Adapting Comics To Film

We’re quite often asked what we make of film adaptations of comics (see interview with LeftLion somewhere close by), but here Edward Christie asks more specific questions on the subject.

Hi Stephen,

You gave me your e-mail saying you would be able to do an e-mail interview probably over a glass (or two) of wine.

Oh, how you underestimate my capacity!

I really just want your thoughts, so it’s nothing too formal. I thought you were interesting and your experience will mean I will definitely gain a good informed opinion on a GN and Comic related topic. 

I wanted to ask about the on going debate about adaptations from graphic novel to Film: 

1. Do you feel a writer can gain more depth of character in a Novel/Graphic Novel?

I don’t see why either medium would necessarily impose a limit on the depth of characterisation: there are simply different tricks each writer, artist or director can use; different tools at their disposal should the creator be imaginative enough to employ them or inventive enough to come up with them. The best creators decide which medium to employ depending on how they want to tell a particular story and use that singular medium’s unique properties to do so.

That’s why Alan Moore said that WATCHMEN was unfilmable: it uses some of the properties unique to comics in order to tell a particular story in that particular way. If Terry Gilliam agreed, then who would argue with him?

That’s also why FROM HELL was unfilmable: how anyone could have the temerity to imagine they could replicate on live-action celluloid what Eddie Campbell achieved with his exceptional pen – carving a London so bleak, unsanitised and unsafe indelibly on the mind – is incomprehensible. Fortunately the film From Hell didn’t even attempt it: the only thing is has in common with the graphic novel is the title. It’s actually not a bad film (Eddie disagrees), but it’s arguably the worst adaptation in history. Typically of Hollywood they turned FROM HELL into a Whodunnit. The graphic novel was never a Whodunnit – you know almost from the start who’s done it – it’s a Whydunnit, plus an exploration of the architecture of time.

On the whole I cannot understand why anyone would even attempt to adapt something from one medium to another given that the best creators choose their media carefully and use those unique properties with imagination and wit.

It’s artistic laziness. Either you settle for a second-rate adaptation of a cracking work of art, or you settle for adapting a second-rate work of art.

Oh yes: money! How woefully naive of me.

There are exceptions, of course: David Mazzucchelli’s comicbook adaptation of Paul Auster’s City Of Glass (prose) wherein Mazzucchelli does use some of comics’ unique tricks to convey the theme of the book in completely different ways to the original writer. The theme being the loss, and even the culpable jettisoning of identity. I’m thinking, for example, of the early page of the graphic novel in which the buildings through the window morph into a maze which, once one pulls back, turns out to be a finger print on that pane of glass. This also anticipates the idea of the meandering map-tracing later on.

But then Mazzucchelli is amongst the ten most extraordinary comicbook creators of all time so you’d expect little less, and the original work is a tour de force.

But I stick to my original point.

2. I find that depth of character in Graphic Novels comes from the way in which thoughts/internal dialogues can be conveyed so literally, unlike in Film where this is conveyed through expression. Do you feel a writer can gain more depth of character in a Novel/Graphic Novel?

I’m reasonably sure you just asked me that.

But to run with your assertion, expression can be conveyed just as subtly in comics as in film. It’s just that the writer/artist in comics doesn’t have to rely on any actor conveying what the director has in mind with perfect empathy. And let’s face it, most of the best comicbook creators are writer/artists rather than one or the other.

Admittedly a writer does have to rely on their artist if they are separate entities, true, but then the writer only has to rely on the artist rather than an actor, a director, a cameraman and a lighting technician and a special effects engineer and the guy they hire to give a blow job to the director in order to bring out the best in him. [Editor’s note: I may shy away from reprinting the specific anecdote I employed during one of my Broadway film introductions, but it got a very big laugh!]

As to the internal monologue, you have the voice-over in film as its counterpart.

With all due respect, I’d suggest you’re missing the point, presaged above, which is that film employs so many people that each one costs a great deal more money to produce than a comic. Those costs need to be recouped and therefore the most mundane Hollywood studios bleach the content of their films in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic. In doing so they dilute the potential power of that film (always there), to an extent that a single guy working alone in his studio and intending to photocopy then staple his work together in order to sell 100 copies doesn’t have to. It’s all a question of scale but – to quote The Blow Monkeys – “It doesn’t have to be this way”. In either medium you can still make something pure.

