Before the new Godzilla film hits theaters, the screenwriter is giving fans a peek at the monster's mythology in this week's release of Godzilla: Awakening, a graphic novel that serves as a prequel to the movie.
The 80-page story is co-written by Godzilla scribe Max Borenstein and his cousin, Greg Borenstein. Taking place in Japan in the aftermath of World War II, the story shows how some of the characters portrayed in the film first encountered Godzilla — and why he rises from the depths of the ocean to fight against adversarial threats to mankind.
And similar to the original, 1954 Japanese film Godzilla, the graphic novel's portrayal of the monster echoes the destruction by the atomic bombs that ended World War II. Yet Borenstein told Newsarama that the new Godzilla film shows the monster as a manifestation of humanity's fear of nature — not only the epic natural disasters that still plague modern man, but also our role in their making.
The graphic novel is being released by Legendary Comics (whose film division, Legendary Pictures, is working with Warner Bros. on the film). It's illustrated by Eric Battle, Yvel Guichet, Alan Quah and Lee Loughridge, with cover art by Arthur Adams.
Newsarama talked to Borenstein to find out more about Godzilla and this week's release of Godzilla: Awakening.
Newsarama: Max, this story is a prequel to the movie, right? What we see is an origin for one of the characters in the film, and of course an earlier contact between the monsters of this world and humans. Can you describe how it ties to the film?
Max Borenstein: Well, I don't want to give away any spoilers, but in a sense, it's an origin story for a character in the film. It's certainly an origin story for an organization that has a presence in the film.
It is a lost tale from the archives, one story that predates the events of the film.
I think one of the interesting challenges in it, without giving away too much about the film, as you can tell by the end of the comic book, humanity at large has little knowledge of Godzilla's presence. There is a small group of people with privileged information that he exists.
By extension, one might assume that the beginning of the film, the baseline level there, is that most of humanity has no idea that Godzilla exists.
Obviously, it's not giving anything away to suggest that by the end of the events of the film, having seen what happens to San Francisco in all the press, humanity's going to know.
But the challenge here was, how do you tell an interesting story about Godzilla that takes place before the events of the film, but that also preserves enough of the mystery to allow for a state at the beginning of the film where he's still a mysterious presence, unknown to humanity, as if you're actually living in today, 2014. If Godzilla rose tomorrow, we would all be quite surprised.
Nrama: The graphic novel comes out nine days before the film, and it seems like there's a lot of good information in this book that explains what's going to happen in the film. Was there a concern about spoiling too much?
Borenstein: There is a lot of good information in this graphic novel, but I don't think there are any spoilers for the film. Again, I don't want to give away too much, but the adversary creature in the graphic novel is not, in fact, the same as what we will initially see in the film, although the organization that takes shape in the graphic novel and some of the characters will then populate the film to come.
So I think, in that sense, it really is an additive modular unit that will give you, hopefully, an added appreciation for the film while at the same time standing on its own, but really not encroach on any of the surprises that the film has to offer.
Nrama: When the original Godzilla film came out in 1954, it seemed to serve as a metaphor for the destruction that Japan experienced from the atomic bombs at the end of World War II. This graphic novel really echoes that analogy, doesn't it?
Borenstein: That's certainly present in the graphic novel.
I think one of the interesting things about Godzilla is that he did begin as a walking metaphor for nuclear annihilation, he got popular as a metaphor for the world's nuclear fears, and then he evolved over the course of 30-odd films to countless different iterations and represented countless different fears. He became a vessel for whatever the fear of the moment was — whatever made humanity feel powerless in the face of.
There were films that represent the fear of something coming from outer space. There are films where Godzilla is balancing against environmental degradation, genetic mutation — everything you can imagine.
I think one of the interesting things about the character is the way that he, in some sense, is a metaphor for something larger than any one particular fear.
If you had to sum all of those, or find the common denominator, Godzilla represents our relationship with the natural world. It's our powerlessness as humanity in the face of larger forces, whatever those larger forces might be.
And that's a fear that hits at a really primal spot, because we, as human beings, have this belief in our own ability to control our surroundings by technology, by intelligence, etcetera. And there's nothing that shakes that fear like a 350-foot radioactive, walking lizard.
Nrama: Or these days, a 350-foot tsunami, or an earthquake or mudslide.
Borenstein: That's exactly it. Godzilla, in that sense, stands in for all of those things, you know, for whatever it might be.
