Adaptations High and Low
Adaptations of films to comics such as the one discussed above are fairly common, and they show a degree of respect for the original comparable to that of the cinema for its literary sources. However, the translation of comics into films has usually entailed a much more cautious and critical approach on the part of the latter medium. This is to some extent due to
the nature of cinema itself. Drawing allows the comic artist a degree of freedom with the visual material that cinema can hardly match since, for better or worse, it must rely on human actors. The partial or total failure of films like Robert Altman's Popeye (1980) and Willard Huyck's Howard the Duck (1986) is symptomatic. When drawn by Val Mayerik, Howard is an anthropomorphic duck; in the film, he is just a guy in a duck suit. However, even films based on comics centered on human characters can hardly be called "adaptations."
In a paper delivered at the 1992 Modern Language Association Convention in New York City, David Newman, one of the scriptwriters for the first three Superman films, began by emphasizing that a distinction must be made between remake and adaptation but then went on to argue that neither model was applicable to his own approach to translating Superman for the big screen. Rather, he approached Superman as "the most American myth." The use of the term "myth" is remarkable in view of its frequent application to the comics, to which we will turn in a moment. However, the distinction between remake and adaptation is also significant, and the rejection of both deserves some discussion. In an essay in this anthology, Robert Eberwein gives a good working definition of a remake: "A remake is a kind of reading or rereading of the original." In the "Preliminary Taxonomy" of remakes appended to the same essay, he writes: "Even more problematic, the taxonomy itself doesn't address the issue of adaptation: are there any films in the various categories that can claim a common non-cinematic source? If so, is it correct to call a film a remake or a new adaptation . . .?" As Eberwein makes clear, the crucial issue at stake when dealing with remakes and adaptations is that of the "original." In fact, the definition of the remake as (re)reading seems to me equally applicable to adaptation. What distinguishes the two is the relation between the new reading and the medium of the original: as the term suggests, an adaptation is not simply a matter of retelling a story. Rather, it entails a move from one medium to another and therefore the "adjustment" of the narrative to the expressive language of the target medium (to borrow a term from translation theory). In both cases, however, the existence of a source is assumed and even necessary to make the new work a remake or an adaptation. This observation is not as tautological as it may at first appear: it is obvious that there is some "source" for Newman's Superman, but it stands in a very different relation to the film than, say, E. M. Forster's novel does to Merchant and Ivory's A Room with a View .
This is the result of the differential relation that cinema bears to sources from other media. When drawing from canonized texts (in particular, socalled literary texts), from works firmly enshrined within the cultural tradition, the prime concern is faithfulness to the original, seen as a fixed entity complete in itself. A glaring example is Claude Chabrol's recent ad-
aptation of Madame Bovary (1991), in which whole descriptive passages were lifted out of Flaubert's novel and superimposed through a voice-over on images that actually clashed with them. In order to reproduce the original in the most integral way possible, the language of film was subordinated to that of the literary text. However, when the source is a work of "popular culture," the integrity of the original is not an issue.
As Lawrence Levine suggests in his study of the evolution of the idea of "culture" in America, the very notion of popular culture rests on the openness of the text to outside intervention. The many versions of the story of Count Dracula comprise an index of how elements of a popular narrative may become dissociated from their original source and thus undergo endless rearticulations (Coppola's version, for all its faithfulness to the letter of Bram Stoker's novel, takes remarkable liberties with it, the most significant being of course that Dracula comes to occupy the center of the stage.) Even a film that follows fairly closely the plot of its comic strip source, Mike Hodges's Flash Gordon (1980), seems to have no problems with changing the background of the characters and transposing the action from the 1930s to the 1980s. Significantly, Nash and Ross (871) consider this film a remake of the 1936 Flash Gordon film serial (and a poor one, at that), rather than an adaptation of Alex Raymond's comic strip.
The issue of the status of the original is a central concern of translation theory, and the following comment on nineteenth century approaches to translation can help us understand what is at stake in this differential treatment of the original. According to Susan Bassnett-McGuire, two positions can be distinguished: "[T]he one establishing a hierarchical relationship in which the [source language] author acts as a feudal overlord exacting fealty from the translator, the other establishing a hierarchical relationship in which the translator is absolved from all responsibility to the inferior culture of the [source language] text" (4).
