The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s heartfelt sci fi masterwork, had a difficult road to the screen. This story is fairly well known: by 2002, he had written and designed the film, hired actors and started building sets before the studio pulled all the backing and wouldn’t even pay for his flight home. Depressed, Aronofsky turned to Karen Berger at Vertigo comics, who was always keen to get the comic adaptation rights, and was now in a position to realize a script that might not ever be produced. Work began with artist Kent Williams, and Aronofsky realized that he had to reimagine the story if he were ever to have a chance to see it produced for the cinema. Thus, while art was being prepared for the book, Aronofsky was re-writing the script to make the story much more small-scale. The film that eventually made its way to the screen in 2006 therefore shares DNA with this comic, but one isn’t an adaptation of the other in the strictest sense. What we’re seeing is two different versions of the same story, produced at the same time and both completely free, artistically from the other.
Those circumstances make The Fountain, released in 2005, before the film, one of the most peculiar comics to come along in some time. It’s like no other “adaptation” you’ve ever read, as wild and free as Jack Kirby’s 2001. It’s a work meant to be able to stand on its own, as if the film had never existed. It’s quite something.
Start with the differences between this and the film. For one thing, it’s free of the narrow, judging eyes of censors, with all their squeamishness about the human body, particularly the female body. So, there is a lot of casual nudity, particularly in the “astronaut” sequences set in the far future, where Tom, the main character, has moved beyond the need for clothing. There’s more of a backstory in Spain, which I mentioned in my previous article was perhaps the weakest part of the film. Here it’s made perfectly clear that the Queen of Spain wishes to have “Tomas” as her husband, and the church agrees to the arrangement only if she assures them of lands in “New Spain”, rumoured to contain the fountain of life. More intrigue follows, and Tomas suggests that both he and his Queen/lover go the new world together, which she politely declines. The scenes in the new world have a scale that didn’t make it to the screen. There are more troops on both sides and a much bigger battle. These minor differences demonstrate how little the vision of the film was compromised: it still feels like the same story, with perhaps a slightly more adult and intelligent sensibility.
The story of Tommy and Izzy, two lovers joined through centuries and distance, yearning to be together but Tommy having to learn some lessons about the importance of death to life, is consistent between both versions. We see the characters in three different time periods: 16th century Spain and South America, 21st century America and the far future, specifically the year 2463. (The book is specific where the film is not.) In the 21st century sequences, Tommy is a cancer researcher close to a breakthrough, and Izzy is his wife, dying of a brain tumor but trying to get him to appreciate the time they have together, teaching him with her book on Conquistadors in meso America. In the 25th century, Tommy is still alive, having maintained himself with the tree of life, and racing in a spacecraft towards Xibalba, a nebula wrapped around a dying star.
Since the essential story and much of the dialogue is the same between the two sources, the only real essential difference to be discussed between the two versions is the artwork, and this comic has some of the best. Kent Williams is primarily a painter, and his work here creatively incorporates some of the process of creating a painting in the first place into the final art. Williams, in the classical fashion, appears to make pencil sketches or line drawings of the picture first, then add daubed colour and finish with brush strokes. By disassembling that apparatus, and presenting images that, for example, sometimes include finished characters and foregrounds but sketched-in backgrounds, he achieves stunning artistic effect. His paintings are, of course, beautiful, showing a delicate hand for colour and while Williams doesn’t hit the yellow-black motif of the film quite as much, he does make very expressionistic use of colour to represent energy and emotion. The Picasso-inspired line drawings are even more interesting, sometimes mixing perspectives and postures (faces in full front with body parts twisted away) in a way that evokes abstract expressionism but also honours expressionism’s roots in “primitivism”. (A slightly insulting term, I realize, to describe ancient forms of folk art, but Williams includes nods to Mayan carvings that are clearly meant as an homage.)
Williams also takes slightly different approaches, based on the time period and setting. Interestingly, most of the 2463 panels are fully rendered (with some exceptions), whereas most of the modern-day panels are only line drawings with very simple backgrounds. The 16th century sequences seem to strike a balance between the two, with fully painted faces and often fully rendered characters (sometimes with sketched-in clothing), but sketched backgrounds.
The attention paid to the future sequences seems telling, as if Aronofsky, whose film presents all three periods with more or less equal weight, is pointing us towards the most important storyline. Indeed, reading this version of The Fountain leaves me in no doubt that this story takes place in 2463, with flashbacks, rather than in a previous time with flash-forwards. Also, here we have a bit more explicitly sci-fi type action, such as an elaborate sequence in which Tommy has to performing a daring “spacewalk” to repair part of the ship.
The tragedy of Tommy’s character in this story is obviously his lack of ability to accept death. “Death is the road to love,” is a phrase that comes up in both versions, but Tommy takes centuries to learn that. The ending, with two lovers magically fusing with a dying star, just as Tomas the Conquistador’s body is transformed into the tree of life, is the same in both versions, two different ways of demonstrating that one ending is simply another beginning. As someone who’s taught biology, I’ve long thought that the image of the dying Conquistador with flowers sprouting from his mouth is as good a way to show the process of death than anything else.
In whatever medium, The Fountain remains a deeply inspiring and moving story, with an important lesson to teach us.
We’re all just renting these bodies, after all. Someday, the universe will take them back.