Doing It Right: How to Adapt a Comic Book

Posted in The Screening Room by - March 07, 2017

The struggle between comic book fans and the movie and TV show makers behind comic book adaptations seems like it will never end. Adaptations of superhero comics have been steadily improving over the years, both regarding accuracy to the source material and as pieces of media in their right, but it still feels like these adaptations get the material of origin wrong as frequently as they get it right. For every Captain America movie that understands how to tell the story of a man representing the ideals of America struggling through the complex morality of the modern day, there’s a Fantastic Four movie that fails to grasp the basics of “dysfunctional family (but with superpowers).”

Why is this so hard? I think a major recurring problem lies in focusing too much on what part of comics to adapt. In the early 2000’s, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe had shown up and kicked superhero movies into high gear, there was an oft repeated refrain within comic fan circles: “Just get the characters right.” This is the key; for all the stories you can tell, for all the background minutiae you can add, what makes or breaks a superhero adaptation is how well they have expressed the characters.

It just so happens that two recent episodes of CW DC shows have covered how, and how not, to do this correctly, so let’s take a look at a bad example and a good illustration of how to adapt comic book characters, but first, we need a little background as to why this is so important.

Spoilers ahead for recent episodes and storylines of the CW’s Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow.

A History of Characters

Superhero stories are character driven. It is the nature of the media they come from. Most superhero comics are released in the form of monthly titles, many of which have been going on with little or nothing in the way of breaks for decades. This means that they are designed to hinge on the central characters in ways that many other media are not. Creating a new title begins with the creation of a character. Superheroes are frequently designed to be plug and play; you pick one up and insert them into any one of a limitless number of permutations of similar stories. The status quo is frequently returned, and while there are occasions of character development, the characters will maintain some core elements that make them who they are. When you want a story with, say, Spider-Man, you want to tell a story about good guy Peter Parker who struggles but ultimately does the right thing, whether or not that action will end up rewarding him; if you want to tell a Superman story, it means your story will be about an invincible man who does only good. Getting the character’s personality and core elements are crucial because it is the reason you would choose to tell a story with that character rather than another.

Another factor is the sheer volume of superhero comics. Superheroes are partially defined over time, as more and more stories find new ways of exploring parts of their personalities. So when adapting a superhero into another media, a great wealth of source materials are available for inspiration. Even in situations where someone is changing a specific comic or event, there’s plenty of room for alterations to the story, because in the decades that some of these characters have been around, there’s a possible precedent for whatever new twist you would like to add. So again, the importance is on getting the character right, because your level of faithfulness to the plot of the source material is not entirely expected; the bulk of adaptation rests heavily on the character.

All in all, I would say personally that this is why television is often a better media for superheroes than film. The film has budgets that allow for some impressive visuals and actors, but superhero movies are fewer and farther in between, and therefore tend to focus on adapting the significant events. Television, much like comics, is serialized and can choose to tell big stories or small stories on a week by week basis. You get more parts of a character’s world through television, and I think it is no small coincidence that some of the best adaptations of both Marvel and DC properties have been their animated series counterparts.

So, with these properties as a basis, let’s take a look at how the CW did them poorly and how they did them well, starting with:

Bad Example: Arrow’s New Canary

Character adaptation has been a point of contention on Arrow since day one, with perhaps no more polarizing a character than Laurel Lance, the eventual Black Canary. Dinah Laurel Lance of the comics is Black Canary, a critical character to Green Arrow’s supporting cast, and one of DC’s oldest and most famous female superheroes in her right. Her presence on the show was a given, but when she appeared in the pilot, so many details were just wrong. The character in the comics is fun, somewhat impulsive, and a martial arts progeny; she is frequently a moral figure, but in an encouraging, idealistic way, not particularly in an aggressive, judgemental, or rule-oriented kind of way. The show’s version was not. The writers had stated in interviews, when they wrote her character in the pilot, it was not with the kind of superhero she could be later down the line in mind, it was entirely based on what they needed out of the character in the first episode, which was the super serious, antagonistic, moral center/love interest, similar to characters like Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins and Carol Ferris in the Green Lantern movie.

While a point of Arrow has always been the characters developing into the ones we know (hence the title referring to Arrow instead of Green Arrow, and the show taking four years to work up to that name for the central character), Laurel just never quite got there. She remained serious, grim, not particularly good at fighting, and took three years to take on the role of Black Canary, and even then only after another character had been introduced in the role who was a much better fit and then was killed off to give Laurel a shot. This led to a significant amount of unpopularity for the character Laurel, and that is not just a general statement; she frequently came in dead last on favorite character polls for most of her seasons, and when you search for ‘worst character on Arrow,’ she comes up by a landslide. Her unpopularity, along with some poor planning on the writers’ part, led to her being killed off in season four, leaving the CW without a Black Canary. Moreover, this is where season five comes in.

Arrow Season 5’s 11th episode, “Second Chances” introduced a new character named Dinah Drake (hey, that’s Black Canary’s name in the Golden Age), who has a sonic scream (Black Canary’s superpower, which Laurel never had), is already a skilled hand to hand fighter, and has a backstory involving a dead detective love interest (which was part of Black Canary’s Golden Age history). Great pains have apparently been taken to craft a new character that matches to an almost unprecedented degree her comic book counterpart; keep in mind, being generous with who you count as an adaptation of the character, this is the 6th time Black Canary has been adapted into live action, and by far this is the most faithful to her comic backstory. The problem? She is still not particularly faithful to the personality of the character.