Comics, science fiction, mysteries, and so on belong to the inferior realm of popular culture: therefore, in "translating" them into another medium, what needs to be considered is not the integrity of the original, but that of the target medium, which to some extent elevates the status of the popular culture artifact to its own by adapting it. An a contrario proof of this is the fidelity of comic book adaptations of films: as a superior art form, the integrity of the film must be respected by the comic book. The opposite, of course, is not true. Newman argued quite frankly that the main problem with selling the concept of a Superman film to a producer was that of selling it as a "grown-up movie." The relation to its source had to be played down, and even disguised, so that the film could be cleansed of the unfavorable association that the source medium, the comics, carries with it. In a short article on Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990), based on the character created by Chester Gould, Patricia Kowal attributed "the simplicity of the
story" to "its comic strip origin" (95). While this comment was not meant as a critique (Kowal is generally appreciative of the comic-like quality of the film), it brings out a commonly held belief that comics are simplistic, even naive, narratives that have little to offer more sophisticated media.
After all, cinema has been able to make its bid as a serious cultural medium by emphasizing its association with already canonized cultural formations. As narrative cinema developed in the direction of complex, realistic narratives centered on well-defined characters, all the instruments available to analyze a (by then) traditional literary form, the novel, could be brought to bear on it. There are indeed a number of structural similarities between prose fiction and narrative cinema; for instance, both types of narrative are limited in scope, developing, in Aristotelian fashion, through a beginning, a middle, and an end. The proximity between the two media was reinforced by theorizing cinema in ways that assimilated it to literature and in fact disguised its specific features: the auteur theory developed in the fifties by the Cahiers du cinéma school is only the culmination of that process. Ascribing the authorship of the film to the director denies the collaborative effort that goes into its making, but also makes it possible to see it as a homogeneous whole and to construct the critical discourse around it in terms of authorship, coherence of vision, an so on. In the comics, however, we can distinguish two patterns. Again the critics have often tended to approach the medium in terms of the individual genius: therefore, there has been an emphasis on figures like Winsor McCay, George Harriman, Carl Barks, Will Eisner, or, in more recent times, Frank Miller, who have combined functions that in most popular comic books are separate: writer, artist, inker, and even letterer or colorist. However, in mainstream comics, a story is usually the result of teamwork. Typically, the writer is responsible for the plot, which is then drawn by the artist and inked by the inker. The letterer fills in the balloons, and the colorist, not surprisingly, provides the chromatic effects for the story. Furthermore, the Aristotelian pattern applicable to both the film and the novel does not quite work with the comics: even if an episode is self-contained (and this does not happen very often in contemporary comics), it is usually part of a larger narrative that spans the whole of the series of a specific character, and in many cases other series by the same publisher, with plots and subplots carrying over from episode to episode. It is extremely unusual for any member of the creative team to stay with the character for more than a few years, and as comics' characters are passed on from creative team to creative team they are reinterpreted, their story told again and again, so that, while remaining the same, they keep changing their relationship with the public. David Newman's remark that "each generation gets the Lois Lane that it deserves" can be generalized to the whole of comicdom. In a sense, a comic book character is always already a remake.
Thus, we can return to the interpretation of the comics as myth. There are a number of narrative elements that can justify Newman's approach to Superman in these terms. Newman himself mentioned, for instance, Superman's vulnerability to kryptonite, which can be compared to Achilles's heel, or, in a more complex way, his status as a superior being walking among mortals disguised as one of them, which can offer a number of parallels with the central myth of Christianity, Christ's first coming. What to me is significant is that Newman's approach, derived from local details of Superman's story, coincides with a more general approach to popular culture, and comics in particular.
Through myth, the problem of the relation between original and adaptation can be framed in a new way. In his seminal essay "The Structural Study of Myth," Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that with mythological narratives the question of the original cannot be asked: "Our method . . . eliminates a problem which has, so far, been one of the main obstacles to the progress of mythological studies, namely, the quest for the true version, or the earlier one. On the contrary, we define the myth as consisting of all its versions; or to put it otherwise, a myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such" (217). Now, I would like to argue that myth has been effectively used as a model in discussing a number of popular narratives because it interprets well the way that popular narratives are produced and circulated.
