Comics Versus Literary Adaptations

Back in 2007, I attended Comic-Con.  At the time, I presented a paper on comics adaptations into films and the roles of “true believers” at the Comics Arts Conference.  However, it was while I was at that venerable convention, surrounded by the fans and true believers Hollywood was hoping to capture (their energy, their money, their time) by making these adaptations, that I really pondered the ideas I was espousing in the presentation.

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What follows are my thoughts on these ideas from then.  I write them down as I am transcribing from my notebook to a source of more, in all honesty, security and longevity.  And because I want to get myself into the habit of writing my thoughts on the research process down as they come to me.  So to get into the habit for the future, I turn to remembering what I’ve done in the past.

And so, it began…

Comic adaptations into film.  We cannot even consider television here because of the temporal difference: television would allow a closer copying of comics’, especially superhero comics’, serialization of stories.  But the same consideration for the visual presentation would apply.

How does this type of adaptation differ from the adaptation of novels and plays?

First, to answer this, we have t consider the two levels of information presented to the spectator/audience that is used for their meaning-making processes.  First, let us consider the narrative level: this is the level that contains the information that constitutes the story — information about plot, characters, setting — information that puts together the needed elements for the spectator/audience to understand what is happening, when and where, to whom, and maybe even why.

However, the spectator/audience only has access to this level by the information provided by the presentation level.  The presentation level provides the sensory information that provides, makes perceivable, and knowable, the narrative level.  For the majority of mass media texts, these senses engaged are audial and visual.

Now, here’s where the difference between literary and comics adaptations comes into play.  In literary texts, the presentation level is nearly nil: the narrative level is known through words, and any perception of audial and visual information is in the reader’s mind’s eye.  Even plays begin this way and are then adapted to the stage.

However, comics exist as a combination of image and text, and oftentimes not everything is as “spelled out” for the reader as it is in novels/plays, thereby leaving some constructing to the reader.  But the main thing to consider is that the presentation level of comics contains more visual information through which to know the narrative level than the literary text.  The reader can more easily know what the characters and settings look like, for example.  This is an important point to remember because it is here that we can begin to see the importance for considering the fan in comics adaptations.

Whether serial or novel, having visual information comes to imprint itself in the mind of the reader/fan as “the” representation for that particular narrative element.  There comes to be an expectation to the reader/fan that whenever such-and-such narrative element is mentioned, the presentation will be the same or at least will not stray too far from its key elements (such as seen in the variations of Batman through the decades.)  However, this means that any adaptation must take into consideration the presentation levels of the original canon.

Coming back to answer the initial question, second, in particular to serial comics, is the problem of serial stories.  Some storylines in serial comics encompass a miniseries, a mega-series, or even years of issues, in order to tell a complete story.  Now, wee can see the same problem in literary novels, but some times the problem is solved by a planned trilogy.  Or they are able to find funding for television miniseries or series.  Neither of these options have occurred thus far in comics adaptations.

Also, there is the issue of trying to adapt a tremendous amount of stories.  The question becomes do you pick one to adapt, mash a number together of stories, or make-up a new story “in the spirit” of what has come before.

Third, we must not forget that the originals in comics adaptations are likely to have a far larger and more devout fan following than most literary texts (Harry Potter and other series being exceptions to that comparison).  There are a number of reasons for this; chief among them being the amount of literary texts versus the amount of comics texts, and the concentration of readers for a particular text tends to be higher then for comics than literary.  Now, what this means is that there is more potential for backlash before and after the adaptation is released when the adaptation is any comics text compared to any literary text.  Sometimes this will destroy an adaptation (see Catwoman — many didn’t).  Sometimes this will cripple a movie (consider what Fantastic Four could have done).  Sometimes this won’t meant any difference (consider the box office draw of X-Men: The Last Stand).

So with all that I’ve said about these differences, am I making recommendations for the adapters?

To an extent, because it is not only the fans that adaptors have to consider.  However, when you know you have a built-in fanbase as a ready-made potential audience, whose consumption of the original and anticipation for the adaptation may fuel repeated watching of the adaptation plus the spreading of good word-of-mouth and the buying of ancillary goods, then it does not make economic sense to actively adapt a comics text that will knowingly alienate the fans (as in what Fox did to Galactus for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer).

Considering this logic, then what is it adaptors need to know about what fans want?

I’ve investigated qualitatively and quantitatively: I generated a survey that 102 people took one week before Spider-Man 3 was released.  They were not asking for much.  They did realize there will be differences when adapting the text.  What they ask for most is that the spirit of the original be retained, and that the adapters respect the original and their fandom, as well as do their best to capture the look of the characters.  If the adapters are fans themselves, then even better.  It is not so important to get the settings right, or the progress of the story the same.

When we get down to it, what fans want is for the adapters to respect the characters the fans love and the spirit they love about these stories.  In doing so, adapters will have gone a long way in respecting the fans themselves, and such a showing of respect will engender goodwill from the fans — goodwill that can be exchanged for better box office receipts.

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