Dinah Drake is serious. She comes from a serious job (police officer), has a serious backstory (her boyfriend murdered in front of her), and is very serious about what she does in the episode (follow the path of revenge). While many elements built into this character are direct translations of aspects of her comics counterpart, they miss the spirit of the character. Black Canary was always fun, not particularly serious or tragic. When her detective husband died in the comics, it was less a formative event that set her on her superhero path; it was just an in-story reason why she moved from Earth-2 to Earth-1 and started dating Green Arrow. When we see her dealing with a job in the comics, it is usually something trivial and low maintenance, like a flower shop owner, or else she might just be lounging around the house, reluctant to go job hunting; the show, on the other hand, pins her as a driven detective. While Dinah Drake has many faithfully adapted elements that Laurel did not have, she still has several of the same problems at the root of her character, namely that she just doesn’t (yet) have the personality that makes the comics version so fun.

In a way, she is endemic of Arrow’s whole problem, as her character is close to Black Canary, but run through the same grim and dark filter that Oliver himself has been. The character has been a recurring issue on Arrow, and that starts with Oliver himself. The show wants to present us with a Dark Knight inspired take on Green Arrow, a man with a tortured past trying to make up for the monster he thought he’d become, when the character in the comics is basically Robin Hood in modern day; a merry man with a bow and arrow protecting the underprivileged because he sees it as the right thing to do. Arrow upped the tragedy and darkness, and while it made for engaging stories at a point when the character had not yet developed into the one we recognized from the comics, that promised transition into Green Arrow never really came. As with the rest of the show, there’s still a good foundation with this new Dinah Drake, and with good writing, I hope the character will develop into a closer version of what fans want; but given the show’s history, this is not a guarantee.

Good Example: Supervillain Team-Up of Doom!

Legends of Tomorrow, on the other hand, exists possibly on the farthest end of the spectrum from Arrow in the CW’s stable of DC Comics shows. Legends is a superhero ensemble, featuring a team up unique to the CW, starring characters culled from Arrow and The Flash. While the team bears a heavy tonal influence from the Forgotten Heroes and the Justice League International, it has no direct comic counterpart in name or lineup. This season, they have been on the trail of a supervillain team that is similarly very close to original, the Legion of Doom. While named for the supervillain team from Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends, the Legion of Doom of Legends consists of Reverse Flash, Damien Darhk, and Malcolm Merlyn, none of which were involved with the Superfriends’ version of the team. The 2nd season episode “Legion of Doom,” which aired the same week as Arrow’s “Second Chances,” opted to experiment with narrative, and devote a whole episode to the villains. In doing so, they gave us one of the best adaptations of DC lore and character personality that any DC project has ever put to screen.

The character is central to Legends in a way that it is not to the other shows. Legends are based around an ensemble of superheroes, cramped together on time traveling spaceship, popping from period to period. Because of this, there are very few in the way of recurring roles who are not series regulars, and because every member of the main crew is superheroes, they all have reasons why they are useful to the team (and therefore to the plot). Because of this, the characters of the central team are wasted a lot less than the supporting cast of the other CW shows, thus resulting in stronger characterizations. Also, because none of them is the lead character, they are allowed a little more freedom regarding personality traits. Green Arrow of the comics is an intensely vocal liberal, but as the lead of his show, this aspect of his personality has been severely underplayed, likely in the interest of not alienating any members of the audience; the Legends, on the other hand, balance each other out, meaning one can be hyper feminist while another more patriarchally regressive, for example.

In terms of DC lore, they also take inspiration from basically anywhere in the comics they want to (and even animation); past episodes have operated in cowboy times and played with the character Jonah Hex, while an upcoming episode will be based out of Camelot, with a title that alludes to an obscure DC series from the 80’s, Camelot 3000. Because most of the main cast are originally from other CW shows, they even get the chance to play with lore from Arrow or The Flash, the latter of which comes to a head in the episode “Legion of Doom.”

The Legion of Doom are seeking a magical MacGuffin that will give them ultimate power, standard supervillain stuff, but the focus of the episode is how they operate as a team, or more accurately, how they do not. The Legion members are supervillains, meaning they each have their agendas and egos. What they are teaming up is a tentative business relationship done exclusively in the hope of being able to accomplish something none can do on their own. Suspicions of betrayal and ulterior motives lead the team members to investigate each other, all culminating in the villains managing to work together to defeat the Black Flash, the personification of death in speedster form.

None of this is anything that’s ever happened in the comics. The Legion of Doom has never fought a team of time-traveling superheroes over the Spear of Destiny, and they have most certainly not fought the Black Flash, a monster that’s only ever appeared in a handful of Flash comics. Moreover, yet all of this works because they got the characters right. The good guys, the bad guys, even the Black Flash’s role as a grim reaper specifically for speedsters, all of it was right. Most of these characters have not interacted with each other in the ways they did in this episode ever before, and yet, what they did here was behaving as these characters could be expected to based on their established personalities and roles. The episode set up some known quantities in an unknown situation and then hit play, letting everything transpire as it should.  This is not just the key to adapting superheroes well; this is the key to solid superhero storytelling even in the original comics.

The bottom line is that this is a media where character and personality are among the most important elements to adapt to get the feel of the product ‘right.’ Superheroes are not that hard; their universes are built to let writers play with just about anything they want, from grim, street level, true crime stories, to ridiculous, sci-fi or fantasy adventures. What links all of this together, and allows it to make some semblance of sense, is the consistency of personality of the characters involved. You can have Batman fighting mafia thugs in a dark alley, or you can have him battling dinosaurs on a tropical island, and both situations make sense as long as Batman is behaving like Batman. You can have live action, Batman, fighting a grounded, nihilistic Joker or fighting Superman himself, and it can work as long as he is behaving like Batman, and if he is not, then the whole thing falls apart. When you break it all down, for superheroes, both in their original comics and in adaptations, the character is key.

This post was written by

He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn’t paying attention.

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