Time for a quick lesson. There is one simple rule when it comes to adapting comic book for film. If you treat the original source material with respect it will work. Seems obvious, right? Of course it is. It’s common sense to apply this rule when adapting a novel, yet for some reason, filmmakers are still only just realising that this also applies to the comic book and a few are still getting it very, very wrong.
As an art form, the comic book is still struggling to be held in the same reverence as the novel, something I’ve never understood. From what I’ve read of both, the only difference between a good comic book and a good novel is that there are far less pictures in the latter. Yet you are far less likely to find a person in their forties reading a comic in Britain than you would be in Japan, because in the East the culture reveres the image as highly as the written word – their alphabet is a series of pictures for God’s sake! If you want to read evidence that the comic book can contain as profound, detailed story as in any good novel just read Alan Moore’s From Hell, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Jo Sacco’s Palestine.
Perhaps this discrepancy belies the British tendency to look down on the comic book as a low brow art form, and perhaps this is because our nation has produced giants of the written word – Austin, the Bronte’s, Dickens – to the extent that our literary heritage has become one of the aspects that define us as a culture, and we find it difficult to concede that a medium in which pictures and words are combined might do the job just as efficiently. Whatever the reason, people see a business man reading a comic book and they think that he is either some nerdy geek, or incredibly immature and as long as filmmakers see comics as primarily aimed at a childlike audience, they will continue to make films that don’t work.
Donner’s Superman worked. It had to realise one of the greatest icons of Americana in celluloid, so what did Donner do? He got Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather to co-write the script and he did not cast a named star, such as Nick Nolte or Robert Redford (names banded around by the executives at the time); instead he realised that Superman is bigger than any celebrity in the public consciousness and so he cast an unknown, Christopher Reeve, who imbued the role with a sense of dignity that made the audience see Superman, not Nick Nolte in costume. Now, in the wake of Dean Cain on Louis and Clark or Tom Welling in Smallville, when most of us think of the Man Of Steel, we think of Reeve flying high to John William’s majestic score.
Raimi’s Spider-Man worked. Both Singer’s X Men adaptations worked. Why? Because they captured the intelligent spirit of the comics. Raimi realised that it is the human element of Spider-Man’s tale that is the most involving – the first dealt with what to do with a gift that has been given to you and the second developed the idea of juggling that new-found responsibility against being there for those you love. That is the core of the story and so Raimi hired great character actors and created two films that were more than mere set pieces. Similarly with both X Men films, Singer focused on the issues of prejudice and intolerance that fuelled Stan Lee’s creation of these characters in the 1960’s. X Men came when civil rights were a burning issues in America – people were marginalized and feared because they were born different and this comes across in both X Men films; of course there is excitement and adventure, but beneath this, there are serious issues. There haven’t been many superhero films that open with scenes from The Holocaust!
Contrastingly, Schumacher’s two Batman films didn’t work, because they entirely missed the essence of the character. Even though the first two films were more a showcase for the villains, Burton got the sombre mood and dark tone of Bob Kane’s Dark Knight spot on, but this was replaced in the last two efforts by rubber nipples, garish neon, no plot and camp performances. The film became bigger than the content and all that remained in each case were two hours of set pieces without any respect for the world it was trying to depict. It was a bad idea and it failed. It was as bad an idea as it would be to extract Catwoman from both Batman and Gotham City, completely change every aspect of the character and make a film about it. Oh, wait a minute…
Anyway, I digress. There have been other comic book adaptations that have succeeded and failed to a varying extent. Hulk worked in terms of visuals – in the comics Hulk was never just a slightly large green man – he was a raging force of nature – but stumbled in terms of script and performances. From Hell was a fairly efficient thriller, but upon reading Moore’s dense tome, even the most causal observer can see that only a small fraction of the original source made it into the film. The question to ask at this juncture is this: does Hellboy work, or will it be consigned to movie oblivion, alongside Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher?
Hellboy works. It works big time. Although not as well known as his Marvel and DC colleagues, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II) has shown so much love and respect to Mike Mignola’s creation that he has made a live action comic book adventure that will appease geek fanboys the world over, while at the same time he has crafted a stylish, dark and funny blockbuster that is as appealing, enjoyable and as satisfying as Spider-man 2 or X Men.
In the final days of World War II, the Nazis attempt to use black magic to aid their dying cause. The Allies raid the camp where the occult ceremony is taking place, but not before a demon has already been conjured. This demon, nicknamed Hellboy, eventually grows to adulthood, serving the cause of good rather than evil as a secret US government agent, working for the clandestine Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence. Basically the film follows Hellboy’s encounters with a load of monsters, nazis and Rasputin, whose dabbling in the dark arts has made him some sort of supernatural, ageless being, bent on resurrecting the old gods of chaos to destroy – well, everything really.
The great thing about the character Hellboy, is that even though he is seven foot tall, bright red and possesses a massive stone right hand from smashing things, he’s a regular guy. He drinks, smokes, wants a girlfriend and carries on his supernatural work with a kind of curmudgeonly, blue-collar attitude. You just know that even though he can destroy a building with one punch, he’d rather be down the pub. del Toro has captured this perfectly, and really it is an element that lies at the heart of Hellboy. A special mention should be given to the sterling performance by Ron Perlman, who helps realise the character like no other. His performance is warm, funny, cool and has captures Old Red’s world-weary-regular-guy attitude that makes the comics so appealing. He is supported however by an excellent cast, including John Hurt as his ‘father’, Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm, Doug Jones as fellow freak Abe Sapien (voiced by David Hyde Pierce) and Jeffrey Tambor as Agent Manning. Selma Blair is also on good form as the drugged up ‘pyrokinetic’ Liz Sherman.
Del Toro proved in Blade II that he can do great action scenes and he excels himself here. The entire film moves along at just the right pace and look fantastic. In the comics, Mignola famously uses shading and muted colour palette in his drawings to make the bright red of Hellboy stand out and the film shows those same quality – earthy greens and browns combine with shadows to create a murky feel, bringing out the crimson demon in all his wisecracking glory. The screenplay (also by del Toro) is very well-judged. It is serious when it needs to be, but doesn’t take itself too seriously when it doesn’t, so it never seems po-faced nor worthy. Essentially, the Hellboy comics are romps, and this film mirrors that sense of fun and adventure.
Basically this is a great, big, fun monster movie and is well worth a look. It is a classic case of a film firing on all cylinders because it is made with real TLC. As The Lord Of The Rings has shown, caring about the little details when making a film based on pre-existing material really creates a richer cinematic experience for the audience and while Hellboy is not on the same grand scale as Jackson’s trilogy, it shares with it the same sense of wonder and excitement. If you’ve read the comic, you’ll love it. If you haven’t heard of it (which, let’s face it, will be most of you), check it out anyway as you won’t be disappointed. He may not wear a cape nor be very good looking, but he’s that rare thing – a superhero you’d like to have on your side in a scrap as well as one who you’d want to go for a beer with, and that makes him a far more interesting character to watch.
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