There is a joke in the comics’ community that every single adaptation of Alan Moore’s work is terrible and every adaptation of Frank Miller’s is fantastic. Sadly the gag is true. While some of the films that have been adapted by Alan Moore are tolerable as films by themselves, they are incredibly horrendous as a translation of Moore’s work. In contrast every single adaptation of Miller’s work has been both entertaining as a film and stunning as an adaptation of Miller’s work. Why is it that Miller’s work can translate to another medium while Moore’s does not?
The answer to this question is difficult to answer as both Miller and Moore crafted comics that were intentionally un-filmable. Watchmen was made under the mindset of celebrating the comics medium and including elements that were genuinely impossible to translate to film. Miller created a work that exploited the format of the page and the effects of negative space on the images displayed when crafting his noir series Sin City. The works of Miller and Moore are consistently made to function solely in the medium that they were created. Adaptation from one medium to another is a difficult process and is almost always fraught with difficulty. Certain books, such as A Clockwork Orange, have a story that can function as a film. Other works have structural design or breadth of content that makes cinematic adaptation difficult to impossible, such as Fight Club or The Lord of the Rings. Inevitably any adaptation of a work is doomed to be regarded as too slavish to the source material, ie Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. The alternative is that the work is loose in adapting the source material and displeases fans of the original source, ie The Shining.
The sad fact is that almost always when Miller’s work is adapted either loosely (300) or slavishly similar to the source material (Sin City) the films work both as a film and as an adaptation of the author’s work. In contrast only two adaptations of Moore’s work are even tolerable (Watchmen, For The Man who Has Everything) with almost every adaptation either missing the intent of the work or dumbing the source material down to an unbearably stupid level.
When people approach Moore’s work loosely, they usually do so either out of fear of political backlash or fear of alienating audiences with an “overly complex” narrative. It is too easy to be cruel to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film in labelling it a “dumbed down” adaptation. LXG as it is derisively labelled by League fans was an adaptation much more similar to Stanley Kubrick’s approach to The Shining. The producers behind the film sought to take the root concept in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and apply their own interpretation on a cast of characters. Therefore, the film is not so much a literal adaptation of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but a spiritual adaptation that failed. Similarly the From Hell “adaptation” simply took the root narrative of the story and decided to tell the traditional “Jack-the-Ripper” narrative that Moore and Eddie Campbell were trying to avoid. While both of these works bear the same title as works of Alan Moore, they do not even seem to be genuine adaptations of Moore’s works as they are so loose in adapting the source material that they inevitably are so separate from the source material that no one would confuse one for the other. Although it is worth noting that according to legend Johnny Depp actually went to Northampton to meet Alan Moore to prepare for From Hell. They were said to have spent a pleasant evening sharing drinks. Make of that story what you will.
The only work other than Watchmen and For The Man Who Has Everything that feels like a true adaptation of Moore’s work, albeit a loose adaptation, is V for Vendetta. V for Vendetta is far more worthy of analysis, though for its intellectual failures rather than From Hell and LXG’s story and character failures. Moore and David Lloyd crafted a fascinating reflection on the issue of freedom and security to their greatest extremes of fascism and anarchy. V for Vendetta is poetic in its gripping narrative of an anarchist terrorist going against a fascist government. While it was an indictment against Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, it transcended the contemporary political critique to become an Orwellian-tale of the most extreme forms of oppression and freedom. In contrast to this, the V for Vendetta film is an indictment against George W. Bush’s America that treats V as a freedom fighter rather than as a violent terrorist. Moore was the first to identify and dismiss the V for Vendetta as an anti-Bush polemic. The film is shameless in its rage against Bush, going as far as to intimate that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as staged. If the Wachowski Siblings wanted to make an Anti-Bush polemic then why set it in Britain? The film does not take it’s time to consider the deep ramifications of violence that V perpetrates. The defenders of V for Vendetta state that it is in the very least a coherent three-act structure and with basic character development. While V for Vendetta functions as a film, it does not mitigate the film’s unbearable stupidity. The film removes any reasonable discussion on the consequences of violence nor does it humanize the government it condemns. The film is a generic and unbearable piece.
In contrast the loose-adaptation of Miller’s operatic retelling of history 300 was a marvelous film. The film includes a subplot with the fascinating Queen Gorgo as well as changing the political themes. The changes are more misleading then some of Miller’s characterizations, particularly the notion that the Spartans are fighting for democracy. The graphic novel makes explicit that Leonidas is a monarch and is against democracy. While these changes of character are significant they do not fundamentally alter the main intent of the work being adapted, namely to present the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in an operatic fashion. The film captures the grand scope and vision that Miller intended with the graphic novel and Snyder succeeds in translating the intent of the work onto the screen. Zack Snyder understood what Miller’s intent was with 300 and created a loose-adaptation that captured the spirit of the graphic novel. In contrast the Wachowski Siblings did not understand V for Vendetta beyond it being a critique of Thatcher’s Britain and chose to shift the criticism to George W. Bush’s America.
Though understanding a work is not necessarily a guarantee of success for a film adaptation. The film Ender’s Game very much understood the intent of the work, yet somehow the brilliance of Ender Wiggin as a strategist and the gravity of his crimes was lost in the film adaptation. Such is the case with the Watchmen film, a work that Zack Snyder dedicated his heart and soul to, and it clearly shows. Compared to V for Vendetta or any of Moore’s other major adaptations, the Watchmen film understands that the work was a reflection on power and the fear of nuclear destruction. Snyder and most of the all-star cast gave it their all in trying to create a thought provoking hard-R superhero film. Unfortunately, the problem with Watchmen is its length. In any cut (of which there are three), none is able to preserve a strong coherent story as the film is plodding at times and too quick other points in the film. Watchmen was indeed “un-filmable” as the story is not strong enough without significant development of the characters and the technical brilliance found on the page.
Comparatively DC Animation’s adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns was just as passionate a project as Snyder’s Watchmen. While the creators of The Dark Knight Returns film had a great understanding of the text as well as a desire to be as close to the work as possible the work was adapted in a manner that could be suited to film. The obvious and most controversial decision was the removal of the narration, but director Jay Oliva knowing that film is a visual medium relies on imagery to tell some of Batman’s thoughts. Furthermore writer Bob Goodman preserves the critical moments of narration through dialogue. The film is uncompromising in it’s political agenda just as Miller was, including a scathing indictment on Reagan and the far-right as well as the Hippie Culture. The tone and themes of the work were preserved as well as most of the core text, but most importantly The Dark Knight Returns works as a film whereas the Watchmen film tried and unfortunately failed.