The Color In Mind: Corto Maltese

by Russell Bekins

Download a Quicktime movie of Corto Maltese. 1 MB. © Ellipse Programme/Imedia/ConG.
All Rights Reserved.

A background from the animated Corto Maltese. © Ellipse Programme/Imedia/ConG. All Rights Reserved.

It was a job to be approached with both trepidation and glee: the feature animation adaptation of the "classic" and often confusing graphic novel The Ballad Of The Salt Sea by the legendary Hugo Pratt. With a cult following to please on one hand, and a television audience on the other, how would they strike a balance between the popular, and fidelity to the original? They sacked the first group of writers. Then a funny thing happened: they began studying the story and graphics...

Is a French production team breaking all the rules while adapting the graphic novels of Hugo Pratt?

All Hail the Master
First appearing in 1967, The Ballad Of The Salt Sea is a graphic novel about the adventures of a rakish and ethically challenged adventurer, Corto Maltese, a "gentleman of fortune" in an era no longer accommodating to such roles. A member of a band of pirates nominally allied with the Germans in the South Pacific in 1913, Corto becomes interested in the welfare of two kidnapped British children. As the shifting interests of governments at war half a world away begin to make themselves known at their well-hidden pirate base, he must find a way to keep the children safe and himself alive.

Let's be up-front about it: it's a weird, arcane, and complicated work, like a Joseph Conrad novel in graphic form.

For precisely that reason, the author of the serial, Hugo Pratt, has become a cult figure unto himself. Going with his father to Ethiopia in 1937, during the Italian attempt to establish a colony there, he was enrolled in the Italian police force. During the war years, he was captured by the SS as a spy, escaped, and went over to the Allies. Pratt's graphic novels are sometimes seen as extensions of his adventurous life. They are unusual for their intellectual underpinning, often confusing plots, historical figures, complicated characters, and carefully researched, exotic locations. Heir to the Belgian School of graphic novelists, his full-color painted images are a beauty to behold. They have earned him a die-hard following in Italy and France, with over five million copies sold.

Ellipse, a production wing of the French broadcaster Canal Plus, hopes to turn the Corto Maltese books into a series of six TV movies, beginning with the Ballad Of The Salt Sea. Still to come are: Under The Sign Of Capricorn, Corto Maltese In Siberia, The Gilded House Of Samarkand, and The Celts. Additionally, there will be a series of short episodes based on some of the other Corto Maltese adventures. Italian TV station RAI and the Animation Band in Milan, Italy will be co-producing some of the segments. It's a fitting match for the Italian author and artist who spent most of his working life in France. Scripting on The Ballad Of The Salt Sea has been going on for a year, and they are now in the storyboard stage, with the first film expected out in the fall of 1999. It hasn't been easy, though.

To Europeans weaned on the adventure-driven comic book series, a film adaptation is the pop equivalent of doing Shakespeare in London--it had better be good. Conventional wisdom says that pleasing the cult and pleasing the public at large might be two different tasks, however, the films must sustain the larger audience for the duration of the ambitious project.

One of the many faces of Corto Maltese. © Ellipse Programme/Imedia/ConG. All Rights Reserved.

Give the Children What They Want?
Producer Sophie Glass' credentials have brought her a unique insight. When working for Alia, she produced an animation series based on the classic children's books Les Malheurs De Sophie by the Contesse de Segur. "It was a very psychological series about a girl who has trouble being a child." The adaptation of this classic material led her to shun condescending to children. "Children love being sad," she points out, though is quick to add that no one really knows what kids want.

Pascal Morelli agrees, and points to the adaptation of the popular French comic Asterix as a model for everything that could go wrong. Despite the untranslated Latin quotes, sophisticated social satire and plays on words, "The adapters felt the need to reduce Asterix to a level he had never sunk to: that of a four-year-old child... The adapters took Asterix for the Smurfs. We must remember that for decades, it was claimed that comic books, and animated films, could only tell simple stories."

