Thursday, January 13, 2005

How to make a perfect (comic)strip-movie (1)

Garfield, Spiderman, Suske en Wiske, X-Men, the Hulk, Asterix and Obelix, Captain America, Spawn, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, the Crow, Blade, Judge Dredd, the Phantom, the Shadow, Superman, Batman, the Punisher, Popeye, Michael Valiant and Hellboy - just to mention a few. All are (comic)strip characters that jump from the pages into the white screen. But the transformation from comic heroes to movie heroes doesn't always run smooth. What makes a good (comic)strip movie?

There are different reason why strips are made into movies. The strips have avid fans and most characters are well known by a great number of audience. Therefore the amount of the movie audience is at least guaranteed, giving income to the film and relieving the studio bosses from the production expenses.
It is also fascinating to see the characters 'in person' after knowing them all these years only in drawings. Watching a living (comic)strip is a fantastic (movie) experience. That's the reason why comic readers always have to watch the movie. Most of all, the media (strip and movie) are related to each other. Comic artists make 'movies' on paper, as they said themselves. Their 'movie', with a bit of smaller budget, are read by (movie) directors as a storyboard. Just roll it, you would say. But the making of a (comic) strip into a movie is not entirely an easy job.

In order to make a successful (comic)strip-movie, these guidelines should be taken into account:

What makes the recent comicstrip movies so good is that the film maker has respect for the original material. Sam Raimi, who as a boy had a painted Spiderman hanging above his bed, is a good example. His love for the character appears on his movie; Raimi's interpretation of Spiderman stays close to the original creation of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Raimi is not afraid to make necessary adjustments to make the movie more updated for the present time. The most important difference is that Spidey was created from a genetically manipulated superspin instead of from the radioactive as in the comic. Spidey now shoots web out of his pulses and not out of webshooters that he invented. Another adjustment is the suit of Green Goblin in the first Spider-Man movie. Let's be honest: who would take Willem Dafoe seriously if he is dressed in the carnaval-suit of the Goblin in the strip? According to Raimi and co., it was better that Dafoe wears a hi-tech fighting suit. The mask that the Goblin wears is slightly taken from the many African masks that Dafoe collects and that have been displayed in his study room. In the movie, therefore, a convincing explanation of the suit is given. Also in X-Men, the colorful costumes in the comics are exchanged into the strapping X-uniforms.

Film-scenarists are challenged to pack the strip world - with all the characters and years of history - into a movie of two hours. Logically the (first) movie also handles the origin of the hero. Often the elements in the comic series are used and integrated. Batman's parents in the strip were not murdered by a young Joker, as in the movie. Scriptwriters have different rules from strip-writers. The rule of Hollywood is that a movie contains no loose element and that all should be intwined with each other. The story forms a whole roundup and goes according to a clear logic of cause and effect, while stories in the comics can be followed up in the next series. To make everything fits, it is sometimes necessary to adjust the strip material with a bit of 'poetic freedom'. Therefore in the movie Ghost World (from a comic by David Clowes with the same title), the character Seymour (Steve Buscemi) is introduced, while the character doesn't originally exist in the strip. The romance between Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) is also a Hollywood invention that doesn't exist in the strip. Adjustments are not bad as long as the story and the spirit of the strips are kept intact. The story in the movie should also be understood by the audience who has never read the strip.

These are undisposable in making a movie about superheroes strips, but also in most of other filming of special strip worlds. Thanks to the digital revolution it is now possible to create a convincing wall-climbing hero or to simulate a mutant power.
We don't have to paint bodybuilders green anymore to create the Hulk, or pull a rope around a stuntman along a high wall to see Spider-Man in action. This has happenned in the television series in the seventies.

However, digital effects are not gloriously-made. What made the television series of the Hulk interesting was the characterization of Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby) and his quest for recovery. We read strips often also because the characters reflect to us and we live with them.
What makes strip-heroes as superheroes characters so captivating is the fact that behind the mask hides a normal person who has daily problems as everybody else. Spider-man is Peter Parkerm who tries to pay his rent, knows relationship problems and has a helpless aunt. Inspite of their special gifts, these strip-heroes are very normal people, therefore the readers can identify themselves with them. This gives the heroes a realistic tint.

The strips are larger-than-life, but they would also like to be realistic, they are a combination of action and dramatic elements, like what a soap has. If the hero is to be filmed, then it is important to have these elements in the movie. Again, Spider-Man is taken as a good example. Raimi keeps in the story the development around the characters at the forefront. The bond among the characters in the movie also gets stronger. So the crook the Green Goblin in Spider-Man is a substitute father-figure for Peter Parker, while in the strip this is not the case at all. Raunu keeps the same trick with Dock Ock in the second part. While the crook this time is not a father figure, we could see Ock as the knowledge mentor of Peter. This is also the reason that a movie as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen does not have a depth as the strip's thickness: the many characters stay out in superficial type rings; since they don't possess the depth, it is absolutely unfacinating what they do.

The combination of realism and a larger-than-life aesthetic is difficult to translate into the white screen. Therefore the three-hunderd kilo's weight of Hulk almost succumbs under the weight his youth trauma in Ang Lee's film. And also the movie Daredevil doesn't work due to a bad mix.

(continue to part-2)

Derived from an article by Michael Minneboo, "Zo maak je de perfecte Stripverfilming", at MYX Stripmagazine Nr. 11 Tweede Jaargang/ December 2004 []

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