuts, one of my favorite adaptations, fascinates because of its clever weaving of Raymond Carver’s stories as well as Altman’s inspired decision to move the stories from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles.

Adaptations of graphic novels complicate this question to some extent. In Marc’s comment to my previous entry, he notes the “deceptively sophisticated negotiation of gap filling strategies and linkings” required by the best graphic novels. I think that many filmic adaptations of graphic novels end up falling flat because they underestimate this sophistication by merely adding motion to the graphic novel’s images, sometimes treating images from the novels as nothing more than rough storyboards. So here’s my question: what are your favorite adaptations of graphic novels? Or better, least favorite adaptations? And why?


  1. girish Said,

    November 19, 2005 @ 11:23 pm

    A History Of Violence. 🙂
    (But honestly, I haven’t read the graphic novel, though I heard that Cronenberg changed it significantly.)
    I liked the changes he made to Naked Lunch and Crash, strongly personalizing them. Ballard loved the movie even though it took great liberties with the book.
    Sorry, slid off topic there, but my favorite graphic novel-to-film is probably Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World.

  2. girish Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    Re: Ghost World, though I liked the graphic novel, I found it to be super-dark and borderline misanthropic.
    But when Dan Clowes adapted his novel for the movie (with Zwigoff) the result was a gentler, more humanistic and less nihilistic work. Which I personally liked. And I thought all three performances (Thora Birch, Scarlette Johansson, Steve Buscemi) were excellent, and made the movie really memorable for me.
    (I confess I was smitten with this movie–saw it three times at the theaters.)

  3. Josh Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 2:07 am

    If anime is included, then Mamoru Oshii’s version of Ghost in the Shell without a doubt. I’ve never been able to warm to Masamune Shirow’s original graphic novel, which seemed to be nothing more than action, humor, random nudity, and overlong descriptions of technology thrown together completely haphazardly, but Oshii managed to pull together all the interesting bits that occasionally cropped up while removing all the dross, and remolded it into his atmospheric, downbeat style. Beautiful.

    I can’t really think of any other adaptations of graphic novels that I’ve enjoyed…American Splendor felt really wrong to me, since it added a thick hipster sheen to something that was especially notable for its lack of that. And personally, I hated the Ghost World movie, but that’s the ranting of a Dan Clowes fanboy who couldn’t stand a single tiny change from the original, so pay that no attention.

    Other than that, all the graphic novel adaptations have been of stuff where I haven’t read the originals, so it’s hard to tell whether the movie itself was truly good or whether it was just based off of source material strong enough that you’d have to be completely untalented to mess up (something like the Lord of the Rings movies – competent adaptation of excellent material ends up being fairly enjoyable on its own).

  4. Laura Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 4:53 am

    Me too re: Ghost World, both on the tonal iffyness of the source and the fantasticness of the adaptation. I enjoy Ray Davis’s take on the movie and its reception, but still, I can’t think of a better comic book/graphic novel adaptation.

  5. McChris Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 5:55 am

    I was really disappointed with the adaptation of Ghost World. My biggest objection was the relationship between Enid and Seymour became more conventionally romantic, which I thought was creepy and off. In addition to the issue of filling in the gaps between panes, comic book narratives are generally too episodic for a two-hour film – they’re closer to TV narratives where some threads are worked out in the course of a single issue, while other are resolved over the series, so movies seem to oversimplify comics. Also, I think a lot of indie titles* like “Eightball” nurture a static narrative, that doesn’t work in features.

    I’ll be smart-alec and say that my favorite comic adaptation is David Mazzuchelli’s adaptation of City of Glass. I’m curious, but suspicious of the upcoming adaptation of the “Black Hole” series. Charles Burns’s art is so striking that I don’t know how it will translate into a film. I did enjoy the TV version of “Dog Boy” that appeared on “Liquid Television,” but I was in high school when that aired, and I had yet to read the comic.

    *I’m not crazy about using “indie” to describe titles that come from presses like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, but it seems more apt than “underground.”

  6. Chuck Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 11:09 am

    Okay, I think I now have enough caffiene to respond coherently….

    Girish, I’d frgotten that A History of Violence was based on a graphic novel. That’s an interesting choice, though as my comment suggests, I know very little about the original.

