Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture

Batman Year One on DVD:

Pace, Adaptation and Comic Book Aesthetics

One of my happiest shopping moments at Christmas occurred while walking through Walmart last November and seeing that Batman: Year One (BYO) had been produced as an animated film and released on DVD. I put it on my Christmas list pretty darn ASAP. When I got it for Christmas (thanks, son), I watched it as soon as I could (which was on Christmas day). My reaction was not at all what I expected.

Ever since Tim Burton first turned Michael Keaton into a more Frank Millerized Batman, I’d been dreaming an ultimate goal which, though still unobtained, perhaps comes a step closer with the adaptation of BYO to animated film. That goal, of course is seeing before I die a production of Frank Miller’s greatest Batman comic, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (BDKR). BDKR remains my all time favorite comic book mini-series/graphic novel. Since reading it, I haven’t experienced anything that made me think comics could get any better. I love BDKR, and I loved it when Miller subsequently released BYO (as writer) with David Mazzucchelli (as illustrator). Miller’s influence on the 80’s and 90’s Batman movies is clear, but for those who want a direct reference, look at Vicki Vale’s line about the Corto Maltese in Burton’s Batman film—an allusion and homage to Miller’s BDKR. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins has even more connections to BYO, especially in the two hero emphasis on Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon. Anyway, the goal remains: to see BDKR adapted to the screen in live action. I heard a rumor that it might be made into an animated feature now that BYO has been produced. That’d go on the Christmas list even ASAP-er! Still, how cool would it be to see Michael Keaton in a live action version (or even Christian Bale in twenty years)? Moving on.

As I said above, I got the BYO DVD for Christmas and watched it immediately. I thought it was an amazingly faithful adaptation of the comic, and I liked it a lot. And I also didn’t like it. There was something missing which I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and that made me want to stop and think the issue through—it’s one of the dangers of being an English teacher: interpretive problems become magnets for compulsive critical examination. I suppose the thing we hate most about any kind of artistic criticism is an attitude of pride on the part of the critic along with his incessant demand to find something wrong if not hateful about everything he sees or reads. Hopefully I can avoid the arrogance, and as for finding something “wrong” with the movie, that’s what I really wanted to avoid while watching it—I still do. In fact I didn’t so much think there was something wrong with the movie as I thought, “I think I’m about to learn a lesson regarding the differences between comic books and films.”

That’s what I want to talk about after one more note on criticism: though he didn’t always follow his rule, C. S. Lewis said that good criticism allows readers access to the artistic texts they want to read (or see or hear). His A Preface to Paradise Lost is a good example of this kind of criticism: he tells us what we need to know so we can read Milton, understand him in his times, and enjoy him for ourselves. I hope I can do something along these lines here.


Something else C. S. Lewis said is that we should judge art based on its kind. I agree completely. One of the common critiques about movie adaptation is that “the book was better.” We’ve all said this, but English teachers and other book lovers are notorious for snubbing film—for seeing it as eternally inferior to literature. I think this comes, among other things, from trying to judge movies as if they were books. Movies are movies, not books; they do things differently and should be judged accordingly.

But even if we do separate film from literature and judge it by its own merit, there comes that particular instance where the two are intertwined in the form of adaptation. Stories have been adapted from literature to movies since film began, and it’s only natural to compare the film version to the book. In such cases we still tend to say “the book was better” (I can think of two exceptions in my own experience, both baseball movies: Field of Dreams and The Natural—I read Shoeless Joe and The Natural and liked the movies better). To break myself of this knee jerk reaction to book adaptations I spent some time studying film and trying to consider what film does different from and better than books. The things books can do better—more plot elements, inner dialog, more character development—are obvious. Films, however, do certain things better than books: they compress time; they communicate imagistically, aurally, experientially; they communicate intuitively; and they communicate in a medium which the viewer can ignore (no need to translate letters into words, sentences and paragraphs when watching a movie—it’s all right there for you; in other words, film achieves what critics call the “illusion of non-mediation”).

