Getting Alan Moore to approve of an adaptation is like… getting Alan Moore to approve of an adaptation. So, it’s very interesting to hear that the 2006 WB Animation adaptation of “For the Man Who Has Everything” is the only adaptation he has officially approved of. What makes this adaptation so different than all the others? Watching it now, after a careful consideration of the original text for another piece, I can get a sense of what Moore may have seen in it and why he liked it so much.
Full disclosure: I haven’t watched very much of the “new” crop of WB animation. I haven’t watched very much of the Batman material, including the Batman: The Animated Series that seems to have such a cult following, or any of the other oodles of animation. I tried to watch All Star Superman and wound up just pressing “stop” and re-reading the comic. Ditto for The Dark Knight Returns, even though Peter Weller is excellent. The only WB animation project that has really impressed me lately was Batman: Year One and that’s probably due to Bryan Cranston playing Commissioner Gordon. (Before I get flooded with recommendations, first, thank you for reading! And second, I’m aware of what’s out there and I’m sure I’ll see it all in good time.)
What I can discuss, though is adaptation theory, and how we can apply that to answering the riddle of why this Alan Moore adaptation seems to “work” better than the others. We forget, first of all, how many great works of film and art are adaptations. An astonishing number of Oscar winners are on the list (The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, West Side Story, even Brokeback Mountain to name but a few), as well as many of the great operas (Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s Otello) and many more flat-out great, if not award-decorated films, including basically every Kubrick film (including 2001) and every Welles film (aside from Kane and F for Fake). So, adaptation is nothing new, nor is it necessarily a crass commercial rip-off of a great work.
Part of the problem is that, in the past, and even today in many quarters, film is regarded as a secondary medium to the printed word. The word for that is lexophilia – admiring words to the point of fetishization. This is very apt for us in comics studies, who find our favourite medium still considered secondary to pure words. Something about the addition of images to the words makes some people consider that a desecration. And that brings us to the other problem with adaptation, the morally coded language in common use when discussing it. People speak in terms of “violating” the source material or “being unfaithful”, etc. Pretty strong feelings for a work of art. Not a great place to start a rational discussion. But that’s really just an expression of media priority: films can’t possibly be as good as books because books are just inherently better than that shiny fancy-pants upstart new medium, the cinema. So, our first task in discussing adaptation is to jettison media priority and stop using such morally-laden language.
Rather than rank adaptation vs original (fundamentally a non-analytical and not very scholarly exercise) we consider them side-by-side, and explore the relationship between them. Adaptations and their original text speak to each other, in artistic terms. They comment on each other, parody each other, illustrate things about each other when compared. And, of course, each text is worthy of its own individual analysis, devoid completely of any comparison to the other. For example, all the various analyses of 2001 as a film rarely make direct comparisons to Clarke’s novel and it could be argued that the film is better experienced as its own, separate piece of art. That particular film reverses one of the tropes commonly used in adaptation discussion, which is that the book will be general (give hints about its world and rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps) and the film specific (giving one particular reading). (Wow – note the lexophilia just in that concept! As if film was only capable of a literal reading.) 2001 does the opposite, where the book is quite specific, the film could be described maddeningly general, abstracted even beyond the necessity for a conventional narrative. That’s an example of adaptation studies, considering both texts as equals and in so much as there’s a comparison, it’s one that illuminates something about their relationship rather than ranking.
One of my previous columns discussed one reading of the Alan Moore/David Gibbons Superman Annual “For the Man Who Has Everything.” The thesis of that piece is that this is, among other things, a story that shares a great deal with works like The Last Temptation of Christ in that it illustrates the necessity of a heroic figure to choose to suffer for a cause, and to sacrifice something of themself in order to make that gesture. The hero who never questions their heroic mission and marches blindly into death isn’t heroic, but simply insane. The true hero has a stake in the real world and gives it up nevertheless to perform an act of heroic sacrifice. That’s what I think the story is really about, and that’s the main theme. It seems to me that anyone contemplating an adaptation would have to ask themselves that question first: what’s the story about? One could easily read “For the Man Who Has Everything” and think that it’s a story about Superman (and friends) vs Mongul, and spend most of the 20 minute running time of an animated adaptation on the fisticuffs and fights. They do beat the bad guy in the end, after all. But instead, screenwriter J. M. DeMatteis, who wrote this episode, goes for the heart of the story, which is Superman’s emotional journey on his imaginary Krypton.
