Total Recall

Total Recall: Which Graphic Novels Made Good Movies?

We run down some of the most high-profile comic-to-screen adaptations.

by | March 5, 2009 | Comments

With Watchmen hitting theaters this week, we at RT decided to take a look at other graphic novels and comic book miniseries that have made the transition to the big screen. Though this list is by no means completely definitive, it contains some of the most high-profile adaptations in the medium, including films derived from the work of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Daniel Clowes; we also arranged it by Tomatometer. And before hooting and hollering about the exclusion of X-Men and The Dark Night, take note: we restricted our list to those tales told through a single book or a limited series.


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Before he completely swore off Hollywood, and after he permitted the makers of From Hell to take liberties with his material, Alan Moore allowed himself to be officially attached to one more film: 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. League was loosely based on a comic book series written by Moore that spanned multiple volumes, and when we say “loosely,” we mean it. Each volume of the source material is broken down into separate stories centered around Victorian era characters from literature who undertake globetrotting adventures. While the film does follow this general idea, the story itself is wildly different from any of the original work’s volumes. Moore himself had no involvement with the production, and League opened to a critical drubbing; as Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post wrote, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen just plain reeks.”


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A little-noticed box-office flop of surprisingly epic proportions (it made $7 million worldwide on a budget of $75 million), the live action/animation hybrid Monkeybone also failed to enchant critics (it racked up a robust 19 percent score on the Tomatometer). The film was directed by Henry Selick, who became obsessed with Dark Town, a graphic novel by Kaja Blackley and Vanessa Chong. Both the book and the film tell the story of a comic book artist named Stu (Brendan Fraser) who finds himself in Dark Town after an auto accident; it’s a place where his creations, like the irrepressible Monkeybone, come to life and cause him no small amount of trouble. Despite the movie’s elaborate production design, Selick pulled off much more effective and evocative dreamworlds in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline. “Except for the inventive and eye-catching decor, Monkeybone is as two-dimensional as a line drawing,” wrote of Ted Murphy of BaselineHollywood.com.


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30 Days of Night began as a three-issue miniseries from IDW Publishing; released in 2002, Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s limited series about people battling vampires in pitch-black Barrow, AK proved popular enough to spawn a number of sequels. Ironically, the series was initially conceived as a film pitch, and in 2007, it got the big screen treatment with Josh Hartnett and Melissa George as the leads. The movie version received mixed reviews, though many found the spooky atmospherics to be a point in the film’s favor. “[A] great setup, a mediocre middle, and no follow through make this story a swing and a miss, although [it’s] an entertainingly bloody mess to watch,” wrote Kevin A. Ranson of MovieCrypt.com.


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Those who are familiar with Alan Moore and his work are, by now, also familiar with his famous disputes with Warner Brothers and with DC/Wildstorm comics, who initially published some of his best-known works. When From Hell, the first of Moore’s works to be adapted into film, was ready to make its transition to Hollywood, Moore allowed his name to be associated with the film, but distanced himself from all aspects of its production. As a result, the movie deviated greatly from its source material, telling Moore’s highly conspiratorial story of Jack the Ripper with several details from the novel omitted. As with many of the films on this list, From Hell, directed by the Hughes brothers, achieves an impressive look and feel, but many critics felt that something was lost in the translation from page to screen. As USA Today put it, “the movie maintains its mild watchability only because the Ripper saga still engrosses.”


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After Sin City proved to be a success, both commercially and critically, Frank Miller was ready to bring another of his graphic novels to Hollywood, namely 300. Known for its splashy artwork, similar in style to Sin City, 300 is a retelling of the historical Battle of Thermopylae, during which a small regiment of Spartan soldiers attempted to fight back a Persian army several times its size. Director Zack Snyder (you might know his name from a little movie called Watchmen) attempted to keep many elements of the film version as faithful to the source material as possible, utilizing the original comic panels for storyboarding purposes, and, also like Sin City, made heavy use of green screen to create the landscapes. What emerged was another visual spectacle, violent and action-packed, but many critics felt that the film prioritized style over substance. Earning a lukewarm 60 percent on the Tomatometer, 300 inspired Wendy Ide of London’s The Times to quip, “In this handsome pantomime, the performances are not what we are watching.”


