From Hell to the Cineplex: Adaptation of a graphic novel on narrative and sensual levels

While it has been Hollywood history to base movies on novels, many movies today are being made by adapting texts that have a pre-existing fanbase, such as comic books, novels, video games, television shows, etc.  While ostensibly one reason for these adaptations is to capitalize on this pre-existing fanbase to secure a return on investment, the movie producers run the risk of alienating that fanbase if the adaptation is not well received.  What can producers do to insure that the movie will be well received?  Is there a way to make the adaptation process less risky and produce a text that will not be rejected?  Or is the end result ultimately dependent on the fans?

To understand this process of adaptation and fan acceptance, there are at least two levels to consider.  First, we must understand how the text is encoded with aspects of the original and what impacts this adaptation.  Understanding the encoding process requires understanding the poli-economical and socio-historical factors that underlie the entire production process in mainstream Hollywood.  We must also compare the original and the adapted texts and see where they converge and diverge.  Second, we must understand how the audience is decoding the text, what their interpretations of it are and why.  This paper will focus on attempting to understand the convergence and divergence of the adapted text from the original text and on what may be the technological reason.  Based on this analysis I will suggest ways in which the audience may be expected to respond.  To address these issues I will discuss Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell as the graphic novel compares to its movie adaptation.

Theoretical Background

Adaptation is nothing new.  According to Bolter and Grusin (1999) remediation and incorporation of narratives across all media has been happening since before the film era sparked the mass media age.  According to media and communication technology scholars, each medium, from face-to-face to internet, because it is a physical means of message conveyance, has constraints on how the message will be transmitted, which can ultimately impact what is transmitted.  The impact of the hows on the what not only means that there are certain techniques inherent to the medium that sets it apart, in even just a slight way, from other medium (Christiansen, 2000), but that as we have experience with the media, and come to know what the constraints and thus techniques are, we enter into each media engagement with expectations in mind for what will be received (Lefèvre, 2000).  In addition, the relationship of the how and the what impacts the way the content is portrayed, which will impact how the audience receives and interprets this content.

In particular to the adaptation of comic books into cinematic films, Christiansen argues that both media, owing to their reliance for depicting meaning through pictorial languages, share some universals that the audience can expect and interpret.  However, there are also different techniques that are more applicable to either medium due to their material constraints; where the technique may try to crossover, the audience has a harder time of making sense of the text.  These differences are fundamental to how we understand the process of reading the text, and thus create a different type of engagement depending on which medium the text is in.  Films, owing to their ability to capture reality as it ostensibly unfolds, are required to do so continuously – matching action, eyelines, and any other feature that may cause the audience to be jarred out of the diegesis if done incorrectly.  But readers do not have the same expectations about comics.  There the visual representation may again be framed, if not by a drawn box then by the page layout, but there is no movement to suggest continuity through time and space.  Because of this representation, Christiansen argues readers do not expect continuity and so the comic artist can get away with things the film artist cannot, such as elliptical cuts that while showing the narrative continuously do so by cutting out time between point A and B.


To the comics reader, that is the gutter, the missing time that needs to be filled in.  In essence, to be a comics reader, one expects to be actively interpreting what is unfolding visually to make sense of the story as being continuous; we have to fill in the gaps to make the picture whole (McCloud, 1993).  However, a film fills in these gaps for us by showing movement and by extension “reality” as being continuous, at least on a moment-to-moment level if not completely on a plot level.  A film allows us to be more passive in our acceptance of the text.  That’s not to say the film viewer can’t also be active, but it’s not expected to the same extent as when we engage with comics.  Even the terminology belies this expected arrangement; we don’t call someone a film reader.

When considering adaptations, there is another type of expectation to take into account: the fan’s expectation for the depiction to in some way faithfully resemble the original text.  I argue that there are two basic levels to consider when adapting from an original text into some other medium.  There is the sensual level, which is the information we perceive via our senses (essentially the visual, textual and aural) that relays the representations of the narrative’s elements, such as characters, setting, or another detail we are meant to perceive and interpret.  There is also the narrative level, which is the creation of a diegesis and the interactions therein between the characters, the setting, the plot, the overall story, and any other element given to provide meaning.  By considering these two levels for the analysis of adaptation, we can already see that while all texts have a narrative level to some extent, they may not have a highly prevalent sensual level.  A novel provides sensual information only in the form of text, such that if we want to know what something looks like we have to read the text for the author’s description, but it is ultimately up to our mind’s eye to provide the visual and aural representation.  With a comic book, however, we get the visual representation, and to some extent we may get an indication of the aural representation, such as when the X-Men use their powers (i.e. Wolverine’s snikt and Nightcrawler’s bampf).

Or Spider-Man's "thwip".  Movies can give voice to the sounds we've only heard in our heads.
Or Spider-Man’s “thwip”. Movies can give voice to the sounds we’ve only heard in our heads.

