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Comics Conundrum: An Examination of Alan Moore Film Adaptations

ewashburn's picture

Comics author Alan Moore, perhaps contemplating the differences between comics and film.

Alan Moore is widely renowned as one of the most accomplished comics authors in the genre. With such works under his belt as Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell, Moore revolutionized the concept of the superhero genre, deconstructed various comic book tropes, and won numerous Jack Kirby and Eagle Awards, as well as acclaim from his peers and critics.

Considering the quality and popularity of his works, it’s no wonder so many of them have been adapted into films, and no wonder that those films came from such famous names. 300 director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen came out in 2009; in 2006, V for Vendetta came out under the marquee of the Wachowskis, creators of the Matrix series; and From Hell was produced in 2001, winning Johnny Depp and Ian Holm critical acclaim. One would think that an author would be pleased that his work had become so popular that it had crossed over into another medium, but Moore is less than thrilled with the film adaptations. When discussing Watchmen with the Los Angeles Times, Moore said:

“I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying. It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It’s as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms… I for one am sick of regurgitated worms.”

While the phrasing of his discontent is particularly colorful, Moore’s complaint is not new. Plenty of authors have been dissatisfied by the film adaptations of their works, and share Moore’s concerns about what Hollywood does to literature: “They take an idea, bowdlerize it, blow it up, make it infantile and spend $100 million to give people a brief escape from their boring and often demeaning lives at work. It’s obscene and it’s offensive.” But Moore seems to hold a particularly strong antipathy towards film adaptations of his work because of his dedication towards separating comics from film. This may strike some as surprising, because comics and film seem so similar. Indeed, it seems like comics should adapt easily to films, because their very structure is akin to that of a storyboard. In his recent adaptation of Watchmen, Snyder shot entire scenes using the original work as a frame-by-frame guide.

A side-by-side comparison of the original Watchmen text and the film's storyboard.

Moore acknowledges the relationship between the two fields. “There's always been this feedback between comics and films,” he says. “But I think that if you take that analogy too far, if you only see comic books in terms of films, then eventually the best we can end up with is films that don't move. It would make us a poor relation to the movie industry.” To that end, Moore has “tried to do things that can only be done in comics,” to distinguish between the genres and allow comics to rise as their own form.

But what are the things that can only be done in comics, that cannot translate into film? Certainly there’s an element of a time constraint. Movies can only last for a couple of hours at a time, and within that time there’s a set story arc that each movie has to follow—rising action, climax, falling action. Comics, because they are published across many issues, can spend more time developing character, and fostering a more complex plot structure. The more slow-moving nature of comics also makes the genre more “user-friendly,” according to Moore, as the reader can spend plenty of time looking at the art in the comics, examining each panel for detail and taking as long as he or she needs to absorb the information before moving on. Films move at the speed they’re shot to move; the viewer can pause, rewind, and fast-forward, but it’s difficult to examine every frame individually, and few viewers ever make the effort.

Perhaps there’s also an element of interpretation within filmmaking. As Scott McCloud says in this picture:

The more abstract drawings of comics make it easier for the reader to interpret characters and plot their own way, just as the reliance on verbal description in novels make it easier for a reader to “fall in” to the story. With films, viewers are barraged by the visual, and individual interpretation becomes overshadowed by the filmmaker’s interpretation. The character an actor portrays becomes synonymous with the actor; the Silk Spectre is not the Silk Spectre, but Malin Akerman in a slinky spandex suit.

Dave Gibbons' artistic rendering of the Silk Spectre, and Malin Akerman costumed as the Silk Spectre.

The same problems of interpretation apply to themes. Moore’s V for Vendetta is a gripping dystopian story about a near-future Britain overseen by a totalitarian government and rocked by the actions of the masked revolutionary V. However, after reading the script for the 2006 adaptation, Moore remarked:

“[The movie] has been turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country... It's a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives — which is not what the comic… was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.”

            There is no doubt that there are differences between comics and films, differences that perhaps are insurmountable within the constraints of the genres’ forms. But Moore’s dedication to striating the two genres seems almost counter-evolutionary. Where other authors embrace the opportunity to cross mediums and experiment with the play between words and film, Moore cries out for a separation between film and other media. In an interview with Stuart Lee, he said that he was starting to get annoyed by “the fallacious modern notion that making a movie of something somehow validates it.”

Is there any weight to Moore’s conviction? If there is such a difference between comics and film, or between novels and film, should the two ever be mixed? For that matter, should there be any interaction in any direction between the fields? Can there be a comic from a novel, a novel from a film?

