Why are comic books so hard to adapt?

Contributed by
Mar 15, 2018

Adapting comic books for the screen isn’t easy. Dozens of editors, writers, and illustrators set about the work of interpreting a comic book character over that character’s life. Their goal: to create a satisfying (and well-selling) storyline, or arc, for the character that offers opportunities for growth, disappointment, betrayal, failure, and so much more. Oh, and super cool fight scenes, of course. Creators tackle the same character, or set of characters, even as we as a society are evolving and changing. For example, the first Superman comic appeared in Action Comics in 1938, and the most recent comic just came out in 2018. Think about how much has changed in our world since 1938; yet, somehow, we’re still adding to the Superman canon.

If you were to map out how comic book stories work, it would look more like a tree than an arc—which is what you might expect to find if comics were more akin to other forms of narrative fiction. In comic books, there is a central trunk: This is who the character is, why they do what they do. But there are branches that reach up and out into possibilities that comic creators explore, stretching into various exploits over the character’s lifetime as well as alternate dimensions, alternate timelines, and even dream sequences. Each branch is a major story arc with little story arcs growing off of it. There are also roots that reach into the history of the character, weaving through the foundation of the events, experiences, and personality traits that formed who they are.

Take, for example, Deadpool. In some versions of the comic books, he’s a mentally ill assassin who works for the highest bidder. In others, he’s a raging murder machine composed of bulging muscles who saves the planet from the Skrulls. In others, he’s a tragic clown, laughing through the blinding pain of being a lab rat and having his child taken from him. These could all be different characters, right? They’re not. These are all arcs and interpretations—these are the branches.

The trunk of the tree is everything Deadpool could never not be. Here are some (of the many) characteristics that make up Deadpool’s trunk:

Irreverence: Deadpool doesn’t care if you’re a better hero than him, a rare unicorn, or a blind woman—he’s going to be a total jackass, making jokes at your expense, and he’s going to do it all while breaking the fourth wall. It’s just what Deadpools do, and it’s all actually pretty hilarious.

Tragedy: Deadpool’s story is one of the saddest, though it varies by arc. He’s certainly a cancer survivor. He’s certainly been experimented on for decades. He’s certainly killed some people he regrets killing. He’s certainly failed in saving the lives of people who count on him. He’s so steeped in tragedy that it feels like falling into a black hole of sad.

Pansexuality: There’s some debate to what degree of pansexual Deadpool actually is, but given his romance with Death (who has no gender, but likes to play lady), his marriage to the demon queen Shiklah, his flirtation with Thor, and his thing for Spider-Man (not to mention how hard fans ship a Cable/Deadpool romance), I think it’s safe to say his wide attraction to many is absolutely key to who he is.

Deadpool’s roots consist of everything that happened to him before the narrative starts. His first comic book appearance was in The New Mutants #98 in 1991, but in some arcs there are flashbacks to comics set in the '70s (that didn’t really exist at that time), which locate Deadpool in the backstory of some of the classic heroes, including Power Man (Luke Cage) and Iron Fist (Danny Rand).

Another way the past is rewritten and expanded in Deadpool is through the times when he hosts others in his psyche. It’s weird, but we’re talking comic books and we’re talking Deadpool, so here we are. While his guests—the ridiculous villain Madcap and Agent Preston from S.H.I.E.L.D.—reside with him, they discover depths of Deadpool the reader would not have otherwise accessed by literally opening doors in his mind that have been closed. These are Deadpool’s roots, spreading out into the backstory, giving him a complexity beyond being a jokester.

Now, in the 2016 film, does Deadpool have all of these characteristics? No. It’s definitely Wade Wilson, but it’s a different shade of him.

First, the scope of Deadpool’s tragic story is smaller. Still tragic, yes, but not inclusive of his deceased daughter (who he later finds out is alive) or the constant surveillance and experimentation he undergoes, which overall gives him less of a tragic air.

Second, his sexuality is downplayed, relegated to the realm of what could be gay-baiting or simply adventurous heterosexuality. (Will we see something more representative of the pansexual Wilson we all know and love in Deadpool 2? I hope so.)

Finally, and most importantly since we’re talking adaptations, a film has a lot less time to tell a story. That means that instead of a story that looks like the tree of a comic book, we have the film arc of a… half a circle, which is just an arc. (Hey! The metaphor’s built right in!) Interestingly, Deadpool isn’t told in a linear fashion and we move with Deadpool into extended flashbacks. Despite that being the case, the film still unfolds as typical narrative arcs do, moving from beginning to middle to end. What we get, though, is a hyper-distilled version of Deadpool, cutting away the complicated backstories, the multiple voices, the messy branches and roots of a comic book tree.

That said, is the film good? Well, it got an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is the biggest-grossing R-rated film of all time, at over $745 million. So it’s a popular film, and I like it, even if I think it has some issues. One of the reasons is that this Deadpool, though different, is still distinctly Deadpool. (And Ryan Reynolds leans into the role so hard it’s hard to tell where the joke stops—but maybe that’s the point.) The film also utilizes characters who are classic storyline companions, including Vanessa and Al, which endeared the movie to me. While the storyline itself is novel to the film, there are many aspects that are true in spirit to the comics, including his army and mercenary days, his terminal cancer, and the genesis of his powers coming from experimentation (though he started in the Weapon X program with Wolverine in the comics, not the Workshop).

So, yes. I’d say Deadpool is a good adaptation, and a faithful one at that.

 

Not all comic adaptations have been as successful as Deadpool. Some fail because they whitewash and/or straightwash characters (I’m looking at you for that double whammy, Ghost in the Shell). Others fail because they fundamentally betray what fans love about the character. Think of the Wade Wilson we see in the 2009 film Wolverine: Origins. Pretty much all fans agree: That’s a terrible interpretation of Deadpool. We get some of the jocular Wilson at the beginning of the film, but then they literally sew the Merc With a Mouth’s mouth shut. WHAT?

There are so many reasons adaptations fall short, but essentially, the issue can be boiled down to one basic failure: The comic book adaptation forgets that the essence of the character, the trunk of the tree, is what matters. We want to see our heroes delivered to us faithfully. Their adventures don’t have to always be something we’ve seen in a comic book. They don’t even have to interact with all the same characters in all the same ways they do in the comic books. Say it with me, people: New is good.

It would be impractical to try to enumerate all the reasons adaptations succeed and fail here. That’s why we have an entire website, so please peruse our comic books tag and enjoy.