With this in mind, they set out to aim the project for teens and adults.

What's a Camel?
"What's a camel?" asked executive producer of the project, Robert Rea, with a self-effacing smile. "It's a horse designed by executive producers."

When director Pascal Morelli first approached Pratt about doing an animation film based on Corto Maltese, this joke epitomized his dilemma. Hugo Pratt was infamous for rejecting offers to adapt his work to film or any other media. Rea approached him with the idea of an "artist-driven" animation series with Pascal Morelli directing, and found the writer-artist surprisingly open. "He was aware that there had to be changes in the story itself," Rea recalls.

Morelli was then working in Los Angeles as a storyboard artist and advisor to director Phillip Kauffman. The faxes hummed back and forth between Morelli and Pratt. Unfortunately, Pratt died in 1995, before Morelli ever had a chance to meet him in person. Morelli, though sad about the fact, is in a way relieved. "Who knows," he grimaced, "I might have been thinking that he had been saying this, but when I met him he might say, `That's not what I meant.'" This ambivalence would later prove ironic.

For Morelli, whose animation background was largely in the United States (Calamity Jane for Warner Bros. TV, Vor-Tech for Universal, and Gadget Boy for DIC), it was a homecoming project. He had discovered the Corto Maltese series when growing up in France. "When I was a kid, a lot of things happened in the novels that I didn't get," Morelli admitted. "At first I had a hard time reading them, but then it became magic. It was R-rated. Everybody was good and bad at the same time, like Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone movie."

The Text
But can such subtleties be brought to life in a faithful adaptation of this odd graphic novel? From the American viewpoint, it seems an impossible task. It just doesn't follow the formula.

In Pratt's story, Corto Maltese is first met tied to a raft in the South Pacific. He is picked up by Rasputin, a fellow pirate whom Pratt seems to have dredged from a frozen river in Moscow where he almost met his end. Their friendship is based on threatening to kill each other, and a mysterious tie to "The Monk," whom we later come to know as the leader of their pirate band. We quickly discover that Corto is complicit in a number of crimes, including piracy, kidnapping, and even the murder of a ship's crew. He is passive, laconic, and frequently, seems unconcerned for how things turn out. This is our hero?

In Hollywood, it would be de rigeur to make Corto active, atone for his sins, and be the star.

That's another problem. In the Hollywood version, Corto must be central to the action, but Corto is frequently gone, or not the key character in many scenes of the epic (he is wounded and out of action for a good deal of the "second act"). Much of the tale rotates around a young British brother and sister, kidnapped by Rasputin to be ransomed to their family. As the action comes to a close, events center on the girl and her relationship with the British admiral who comes to her rescue. The dialogue and action focus on the kangaroo court trial of a "noble" German submarine captain who has been privateering across the Pacific. Sound complicated? It is. It's barely linear storytelling.

Concern over these, and other thorny issues of story development, led the first draft of the script to come in more John Wayne than Sergio Leone. All slam-bam action and adventure, it seemed like a simple-minded adaptation of Terry And The Pirates. Clearly, another approach was needed. They had a camel on their hands.

"If you want an action-adventure story why use Hugo Pratt?" Morelli shrugs. "These characters are not built to be super heroes."

Corto in shadow. © Ellipse Programme/Imedia/ConG. All Rights Reserved.

The Significance of Absence
The team spent six months studying the story and the "testo fungi," the subtext. "The story is about two things," Morelli continued. "The growth of two teens, and the turn of the century. It's about adventurers who used to live freely, but can't any more. The Monk and his gang steal and that's it. But the world is changing around them. That's why I like The Wild Bunch. It's about the end of the world for adventurers."

"It's a very original way to tell stories," Glass insisted. "It looks lazy and elliptic, but it's not so lazy as it seems. There are deep things going on underneath." It is bringing out this "testo fungi," or subtext, that is their job. Interpolating between the frames of Pratt's book lies in the looks and glances, the range of expressions that fill in what is not said. "Corto's silences are revealing," Morelli said, gesturing, "and even his absence is significant."