I tend to think that when it comes to adaptations, it’s important to take each work separately, while acknowledging how one informs the other and how the work informs the genre. The comic of Watchmen is a beautiful, epic work, filled with nuance and intricacy that takes time to craft and understand. Because of that, the film, filled with its own brand of nuance and intricacy as it is, can’t really be compared to it. It’s a different genre, constrained as it is by the definitions within its field; moreover, it’s a different work, because it’s the story of Watchmen as seen through the eyes of the director. I can appreciate how Snyder chose to stick to the story, and how he interpreted the translation between panel and screen, but ultimately I have to take away my experience from the Watchmen film as an experience with a movie, not with the comic. It’s like seeing a performance of Hamlet as opposed to reading it. The director can cut and move pieces of the text as he or she sees fit; the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia are subject to the actors’ and director’s discretions; even the time period is subject to change. The genres are different, and the interpretations are different, so each work has to be taken differently, while still acknowledging how one informed the other.

Moore’s concerns about the blending of the genres are valid, to me. No one wants to be told that their medium is a poor version of another medium, especially when there are so many differences between the mediums. However, his animosity goes a little too far, and his commitment to striating the genres of comics and film, while commendable, is a bit unfair. Adaptations mean acknowledging the differences between the forms, and interpreting the work to overcome them. While that means that the adaptation is, in many ways, a different work, it’s still a valid piece of the genre, and whatever arises becomes an interesting example of how one genre can inform the other.    


Anne Dalke's picture

Means Into Ends?

So, for starters: I continue to revel in your use of visuals! Your opening shot of Moore, "perhaps contemplating the differences between comics and film," is a great teaser for the essay which follows. The side-by-side comparison you offer of the original Watchmen text and the film's storyboard clearly demonstrates the analogical relation between the two. Your juxtaposing "Dave Gibbons' artistic rendering of the Silk Spectre, and Malin Akerman costumed as the Silk Spectre" is an equally effective demonstration of the interpretation invited by abstraction, but shut down by concrete particular representation. All marvelous!

Useful, too, are your cataloguing of "the things that can only be done in comics," your notion of filmviewers being "barraged by the visual," their own interpretations "over shadowed by the filmmaker's"; and your notation of the "time constraint" of movies (a constraint overcome by t.v. serials, as you mentioned in class this week, and Linda Williams mentioned in Carpenter a few weeks back, when she described the "cumulative story telling of t.v. serials as now more aesthetically interesting  and complex than most movies; a 'poetics of seriality' as opposed to classical beginnings, middles, ends…."

Your tracing of Moore's resistance to film adaptation is also a compelling story in its own right. It puts me in mind of Adrienne Rich's famous salvo, decades ago, against heterosexual women who wrote to tell her that they read her 21 Love Poems to their husbands @ night. These are not poems about heterosexual sex! she shouted. Read them more carefully! They are about the experiences of lesbians! What that story says to me is that, once authors put their work out into the world, they cannot control its reception; what they meant it to mean is no longer what it means to the wide variety of readers, who will bring to it their own experience. Moore sounds like Rich to me, for example, when he denounces the film V for Vendetta as turning his comic-- about fascism, anarchy, England-- into a movie about an American liberal stand against neoconservatives. From the perspective of a literary critic, who believes that the work of theorizing contributes to the evolution of stories, I agree entirely with your observation that "Moore’s dedication to striating the two genres seems almost counter-evolutionary."

But that's a position you go on to retreat from (on? from? I'm directionally challenged!). You begin this essay quite vividly, with Moore's colorful denunciation of contemporary films as "regurgitated worms," but you end quite colorlessly, with the claim that "adaptation is valid." I'd like, if I might, to nudge you toward an edgier ending. As a move in that direction: I'm not sure I buy the analogy you construct with script and play-- "The genres are different," you say, "and the interpretations are different, so each work has to be taken differently, while still acknowledging how one informed the other." But scripts constitute a very particular (peculiar?) genre: they are written as directions for plays to be played. What Moore seems to be objecting to is precisely the analogizing of that relation between comics and film: “the fallacious modern notion that making a movie of something somehow validates it," the notion, in other words, that comics are only scripts for the films made from them, rather than as ends in themselves.

"Ends in themselves"--now THAT's an interesting notion for a course in "thinking evolutionarily"! In such a context, can anything ever be an end in itself? Or is it all "means" for further, as yet unknown ends??

P.S. Check out AnnaP's Comics as A Revolutionary Narrative Form.