A consumer of the original text, especially a fan who is an avid consumer, comes to be familiar with the way these two levels are constructed and may expect the adaptation to be faithful to these constructions because they are fundamental to the fan’s understanding of the text.  Thus, when adapting a novel one may only have to be concerned with the narrative level, but with a comic book the sensual level plays a role.  But as Christiansen suggested, the differences in techniques and thus expectations between comic and film may preclude the film from being able to be faithful on the sensual, which, because the sensual plays a large role in how we understand the narrative, means that both levels are affected.  To examine this hypothesis that not being able to translate the sensual impacts the narrative, which may then have subsequent reactions from the fans, I shall examine the adaptation of From Hell.

From Hell to the Cineplex

The adaptation of the graphic novel translates aspects of both the narrative and sensual levels with broad strokes, such that when details and nuances are considered as the basis of comparison, the divergences become readily apparent.  Consider the broad strokes of the narrative level.  The overall story remains the same: Dr. Gull, on a mission from his Queen, disposes of prostitutes who bore witness to the Prince’s illegitimate son; however, Dr. Gull’s methods of disposal become increasingly disturbing and psychotic as Inspector Abberline tries in vain to end his murderous spree.  In both graphic novel and film this is the same story.  The setting remains the same, the majority of the characters strut the same stage, and the horror and film noir moods are largely intact.  However, remaining on the narrative level, there are nuanced changes made that can disrupt the expectations of faithfulness by the fans of the original text.

First, the plot is not the same.  In the graphic novel, the plot revolves around Dr. Gull to a large extent and can be interpreted as a character study of a psychotic serial killer.  However, in the movie, his character is marginalized and not revealed as the killer until the end, giving the movie the appearance of a thrilling murder mystery, where the hero, a tragic Abberline, struggles with a monstrous killer, Gull.  To accompany this massive shift, Abberline is given more depth by making him an opium addict, a widower, and a man with psychic visions who ends up falling in love with the prostitute Mary Kelly.  One of these characterizations can be seen in the graphic novel, in a completely different character, but Mr. Lees was a fake psychic.  Abberline’s abilities are never doubted, which the viewer can interpret as his being a superhero.

The translation of the sensual level is no less faithful, which only adds to the overall disconnect found on the narrative level.  There is faithfulness in the visual depiction of London, especially the Whitechapel district, as being dark, dirty and overall dangerous.  The film’s lighting is just as dark as the inking and cross-hatching Campbell uses to imply this setting and mood.  Also, some of the minor characters are close approximations for their depictions in the film.  However, the major characters are not exact matches, probably due to the producer’s desires to use well-known actors to draw an audience beyond the original text’s fans.  The aural level suggested in the graphic novel by the implied accent in the dialogue text is represented in the movie.

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However, as Christiansen suggested, it is in the cinematography that resemblance to the graphic novel’s sensual level really breaks down, reflecting the overall changes to the narrative level and the viewer’s interpretation of the film.  Due to differences in technique, and the expectations of a film viewer, the non-continuous frames of the graphic novel are “smoothed” out in the film to present a continuous representation of reality; however, it is a reality not intended by the original text, which then influences the overall narrative of the story.  Let us consider two sequences that appear in both versions with some faithfulness to the sensual level, but a separated by very different narrative elements.

The first scene is as one of the prostitutes services a man in an alley and initially tries to fake the intercourse by not allowing full coital penetration.  In the graphic novel, this scene occurs in one nine-panel layout on one page (Chapter 3, pg. 4).  Only three frames, in the middle row, show constancy in the placement of the “camera”.  In the film version, the whole scene is done in a long shot, which smoothes over the otherwise disjointed spatial aspects of the comic’s layout.  The camera tracks the prostitute and the man from behind a wall so that they are revealed to the audience in a different way than portrayed in frame 2 of the comic.  Instead of cutting to a close-up, the camera pushes in as the dialogue begins.  The dialogue is largely an exact translation from textual to aural, but the moving camera changes our engagement with the scene.  In the film, the camera continues to move closer and around the couple so that by the comic’s frame 5 we are looking over the shoulders at the woman, but then the woman is completely obscured by frame 6 when full coital penetration occurs.  In the comic, we are able to still see the pained expression on the woman’s face at this point, but the film completely masks the woman’s pain as it comes to finally focus on the man’s hands in what would be comparable to the comic’s frame 7, only the woman has disappeared.

