Search form

Lost in Translation?: Superheroes from Page to Screen

Danny Fingeroth looks at what gets lost in translation from the comicbook page to the big and small screens.

Some comic fans emotional investment in a character stretches back decades, so translating the characters to the screen can be a sticky situation.

Some comic fans emotional investment in a character stretches back decades, so translating the characters to the screen can be a sticky situation.

Quick organic or artificial webbing?

If the very question makes your shoulders hunch in preparation for an argument, then you know that the road from comic book to movie is never an easy one.

The question, of course, refers to one of Spider-Man's prime attributes. Like the song says, he "spins a web, any size." Everybody agrees on that. But how exactly does he spin that web?

In the comics, Peter Parker, high school science nerd supreme, augments his new-found spider-powers by creating a fluid that, when shot through mechanical web-shooters (of his own design), becomes Spidey's webbing, dispensable in all manner of shapes and consistencies, from wide angle web-spray to narrow focused web-ropes, to pretty much anything Peter (or the writers and artists crafting his adventures) can think of. And that's not to mention that, depending on the needs of the situation, the webbing can be sticky as glue or smooth as silk.

Now, examined closely, the idea that even the most brilliant high school student should be able, in the confines of his bedroom, to design and execute such a chemical and mechanical feat seems rather far-fetched. On the other hand, we are talking about a character that everyone accepts can leap a hundred feet in the air and stick to walls. So maybe inventing web-fluid and web-shooters isn't so tough to believe.

But somewhere along the line, the Hollywood powers-that-be decided that, no, it was too incredible that a teenaged kid could invent such a fluid and delivery system. And if he did invent them, wouldn't he become rich from the patents on the stuff, thus losing the everyman financial straits Spider-Man inevitably finds him self in. Still, webbing is part of the Spider-Man mystique. He wouldn't be Spider-Man without it. The solution?

Organic webbing. That's right. Organic webbing.

Because, the theory goes, it's more believable that a character can eject web-fluid from holes in his wrists and somehow will them to the length and shape and consistency needed for whatever the situation. Okay. Whatever.

Purists will never be satisfied with any change even if its only organic versus artificial webbing.  & © 2004 Marvel Characters Inc. © 2004 Sony Pictures Digital. All rights reserved.

Purists will never be satisfied with any change even if its only organic versus artificial webbing. & © 2004 Marvel Characters Inc. © 2004 Sony Pictures Digital. All rights reserved.

Looked at logically, the solution is no more credible than the problem. And the ultimate bottom line is that we're talking about a science-fantasy character who lives in a world where the laws of physics and biology can be bent and twisted as needed. But along the way to the creation of the Spider-Man movies, someone decided to change the nature of the webbing. Clearly, this did not impact on the popularity of the Spider-Man films or the character. But it was a risk and, in certain comic fan circles, highly controversial.

It was passionately debated online. Purists, of course, would never be happy with any change in their beloved character's powers and abilities. But for other folks it wasn't a matter of credibility, but of relatability. Would "organic" web-shooters make Spider-Man more of a horror-genre character than a superhero one? Would he be closer to a man-spider than a spider-man? And if he were a monster, would audiences have a harder time relating to him?

Clearly, the answer was that, organic or mechanical webs, people the world over love Spider-Man. People relate to Peter Parker no matter what kind of webbing he uses. Spidey's journey from page to screen was a translation that worked like a charm, and not once, but in a sequel a sequel many people feel was even truer to the source material than the first movie.

And translation is always necessary. There's no way to say true to some ideal version of a character, especially one like Spider-Man who has since his creation by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962 40 years of comics stories backlogged, adventures created by a legion of writers, artists and editors. How do you dig into a library like that and pull out the essence of the character? What is the magic that works so well on a printed page and how do you create its filmic equivalent?

The creators of the Spider-Man movies were smart enough to not monkey with the essence of the character, which is about maturing and accepting responsibility along with the increased freedom that growing up brings. And being true to the essence of a character is easier said than done. Over the course of four decades, Spider-Man in the comics like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman has been regularly updated and retooled for the times.

Spidey's been a high school student, a college student, a grad student, and a teacher. He's been single, married, widowed, un-widowed. He's been poor, middle class and wealthy. And each version has had its fans. He's even had several changes of costume, usually reverting to his familiar red and blues. There are actually several versions of Spider-Man in existence on the comics racks at any given moment. So what's the "real" character?

When it came time for the movies, the producers went back to basics. They went to Peter Parker as a teenager, struggling to balance his own needs and neuroses with the incredible changes in his life brought on by gaining spider-powers. They kept Spidey the "regular guy," and people responded with their box office dollars. With Spider-Man, most of what may have been lost in translation involved cosmetic things like the web-shooters, a gamble that paid off for the filmmakers. The meaning and essence of Spider-Man that living in the world is hard work, but that growing up is a good thing was retained.

With franchises like The X-Men where there is a host of characters, the filmmakers have to be very tight with the storyline so that multiple characters can be developed.  & © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox. Photo credit: Kerry Hayes/SMP

With franchises like The X-Men where there is a host of characters, the filmmakers have to be very tight with the storyline so that multiple characters can be developed. & © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox. Photo credit: Kerry Hayes/SMP

The X-Men franchise is another case where the essence of the series has been generally retained. And X-Men would have been easy to lose focus with. After all, there are, in the various X-Men comics (and over the years there have to have been at least a hundred different titles not issues, but titles chronicling the adventures of these mutant superbeings) hundreds if not thousands of characters involved in the complex interplay between good and evil mutants and a world that hates and fears them no matter what their intentions or actual accomplishments.