In a 1962 essay entitled "The Myth of Superman," Umberto Eco articulated his critique of superhero comics by comparing them to myths. The limitations of Eco's essay are, perhaps, those of the general approach to popular culture at the time of its writing. Surprisingly for a critic who has always shown a great, and positive, interest in popular culture, Eco here plays the part of the "apocalyptic," falling back on a simplistic critique of popular literature as a means of manipulation and control of the "masses" on the part of "the offices of the great industries, the advertising men of Madison Avenue, what popular sociology has called, with a suggestive epithet, 'hidden persuaders'" (Apocalittici e integrati, 223). However, some of his comments can be of some use in this context.
After arguing that, in contemporary industrial society, "the positive hero must embody to an unthinkable degree the power demands that the average citizen nurtures but cannot satisfy" ("The Myth of Superman," 107), Eco then discusses the problems that this "archetypal" function of the superhero entails on a narratological level. He contrasts myth and novel as two diametrically opposed narratives: in the former, we have a story that follows an already established pattern; in the latter, the events in the story happen as the story is being told, so that the main concern is on "what will happen next?" According to Eco, comics superheroes are divided between these two forms of narrative: "The mythological character of comic strips finds himself in this singular situation: he must be an archetype, the totality
of certain collective aspirations, and therefore he must necessarily become immobilized in an emblematic and fixed nature . . .; but, since he is marketed in the sphere of a 'romantic' production for a public that consumes 'romances,' he must be subjected to a development which is typical . . . of novelistic characters" ("Myth of Superman" 110). His conclusion that "for precise commercial reasons, . . . [Superman's] adventures are sold to a lazy audience" that "would be terrified by an indefinite development of the events that would keep their memory busy for several weeks" (Apocalittici e integrati, 232) is of course part and parcel of the moralizing attitude of early popular culture studies. What Eco misunderstands here is precisely what I have indicated earlier: popular narratives are produced in ways that cannot be assimilated into postliterate classical literature, and the iterative mechanism (as he calls it) of popular narratives need not be only a symptom of mental laziness on the part of both producer and audience. The development of the narrative over time in subsequent retellings and rearticulations does not entail a suspension of memory, a sort of continuous oblivion, as Eco seems to imply, but works more effectively the more the audience is aware of the previous articulation of the narrative that each retelling extends and remakes. I suspect that one of the reasons for the lukewarm popular reception of Dick Tracy was precisely the fact that, after his heyday in the thirties and forties, the square-jawed detective has not been "retold" for later audiences and therefore has not become as deeply ingrained in American culture as his caped colleagues.
In a later essay on repetition and seriality, Eco himself has come to reexamine the pleasures of iteration in a more positive light, even suggesting the possibility of an "aesthetics of serial forms," whose purpose would be to provide an account of the historical configurations of the dialectic between innovation and repetition ("Innovation and Repetition," 175). From this point of view, it is precisely on the level of myth that remakes and serial forms should be considered: "Every epoch has its myth-makers, its own sense of the sacred. . . . Let us take for granted the intense emotional participation, the pleasure of the reiteration of a single and constant truth, and the tears, and the laughter—and finally the catharsis . Then we can conceive of an audience also able to shift onto an aesthetic level and to judge the art of the variations on a mythical theme" (182). The distance between this and the "lazy audience" envisioned in the previous essay is obvious. What is important, however, is the fact that in this "aesthetic of serial forms" the question of the original is bracketed out, and what makes the text successful is its effectiveness as a variation on its theme.
What narrative could pretend to be the original of the Superman film? Of course, we know that in June 1938 the first issue of the comic book Action Comics published a story entitled "Superman," written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster. That story can make the claim to be the (chronologi-
cally) "first" version of Superman, but not the original, since the character has profoundly changed in its fifty-year career, and the version that Newman looked at for inspiration was as far from Siegel and Shuster's as that of today's comics is from either. The point was made succinctly by Frank Miller in a recent interview: "Go back to the origins of Superman, before World War II. He was dragging generals to the front of the battles. He was fighting corrupt landlords. He was not the symbol of the status quo he's since become" (Sharrett, 39).