Interestingly, this detachment from the woman may be an implied message that the woman had this coming to her, foreshadowing the ultimate pain and disappearance she was about to endure.  Indeed, the narrative elements of the film that follow continue this idea of the woman being tortured.  She is tormented by the Nichol mob, she is accosted by one of her friends who is also a lesbian, and then ultimately she meets the mysterious figure in the carriage who strangles her and butchers her.  But the film’s sequence of events separates this sexual act with the murder by only a few minutes.  In the graphic novel, days appear to pass.  At that point in the graphic novel when that sexual encounter happened, Dr. Gull had yet to even be summoned by the Queen for his mission because the prostitutes had not begun their blackmailing scheme.  The movie carries this to a further divergence as this murder was not the first, as it was in the graphic novel.  The movie’s first murder was an unceremonious but horror movie convention of a prostitute being grabbed by some dark figure in a dark alley so that she simply disappears into that darkness.  The movie then moves on to this sexual act, which is followed by the murder as portrayed in the comic book.

To an extent, the finding of this prostitute’s body has a convergence on the sensual level between both versions, but it apparently serves a different role in both.  The butchering of the body, which begins in Chapter 5, page 30, of the novel, up to the discovery of the body, runs for approximately seven pages in the novel, but only a minute in the film, and then the film changes the ending of this scene.  There is some attempt to match the cinematographic layout and disjointedness of the comic’s frames.  Pages 34 to 36 of the comic are treated in the movie by using a similar angle on the body, although from a more street or eyelevel perspective and not aerial as in the comic books.  As is someone walking down the street in the movie could come upon the body.  The angle of the street, from the lower right to the upper left of the frame, remains the same.  The directors then smoothed over the disjointedness by using a series of dissolves to indicate people coming and going from this shot.  But whereas the framing of the body on the street remains constant in the graphic novel, the film moves the camera in closer to the body as time is sped up to the point where people are dissolving in and out of the frame in a near blur.  It doesn’t stay on the body, but instead moves past it as time slows to allow Abberline to make his appearance on the crime scene.

By linking these two scenes in a way not intended in the graphic novel, the overall interpretation of the narrative event is different.  In the film we are met with a horror genre convention of a loose woman who gets her comeuppance at the hands of a shadowy figure.  In the graphic novel, we already know about Dr. Gull.  In fact, that time span in the novel gives us more details into the psyche and motivations of the serial killer Jack the Ripper.  Abberline hasn’t even been introduced at this point in the novel, but in the movie we already know what he looks like, some of his psychic powers, and the fact that he is an opium addict.  While both sequences described here bear some level of faithfulness to the original text’s sensual level, the fact that they are changed and juxtaposed in this manner again indicates the unfaithfulness seen on the narrative level.  It is not just the broad strokes that show this divergence, but also the nuances that bear a fleeting resemblance to the visual aspect of the original visual text.


Conclusion: Impact on a Fan?

We can understand that the movie producers may have had no choice but to condense a very dense, multilayered and long narrative to fit into the time requirements of the cineplex.  Also, a moviegoer may be expecting a passive reception experience, and to try to put all those layers, or anything about Gull’s time traveling, into the film may have made the film even less received by the general public than it was.  But then how are the differences seen in the narrative and sensual levels received by the fan of the original text who has some expectation to see these levels translated?  It may be that the resemblance to the graphic novel on the sensual level is undermined by the large divergences found on the narrative level.

As From Hell is a graphic novel, it is a narrative contained in only one version of its telling.  Unlike a serial superhero comic book, where there may be multiple versions of the narrative and sensual elements, a graphic novel is self-contained with only one version of each narrative or sensual element.  Abberline never looks different, as Wolverine may.  Dr. Gull’s origin story does not vary like Batman’s.  In cases a superhero adaptation, the fan may expect and accept more looseness in the translation because there are multiple instances the adapter can draw from.  With a graphic novel, there is only this one series of elements that are fixed and unvarying.  The fan of a graphic novel may therefore expect more faithfulness to what was seen in the graphic novel because that’s the way it is, there is no other interpretation possible.  With From Hell, this means expecting Dr. Gull to be identified as the killer and his psychotic exploits to be seen; for Abberline to be married and not an opium addict; and for Mary Kelly not to have such an unambiguously happy ending.

When these expectations are not met on the narrative level, and barely met on the sensual level, the fan’s evaluation of the text may be expected to be negative.  After all, the producer has taken what the fan privately interpreted and internalized as the essence of this text and changed it to no longer faithfully reflect the fan’s ideation.  It’s as if the producers are telling the fans that their interpretations are wrong, that this is how you should interpret them, and the fans are countering with the same argument.  In such instances when the fans’ and producers’ interpretations diverge, it is unlikely that the adaptation will be well received and will be instead doomed to repeat the same box office failure as From Hell.

Bolter, J. D. & Grusin, R.  (1999) Remediation: understanding new media.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Christiansen, H. C.  (2000).  “Comics and Film: A Narrative Perspective.”  In A. Magnussen & H. C. Christiansen (Eds) Comics and culture: analytical and theoretical approaches to comics  (pgs. 107-122).  Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Lefevre, P., (2000).  Narration in comics.  Image & Narrative 1.  Retrieved from

McCloud, S.  (1993).  Understanding Comics.  Northampton, MA: Tundra Publications.

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