On the Limits of Adaptation or What Can We Get Out of The Dark Knight Returns Movie?

The year 2012 brought with it something Batman fans, and comics fans in general, have been expecting for years; a large production from distinguished creators starring some well-beloved actors. I am talking, of course, about DC’s animated ,direct-to-DVD, two-part adaptation of Frank Miller’s masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns. Starring cult favorite Peter Weller (of Robocop and Naked Lunch fame) as the Dark Knight himself. It’s alright.

No, really, it’s a fun-to-watch well animated adventure. I am not here to bash the film on the production / narrative level; not that aren’t valid criticisms to be made there (Weller is very good at particular set of roles – he does the retired Bruce Wayne great, and doesn’t do so well with the charismatic and powerful Batman). I am here to discuss the problems of the film as an adaptation of pre-existing property.

The Dark Knight Returns is a first in DC’s recent Direct-to-DVD programming – the two parts of the film (each of which covers two issues of the original series) join together to form a complete two and half hour movie; far longer than any of their previous adaptations (which included works which surpass The Dark Knight Returns comics in length – such as The New Frontier and All Star Superman). The result of this decision is that almost nothing is spared from the original comics – the artwork keeps Miller’s original character design (whose intentional crude and exaggerated figures would surely shock the younger viewers who got used to the “smooth” style of previous DC productions), all of the characters (including the Neo-Nazi lady with an aversion to shirts – a definite WTF moment for people unfamiliar with the original), most of the plotlines, and much of Miller’s dialogue remain as they were. The only major difference is that most of Batman’s endless-narration is cut down (necessarily), though some it is inserted into his dialogue instead. So, in terms of loyalty-to-the-source-material, this is probably the second best comic-book movie (the first being Sin City).

Seeing as this is a loyal adaptation to what is considered one of the best comics ever published, it is surely a great film by itself? No, it is not. As I said before, it is a decent film, as are most of DC’s direct-to-DVD line, even those that were based on bellow average works such as Superman / Batman: Public Enemies, have been somewhat decent. Throw enough talent and money at even a half-baked project and you can get at least 70 minutes of enjoyable popcorn action. But that is the only thing I’ve gotten from DC various projects so far, even those that were based on superior material such as All-Star Superman were never “great”.

Up until The Dark Knight Returns, one could make an argument that it were the limitations of the format that doomed these movies – you can’t do something as massive as The New Frontier in seventy minutes; you have to cut and slash mercilessly at the source material until you are left with nothing but the bare bones of the plot. The New Frontier is so well-beloved because of all the small details that conceive it, because it attempts to capture a whole era of comics and the nations, cut it all down and what you have left is a standard origin story with some period piece stylistic add-ons.

But with The Dark Knight Returns being given the full conversion treatment, this criticism of the film can no longer be the result of compression failure. The problems of the film do not come from lack of loyalty to the source. Far from it – this movie shows us, once more, that overzealous reliance on the original work is not necessarily a boon. A lot of what made The Dark Knight Returns such a good comics was, well, comics-related stuff. The movie tries to re-use some of these elements which remain inert in a medium not suited for them – there are long parts in the novel in which Batman’s actions are interjected with a point/counterpoint-style TV show, Miller and Johnson’s art scatter these discussions (along with dozens of other occurrences) all over the page, they become a representation of fragmented culture (as opposed to the more unified and direct media age that gave birth to Batman and his ilk) and watching them, we realize that Batman no longer operates in a world he was not meant to inhabit (and why the story must end the way it does).

Likewise, the film keeps Ellen Yindel’s realization that Batman’s “too big” without setting up her conversation with Gordon which explains it, or giving us Bruno (again – the Nazi lady with swastikas on her breast was bizarre even for the original work, in the film it is simply distracting). Understand – I am not asking for a longer movie (two and a half hours is long enough), I am asking that if you have to change things for an adaptation (and you do – otherwise what is the point of making it) don’t do it by simply cutting away everything you dim “inessential”; you do it by changing the source material to better work in a new medium.

When I think back on book adaptations that turned out well, I do not think of movies that tried to keep every little piece of the original – every person who tried to watch Stroheim’s four hour adaptation (and these four hours are all that remain from the lost nine! Hour version) of Frank Norris’s McTeague (Greed, 1924) will realize the futility of this act. A good adaptation takes the spirit and ideas of its source – not its form: The 1997 film version of LA Confidential is pitch-perfect even though it cuts vast parts of the novel and main characters and narrows the years-long plot into a couple of months – because it gets the essence of Ellroy’s work. Likewise, 2006′s A Cock and Bull Story is the best possible adaptation of a novel like Tristram Shandy – a novel that demands the metafictional treatment it got; any attempt to adapt the plot as it were was doomed to failure.

So, DC entertainment can continue with their animation projects, they can adapt everything – they have eighty years of history, they can choose from most acclaimed works of the super-hero genre; but as the long their adaptation would remain as pedestrian and unimaginative as those of All Star Superman and The Dark Knight Returns, even the very best of source material would do them no good.  

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Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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Also by Tom Shapira:

Judging Dredd: Examining the World of Judge Dredd


The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola


Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston\'s The Filth in the 21st Century


1 Comment

  1. The problem in adaptating Dark Knight Returns or All-Star Superman or Watchmen is that they are not really “graphic novels”; they are mini/maxi-series. And they were planned this way and they use this structure, which works beautifully in comics (even if you read them collected), but can’t work in movies, because the audience takes movies (even when divided in chapters) as a whole.

    In Dark Knight Returns, Batman faces four opponents, one in each part of the series, and all of them somehow reflecting himself. That’s great. But you know it’s in four parts, you know it’s going to end in the fourth issue, you know the structure and you accept it. That’s why it’s in four parts! And superhero comics in particular are based on the idea that there will always be more next month.

    A movie is just this whole, indivisible thing. Most don’t or shouldn’t have sequels. Whenever the hero arrests (or kills) the villain, the audience is satisfied and ready to go home. The film is not supposed to continue. A story was presented and it reached its conclusion. Great. It’s not the time to present another story, another quest or another villain. Just save it for another movie, if necessary.

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