Both comics and film can use that internal monologue/voice-over to different effects as well: a) as exposition and b) to contradict what they actually do or say. In comics, I’d heartily recommend you look at the work Bendis did on NEW AVENGERS (no thought bubbles) whilst contrasting it with his later MIGHTY AVENGERS (thought bubbles that often contradict their speech balloons) and then taking a look at the god-awful work of the vast majority of other gibbons writing corporate superhero comics over the last six decades (explaining what it is the artist is already showing you in the panels themselves). Then take a look at CEREBUS: JAKA’S STORY by Dave Sim. CEREBUS as a 6,000-page work, is an veritable essay in implication and inference (both of which are mischievously messed with, along with the readers’ minds) as opposed to explication. But film can do the same thing, surely?

3. I feel this can be lost in adaptations to film, do you agree?

It can be. Or it can be saved or even improved on depending on the quality of the original and the quality of the adaptation. Vice-versa, to be sure.

4. What is your favourite graphic novel?

David Mazzucchelli’s ASTERIOS POLYP.

4a. Do you think it could work as a film?


You so funny.

Thank you and Much Appreciated

Edward Christie

Do you know Julie? I’m a big fan. 


That is brilliant. i don’t know Julie, but I would like to now, guess I’Ill need to be invited to one these crazy parties! Feel free to use the questions however you please, I just wish I’d worded them better now. That has been extremely useful and put me in the right direction. You were also extremely helpful to my girlfriend today coincidentally; she now be purchasing Maus for her Dad, and the other one she can’t remember for her brother.

Thank you, I may be back in touch.

Edward Christie

That was your girlfriend…? She’s lovely!

I seem to remember talking about all manner of history and politics. Could be a Guy Delisle book (BURMA CHRONICLES, SHENZHEN or PYONGYANG), PERSEPOLIS about growing up in Iran or… Anyway, as long as she remembers what it’s about whoever’s behind the counter will know exactly what the book is.

Oh no, wait! For her brother I was insisting on SCOTT PILGRIM volume one, wasn’t I? And maybe a cool poster to with it.

Do get back in touch if you need another batch of answers.

For various different reasons I personally think the comics-to-film adaptations that have worked are Sin City to some extent, Ghost World to a great extent give or take the ending (I think I wrote about that in the LeftLion thing too), and American Splendor absolutely. That really messed around with the whole notion of adaptation. Unfortunately I always write my Broadway Cinema introductions before having seen the films and then run away swiftly to drink very heavily (radiantly confident about talking about comics on Page 45’s shop floor; messing my pants when having to address a crowd who probably just want to see the film), so they’re all about the original comics rather than the adaptation process, which means I’ve nothing really relevant to send you on that score.

Here’s the biggie: in comics time is represented by space, the panels (or frames) juxtaposed against each other; in film each panel or frame replaces the other. One advantage/neat trick in the comicbook toolbox, therefore, is that the creator can use this juxtaposition to imply something an astute reader may then infer by comparison and do so at their leisure (even if it means flicking between pages). Coming back to CEREBUS, I always compare some of its staccato sequences (particularly the climax to CHURCH & STATE) with Jacob’s Ladder. Neat effect in Jacob’s Ladder, but with CEREBUS you get a very similar neat effect and you get to see and absorb exactly what lies within its flashes and, if you fancy, compare them with other parts of the work. Master craftsman, our Dave Sim, and someone who definitely uses the unique properties of comics to tell his own story.

 – Stephen, 2009

The Scott Pilgrim film rocked too. I just didn’t know that in 2009. At the time of writing I’m two days away from seeing Posy Simmonds again and the film adaptation of her magnificent TAMARA DREWE as originally serialised in The Guardian. There’s a very good reason why Posy is the only comicbook creator I’m aware of to have an MBE. Stick it in our search engine, seriously.