"In the Comics..."- Why Comic-to-Screen Translation is So Difficult

What works? What doesn't? And why? Maybe this editorial will help sort a few things out.

Editorial Opinion

Grant Morrison and Mark Millar once wrote, during their Flash run, about the super-speedy hero racing against his imaginary friend made of electricity for the sake of allowing Earth to keep spinning. The Flash runs the race to appease the gambling problems of two enormous cosmic entities, who go around the universe setting bets against each other. In the end, the Flash tricks the two behemoths and "wins" the bet, all with the help of the people of Earth...who, in order to make Flash run faster, must all run themselves. You read that correctly. If the people of Earth all run around at the same time, it powers Flash up enough to run even faster through the cosmos. It's titled The Human Race and it's so stupidly awesome, you can't put the book down. And, odds are, this will never appear on screen.

There's a problem with comic book movies today that most fans don't seem to understand. The issue of "translation." You're probably wondering, "Why can't they just make an X-Men movie with the original five?" or "Why does no one ever want Batman to solve mysteries?" or "He made a giant Hot Wheels track? Really? Did I really just see that?" And I'm here, as an aspiring screenwriter, to possibly help with some explanations as to why there are so many changes from the source material, why writers and directors seem to deviate from the most crucial stories of the comics, and why, dear Lord above, why Bat Nipples.

1. It's Got to Sell

The most popular X-Man is Wolverine. Fun fact, that 99% of you know: he's not an original X-Man. However, he's the only X-Man to appear in every movie so far because, fact is, Wolverine sells. And movie studios are in the comic business because these characters already have an enormous fanbase, which means a lot of dough is rolling in if they play their cards right. While you and I can see the success of an X-Men film that stays true to the opening pages of Stan Lee's run, studios aren't hellbent on making movies to take them places. Filmmakers might be. But studios look at franchises and ask, "How many can we make before people say 'This is too much?'"

2. Producers Mistake Themselves for Canonical Writers

I hope you've had the pleasure of listening to Kevin Smith talk about his Superman script. If you haven't, please, go watch it now. You'll love yourself for it. The short version of it is that Kevin Smith turned in a draft of his Superman movie and it was radically changed by a producer who found it necessary that not only Superman battle giant polar bears, but that the climax of the film should be against a giant spider. Now, I would happily go see that film. However, I'm not a Superman fan and I'd be going for all the wrong reasons. The point is, there sometimes seems to be some confusion as to who holds "storytelling" rights in the industry. While a lot of credit goes to the director or writer, the fact is, much of what you see (good and bad) is the brainchild of a producer. And it's not to say that they came up with it all; merely that they gave the "okay" to...Bat Nipples. Writers are responsible for the direction of the story and characters, directors for the look, feel, and tone of the story and characters, and producers for the content of everything in between. You'll often find that many directors are also the writers and producers of their projects, so they have more control over what's seen and said.

3. It's 120 Minutes vs. Up to 70 Years of Stories

I hate the argument that "with prep time," Batman can defeat any foe. It can't be used from Christopher Nolan's films, because that's not the Batman Nolan envisioned for his massive undertaking. As a filmmaker, Nolan stands looking at a complete legacy and has to pick and choose for his vision, while also attempting to stay true to the whole character throughout his series. This is where it gets iffy. In a continuing story, Christopher Nolan must keep the general audience in mind above comic fans. Once he's in the thick of his trilogy, he has to appeal to the studios issuing production and the audience in order to get another shot. He can't deviate too immensely from the Batman of the first movie, otherwise we, as an audience, become lost. Nolan can develop the character to a certain point from then on, but he cannot flat-out change him, making him a ninja in one film and then a master-brilliant detective-engineer in another. It doesn't bode well with viewers and leaves too many unanswered questions.

As a screenwriter who has just finished up a three month passion project on Daredevil, I had major difficulties in adapting Frank Miller's work. The fact is, somethings are just not going to be absorbed by an audience. I had to look at Matt Murdock from an objective standpoint, erasing everything I knew from the comics and say, "Okay, as a person, where does this character need to go? What does he need to face? Who does he need to become?" and then keep that in line with what writers have already given the character today. I didn't have Matt murder a woman, I didn't introduce Elektra, and there aren't ninjas galore in my scripts. I made that decision based on the fact that those elements would later interfere with where Matt needed to end up as a person, as I didn't want him to be all fighter, no lawyer and lover.

It's why Robin's mythology is fairly expendable in the Batman cinematic universe: Robin's presence might evolve Bruce to a certain point, but in terms of scale, his involvement often deviates away from the development necessary for the whole story. In the comic world, we have issue after issue to watch subtleties in how Robin helps Bruce become the best Batman he can be. In a movie, we've got less than three hours. It's a massive undertaking for a writer, producer, and director.

4. Unlike Comics, You Can't Add Characters for the Sake of Adding Characters

In Joss Whedon's fantastic Astonishing X-Men, run, the final set of stories has a few scenes with a cavalcade of characters. Everyone from Spider-Man to Reed Richards shows up to stop the impending doom coming to Earth. It's awesome.

It's not awesome on screen. There's too much presence, too much underlying fighting for the spotlight, too much one can miss because of a solitary character. It's sort of why I don't want Spider-Man or Wolverine to ever join the Avengers in the MCU...they'd become far too distracting and, I feel, would often take me out of the movie. An audience can only take so much going on at one time and you obviously can't please everyone. It's why films like The Expendables have critiques and complaints like "There wasn't a scene where Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude van Damme roundhouse-kick bullets at each other."

Hold on, I need to recover from writing that sentence. Okay.

There has to be constant balance, and it's an issue a lot of comics don't have to face because of their continuity and universes. On paper, we see all these characters and know them quite well, already, while to the naked eye, they're nothing more than a new costume. But randomly showing up on screen with no backstory or prior knowledge leaves something to be desired. So, complaints about "not enough characters being introduced for Civil War" are sort of missing the point that if people are worried that the first Avengers film was going to be Iron Man and Friends...then how on earth could they pull together a Civil War film? That being said, I'm still rooting for a Civil War film.

I hope this article has been somewhat helpful. I hope it's given you a better look as to what can and can't translate onto screen all the time. Just remember the basics: you know more about the characters than the movie presents, and that alone sort of singles you out of someone who is already "outside" of the movie. Look at the movie adaptation as a movie first, and then a deviation of the source material. You just might like it a bit more.

If you want to read some of my Daredevil stuff, check it and the posters made by JOLT17 here!

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