June/July/Aug 2007

Drawing Circles

How Frank Miller's cult comic 300 was transformed into a box-office blockbuster.

Bilge Ebiri

Neither the seventy-million dollars that Zack Snyder's adaptation of 300 made on its opening weekend nor the more than two hundred million dollars it has grossed in the United States alone as of this writing can be attributed primarily to the readers of Frank Miller's original graphic novel. (Miller's book, while a cult item among comic aficionados, was never much of a crossover success, but even for best sellers, the number of viewers for a hit adaptation is far greater than the number of readers.) And yet within weeks of the film's release, Hollywood studios green-lit other graphic-novel adaptations, eager to replicate its success. 300, of course, was not the first major adaptation of one of Miller's works; Robert Rodriguez's Sin City made more than one hundred and fifty million dollars internationally in 2005. Similar numbers were posted soon after by another long-awaited graphic-novel adaptation, James McTeigue's version of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. Currently in preproduction is another Moore work, the 1986 Watchmen, perhaps the most legendary graphic novel of all time, to be directed by 300's Snyder.

When discussing comic-book adaptations, it's important to note the difference between stand-alone titles such as these and more popular series such as Batman and Superman. The film industry's fondness for superhero movies is well known, but the fad of adapting graphic novels is relatively recent. Hollywood feeding frenzies of this sort are, of course, nothing new: Remember the glut of John Grisham–style legal thrillers in the 1990s? But looking over the recent spate of graphic-novel adaptations and those in the works, several surprising facts emerge. For the film industry, which is notorious for its aversion to unsettling or controversial material, graphic-novel adaptations have managed to get away with shocking levels of violence, dark themes, downer endings, and politically explosive subject matter.

To wit: 300 ignited a fierce political debate with its portrait of an army of heroic white soldiers facing off against a racially other horde of Persians. It ends with its heroes being slaughtered as they, in the film's vision of history, save Western civilization from Eastern tyranny: a disturbingly in-your-face embrace of the clash of civilizations, one all the more surprising coming from traditionally liberal Hollywood. On the other side of the political spectrum, though no less inflammatory, lies V for Vendetta, a dystopian nightmare set in a futuristic police state with curious resemblances to our own time. It ends with its masked hero and his protégé blowing up the British Parliament. (The July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London led to the film's release being delayed by five months.) For its part, Sin City features scads of violence, much of which would ordinarily be considered unacceptable in a mainstream film. And one wonders what the media's response will be to Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen, which features a catastrophic attack on New York City.

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Hugo Weaving as V in V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue, 2005.

The creators of these adaptations, it seems, have managed to get away with murder, in a Hollywood increasingly wary of offending others' sensibilities. The irony here is that they have won this freedom for themselves by ceding a certain amount of control— if anything besides a fascination with perverse violence and controversy unifies these films, it's their fidelity to the source material. While adaptations of literary works are judged (often superfluously) by their faithfulness to the original stories, adaptations of graphic novels are, by nature, even more limited: They're judged also by their adherence to the original imagery. Manohla Dargis argued as much in her mixed review of Sin City in the New York Times, when she noted that "in an effort to make a faithful adaptation, Mr. Rodriguez put his own movie sense on hold, not even bothering with a real script. He didn't just try to make his Sin City look like a graphic novel: he tried to replicate the private experience of reading one too, slowly turned page after slowly turned page."

What Dargis sees as a shortcoming may actually be the graphic novel's secret weapon. It makes for an easy sell, because the stories come previsualized: An executive can "see" what the film will look like by looking at the original's pages. 300 the film looks very much like 300 the book. Rodriguez used Miller's original frames as storyboards for Sin City, which has Miller listed as codirector. (Interestingly, the artist had once sworn off movies of his work, not because of a bad experience with an adaptation but because of studio interference with his original scripts for RoboCop 2 [1990] and RoboCop 3 [1993]. Miller changed his mind when Rodriguez presented him with a short film he had directed from one of the Sin City stories, using computer effects to re-create the look of Miller's panels—making the short in effect a dry run for the feature.)

One wonders whether the fact that graphic novels come so completely realized–– cinematically paced and fully visualized–– is also a reason studio executives and others are so loath to water them down. (As Miller himself has said, "Once it's all drawn, people kind of have to agree with it.") It's perhaps understandable, since the graphic novel itself is, in some senses, a response to the rise of cinema as a popcultural phenomenon. As Stephen E. Tabachnick has noted, in the journal World Literature Today: "Just as the theater's survival was challenged by the rise of film, which led playwrights and theater crews to create new techniques and special effects, so traditional literature and the book medium in which it exists have found a way to combine their strengths with that of painting, another threatened medium in the electronic age, and to meet the screen on its largely visual ground while retaining the pleasures and advantages of the book."

These adaptations' faithfulness has also given their makers some degree of cover with respect to their subject matter. By wearing its fidelity on its sleeve, 300 the film tried to inoculate itself against charges of craven topicality—the film couldn't possibly be an allegory for the war in Iraq, its defenders claimed, because its story and images came pretty much directly from the graphic novel, which began to appear all the way back in 1998. A similar argument was trotted out in defense of V for Vendetta, whose politically explosive ending, some argued, couldn't have been aimed at the contemporary situation—the comic (appearing in serial form between 1982 and 1988) was a critique of Thatcher's England.

It is, when you think about it, a win-win situation for all involved: The films can court controversy without seeming to, and the directors can carve out freedom from their studios by sticking to the original work, all the while flashing that fidelity as a sign of authenticity. So it comes as no surprise that more graphic-novel adaptations are on the way, including film versions of Steve Niles's Alaskan vampire thriller 30 Days of Night, Greg Rucka's Antarctic G-man noir Whiteout, Jeff Krelitz's Lucifer vs.- God epic War in Heaven, and Marjane Satrapi's award-winning Persepolis. For his part, Miller appears to have truly caught the movie bug: He is working on directing an "extremely faithful" adaptation of comics legend Will Eisner's The Spirit, but probably not before he finishes Sin City 2 with Rodriguez.

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300, directed by Zack Snyder, 2006.