The graphic novel versus the film adaptation; remastering the narrative art form or squandering this concise form of social and often political communication?
Kat Pritchett MGR09201a, Debate and Polemic Essay
In light of recent adaptation hits such as 'Watchmen' (SNYDER, US, 2009), it is hard to avoid the graphic novel film adaptation in modern cinema. With new computer generated imagery, the pages of novels by esteemed writers, such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, are coming to life on the big screen in a whole new way. However, what are we to learn from this transition from print to screen and how does this effect the narrative, style and context of what is produced? In this essay I will be analysing the debate between graphic novel loyalists who believe graphic novels 'Were written to be impossible to reproduce in terms of cinema', (MOORE, 2003) as well as looking at other points of view from those who have embraced this new media to showcase the potential of graphic novels and those who create them.
Graphic Novels can be seen as the epitome of sequential art. Scott McCloud accurately pinpoints this in his work “Reinventing Comics” (MCCLOUD, 2000) as he analyses the depth of narrative in graphic novels visual strategies;
The combination of simpler, more selective imagery and comics' many frozen moments lends a less fleeting, less transitory feeling to each moment – imbuing even incidental images with a potentially symbolic charge. (MCCLOUD, 2000, p.33)
Unlike film, where there is the unavoidable restrictive element of time constraints, a graphic novelist is able to fully engage with the subtext of the narrative. Whilst some may then argue that graphic novels rely on a narrative constructed by stereotypes, one could further argue;
(Comic book) drawings are a mirror reflection, and depend on the reader's stored memory of experience to visualise an idea or process quickly. This makes necessary the simplification of images into repeatable symbols. Ergo, stereotypes.(EISNER, p.17,1996)
Furthermore, the sequential art form of a graphic novel also allows the reader to acknowledge a pace of reading, through how these selected images are laid out on the page. For example, here is an extract from Ghostworld (CLOWES, 1997, p.9)
The size of the frames in the second row of images are larger than the frames in the third row; indicating that the time period in the second row is longer than in the third. In combination with the dialogue, one realises that the pace of the story is being increased in a visual manner and not only within the literal narrative. Together, the spacing of the individual images on the page and dense subtext of imagery provide the graphic novel with a unique method of intimate communication with the reader, unlike any other art form.
However, graphic novels can also be seen as a dated art form in the modern world as 'an ever-advancing technology affects the communications environment' (EISNER, 1996, p.160). Will Eisner underlines this point in his work, 'Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative', when he concludes his examination of storytelling by asking the following;
Over time, have the stories people tell been changed by the new methods of transmission? (EISNER, 1996, p.160)
With the introduction of even more advanced computer generated imagery, graphic novels have breathed new life as the characters we have only ever seen in still images (albeit penned in a way that presents movement, mood and genre style) are brought to life using captivating animation and digital technology. In 2005, Frank Miller directed and produced 'Sin City', the graphic novel he had previously written from 1991 – 2000. It was one of the first films to have been produced primarily on a digital backlot and in fact won the Technical Grand Prize at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401792/, 2010).
This image highlights the close visual reference from graphic novel to screen adaptation.
Not only did the film Sin City (MILLER, US, 2005) articulate the style and narrative of the graphic novel, Empire's film critic Kim Newman even stated that '(Sin City) is liable to score highest in the 'fan-satisfactory- category' (NEWMAN, 2006 p.870) due to it's almost word for word graphic novel dialogue. It also inspired new viewers to embrace the original graphic novel – a trend we have seen with other 'unknown to mainstream' graphic novel adaptations.
Daniel Clowes is another example of a graphic novelist come screenwriter who has embraced the medium of film to further enhance his work. Unbeknown to the majority, the film Ghostworld (ZWIGOFF, US, 2000) was at first a graphic novel, penned by Clowes in it's original form from 1993 - 1997. Like Miller's adaptation of his own work, Clowes remains true to the original narrative of his novel and combined with a set of well known actors like Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi, he increased interest in the original graphic novel.
However, screen adaptations are not always as well received as these. In particular, when one focuses on graphic novels with a grand scale of narrative depth and political subtext.
Alan Moore is considered one of the most prolific graphic novelists of all time;
There have been no writers who have worked so well in so many different genres, whose work has moved the form into new literary and artistic areas, garnering so much critical praise, or whose work is so eagerly anticipated.(PARKIN, 2009, p.9)
In fact, Moore's graphic novel 'Watchmen' (MOORE/GIBBONS, 1986-7) is listed on Time Magazines Top 100 Novels of all time. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_85YbURXVo8 2010). However unlike Miller, who embraced Zack Snyder's film adaptation of his graphic novel mini series '300' (MILLER, 1998), Moore has completely disassociated himself with all of the film adaptations of his novels – for example, From Hell (HUGHES/HUGHES, US, 2001), V for Vendetta (McTEIGUE, US/UK/GERMANY, 2005) and Watchmen(SNYDER, US, 2009).
Moore's first novel to be translated for the screen was From Hell – an examination of the mysterious story of Jack the Ripper, which was illustrated by the artist Eddie Campbell.
In an interview with Forbidden Planet (leading stockist of graphic novels), Campbell stated the following when asked about the From Hell adaptation;
It’s a shame really, but to get the film made they had to mostly lose that new angle and do the story as a straightforward whodunnit, which is the way the Ripper story has always been done.