Again the essence of the series was preserved. Since its initial creation by Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, the X-Men has been, at its core, about the adolescent need to create one's own family out of like-minded peers. Even if brought together by a mentor, as the X-Men are by Professor X, it is a mentor who understands there is no other place for these teens, even or especially within their own families. The X-Men are like the group you hang with on your high school's street corner. You may not have anything in common besides the fact that the same people shun you but sometimes that's enough.

As with Spider-Man, there were elements of various X-Men incarnations that were picked and chosen from to make up the team we see onscreen. But the key players Wolverine, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Professor Xavier were all on board. Some purists quibbled that Hugh Jackman's Wolverine was too tall. Others were affronted by the casual nature with which the characters killed their adversaries in battle. But the essence of the characters and of the series remained intact. These are people who are feared and persecuted by a world that hates them despite the fact that they save that world on a regular basis. It's how every adolescent and not a few adults feels. "No matter how hard I try, nobody understands me."

The X-Men as a metaphor for ethic and racial conflict is also brought along from the comics into the movies. Whatever group you're part of, somebody doesn't like you simply because you are a member of that group. The X-Men, by proxy, fight for equal rights for all minority groups.

Hulk may have blurred the character too much to be totally successful with fans of the comic. © 2003 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.

Hulk may have blurred the character too much to be totally successful with fans of the comic. © 2003 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.

Other cinematic adaptations of superhero comics have been less successful. While a noble effort, Ang Lee's Hulk ultimately failed to convey what is appealing about the Hulk character. With no real thematic reason for what he does unlike Spider-Man's struggle with power and responsibility or the X-Men's search for a way to fit into society the Hulk is about rage. He's about how all the unfairness of our lives becomes embodied in a green-skinned engine of destruction. Again, over the decades, legions of writers and artists, starting with Lee and Kirby, have approached Bruce Banner and his green-skinned alter ego with different emphases.

The fact that the Hulk is considered a "hero" is really based on a leap of faith that his comic's readers take. He is angry and smashes stuff and, luckily, as often as not smashes the plans and weapons of the bad guys. The danger with the Hulk is that he can ends up seeming not like a tortured, conflicted soul, but like a big, vindictive baby.

And that's what he seemed like in the movie. Paradoxically, the attempt to make the film psychologically deep only seemed to show how shallow the Hulk really can be. And his big-babyness was only compounded by the CG animation that brought the monster to life. Unlike the breathtaking prosthetic devices used on the Hulk-like Hyde character in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film (another comics-adaptation, of course), the CG Hulk seemed unintentionally comical. The Hulk is always about id versus superego, civilization versus savagery, but the balance was off in the film, and the character unlike, say, various incarnations of Frankenstein or Godzilla failed to win audiences' hearts.

Speaking of LXG, that's another comics adaptation that really got lost in translation. The movie characters ha, for the most part, the same names as the Alan Moore-Kevin O'Neill-created characters in the comic. And there was only one version of the comic to adapt, no smorgasbord for the film's creators to pick and choose from. But the subtleties of Moore's comics scripts were lost as the wit and cleverness of the comics were exchanged for lots of stuff that exploded.

Films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Daredevil look their way and alienate fans and movie audiences in general. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  & ©2003 Twentieth Century Fox. Photo Credit: Jurgen

Films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Daredevil look their way and alienate fans and movie audiences in general. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen & ©2003 Twentieth Century Fox. Photo Credit: Jurgen

Another problematic adaptation was the film version of Daredevil. Originated by Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil, a character who, in the comics, embodies humankind's search for Justice, becomes in the film a petty, vindictive neurotic. While the film captured some of the trappings of the character's milieu the radar sense interpretation was particularly impressive, as was the sense of what it would be like to swing through the concrete canyons of New York the heart and soul of Daredevil was missing. The movie purportedly is about Daredevil's growth and understanding of his power and his responsibilities, but the initial flaws of the character, including his brutality as a crimefighter, were so great, that for many viewers, no amount of supposed change was going to make them like him any better.

Add to that the complete lack of chemistry between Ben Affleck's DD and Jennifer Garner's Elektra and, for that matter, between Michael Clarke Duncan's Kingpin and Affleck, and the key psychological relationships the love-object and the hate-object of the comics' Daredevil were completely un-involving. It made, for many, an unsatisfying movie-viewing experience.

So it's been a mixed bag for recent superhero comics screen adaptations, with the on-target translations generally outweighing the problematic ones. The biggest obstacle to adapting a superhero to film is that faced by any translation task: how do you retain the essence of the original while making the changes necessary to allow the concept work in another medium? With upcoming super-adaptations including Batman, The Fantastic Four and Superman in the pipeline, the viewing public will have ample opportunity to see how its favorite four-color characters fare on the big screen.

Danny Fingeroth was group editor of Marvel's Spider-Man comics line. He consulted on the first Spider-Man film and on the Fox Kids Spider-Man animated series. Danny is the author of Superman On the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society (Continuum). He teaches Comics and Graphic Novel Writing and runs seminars with comics creators at New York University) and is the editor in chief of Write Now! Magazine, published by TwoMorrows ( www.twomorrows.com/writenow/index.html), the premier magazine about writing for comics and animation.

Tags 
randomness