I suspect that most people immersed in American comics culture have, at some point, found themselves thinking, “Wow, this book would make a really cool movie”. This thought, and variations thereof, can spring from a number of places or moments while reading: a particular character that makes you think of a specific actor, a panel that leaps off of the page so vividly that you want to see it ‘for real’, a fantastically rendered setting that begs for additional depth or texture.
Whatever the spark, for many readers imagining comics as films is a natural, almost reflexive, way of responding to a book.
However, as more mainstream superhero titles are turned into movie franchises, and as Hollywood executives dig deeper into the substrata of the comics world for characters, stories, and concepts, I increasingly wonder what this desire means, and particularly, what it means for the experience of reading.
At a basic level, imagining a comic book as a movie is a tribute to the creator’s ability to write and draw lively characters and settings, and to suggest movement on the page. Turning the static images of a comic into the moving images of a film in one’s mind is one way of reading a book; it’s a mental device for ‘completing’ the text, or creating what Scott McCloud calls “closure”, that is, filling in the missing actions between the panels.
As an expression of closure, the revisioning of a book in cinematic terms is an acknowledgment of the constructedness of comic book imagery. In everyday life, I may or may not see something like I see in a comic, but in movies images are also consciously made rather than casually observed. Imagining a translation from page to screen is a device that addresses the need for conscious creation if the missing actions from a book are to be made manifest.
As natural as this interpretative practice may seem, it would be a mistake to treat the reading of comics within a film frame as an ‘innocent’ act. In the US at least, the resort to cinematic imaginings occurs within a context wherein comic books actually are made into films, and where the lines between the two media are always blurring, a fuzziness exhibited by the growth of a multimedia program at Comic-Con and by news sites like MTV’s Splash Page. More to the point, film adaptations are frequently seen as fulfilling the unrealized promise of a book’s static images.
“Not as good as the book”, or, “Nothing like the book”, are clichés when commenting on adaptations of prose works. “Not as good as the comic”, on the other hand, feels and sounds strange. Indeed, it is the rare film critic that bothers to review a comic book adaptation as an adaptation. The fact that a film is based on a comic may not even merit mention in a review or summary.
Commercially, being made into a movie is clearly an achievement for a comic. In and of itself, creating and publishing comics is not a pathway to wealth, or even a solidly middle class income. There is no comic book equivalent of The Da Vinci Code where film audience and readership are reasonably comparable. Many comics artists and writers, good ones, never reach a point where they make their living from their art. Selling the film rights to a book is one way for creators and publishers to generate significant income from their work, both directly in the form of the contract and indirectly through increased book sales and product licensing.
Of course, when read for pleasure comics are primarily products of imagination, and not commercial properties. This does not change that fact that comic books, like most contemporary artifacts of pop culture, exist simultaneously as objects of exchange and as objects of art, but it does mean that the movies we make in our minds, and those that actually get made, are materially different (that is, unless we happen to be Guillermo del Toro). Comic book adaptations, no less than those from works of prose, should be looked at critically, if not skeptically, not only in spite of, but because of, the ways in which so many readers spark to the idea of a film version in the first place.
Mainstream media coverage and marketing campaigns for comics adaptations, especially for ‘event’ movies like The Dark Knight (2008) and Watchmen (2009), are invariably designed to simultaneously elevate and diminish fans of the books. On the one hand, ‘pleasing the fans’ is taken as an imperative for any film to be deemed successful. On the other, fans are seen as being primarily concerned with superficial minutiae, such as costume details, and as literalists who want little more than live action reproductions of their beloved books.
While such things are hardly irrelevant, it is absurd to suggest, in any context, that fans are a monolithic bloc whose imaginations can be sated by a clever or thoughtful production design. Above all, this image of what it means to be a fan is dismissive of the experience of reading comics, which is much richer than simply seeing books as storyboards for films.
Such an image, however, does account for the ready-made excuses that accompany adaptations that fail to catch enough fire at the box office: too few readers, too weak source material. If a film succeeds, it is because the filmmakers have managed to spin gold from straw. So, for example, Watchmen‘s underwhelming box office performance, as measured against expectations at least, became a lesson about the limits of comics/ fan/ geek culture rather than an opportunity to open up a serious discussion about the art of adaptation (at the very least, screenwriter David Hayter certainly found this feeling to be palpable enough to bare his soul about it in print: ”An Open Letter From WATCHMEN Screenwriter David Hayter – UPDATED”, Hardcore Nerdity.com, 11 March 2009).
The issue isn’t whether there are good films to be made from comics or not, there clearly are, but how we understand the relationship between the moving image adaptations that emerge in the minds of readers and those that actually get made. The latter are not only not substitutes for the former, but, as often as not, do not come from the same places. A film producer may be interested in a book for any number of reasons — an appealing high concept, the popularity of a particular character, having the text convincingly pitched as a star vehicle — none of which may have anything to do with actually having read, and been inspired by, a comic.
Not every book, after all, gets reimagined as a film, even in the mind’s eye. Certain books will always seem so perfectly suited to their native form, that they won’t push a reader’s brain to thoughts of cinema. More broadly, no two individuals will ever have exactly the same response to a given comic. Some will make a movie in their head. Some won’t. And no one’s imaginary movie will ever be quite the same as anyone else’s. These qualities of reading serve as reminders that the move from page to screen is nothing more than a particular creative choice, and not the natural fulfillment of a book’s promise.