In fact, the film and the graphic novel could not differ more and have little in common other than the names of characters and a few stylistic devices. For example, Moore described the film adaptation of his character, the chief inspector Frederick Abberline, as 'an absinthe swigging dandy' in comparison to his 'gruff Dorset police constable'.
By squandering the characterisation and plot of the original graphic novel, the film adaptation misses the central subtext to the novel, a critique of the Victorian Society and mindset which observes 'the various social pressure or cultural pressures that murder grew out of' (PARKIN, 2009, p.104).
There has been further criticism and appreciation for the film adaptation of Watchmen, Moore's highly acclaimed and best loved graphic novel set in an alternate history 1980s with nuclear war pending between the US and the Soviet Union. In ways, Snyder's Watchmen (US, 2009) can be seen as a superficial reproduction of the stylistic devices that the graphic novel employs. Whilst the appearance of the film is accurate as Dave Gibbons the original illustrator was on board with the adaptation, the ending has been changed and thus the social commentary is vaguely misconstrued. Whilst in the novel Doctor Manhattan (the only superhuman character) chooses to leave Earth due to societies corrupt behaviour, in the film adaptation he is forced to leave as he is blamed for mass destruction in New York City. Whilst this only compromises the single character of Doctor Manhattan, it damages the construct of social observation and critique. Despite this, many have enjoyed the film adaptation and the graphic novel has celebrated a second coming of hype and interest, Gibbon's even admitting that 'Zack Synder is obviously someone who really loves comic books' (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aYwXRihNC0, 2010) This leads us to question whether the film adaptation was a misconstruction or just another social perspective more relevant to a contemporary audience?
Again, in 'V for Vendetta'(McTEIGUE, US/UK/GERMANY, 2005), whilst Moore objected to the film adaptation, it is a genuine product of it's time and articulates the contemporary attitude to politics.
(V for Vendetta) has been turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country... It's a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives—which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.
(MOORE, Doc, 2006)
The film in fact was hugely popular in America, and it's anti Bush attitude has given the film cult status, despite Moore's disapproval. Furthermore, many critics believe it is Moore's ongoing feud with publishing house DC that is the source of his attitude. Another theory is Moore's general dislike for Hollywood's 'money grabbing' attitude. (MOORE, Doc, 2003)
Overall, it is hard to judge whether the graphic novel or the film adaptation dominates this age old debate. Whilst the original graphic novels have the advantage of narrative depth and extraordinary subtext (as well as a considerably smaller band of loyalist follows), in comparison, the film adaptation can rely on new audiences who may not be familiar with the original format and the fact that a film adaptation can be written to suit a contemporary audience. Furthermore, as films become more accessible, the graphic novel format is a dying breed, or is it?
As Scott Mc Cloud quotes,
In a digital environment, comics can take virtually any size and shape as the temporal map – comic's conceptual DNA – grows in it's new dish
(McCLOUD, 2000, p.223)
Whilst the question of preference between film and graphic novel is essentially down to personal opinion, the possibility of creating graphic novels on a digital platform is fast becoming a realised reality and could potentially compete with the epic film adaptations of today's cinema. However, in a world where the film industry is a dominant economic power in today's society, could the graphic novel really compete and build the fan base this unique creative communication deserves?
Jonathan Ross quotes, ' I don't want people, who aren't yet smart enough to understand that comics are the greatest art form going to wake up and start enjoying them'
In some ways, the 'creative snob' in me agrees with this statement, that only those who can appreciate the narrative should appreciate this art form. However, as I contemplate a future career within the graphic novel industry, where will all the fun be when there is no one left to appreciate this art form with?
CLOWES, D. Ghostworld, Fantagraphic Books, 1997
EISNER, W. Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, Poorhouse Press, 1996
MCCLOUD, S. Reinventing Comics, Harper Collins, 2000
MILLER, F. Sin City, Dark Horse, 1991- 2000
MOORE, A. (Illustrations Campbell), From Hell, Knockabout Comics, 1999
MOORE, A. (Illustrations Lloyd), V For Vendetta, Quality Comics, 1982 - 1989
MOORE, A. (Illustrations Gibbons), Watchmen, 1986 - 1987
PARKIN, L. Alan Moore: The Essential Guide, Pocket Essentials, 2009
VARIOUS, Empire Film Guide, Virgin Books Ltd, 2006
300 (SNYDER, US, 2007)
From Hell (HUGHES/HUGHES, US, 2001)
Ghostworld (ZWIGOFF, US, 2000)
Sin City (MILLER, US, 2005)
V For Vendetta (McTEIGUE, US/UK/GERMANY, 2005)
Watchmen (SNYDER, US, 2009)
'The Vendetta Behind 'V for Vendetta'” David Itzkoff, New York Times, Published March 12th 2006
The Mindscape of Alan Moore (Vylenz, Documentary, 2003)
Alan Moore: The Last Angry Man (MTV.com, 2006)
www.alanmoorefansite.com (accessed 12/02/10 – 27/02/10)
HeyUGuys.co.uk – film blog
featurette video doc (accessed 12/02/10)
Interview with Zack Snyder (accessed 12/02/10)
Interview with Zack Snyder and Dave Gibbons (accessed 15/02/10)
Interview with Eddie Campbell (artist for Alan Moore's 'From Hell') (accessed 23/02/10)
Eddie Campbell's online blog (accessed 23/02/10)
Sin City's IMDB page (accessed 23/02/10)
Sin City Illustration (accessed 23/02/10)
Eddie Campbell's (Revised) Graphic Novel Manifesto
(Manifesto found on many websites but pdf version available on the website below)