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Like the Indiana Jones series, The Rocketeer featured a swashbuckling, Nazi-stymieing adventurer, and drew upon pulpy 1930s adventure serials for inspiration. However, while Indy’s exploits captured the hearts of moviegoers the world over, The Rocketeer was considered a respectful, innocuous entertainment at best (Disney’s plans for a franchise were scrapped after the film’s mediocre showing at the box office, in spite of a huge marketing push). Oddly enough, the movie’s source, a comic series created by Dave Stevens, was also aborted early, after less than 10 issues chronicling the adventures of a young man who stumbles upon an experimental jetpack were released in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both the comic and the film had an anti-irony that seemed anachronistic when they were released; in order to enjoy such wide-eyed sincerity, “you have to dial down, to return to an age of innocence when an eccentric inventor and a clear-eyed hero could take on the bad guys with a new gizmo they’d dreamed up overnight,” wrote Roger Ebert.


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Just how much was 2008 a benchmark year for comic book movies? Iron Man showed they could still be fun, The Dark Knight proved they could get serious, and Wanted…well, Wanted showed you could be successful even if people didn’t know there was a comic. Retaining only general elements from Mark Millar’s graphic novel, Wanted is a slaphappy cocktail of a movie, featuring secret assassin societies, bullets that defy physics, and escalating action set pieces, culminating in a passenger train teetering over a chasm. Or in the words of eFilmCritic’s Rob Gonsalves, it’s “slick pop nihilism [that gets] a kick out of its own excesses.”


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Even the most successful movie adaptations of Alan Moore’s work have drawn his ire. He felt the Wachowski Brothers’ take on V for Vendetta strayed too far from his original intentions, turning a tale meant to indict the state of British society into a protest against the Bush administration and misunderstanding the title character’s commitment to anarchy as a political ideology. The film’s politics are admittedly tough to pin down, but that’s one of the intriguing aspects of this rarest of beasts: the thoughtful blockbuster. With excellent work from Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, and a host of accomplished character actors, the James McTeigue- helmed V For Vendetta made for an action-packed dystopian fantasy. “Every time Mr. Weaving is on screen the spirit of Mr. Moore’s character comes alive,” wrote Joe Lozito of Big Picture Big Sound.


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Frank Miller had been a successful comic writer and artist since the early 1980s, even contributing a few screenplays here and there, but he truly became a recognizable pop culture name when the big screen version of his award-winning graphic novel, Sin City, opened to much fanfare in 2005. Originally written and serialized in 1991, the novel is told in a film noir style, revolving around several storylines and depicting the gritty, grimy underbelly of fictional Basin City. For the film, director Robert Rodriguez worked closely with Miller to achieve its distinctive atmosphere and visual style, utilizing hi-def digital cameras and green screen technology extensively, and critics and audiences alike offered their approval. Sin City is uncompromisingly violent, stylish, and in the words of Desson Thomson of the Washington Post, “an act of inspired reverence.”


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Based loosely on the classic Japanese manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, Road to Perdition was Max Allan Collins’s Great Depression era tale of betrayal and vengeance. The 1998 graphic novel focuses on Irish mob enforcer Michael O’Sullivan, who’s left with only his older son, Michael Jr., when his wife and younger son are murdered by one of his cohorts; with his son in tow, O’Sullivan embarks on a mission to exact revenge. Perdition seemed destined for a film adaptation from the moment it was published, as it landed in the hands of Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks a little more than a year later, and production was underway by 2001. Oscar-winner Sam Mendes signed on to direct, with stars like Tom Hanks (as O’Sullivan), Paul Newman, Jude Law, and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig playing key roles, but it was the film’s striking cinematography that netted its only Oscar. In the words of Newsday’s Jan Stuart, it’s “a gorgeous eyeful and earful of a gangster drama.”


