Sunday, December 26, 2010

Comics to movies: please exercise caution

When I heard that From Hell was going to be made into a film I smiled. This comic with a bovine constitution courageous enough to follow it's Jack the Ripper theory to its heart rending ending was a gift to filmmakers, depth and pace already tried out in a storyboard you could only call deluxe. What happened? Well, it wasn't embarrassingly bad but it had so little of what had made the comic so wonderful in its frames. The film had all the heaviness it needed in the scenes it showed but it plummeted from my estimation in one detail lasting only seconds on screen.

First, From Hell the comic is not a whodunnit but the film is so it would be wrong of me to reveal all the details about the big bad few seconds. I'll only say that when the Ripper reveals himself to the policeman there is a shot where his eyes change, going from normal to a pair of thick black coals. The filmmakers tried a comics technique to render the villain ... villainous. But it just looks try hard. Nothing as cheesy as that happens in the comic. It just isn't told that way. It was like the gag in the show Frontline where John Clarke and Brian Dawe are being courted by a commercial channel for their singular characterisations of figures in the news. They are scrupulous in not adopting vocal impressions or using makeup but that is exactly what the commercial interests want them to do. The big eye swap in From Hell is the same thing: cinema falling short of its source medium.When I saw V for Vendetta I was better pleased but the climactic scene completely missed the point of the original. Both of these titles, I'll just add, are from comics authored by British graphic novellist Alan Moore who has released a few of his significant works to the Hollywood machine with winceable results. He signs off, accepts the returns, knowing that the comics are still there for any who want the undiluted version.

There are exceptions. Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World has the depth and flow of the Dan Clowes comic. The dizzily wonderful Kickass was adapted for the screen before the comic was finished, being developed in tandem with the film. The two are appreciably different but it works. What's good for the comic happens in the comic and good for movie is in the movie.

But not everything can be this way. Might as well wish for a star athlete with two hearts. So when I hear of a possible movie adaptation of Charles Burns' Black Hole I nearly gag.

Black Hole is a series of comics published eventually as a single volume. The story is the convergence of the twin themes of teenage romance and its rapid fortune shifts and a plague spreading throughout the teenage population in the suburbs of Seattle. A movie is only going to be a disappointment for this one. First, the visual style is arresting. When I showed local comics flame keeper, practitioner Bernard Caleo few pages of Black Hole some years ago the sheer volume of his "WHOA!" made me take a backward step.

Burns takes his immediate cue from the extraordinary work of Lynd Ward whose wordless graphic novels were composed of woodcuts that can take the breath of the most stilted away. Burns applies this to a 70s aesthetic and the result and the result is more than just wonder at the force of his drafting. I read Black Hole per issue from the 90s to recently when the series ended. Years went by between some issues. Very little ever happened in each issue's story but there was so much going on in the depth of the detail in each painstakingly constructed frame. This fed back into the deceptive simplicity of the dialogue and narration. What you got was a comic that you had to read frame by frame, not speeding between them as in a superhero outing; it was something you had to revisit to make sure you'd got it right.

The experience of reading Black Hole is so dependent on its being a comic, at once moving and static, it would be defeated by the narrative film treatment. It would  take the David Lynch of Eraserhead or the Peter Bogdanovich of The Last Picture Show rammed together to do the look any justice and then, well god knows who could do justice to the pacing and depth needed for the story itself. I can't think of anyone who could handle all that. Then again, why do they need to? The comic works without cinema, however much it evokes cinema in its pages. Black Hole depends on the moments of contemplation forced on the reader that a film is too unlikely to achieve without a destructive compromise. Please, whoever you might be, leave Black Hole as a comic. If you like it that much, discern what you like about it and film that.


  1. Actuallly "From Hell" the film is more derived from the 70's film "Murder by Decree" in its structure.. Its a film in which Sherlock Holmes and Watson (Christopher Plummer and James Mason)research the Whitechapel Murders. It uses the same crazy theories of masonic ritual murder via Sir William Gull that Stephen Knight penned in "Jack the Ripper, the final solution". There have been a few films based on this book. In Murder by Decree, the killer has his pupils totally dilated as he swoops in on his first victim. Is it cocaine, or is it the exstacy of bloodlust? Perhaps it is a force beyond nature, as the Alan Moore comic asserts. I am not sure why this tiny device ruined a whole film for you. From Hell was enjoyable, not original, as little original material is produced in Hollywood, but certainly not problematised by a single visual conceit

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  3. My point is that it shouldn't have been derived from something like Murder by Decree when it was, by its own declaration, an adaptation of From Hell. I didn't say it ruined the entire film for me (that was done by a lot of other things as well), my gripe with it was that it was too much at odds with the approach of its source material.