The premise is the same in both texts: some of Superman’s friends arrive at the Fortress of Solitude for his birthday. Batman and Wonder Woman chit chat about gifts and how Superman is impossible to shop for, and they eventually find Supe covered in the tentacles of an alien parasite that induces delusions of happiness. This happiness is, of course, a trap, rendering the victim into a quasi-comatose state, lost in bliss and useless to the “real” world. In both the comic and the episode, Superman imagines a life in which Krypton never exploded and he lived out a normal life with a wife and family, as a normal man. One big difference between the comic version and the animated version is the portrayal of Krypton. Jor-El, Superman’s father, is less of a fanatic and more of a fussy and stubborn old scientist. The political issues and the symbolic nature of debates over capital punishment and the coming geological apocalypse (which can be read today through the lens of climate change denial) are less specific and less complex in the animated version. Simplification also occurs in the “real world” story arc at the Fortress of Solitude in, for example, the complete removal of the character of Robin (most of his dialogue goes to Wonder Woman) and several other deep references within the fortress itself. But on the whole the story is the same.
Also, this animated series has true value and dignity. The music, the slow, careful pans and the casual, adult way in which the characters relate to each other perfectly captures the tone of the original work. Batman, for example, gets to play the rational investigative scientist he is, while Wonder Woman is a bit more of a fighter, which fits her character as well. (Note how modern TV would never make the male character the scientist and the female character the warrior, but here we have an example of comics running slightly ahead of cultural norms.) In the Krypton section, we start with a love scene in bed between Superman and his wife (with Dana Delaney bringing her exquisite sense of fetching flirtation to the character’s voice). Nothing explicit is shown, of course, but that’s only because their helper robot (“Brainiac”) interrupts them before things get really heavy. This is most assuredly not a “cartoon” for young children.
The episode hits the themes right on the head, as Mongul supposes that Superman’s fantasy is obviously to rule over the universe, humans grovelling at his feet. “More appropriate, don’t you think?” he rhetorically asks Batman and Wonder Woman, focusing our attention on the moral questions rather than the action. Mongul, of course, is performing a classic case of “projection”, supposing that Superman’s wishes are the same as his. When, in the ironic ending, Mongul is trapped in his own device, we see that he might fantasize about sitting atop a Galactic throne, but he isn’t a hero. Superman, because he chooses something else even when given the choice of anything in the universe, is most assuredly in that category.
And here we have one of the most important dramatic decisions made in the adaptation, focusing the story on Superman’s emotional journey. Last time, I mentioned that the key scene in this story is when Superman says goodbye to his son in his Kryptonian fantasy, severing his link to his ideal world and choosing, against all seeming logic, to live out a hero’s life of struggle. In this version, he gives a shatteringly honest speech to his son, Van-El, recalling that when his son was born it was the happiest moment of his life, how he remembers Van’s little baby hands gripping his fingers, and how joyous that made him feel. And then he has to tell this young boy who he loves that all of that was a lie, an illusion, and he must reject it all. “This is everything I’ve ever wanted in life,” Superman says, “But I have responsibilities, and I have to go now.” In that statement is everything you need to know about why Superman is a hero.
There is something to be said for stories that are so strong and clear that they can be distilled to their essence and maintain much of their power. I think you could probably say that about a lot of Alan Moore’s work, even something as complex as Watchmen, but the key is that the adapter needs to pick the right theme. Pick the wrong one (like, for example, focusing on action and costumes) or try to hang a completely different story on the skeleton of the original work and what you’ll probably get is a bad movie (or show). (And probably a bad adaptation, too, which is another issue.) But pick the right one, as they did here in Justice League Unlimited, and you get an excellent piece of 20 minute animation with true emotional power. It’s about knowing and understanding the original and being a sensitive enough artist to have that inspire something else. “For the Man Who Has Everything” a good show, beyond any other analysis or consideration and as adaptation theory teaches us, that’s the most important thing.
(My main reference here is A Theory of Adaptation by Linda Hutcheon)