Comics on Film: How True to the Comics Do Comic Book Movies Have to Be?

Comics on Film: How True to the Comics Do Comic Book Movies Have to Be?

Aug 14, 2013

One of the age-old debates that comic book fans, movie critics and general audiences all seem to have is one of truthfulness to the source material. This rule really applies to any adaptation from a previous work of some kind, whether it's a play, a novel or, yes, even a comic book.

Comics adaptations are kind of a special case in this regard, because the nature of the medium and how the stories are told in a highly stylized, two-dimensional format means that some aspects of the original work either cannot, or should not, be directly translated to the multichannel, three-dimensional and far more realistic film format. As much as the extreme hard-core comics fans wish filmmakers would be as conservative as possible when adapting a beloved character or work, many of the filmmakers who've made the most successful comics films show that a more moderate approach is most likely going to be the formula for widespread success.

One other way that comic book adaptations are unique, at least as it applies to superheroes, is that the majority of the films rarely, if ever, adapt one single story. When a good Batman, Superman, Spider-Man or Avengers film is made, they usually take elements of past stories of merit without directly adapting one strict story as it was told originally. Here are some examples.


Moderate Adaptations

In the recently released Man of Steel, screenwriter David Goyer chose to take elements from several modern interpretations of Superman’s origin from the comics, like the comic book miniseries Superman: Birthright and Superman: Secret Origin. Last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man was sort of an amalgamated adaptation of Peter Parker’s original origin story from 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15 and 2000’s updated origin found in Ultimate Spider-Man #1-6, in addition to attempting to carve its own, unique path in Spidey’s 50-year canon.

For 2005-2012’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonah, and David Goyer all drew from several works of merit from the comics across multiple generations to come up with the story for those three films. Batman Begins had influences from the 1980s like “The Man Who Falls,” a look at Batman’s formative years by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Dick Giordano from 1989, and Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s landmark story arc Batman: Year One from 1987. The Dark Knight looked for inspiration as far back as 1940, in the Joker’s original appearance in Batman #1 from spring of that year. The Dark Knight Rises drew inspiration from the immortal 1986 story The Dark Knight Returns, as well as “No Man’s Land,” a massive comic book story arc from the 1990s.

These, and other films like X2Iron ManThe Avengers and The Wolverine all help to illustrate comic book films that follow, what I feel, to be the best possible way to go about doing an adaptation of these icons: stay true to the characters first, because all other interests are really secondary in telling a good story.

Many a comic book fan whined incessantly back in 2007 when it was learned that Heath Ledger’s Joker would be wearing smeary makeup instead of having permanently white skin and green hair. What these fans failed to understand before they started their shortsighted complaints was that the greatness of the Joker’s character extends far beyond his physical appearance, and Heath Ledger helped to prove that pretty definitively. The creative teams of the aforementioned films have largely stayed true to the most immortal aspects of these characters, and that has always been the characters themselves.


Strict Adaptations

That’s not to say that stricter adaptations can never work, because there are several examples that show this isn’t the case. For me, the first is Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, a near-exact re-creation (what the director himself called “a translation, not an adaptation”) of three of the seven stories in the acclaimed graphic novel series. While watching the theatrical cut, it may not be as clear how precise the film aims to be, but when watching the special edition (which splits each individual story into three separate short films) it becomes exceedingly clear that those books were bibles on that set.

The highly selective color palette was re-created almost flawlessly through the use of digital enhancements and green screen. Although conventional wisdom might call such an effort too esoteric for general audiences, the film proved to be moderately successful at the critical level, and very successful at the financial one.

The other example is 2009’s Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder. While not as outwardly and religiously devoted to the source as Sin City was, that’s not saying much since Snyder definitely bent over backwards to deliver the best adaptation possible on what many, including writer Alan Moore, previously called an “unfilmable” work. While Watchmen does end up taking several rather minor liberties with the material, watching the nearly four-hour final cut may end up surprising you. In a good way.

Although some events in the story have changed places, the film does a startling job of keeping the complex moral and philosophical themes in the book largely intact, though both experiences don’t yield the same types of feelings. With people I’ve talked to, it depends on what you were exposed to first, and in that instance the film or the book may just end up heightening your admiration for the other.



Those latter examples, though, are adaptations of finite stories. Superhero stories, by their very nature, are meant to be told in an ongoing capacity on a floating timeline. This means that the essences of their characters are prone to generational changes, as evidenced by the 1960’s campy Batman, or the 1970’s paragon in Superman. The best approach for each adaptation has to fit the characters, first and foremost. If you make a film with a recognizable name on it, too much deviation from the original work will make that name meaningless.

With superheroes, the best approach, in my opinion, is the moderate one: truth to characters while aesthetics have some wiggle room. Do you have a different idea? How does aesthetic deviation end up taking away from a comic book film?


Hot Buy This Week

When it was announced that decades of complicated rights issues surrounding the infamous 1966 Batman television series had been resolved, it didn’t take long for new waves of merchandise related to the show to start hitting shelves. DC is publishing a new comic book based on the series and its zany situations, and Junk Food Clothing has started coming out with some pretty interesting T-shirts, like the one pictured.

A couple of these cool shirts have become available for the first time over at, so be sure to take a look and find ways to get a couple bucks off in the process!

Thanks for checking into Comics on Film! Be sure to check out the newest edition next week, but in the meantime, how would you adapt a comic book to the screen? Would you stay true to everything, or would you take a concept and run into totally new territory? 

Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.comThe Huffington and You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Check out his blog and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Comics, Geek, Features, Editorials
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