You hear it all the time. People utter the phrase because they mean it, because they think it’s true, or just because it’s what we expect. It’s a phrase that lovers of literature revel and lovers of film revile: “The book is better than the movie.”
So what about the comic book?
Most recently, I heard this phrase about Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. A friend was lamenting how the pacing of the film made it too easy for viewers to believe the title ‘Girl’s’ frame of mind while she spied on some strangers. Similarly, the most recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby shattered Fitzgerald’s open symbolism with Toby Maguire’s disappointingly narrow explanation of Gatsby’s Green Light. Having Emily Blunt or Leonardo DiCaprio in the room enticed viewers of these films to suspend their disbelief far too easily. There was no need to discover.
Were the novels better, though? Is a book always better, or is it just a matter of matching the medium to the tale? It’s possible that some stories written for print can’t survive a change of structure and pacing for film with their credibility intact. It’s also possible that the opposite is true: that some stories depend on incredulity to survive, so translating characters to film presents the challenge of bringing them to an audience who has far more trouble suspending their disbelief.
I’m thinking, of course, about superhero movies.
The source material for a superhero movie nearly always comes from a comic book—often one that is eighty years old. While the graphic novel medium continues to mature, it’s hard to shake the point of origin for Superman, Iron Man or Green Lantern as being simple, four-color panels for 10 cents that were aimed, let’s face it, at children. The authors of these stories knew their audience: they knew that their readers lived lives of suspended disbelief, in Santa Claus and in the Man in the Moon and in a world that would treat them with justice. They knew that children would not question outlandish tropes. And today, now that “comics are for adults,” those readers still open a four-dollar issue willing to believe some of those same tropes. The traditions of the stories guarantee that comic readers will suspend more disbelief right from the first page.
But filmgoers have different expectations. Even the very same fans are likely to enter a movie theatre expecting more realism from actors and directors. So, instead of a Superman comic’s character-driven stories where ‘evil’ reflects our internal conflicts, we end up with the Man of Steel, wearing the same costume while he knocks down cities with no regard for innocent life. Instead of the wielders of the multi-colored emotional spectrum underpinning Geoff Johns’ brilliant allegory for diversity, we see on-screen a Green Lantern who is nothing more than an action hero with an impossible ring, fighting against obvious antagonists. Because we already believe in the ring and the alien when we read a comic, the stories can be more outlandish and still, somehow, be more believable.
Even the most celebrated superhero movies fall into some of these traps. When Heinberg and Snyder ingeniously set Wonder Woman during World War I to wash away our preconceptions of right and wrong, Patty Jenkins managed to direct two-thirds of a film focused on characters discovering their own roles in the conflict: just like the best of the comic books. Only during the third act did the film succumb to the film medium’s need for closure, by defining who was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and summarily throwing bombs at the bad guy. Then, there’s Aquaman. I suspect that the widespread love of this movie has more to do with defined abs than a well-defined story. Certainly, it threw away Arthur Curry’s symbolic bridge between humanity and our relationship with the ocean, in favor of wrecking yet another town (this time in Italy) and reviving Topo the Octopus in a more realistic medium where Aquaman’s old drum-playing pal just doesn’t work. Yuck.
When I was a kid, I used to wish for the day that filmmakers’ budgets would allow them to make superhero films. Now, more often than not, I wish I’d been more careful with my wishes. I guess the takeaway from all this is not that novels or comics are “better” than films, but that different media immediately changes how a story must be told. When we settle in to watch a movie, our expectations alter: we will accept a story structure that is less believable than a novel, but not as outlandish as some superhero comics. That middle ground of believability is where movies need to live.
It’s also where other forms of writing need to pick up the slack.