Batman has undergone a similar fate: from the grim sometime gun-toting vigilante of the early stories he has gone on to become the wholesome crime-fighter of the mid-fifties and early sixties, the camp Batman of the TV series, and the current "Dark Knight" persona popularized by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and uncountable comics since then. Even though Frank Miller's reinterpretation of the character has been billed as a return to the original, it had to take into account all the textual elements that the many rearticulations of the story of Batman have gathered in time. It was a propos The Dark Knight Returns that Alan Moore wrote: "Yes, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, Alfred is still his butler . . . There is still a Robin, along with a batmobile. . . . Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it's totally different." The development of comic book narratives over time can be characterized as sameness with difference, as a reshuffling of a number of narrative elements into new patterns. It is this characteristic that distinguishes comic books (and, in the United States, superhero comics in particular) from most other types of narratives: like soap operas, they are designed to last, to progress over time without the climactic release of the end of a novel or a play or a film. To this must be added the fact that, as Jim Collins has noted, the different versions of the character do not simply follow each other chronologically, but, in a society in which texts can be reproduced cheaply and easily, they also circulate at the same time, so that the "origins" of Batman as told in the original 1939 story, in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, in Tim Burton's Batman film and comic adaptation thereof, and so on, are available to the audience at one and the same time. Each version is perceived as part of the same basic myth, so that the "original," the 1939 story, loses its status and becomes simply one of the many possible ways to articulate the myth.
As an example of this loss in status of the original, let me point out that, according to the Siegel and Shuster version of Superman, our hero did not fly, but could, much more prosaically, "easily leap 1/8th of a mile" (Siegel and Shuster, 19). Yet, flight is one of the powers more closely associated with Superman, and according to Newman one of the aspects of the film that the ad campaign concentrated on was precisely that it showed a man flying . Like the myths discussed by Lévi-Strauss, the "myth" of Superman
includes all its versions in a number of different media. We can now understand better why the Superman films are not adaptations: like the many rearticulations of the story within the comics medium, they take the basic elements that over time have come to constitute the construction blocks of a Superman narrative and reassemble them in terms of the new medium, to tell a story that adds one more layer to the "myth." Once this new version begins circulating, it becomes one of the many possible stories involving the character named Superman, one of the possible "sources" of any of his future narratives.
This can actually be seen as an asset from the point of view of translating comics into films. In fact, the lack of an urtext gives the creative team more freedom to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the cinematic medium. Tim Burton's film Batman provides a useful example. As we have seen, the fact that month in, month out, a new adventure of the hero must be published makes the definition of the characters in the book a matter of accumulation of details. Although Batman's archenemy the Joker appeared for the first time in 1940, it was only in 1951 that it was revealed how the criminal "Red Hood," in an attempt to escape Batman, dived into a vat full of a chemical substance that turned his hair green, his lips rouge red, and his face chalk white. Since then, and more so in recent years, Batman and the Joker have developed a sort of symbiotic relationship and are often portrayed as the opposite sides of the same coin: two madmen pursuing relentlessly and single-mindedly their own visions of the world as a place upon which must be imposed absolute order or absolute chaos (the classical texts here are two special volumes, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke, 1988, and Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum, 1989).
In Burton's film the problem of the accumulative development of this relationship was creatively solved by changing the origins of the Joker, so that he turns out to have been, before his transformation, the very thief who murdered Bruce Wayne's parents and was therefore responsible for the origins of Batman, just as Batman himself was responsible for the accident from which the Joker was born. Thus, the film establishes an interdependence between the two characters that is comparable to that in the comics, while taking into account the self-enclosed nature of the new medium. At the same time, elements introduced by Burton in the film, in particular the neo-Gothic architecture of Gotham, have been reappropriated in recent comics (Batman 474, February 1992; Tales of the Dark Knight 27, February 1992; and Detective Comics 641, February 1992) through a story specifically designed to change the graphic nature of Batman's environment to that developed by Anton Furst for Burton's movie.
Thus, as this last example makes clear, we must approach the question of the relationship between these two visual media, cinema and the comics,
by adopting a new paradigm that is not that of the remake nor that of the adaptation, neither of which fully accounts for the reassemblage of the narrative elements in the move from one medium to the other. The problem needs to be framed in terms that go beyond the question of influence and originality to clarify the unique way in which popular culture texts are appropriated and reconstructed by cinema.
I thank Krin Gabbard for his helpful comments on a previous draft of this essay.