Friday, March 20, 2009

Watching the Watchmen - Graphic novels as movies

In the old days when Hollywood would base a movie on a book how often would people say, "the book was better than the movie"? It is the nature of a good book to make the reader imagine the scenes in their head. So often it seems movies would fail in recreating the fantastic images that people would create in their own heads.

Adaptations of graphic novels present a totally different and new challenge for movie makers. Readers of graphic novels form a connection with both the words and the images that the writer has created. So when a graphic novel is made into a movie, if you've read the graphic novel, you're going into the movie with an idea in your head about what the movie should "look" like.

I bring this up because I recently saw two different films in the theater that were based on graphic novels, and I had very different reaction to each one based on how they "looked".

Several months ago I read "Coraline: The Graphic Novel" written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. It was fantastic. The story was compelling and the drawings were fantastic. The graphic novel took you to a fantastic world where reality was blurred with fantasy. The way that P. Craig Russell drew the world at the other end of the tunnel was subtle. Everything seemed the same but just a little better. My 11 year old daughter read the graphic novel as well and loved it.

Then I took the kids to see "Coraline" in 3D at the local theater. I've always been a big fan of Tim Burton but right from the start the movie just didn't look "right" to me. So many of the images that were in my mind from the graphic novel had been wildly reinterpreted by Burton. We all enjoyed the film but I was surprised that my daughter had the same reaction as me. She thought the film just didn't look right also. We both agreed that the way the world was drawn in the graphic novel was better.

I'm a huge fan of the graphic novel "Watchmen". I have a first edition of the paperback that I bought when it first came out in the mid-80's and I've read it at least ten times since then. Needless to say I was very interested in seeing the film when it came out. I was thrilled when I saw the first short trailers. So many of the characters seemed to be right out of the book.

I went to see "Watchmen" in the theater earlier this week and I loved it. While I had some issues with the way they changed the end of the story, and some of the acting, I felt it totally captured the look and the mood of the original graphic novel.

It was clear to me that the makers of the film were making an adaptation of the graphic novel itself. Many of the scenes in the film looked exactly as they were pictured in the graphic novel. It was like watching the pages of the book come to life.

In fact there was one particular scene that made me laugh because it deliberately went away from the look of the graphic novel and made a homage to one of my favorite films of all time. President Nixon doesn't go into a bunker inside of a mountain like in the graphic novel. He goes instead into the "War Room" from Dr. Strangelove. I wondered how many others would get this reference? I almost with they could have used CGI to put Gen. "Buck" Turgidson in the room.

One of my biggest "issues" with the film was that I felt they didn't do a good job of casting for the Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias character. In the graphic novel he's an older and also very buff man. In the film he appeared to be a skinny college age kid.

Other than that, as I said, I loved "Watchmen". For this fan of the graphic novel it was like seeing the pages of one of my favorite books come to life. I think one of the reasons I liked it so much was that it was clear that the makers of the movie intended the film to "look" like the graphic novel. If the makers of "Watchmen" had made the same sort of changes to the "look" of the movie that Tim Burton did with "Coraline" I think it would have been a disaster. In the case of "Coraline" many people seeing the film have not read the graphic novel or may be more familiar with Neil Gaiman's written version of the work. But watching these two films after having read the graphic novels was a very interesting experience and made me think about how people view film versions of graphic novels.