Sans Superheroes, Comic Books Surge to the Big Screen

Art of Adaptation: WHITEOUT, SURROGATES

Hollywood's recent love affair with comic books doesn't stop with superheroes, as this month's box office proves.

In the next two weeks, two movies based on comic books – this weekend's "Whiteout" with Kate Beckinsale and the Sept. 25th release "Surrogates" with Bruce Willis – won't have an ounce of spandex involved, reflecting a trend toward more and more non-superhero comic books getting scooped up by Hollywood for adaptation into film.

"Hollywood has been turned onto comics in a way that they actually haven't been before," said Greg Rucka, who wrote "Whiteout" in 1998 for publisher Oni Press and its sequel, "Whiteout: Melt."

"Hollywood people tend to be people who are, in my experience, very visually oriented people," Rucka said. "And if you put a novel in front of them, they are less inclined to really dive into that novel. But if you can put in front of them a story that combines prose with images, they get that. And they get that much more quickly, and can see a translation to film much more effortlessly. So it's not just about superheroes – I think now, it's about comics."

With the recent success of cape-free comic book movies like "300" and "Wanted" – along with the upcoming films based on comics like "Kick-Ass" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" – Hollywood has quietly been sneaking a surge of comic book movies into theaters without most movie-goers even realizing it.

"There's a little line on the corner of the poster that says it's based on a graphic novel," Rucka said with a laugh. "And I think it says something in the credits. So I'm not sure anyone will know it was a comic."

[Here's a look at 8 films some people may not have known are based on comic books]

But the trend also presents a bit of a challenge because the creator's visual story is often drastically changed, something that many comic book fans don't like and even some creators have publicly decried – such as "V for Vendetta" and "Watchmen" comics author Alan Moore. While popular superheroes have been touched by various writers and artists over the decades since they were created, the non-superhero properties being optioned by Hollywood are owned by one or two people, and both they and their fans tend to be a little more possessive of the story.

"It's very strange because, in all honesty, what [artist] Steve [Lieber] and I created and what ultimately made it to the screen – you can see the roots of it, but it's a very different animal," Rucka said of "Whiteout." "But I went into the process eyes wide open. That's one of the things they paid us for the opportunity to do. I don't have a problem with that."

"I know among comic book fans, there's a lot of that concern," said Robert Venditti, who wrote the "The Surrogates" comic book for publisher Top Shelf, with art by Brett Weldele. "But the way I looked at it from the very beginning, and the way I still look at it, is as a big compliment that people would want to spend their time and energy on something that I'd written. When you go to the set and there are 250 people working in Boston on this film – from the directors to the set builders and prop guys – they're working on this project for four months of their lives.

"I've already told the story the way I wanted to tell it in the book, so I let them bring their creativity to it the way they wanted to," he said. "And I just tried not to get caught up so much in the exact translation of it to the screen."

While some comic book movies – in particular, "300," "Sin City" and this year's "Watchmen" – have been much closer to taking a literal translation from the comic book to the movie, Rucka said he doesn't think all comics are able to be translated that way.

"You could never have taken 'Whiteout,' as [artist] Steve [Lieber] and I created it, and make a movie out of it just out of the graphic novel," Rucka said. "You couldn't do what they did with, for instance, '300.' It's not going to survive a shot-for-shot translation. I mean, if for no other reason, we tell you who did it in the first issue of the graphic novel. There would be no mystery if you filmed that. That doesn't make for a good movie.

"I think in some cases Hollywood has been slavishly literal, to their detriment, of both novels and comics," he said. "And in other cases, they've taken liberties that have made for very good movies. And I think we have to be mindful of that."

[Want to judge for yourself, click here to read the first 33 pages of the original "Whiteout" graphic novel.]

Although there are several changes from "The Surrogates" comic book to the "Surrogates" movie, Venditti pointed out that the key elements of his comic are there, which are the parts he cared most about.

"There are a few things I definitely wanted to see in the film. I wanted my characters to be there. And I wanted the subtext and commentary that I was driving for in the comics to be there. And the relationship between the main character and his wife was very central to the story, and the effect that the surrogates had on their marriage, I wanted that to be in the film," Venditti said. "All those things have been retained in the film. So obviously the changed some things, added characters and subplots, but basically, the core story is the same. And that's what's important to me.

"If my sci-fi thriller had gone into the Hollywood sausage machine and come out the other end a romantic comedy, I'd be pretty bummed. But that's not the case here. I'm actually thrilled with what I've seen," he said.

Rucka said "Whiteout" also kept the uniquely harsh and stark artistic tone of the "Whiteout" comic when translating the story, which was set in Antarctica, into a movie.

"The film has a great sense of the environment and never really loses it," Rucka said. "They did a beautiful job of not only capturing Steve's visuals literally, but even the feel of his visuals."

Both Rucka and Venditti said they were consulted on this movies, but neither felt like they had a significant impact.

"My involvement was terribly limited, and frankly, to be perfectly honest, far more than I would have imagined they'd even extend to me. You know? Because I was the writer of the comic. I wasn't the screenwriter. I wasn't involved in the film," Rucka said. "That they even invited me in and wanted my opinion was flattering."

As more than 40 comic book properties are in some stage of production and dozens others are optioned for film, there seems to be a slew of comic book properties being eyed by Hollywood – but many never make it to the screen. While "Surrogates" was turned into a movie only three years after its original publication in 2006, "Whiteout" was stuck in film-option limbo for almost a decade.

"Steve and I had reached a point where we just thought we'd start living off the options. We'd be 80 and this thing would be optioned again," Rucka said. "I actually never thought they'd do it."

"A lot of it is out of your control once it's optioned, and you just don't know if it's going to make it to the film stage," Venditti said. "But 'Surrogates' was unique in that it was made so quickly. You talk to a lot of people – producers and things like that – and they'll say, 'What are you working on now?' And you'll tell them. And they'll say, well, I'll tell you right now that it's not going to go into production as quickly as Surrogates did.

Although Rucka is currently writing comics for DC involving both Superman and Batman characters, he's got another non-superhero comic book property for Oni Press that is moving toward a possible movie – the spy thriller "Queen and Country".

"For reasons that have never become clear to me, the first draft of the screenplay for 'Queen and Country' was set aside," Rucka said. "But just recently, a young man named Ryan Condal was given the assignment to write the screenplay. And I've actually spoken to him a couple of times, and I read one of his screenplays already. And I think the comic is in very good hands. He's very talented."

And although Rucka admitted he never thought "Whiteout" would make it to the theaters, he believes "Queen and Country" might be among the next phase of non-superhero comic book movies that Hollywood brings to the big screen.

"I think it may happen!" he said. "I think we may be getting close."

More on Newsarama:

  • Movie 'Whiteout' Gets Antarctic Science Right

  • Whiteout Graphic Novel 33-page Preview
  • Movie Review: ‘Whiteout'
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