So what’s my point? It is that, even when we judge a film adaptation, we still have to judge it as a film. The key word is adapt. Film must convert books—adapt them into a new medium. The film will not be the book, and it never will (save for coming close in one of those ten hour PBS renditions of an Austen or Bronte novel—but then who wants to watch one of those anyway?). And so if we acknowledge that books and movies are different, we have to judge a film adaptation as just that—an adaptation of the book, not the book itself. The book must inform my judgment, but it shouldn’t limit it. Some critic somewhere invented a term we all know, and it’s a good one: “faithful adaptation.” Here we have a good way to judge a film. Since it has to adapt the book, the film calls us not to ask which was better but to ask whether or not the adaptation is faithful to the original. This leads to the next question: what constitutes a faithful adaptation?

First of all, the movie adaptation has to be a good movie. Some adaptations are so faithful that they become dull (like the PBS examples I mentioned above). Secondly, the movie has to keep the major elements of the book’s plot, character, and tone intact. When film makers change the plot too much, viewers wonder why they bothered to call the movie by the same title as the book. Troy was okay as a summer blockbuster, but it was a bad adaptation of the original Trojan stories because of plot changes: the elimination of supernatural presences—the gods—and the killing of Menolaus (who actually gets Helen back and is one of the few Greek heroes to survive the war). For those of us who knew the original story, Troy was a bad adaptation (seeing Menolaus die ruined the movie for me), but people who did not know the original story saw an entertaining movie. So, first of all, it was a good movie.

In contrast, though The Lord of the Rings films make a lot of changes (to Frodo’s age or the characters of Aragorn and Faramir) and leave out a lot of plot elements (Tom Bombadil or the scouring of the Shire), their overall faithfulness to the books (again, so long as I grant that books and movies aren’t the same thing), especially in the extended editions, is good. The LOTR films are good adaptations and good movies both! As I have watched Narnia films play out over the last several years, I’ve seen the full spectrum: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was a good movie and faithful adaptation. Prince Caspian was (and I found this experience strange), a good movie while being a bad adaptation. And The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was a bad adaptation and a bad movie too.

Doubtless there are people who will disagree with me—that’s pretty typical for criticism in any art form. But I hope I can save some readers from forever hating the movie versions of their favorite books by encouraging them to think in terms of film being film, not literature, and adaptations being faithful, not word for word. I think it’s even a good exercise to try to think about in what ways a film adaptation proves to be better than its literary original. Tolkien only gives a few pages to the battle of Helms Deep. I think Jackson did it better. And I think the film version of Gollum’s fall into the fires of Mount Doom gives us something absolutely amazing, something Tolkien doesn’t give us: that look on Smeagol’s face as he falls to his death—that utter euphoria at having the ring even though he’s about to die. This computer generated creature’s facial expression communicated as much about Gollum’s addiction to the ring in a single cinematic moment as Tolkien did in two book’s worth of pages (and maybe more).


Well I’ve drifted a bit and should get back to the animated adaptation of the four issue comic book Batman: Year One. Comics aren’t literature, but they’re not film either. They are their own unique combination of pictures and words (which also need to be adapted when converted to film) and should be judged so. BYO taught me what one of the subtler difference between comics and movies is.

I’ve heard of a recent trend in film production: studios starting comic book companies so the comic artists they hire can write comics for distribution but also, via these comics, explore possible film ideas at a low cost and with a fan base already in place. Movies themselves are often turned into comic-like story boards or hybrid animatics in a pre-production stage called pre-visualization (or previz). This shows that there is a natural connection between comics and film, one proven by many successful adaptations of comics into film (I remember being really surprised to learn that the movie Wanted had started out as a comic). I expected to see this natural connection in BYO; for the most part I did.