The central relationship between Corto Maltese and the young teen girl (whom some critics say is the central character of the story) has been made "stronger" in Morelli's words. Though there's only one scene where she attempts to seduce Corto, there is an undercurrent of romance. "She starts out cute, but she's turning from a girl into a woman. We're going to look at how she moves."

This study included discovering new elements in the artwork itself and the setting. "He did not simply use the background of the picture to indicate locations, but made it a narrative element," Morelli continued. Things are confusing for a reason. "It's as if you were in Yugoslavia during the war. Things readily apparent from the outside are not when you're in the middle of it."

Morelli acknowledged that there are flaws in the material. "When Platt wrote the story, he didn't always know where he was going," he shrugged. One example of this is the artwork of Corto Maltese himself. He looks different at the start of the story than at the end, as if the character evolved in the author's mind as the story unfolded. This meant a challenge for the artists. "They had to choose which Corto to use," Glass revealed.

They also confronted a central character with more than one flaw. "Corto is about what is do-able at any given time," Rea asserted, underlining the theme of situational ethics and the Sergio Leone movie. He changes from pirate to gentleman in the course of the story. His friendship with Rasputin embraces both love and hate; he is openly contradictory. He's not a hero in the ordinary sense of the adventure genre. Don't expect to see a wisecracking, Bruce Willis type in the lead, Rea warned. "It's more irony than humor."

That sounds suspiciously French to the Hollywood ear.

Corto in close-up. © Ellipse Programme/Imedia/ConG. All Rights Reserved.

Change for Less
Glass cast out among her animation writing friends and chose veterans Thierry Thomas to oversee the writing, and Jean Pêceaux for the text. "Thomas was a friend of Pratt's and deeply passionate about the images he had drawn. Pêceaux knew the story by heart," he said. In a typical session, Pêceaux would propose to cut a scene, and Thomas would argue that the image was too important to be cut. Thomas would then propose eliminating a portion of the text, and Pêceaux would defend it as being vital to the flow of the narrative. "They ended up being completely faithful to Pratt," Glass smiles.

Well, not quite. They wound up dumping an action scene where the pirates shell and sink a Japanese navy boat threatening their hideout as just plain too confusing. You see, the Japanese were allied with the British at the time and the pirates are allied with the Germans, get the idea.

But dropping an action scene?? Unheard of.

But that suits Morelli just fine. "You have to keep a balance between the elements, you don't change too much to get less."

The Significance of Corto
There are a number of important reasons to follow this production carefully. The first is that it represents a return to Europe of an important animation director, and a hope that the vast exodus of European talent to the States will reverse itself. The second is that this looks like years of work for cartoonists, animators, storyboard artists, and so on. The third is that it represents a grand experiment in marketing to teens, who are staying away from simplistic animation features in droves.

"Our market research indicates that there is a real interest in these (adventure) themes from age ten and up," Rea clarified. If they are successful in this approach, they will show the way for other animation producers in the burgeoning adult-cum-teen market in Europe.

Hollywood might just have to listen.

Most of all, this production is a test of how to satisfy the hard-core fans of a graphic novel series while making it accessible to the public at large. How do you do it?

"I don't know," sighed Morelli. "In one of the trial episodes we've done, fans of the book thought we had copied the art from the book exactly. They looked at the page and discovered that it was all beige, because Pratt was concerned that people be able to read the text. The task is really to find the color that everyone had in mind."

Another background from the animated Corto Maltese. © Ellipse Programme/Imedia/ConG. All Rights Reserved.

Russell Bekins is a disgruntled expatriate of the film industry, now living in Bologna, Italy. Serving his apprenticeship as story and multimedia analyst for Creative Artists Agency, he went on to be a creative executive for Tidewater Entertainment at Disney Studios, where he achieved his level of incompetence in studio politics. He is now working on theme park attractions and consulting on multi-media projects, as well as struggling with the subjunctive tense in Italian.

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