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IMO:
High Fidelity
By John Byrne

06.06.03


I've been called an idiot for expecting a greater degree of fidelity to the source material in the translation of comicbook material to the silver screen.

Not a big deal in and of itself.  I have been called an idiot many times, for many different reasons.  I usually need do no more than consider the source in order to put the whole thing in its proper perspective.

What's interesting here, though, is that this latest assault on my intellectual capacity comes in large part from the same quarter of comicbook fandom that spins off into fits of rage if any variance at all is introduced into the "continuity" of the published books.  The same folk, for instance, who condemned Man of Steel, Spider-Man: Chapter One and X-Men: The Hidden Years (mostly, based on their criticisms, without having troubled themselves to actually read the books in question).

Curious, since the "changes" made in these three titles had no impact whatsoever on the key characters involved, while the changes I protest in the filmed versions go right to the hearts of the characters, and alter them in ways significant enough to leave them, effectively, different characters. (A Peter Parker who is not smart enough to make mechanical webspinners is not the Peter Parker I "met" in 1963.  A Bruce Banner who likes becoming the Hulk is not the character I know.)


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Now, it is a given that the translation of one medium into another must, perforce, bring about certain changes. Actors playing the characters are not going to look like line drawings, for instance -- though on at least one occasion the charge of "idiot" has been leveled against me because I have suggested that the actors should at least resemble those line drawings enough that we do not have to be told who the actor is playing. Christopher Reeve's Superman is a perfect example of this. Had all the performers in Superman: The Movie been dropped naked into an empty room, an outside observer would not have had any trouble picking out the guy who was playing Superman.

At the other end of the spectrum comes the X-Men casting. I like most of the actors involved, but the only one who looks like any of the characters I drew is Halle Berry as Storm. (I say this with only a glimpse of Alan Cummings so far, looking like he might be presenting a faithful enough NightCrawler.) Drop all of them naked into an empty room, and, even including Ms. Berry, sans Storm hair, I defy most people to connect the actors to the characters by anything much beyond a process of elimination.

In another part of the spectrum, Michael Clark Duncan is a very good actor, and has played highly entertaining parts in some of my favorite movies, but to cast him as the Kingpin in Daredevil, and then have the director say a sufficiently large White actor could not be found to play the part, suggest either no great effort was made, or another agenda entirely is at work.

A few years back there came through the DC Offices, wafting on the winds from a production company considering making a Wonder Woman movie, a question that crops up sooner or later in regards to pretty much any character: "Is there any reason Wonder Woman couldn't be black?" The editorial response was "Well, she's been white in the comics for the last 60 years..." but I took it to another place. As I was working on Wonder Woman at the time, I said "No, I can't see any reason why Wonder Woman shouldn't be black -- but I want you to be the ones to explain to the Greco-American community why their only superhero is being turned into another ethnicity." Sometimes, it seems, Hollywood forgets the racial/ethnic dial has more than two clicks on it.

(One thinks of the pressures brought against the TV series Friends, on the basis of the show not being "ethnically diverse enough" for New York City. With a cast of six lead characters containing three Jews and an Italian-American, I can't imagine why anyone would think that was the case. Especially when no such charges are brought against other predominantly single-race shows.)

So-called "colorblind casting" is Hollywood's latest fad, it seems, though one cannot help but note that it is the Caucasian race which is considered the "default setting" and easily replaced with any other ethnicity. When one hears self-proclaimed fans declaring that "a Black Peter Parker would be interesting" or "why shouldn't Captain America be black?" one begins to understand why Hollywood does not trouble itself much over decisions in that area. One cannot help but notice, however, how rarely the change of race goes the other way -- how rarely any other ethnicity is replaced with a white player. It seems once again necessary to remind everyone that any decision based on race is a racist decision -- even if it is a "good" decision.

Still, one of the oddest criticisms leveled against the Harry Potter adaptations is that they are "too faithful" to the books. Short of filming J.K. Rowling sitting in a comfy chair and simply reading the books aloud, one cannot really imagine an adaptation that would be "too faithful." One also does not hear J.K. Rowling called an "idiot" for insisting that Hollywood treat her creations with the proper respect. Likewise, when Todd McFarlane declared he had searched for a production company that would bring Spawn to the screen precisely as he envisioned it, I don't recall anyone leveling the charge of "idiot" against him. (Not for that, anyway.) Dave Stevens escaped the slur, too, when he worked hard to bring The Rocketeer to the screen as close to his original version as the lawyers would allow.

What's curious in this is that Stan Lee has often been dismissed as a total media-whore for endorsing wholeheartedly any dross Hollywood spews out under a Marvel title. Recall the derision sent his way when Stan did the best he could to find something good to say about The Punisher. (Truth to tell, I am well aware that my own position in the industry is such that, had I endorsed those biological webspinners as a great idea and a brilliantly innovative approach to the character, those same voices that called me an "idiot" for protesting such a significant change to their beloved character would have been just as quick to tar me with the same brush they routinely used on Stan in the past.)

In the end it comes to this: there are some fans I have labeled "magpies." Those black birds are known for their attraction to anything bright and shiny, and it seems some comicbook fans -- often those who declare themselves the Biggest Fans in the World of the characters being "adapted" -- will accept anything (even deliberate mocking of the source!) if it puts into movie theaters something called Batman, or X-Men, or Spider-Man, or The Hulk. As noted, the same people who will suffer apoplexy if the latest issue of thus-and-such a title does not cleave fanatically to all that has gone before, will cheer movies that subtract from or completely alter the "beloved" characters' motivations or established portrayals. The same people who squeal like scalded cats when a character changes his/her costume, will laugh and cheer when a movie mocks the costumes. (What's even sadder is when these folk seek out the flimsiest "connections" to some how have it both ways. "Why, look! Banner becomes the Hulk because he saves his lab assistant. Is that lab assistant named Rick Jones?" Sigh.)

They seem to forget that even at the points of highest sales, comicbooks do not reach anything like the audience even a failed movie reaches. They forget the lesson of the Batman TV series -- forty years later, and we still labor in the long, long shadow of that show, because maximum exposure creates the strongest impression of the character(s) in question. (Just this past week TV Guide took a moment to sing the praises of Bruce Timm for bringing Tim Burton's imagining of Batman to the animated series. Frank Miller? Neal Adams? Denny O'Neil? Who are they?)

I'm reminded of those terribly cheesy plastic superhero "costumes" that used to be sold when I was a kid. As big a fan as I was of Superman and Batman, I never wanted one of them. I knew the "real" Batman did not have his name embossed on the forehead of his mask, you see. That was simply wrong.

There were people who called me an idiot for that, too.



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