We live in an age now, I think, an age of the natural disaster, you know? The age of the epic natural disaster that's exacerbated, frequently, by our own hubris or our own mistakes, whether it be a drilling platform or a power plant or a levy. These are human designs that fail in the face of events that are both natural and often times themselves spurred by human activity, in a way that super storms have gotten worse and worse because of climate change.
That feels, to me, and that resonated to me as a fear of the moment, and something that's very ever-present.
And Godzilla stands in perfectly for that.
Nrama: You alluded to all the different versions of Godzilla. As you were creating your version of Godzilla for the graphic novel and film, where do you think it falls, if you had to compare it to the Godzilla we've seen in past movies. Was there a certain take that you were emulating at all?
Borenstein: I think, in a tonal sense, this Godzilla is most similar to the original Japanese version of the film. And what I mean by that is that creature is a stand-in for nuclear war, and there's certainly an element of that that carries through our film. But the tone that they approached that with — this very somber, furious tone that said, OK, our one buy-in is we're going to have a lizard rise from the bay and stomp into Tokyo, but beyond that, everything is going to be authentic, realistic, scientific. It's going to be a real military response. It's not going to be aliens from outer space also. It's not going to put a hat on top of a hat. The one buy-in is this lizard, and let's go.
And I think that tone is something we tried very hard to emulate and to aspire to in our approach.
And so in that sense, I think this Godzilla is probably most similar and harks back the most to that film, of all the ones in the franchise.
Nrama: Yeah, that makes sense, because the graphic novel takes place in Japan right at the end of World War II, and you included real historic figures from that era. To me, the book felt grounded in the history of our own world.
Borenstien: I'm glad. I think it's always a fine line to walk when you're dealing with real historic events — and especially with real historical tragedies, or any event where lives were lost.
So it's sensitive in that way, but it's also — that's what stories do. Stories are designed to be able to help us as humanity navigate the more difficult things that there are to think about in the world, and Godzilla did that in 1954, nine years after the actual events, closer to them than we are now to 9/11. And that's insane.
And that's what made it so powerful.
So I think to be able to tell a story that's respectful of that, but that also is not afraid to seize on the real events in the world around us that do resonate and that do strike a cord with us, that's your obligation as a storyteller.
Nrama: What was it like working with an artist?
Borenstein: That was just so gratifying. In a film, it's similar, except in a film you've got 500 people working on it. So your proximity, both time-wise and orders of magnitude or distance from the actual finished product is that much farther in a film, whereas in a comic, really, one person could make it. And in this case, a handful of people made it.
So you get to really interact and interface and give feedback, and to see the way that another artist interprets your vision and your descriptions is something that's really exciting.
Greg was my co-writer in this — he's my cousin — and it was a completely collaborative process between the two of us on the writing, and then obviously, with the artists going forward, that was just really gratifying.
Nrama: What were the biggest differences between writing a graphic novel and a movie, particularly with similar characters?
Borenstein: One big difference, I suppose, is that in writing a screenplay, one is frequently forced to think about reality and logistics, in terms of how you might capture an image, whether it be through CGI or getting reality to comport to what you're trying to do — less and less, nowadays, thanks to CGI, but there are budgetary restraints and things like that. So there's a bit more of an open, blank canvas, in terms of what you're allowed to devise without any budgetary limitations to a comic book.
However, I think there are really more similarities than differences. The big differences come in more at the technical level, you know? The difference in the media, between these two media, of how stories get told.
Obviously, there are fundamental differences, and there are just sort of stylistic differences. Usually, in a comic book, plot compression is tremendous compared to a film, and films are pretty efficient, in terms of conveying plot over, let's say, the course of two hours. But in a comic book, you've got a lot more compression and a lot more leeway, in terms of jumping around time. It's a bit more of a serialized feel of the narrative, so you have the opportunity to take a few more risks, jumping, let's say, months ahead at some point when you want to. But in a film, you have to be careful about some of those things because it'll really break your flow and the story and an audience, once they've become invested in the story you're telling.
I think, in a sense, writing a graphic novel is a bit more like writing a series for television, from a structural perspective than it is like a film. Then again, you compress that plot and that dialogue in a far more efficient manner in a comic book. So it's not necessary, like in a film, a sense of a realistic kind of conversation flowing over the course of two minutes. You might get that out in two panels.
Certainly, the only place we could start was, let's try to tell a compelling story that will hopefully dovetail nicely with the film, without giving anything away or spoiling anything that you wouldn't want spoiled, but serve as a nice embellishment and companion piece.