BYO is an amazingly faithful adaptation. Panel for panel, the comic appears in the movie (at least it seemed that way from memory). Miller’s tight, poignant style of dialog is preserved to perfection. Why, then, didn’t I like the DVD as much as I wanted to? I did like it, but, as I watched, something felt off. Here I was watching one of my all time favorite comics faithfully adapted to the screen, and it didn’t feel right. So I thought about it for a day or two and came up with this: it was a matter of pace.

I once read that comic books are the art of brevity. Comics have to tell stories as briefly as possible. It occurs to me, then, that great comic writers are capable of saying a great deal in pictures and words with utter brevity (great poets do the same with words alone). Of this, Frank Miller is a master. I remember reading an article, many years ago now, about Robocop 2 for which Miller wrote the story. In the article the movie’s producer or director (I don’t remember anymore) commented on how “tight” Miller’s writing is—he writes with brilliant brevity. In fact, when the production team first got a hold of it, they felt Miller’s story was a little too tight and needed some fleshing out. Doubtless that came from Miller’s years beforehand as a comic book writer and artist.

I think it is this “tightness” that was lost for me in the adaptation of BYO to film. Early on I got the sense that the movie was almost too tight—too much like a comic—and so a little awkward in its pace. But my view changed as the film progressed. What I came to realize I was missing was the pace of punctuated highlight which Frank Miller (and Mazzucchelli as artist in this comic) is so very good at: the pace inherent in comic books themselves because their formatted in panels—a series of frames, each capturing a key image and a few words, advancing the story in rapid succession.

This punctuated pace doesn’t quite make it into film (we don’t want a series of still images on film). BYO the movie had to fill in the spaces between the panels. That’s the difference. Miller’s power is in his ability to show us just the right moment of action frozen in still image and give us just the right lines to read to allow us to fill in the blanks between the panels at a level of immediate intuition—faster even than film—and to make us experience a power in the punctuated moment which the film version lacks. There is a pleasure in that punctuated pace—the space between the panels—a pleasure in the speed of communication, the intuitive knowledge which pops into our heads with the immediacy of a Eureka moment. Frank Miller does this constantly.

Take as only one example the ending of part one of BYO. Bruce Wayne is sitting in a chair in his mansion bleeding to death because on his first night out fighting crime his opponents fought back—they weren’t afraid of him—and so injured him. He’s at a crossroads. All he has to do is ring a bell and Alfred will come and save his life. But if he can’t figure out how to fight crime in Gotham, he will not ring that bell. What happens next in the comic book is that we see a panel with a close up of Wayne’s face (eyes and nose only) and the text, “Without warning it comes…” (the “it” here being the answer to how to fight crime). The very next panel is a close up of a single pane of glass in the nearby window being shattered by a large bat—its wings stretching the full length of the panel and its jaws open in menacing scream—entering the mansion’s study. It takes two more panels for the bat to alight atop a bust of Wayne’s father—brief enough time for Wayne to conclude, “I shall become a bat.” The last panel is his bloody hand reaching for the bell. In the film version, the angle cuts from Wayne’s face to looking through the window. We see the bat fly toward the window, break through it, flit about a bit and then land on the bust. All the power of punctuation is lost in the scene: the suddenness of the bat’s entrance in the comic’s panel approach, the speed of its movement suggesting an almost mystical omnipresence, and the speed with which Wayne sees the answer to his question and then reaches for the bell. I’m not saying the movie does a bad job of rendering this scene. I’m saying the movie cannot do something which the comic book does so wonderfully well just by being what it is.

Adaptation ought to be judged as such. As an adaptation, I judge Batman: Year One as good—a good movie and a faithful adaptation. But the movie has taught me that there is something comics can do at their best which are unique to comics (though other art forms may be able to do something similar in their own way to some extent), something I never really understood about comics before. Brilliant comic books and graphic novels follow a punctuated pace, communicating so much within their panels that they fill us with understanding for the spaces between the pictures—they show us, if you will, what is there between the lines. That’s a good art form, an art worth our time.