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Comics fans are known to raise hackles when the plots of their favorite books are radically reconfigured for the big screen. However, few graphic novels underwent the transformation that A History of Violence on its way from the page to celluloid. In fact, director David Cronenberg had no idea that writer Josh Olson’s script was an adaptation until well into preproduction. The basic outline of the story remains the same in each: Tom (Viggo Mortensen), a small town restaurant owner, becomes a national hero after defending his establishment from gun-toting robbers, which in turn brings some shady characters from Tom’s past back into his life. However, Olson (whose script was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay) ditched the book’s complex flashback structure, and drastically redefined the relationship between Tom and his brother Richie (William Hurt). The result was a fascinating examination about the nature of violence — and a top-notch thriller to boot. “Mr. Cronenberg has imbued his narrative with a style of personal conviction that is found in only the greatest auteurs,” wrote Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer.


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One of Watchmen‘s supposed weaknesses is Zack Snyder’s fidelity-to-a-fault approach to filmmaking. Akira has the opposite problem: it diverges far from its comic source, so much that viewers-turned-readers may be surprised how much was changed, rearranged, and outright cut from the books. But if director (and original manga creator) Katsuhiro Otomo isn’t the most faithful translator, Akira‘s legacy more than vindicates: it features rich production design, a persistent sense of horror, and it introduced to some of the common themes of Japanese art (dystopia, youth culture, social conflict) to American audiences in a way that has influenced not just animation, but movies as a whole. As Kim Newman puts it: “No Akira, no Matrix. It’s that important.”


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Ghost World debuted in 1993 in the 11th issue of author and illustrator Daniel Clowes’s comic book series Eightball, continuing for seven more issues until it wrapped up in 1997. The series recounts the adventures of two cynical high school girls who have recently graduated and must learn to navigate adulthood. Initially, Clowes hadn’t planned to continue past the first chapter, but the series developed a cult following, and when plans were made to turn it into a film, it was only fitting that Terry Zwigoff (who helmed the acclaimed documentary Crumb, based on the underground comic writer of the same name) should take the reins. Starring Thora Birch and a relatively unknown Scarlett Johansson in the lead roles, Ghost World opened to widespread critical acclaim, garnering praise for its sharp performances and thoughtful humor. “In the name of all that’s beautiful and brilliant, do not miss this movie,” says Combustible Celluloid’s Jeffrey M. Anderson. Unfortunately, Clowes and Zwigoff’s second cooperative outing, Art School Confiential, failed to receive the same kind of love.


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Adapting the distinctive visual sensibility of a graphic novel for the big screen can prove to be a daunting challenge. However, Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age masterpiece Persepolis was a rare instance in which the book’s look and feel made a seamless transition. It helped, of course, that Satrapi not only wrote the book (based upon her life story) but co-directed the film as well (with Vincent Paronnaud). Persepolis is the story of a feisty, rebellious girl whose liberal family is challenged by the profound societal shift brought about by the Iranian Revolution (and its changing roles for women); as she grows older, her parents ship her off to college in Europe, where she finds a whole new world of alienation. The book and the film are filled with evocative, dreamlike imagery, but this is at heart a profoundly moving (and often very funny) story of the challenges of youth that resonates across cultural lines. “[Persepolis is] so satisfying because it works on a few complimentary levels: as a coming-of-age story tracking innocence to experience, as an accounting of revolutionary and feminist struggles, and as an artful visual experience in cartoon form,” wrote Peter Canavese of Groucho Reviews.


Check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.

Finally, here’s a lesson on the difference between graphic novels and comic books — courtesy of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth author Chris Ware:

Written by Ryan Fujitani, Tim Ryan, and Alex Vo.

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