The graphic novel as movie storyboard

There’s an extremely interesting interview in The Grauniad with cartoonist Posy Simmonds, whose graphic novel Tamara Drewe has been made into a film starring underrated Bond girl Gemma Arterton:

Frears [the director] and his team used her illustrations extensively when preparing the film. “It made me realise how much a graphic novel is like a film,” she says. “There are close-ups and long-shots. You choose the location and the props. You do the make-up and the lighting and you get the characters to act. I used to call it planning, now I call it pre-production. Which is where I am with my next project.”

I often see graphic novels described as readymade storyboards for film adaptation. Obviously scenes in films like Watchmen are taken directly from their source material, and Sin City and 300 go one further and base their entire visual style on Frank Miller’s stark graphics. Good for them.

Right now we seem to be about two-thirds of the way through the latest cycle of Hollywood’s fascination with superheros. The obvious ones (Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman, Superman, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk) have been squeezed fairly dry, and although there’s some big titles coming up in the next year or so (The Avengers, Thor, a bunch of  redundant sequels and “reboots”), seventy years of comics history has been burnt through in less than a decade.

Many non-superhero comics have been scooped up and adapted in the same frenzy (Ghost World, Scott Pilgrim, Road to Perdition, A History of Violence), but many of the greatest graphic novels are either unadaptable (Jimmy Corrigan, anyone?) or plain awful in their movie incarnations (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, anything by Alan Moore, really*).

The problem with all this is that graphic novels are more than just storyboards, and just because a film adaptation can make a lot of money doesn’t mean it’s the ultimate aspiration of the cartoon medium.

The storytelling capabilities afforded by a graphic novel certainly share many qualities of the cinema – in fact, cinema nicked lots of stuff from cartoons – but structurally they can do things which a commercial film would find impossible. Imagine the long section (important to the plot) of Alan Moore’s From Hell where psychopathic surgeon Sir William Gull takes his coachman on a tour of Victorian London and describes the mystical significance of its landmarks. The dense occult themes of Moore’s Promethea, which included an entire issue which unstaples to form a giant double-sided poster. The frankly bonkers digressions of Dave Sim’s Cerebus, which starts off as a Conan the Barbarian pastiche and develops over 27 years and six thousand pages into a superlative political and religious satire, slowly unravelling into an unreadable anti-feminist treatise and analysis of the Torah. Try turning that into a 90-page screenplay.

I’ve read more than a few graphic novels published in the past ten years which have been designed right from the start with film adaptation in mind, to the extent of being drawn with letterboxing and opening titles. There’s nothing wrong with structuring a story so it has three acts and has nothing that would scare Middle America… in fact, I’ve been working on something similar myself as a stylistic exercise. But when anything with as much potential as a graphic novel ends up following the deep grooves of utter predictability (Guns! Boobs! Explosions!) just for the sake of making money, you’re not likely to get anything which pushes the boundaries of any medium.

*With the exception of Watchmen which was as good an adaptation as could be hoped for, but really needed a miniseries to do it screen justice.

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