Hollywood is almost completely out of ideas. That became apparent when studios started optioning anything from board games to yet-to-be-published children’s books. Eventually, someone ended up in the indie section of a comic shop and a light bulb went off. Comics seemed like the perfect fodder for films and were far less expensive to acquire.
The average moviegoer probably would be surprised to learn some of the movies that have been based on comics or graphic novels. We’re not talking about huge box office hits like Iron Man or The Dark Knight, because those will always be around. Thankfully, most have gotten better than Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher, though there are misfires every once in a while (like Thomas Jane’s Punisher or Ray Stevenson’s Punisher: War Zone).
Well-received movies like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World were originally graphic novels. Those films were relatively low-budget affairs, but studios will fork out the cash if they see a project able to go the distance. Max Allan Collins’ Road To Perdition attracted Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Tom Hanks and Paul Newman; Universal’s upcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a manga-style book from Oni Press, got Michael Cera and director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz); Warner Bros.’ The Losers (April 23) attracted Zoe Saldana, Jeffery Dean Morgan and Chris Evans.
Graphic-lit adaptations also are easily digestible for movie studios during a struggling economy. Instead of taking chances on spec scripts pitched or written by unknown writers that may need to be heavily rewritten or developed further, comics provide a solid, complete story right away. Since comics are, at their basic level, nothing more than words and pictures, the entire book moves along like a rough storyboard for a film. Screenwriters, producers and directors know exactly what they’re getting. They are able to make changes here and there, but the story is ready from the start.
The variety of comics is just as vast as literary novels, and not every comic is about a superhero with a secret identity. There’s something for everyone, no matter the taste.
Comics haven’t replaced the novel as the primary form of movie fodder nor will they. Comic books are usually shorter and more to the point than novels, which tend to run upward of 200 pages—and in a nation of ever-decreasing attention spans, that helps. And sometimes, comics just seem a little more fun. Big-name stars have gravitated to more entertaining and less conventional projects lately. Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s three-issue series, Red, topped out at just over 60 pages and is in production right now with Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman starring.
These adaptations have been a great thing for the comic industry because it gets more new readers into local shops, and the writers of these books are getting more and more work—both in comics and Hollywood. Mark Millar, based solely on Wanted and the buzz that Kick-Ass has generated, is already moving from writing comics to directing film (although judging from Frank Miller and The Spirit, this might not be the best idea). Brian Michael Bendis teamed up with Zac Efron to finally get his graphic novel Fire off the ground, and Matt Fraction has been on the set helping out with Iron Man 2.
Writers may not be leaving comics for million-dollar paychecks—yet—but they’re not running around town pitching Showgirls, either.