    Josh, agreed on Ghost in the Shell. I find the second film much stronger than the first (curious to hear your take), but both films are incredibly sophisticated meditations on definitions of the human, global capitalism, and other heady issues.

    Interesting mixed response to Ghost World. I liked both novel and film quite a bit for different reasons, although the sexualization of the relationship between Enid and Seymour in the film did ring false. I did enjoy American Splendor but I’m a sucker for meta.

    Oh, and McChris, I think you’re right about the problem with “underground” when talking about these comic presses. “Indie” seems more apt if not completely precise.

  7. Josh Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 12:55 pm

    Second film I have mixed feelings on. Obviously, it’s without peer in terms of animation, but the visuals have been discussed to death. Unlike most people, it wasn’t the dialogue that annoyed me about the film (although there were a couple lines that could have been edited out) but that most of the action scenes seemed shoehorned in and didn’t progress anything. The shootout with the yakuza, the shootout at the end, probably a couple others…I wasn’t sure why they were there, give me more scenes like the ones in Kim’s mansion or Batou’s apartment or the festival. Overall I end up coming down more on the “like” than the “dislike” though, and Innocence reaches higher heights than the first film, but doesn’t really have consistency on its side. Or at least that’s my take.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention the TV series – watched a couple episodes, couldn’t stand it. I remember one episode they tried to play tribute to Breathless, but with Jean Seberg’s character replaced by a robot…what? No, you can’t do that.

  8. Chuck Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 1:02 pm

    Part of my enthusiasm for the second Ghost in the Shell film probably comes form seeing it on the big screen and simply being overwhelmed by the spectacle. I also saw it *before* seeing the first one (I knew it would only be in the theater for a week and didn’t have time to get up to speed).

    Some of the action scenes did seem a little gratuitous, but the best moments were breathtaking. I wish I knew what TV series you’re describing. Seberg’s character replaced by a robot? WTF? I was mildly bemused by the intentionally clunky nod to Breathless at the end of The Squid and the Whale, afilm I liked, but haven’t had time to review.

  9. Josh Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 1:05 pm

    Oh, and might as well mention least favorite, From Hell. Sure, using the source material as nothing more than a jumping off point for your film is fine, in fact I encourage it, but you wouldn’t use Gravity’s Rainbow as the source material for a cheap military thriller, would you? Sadly, that’s about on the level of what we got here.

  10. Josh Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 1:08 pm

    Oh, the TV series is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It aired on Cartoon Network a while back, not sure if it’s still on, haven’t been keeping track.

    Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character was replaced by a Bill Gates-type, if I remember correctly.

  11. Chuck Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 1:21 pm

    Yes, From Hell was awful. There seems to be a history of Hollywood making bad films out of Alan Moore books. Like you, I don’t think the best adaptations are necessarily the most faithful ones, but the Hughes Brothers really missed the mark on that one. In fact, it might be my choice for “worst adaptation,” too.

    The Cartoon Network series sounds awful. I’m still living sans cable, so I wasn’t even aware of it.

  12. girish Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 1:52 pm

    “Indie”, “Underground”: The term the presses themselves (Fantagraphics, D&Q) prefer is usually alt-comics, or sometimes alt-comix, the “x” distinguishing them from so-called mainstream comics.

    I really loved Ghost In The Shell 2: reminded me of the aggressively digressive 1960s Godard, of whom Oshii is a big fan.

  13. Chuck Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 6:31 pm

    Interesting connection to Godard. I’m guessing you mean things like Alphaville?

  14. girish Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 7:00 pm

    Actually, I was thinking of Une Femme Mariee and La Chinoise, or Two Or Three Things I Know About Her, with their bare-bones plots providing a pretext, a springboard, for constant digression into quotation, aphorism, and allusion through the medium of conversation. I remember them as films packed to the gills with ideas that are brought up either by characters or by a voiceover narrator (frequently Godard).

    Godard has continued this practice since then. New Wave (his film with Alain Delon) was made up almost entirely of dialogue that was collaged from a variety of literary/philosophical sources, with the characters as mouthpieces. Oshii’s motormouth characters remind me of that. 🙂

  15. Chuck Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 7:58 pm

    Okay, that makes sense. The pastiche effect can be overwhelming (if I understand what you mean, a version of this takes place in Linklater’s Waking Life), but also intellectual challenging in the best possible ways….

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