Build to Suit

Guillermo del Toro and the Mythology of Hellboy

by Ian Chant

24 August 2009

The mythology of the Hellboy films is, to use del Toro's own apt description, “…a jazz riff on what the comic book is”.

Mind-bending visual effects. Pulse quickening action sequences. Schlocky humor that embraces the absurd nature of its protagonists. The gritty sense of a world much like our own, and a world of fantasy and horror hidden just below its surface. There are plenty of reasons that the Hellboy films, helmed by Spanish director Guillermo del Toro, have been such an unlikely success story in recent years. But chief among those reasons is the adherence of the films to the feel, if not always the plot of Mike Mignola’s storied comic universe, which is now entering its 16th year.

Where spin offs like the BPRD series and solo adventures featuring Abe Sapien have taken on a darker tone of late, Hellboy, even at his darkest, retains a sort of whimsy, a slapstick goofiness that provides a welcome counterpoint to tales which regularly feature cybernetic Nazis and dark elder gods conspiring to wipe out all life on Earth. It’s this just right blend of baneful mystic forces, freewheeling action and inspired slapstick that del Toro’s films import flawlessly from Mignola’s graphic adventures.

But the complex and ever evolving mythology that Mignola has spent years crafting in Hellboy and related titles is just too big to fit into a series of films. Instead of Mignola’s vision of a world in which no piece of folklore is off limits, film audiences get a stripped down, build to suit version of the mythology of the Hellboy universe. The mythology of the Hellboy films is, to use del Toro’s own apt description, “…a jazz riff on what the comic book is”.

Due to del Toro’s long held admiration for Mignola’s work, the films stopped short of scrapping of the basic underpinnings of the Hellboy comics. Both films and comics explore the notion of a world before our own, and of the blending of science and magic. In each medium, elves, fairies and trolls exist alongside demons and world-ending monsters from beyond the edge of space. And both works pay homage to Lovecraftian themes of long sleeping evils, world striding monsters and the subhuman creatures that worship them, and races of not quite human creatures waiting (sometimes quietly, sometimes not) to lay claim to an earth cleansed of humankind.

Over the years, the mythos of the Hellboy comics grew from a entertaining riffs on a thinly veiled take on the world of Cthulhu into a full fledged greatest hits of world folklore, in which Baba Yaga, Hecate and the fairy folk of the British Isles are all creatures to be feared in equal measure. Mignola has felt free to incorporate creatures and figures from a staggering number of world mythologies, taking bits and pieces from the folk tales and stories of any continent and culture he pleases. By weaving an overarching world mythology in which Norwegian trolls, Appalachian witches and Malaysian vampires are all potential threats to life, limb and sanity, Mignola contributes to an environment where every shadow hides undreamt of terror. The world of the Hellboy comics, even in its funnier moments, is one where horrific creatures lurk around every corner and every thing that goes bump in the night could be the last one you hear.

But while Mignola, an avowed folklore buff, is happy to borrow from stories from across the world, each one is meant to add to the character of the world he has crafted, not to define it. Mythological figures from around the world have their places in the mythos of the Hellboy comics, but each is taken as part of a larger whole that even avid readers are still just coming to understand. And this larger whole is picky, taking only what it needs from each folk tale, a Tengu here, a Mayan demon there as befits the story, and casting off whatever is not needed. This method of taking only the best elements of a story and leaving the rest behind makes for storytelling that pays homage to its roots while leaving room to do new things with the elements it adopts, which explains why it is the same tactic adopted by Guillermo del Toro in bringing Hellboy from the off of the page and onto the big screen.

The folklore and background of del Toro’s films takes on a much more generalized feel more appropriate for famously generalist theater-going audiences. For the sake of brevity, the films are compelled to offer audiences a more compressed, less complicated mythology. The breadth and depth found in Mignola’s work are sacrificed on the altar of snappy storytelling, chase scenes and romantic entanglements. Lacking the luxury of years that Mignola had to build a fully fleshed out mythology of their own, the films settle for vagaries.  The result is a more generic, but no less effective troupe of ogres, elves and many tentacled beasts that play foil to Hellboy and his cohorts. And while purists may bemoan this degree of mythological dumbing down for the big screen, it does make for punchier, more watchable cinema. It also means that, after taking on the basic elements of the Hellboy comics, the films are more or less starting from scratch.

Creating a new mythos out of whole cloth is no mean feat, and the degree of success that del Toro and his crew achieve in this task is laudable. Perhaps more importantly, the director’s success in using a fresh out of the box mythology to such terrific effect—whether in the monstrous demon Sammael of the first film or the endless wonders of the Troll Market that left audiences gawking in the sequel—is nothing short of amazing. Handily, del Toro’s leaner, meaner mythological background is also more prone to end of the world scenarios, lending a sense of urgency and immediacy to the setting that is more in keeping with the nature of a high octane blockbuster.

By keeping the tone of the comic pitch perfect and trimming the weightier and less familiar folkloric elements, del Toro effects an elegant transition from print to cinema. The result is a film that runs with hybrid vigor to spare—it is faithful enough to please longtime fans without making new audiences feel like they’re being punished for not regularly reading a slightly obscure horror comic book for the last sixteen years. And if there’s a better way to introduce huge new reading audiences to the above mentioned slightly obscure horror comic, I’m hard pressed to come up with it.

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