There are two things that are universally known among fans of popular graphic novels: there will eventually be a movie made about it, and they will anticipate the production with both eagerness and trepidation. While the Tintin graphic novel phenomenon never really penetrated the shores of the United States, the movie adaptation has received the full Hollywood treatment like no other graphic novel property in history. The recently released The Adventures of Tintin, was directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by he and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings trilogy) and set to music by living legend John Williams (Star Wars). However, the most important input is the one it is lacking, that of Tintin creator Georges Remi, aka Hergé, who died in 1983.
“The author’s vision is what’s lost,” informs writer Kaja Blackley, who is not only alive now, but was when the 1995 Graphic Novel he created, Dark Town, about a man in a coma battling his subconscious in order to save his own life, was used as the source material for the 2001 Brendan Fraser vehicle Monkeybone. What is lost when an intimately created work is filtered though the collective effort that is film-making? “A true page of sequential art is a road map of an artist’s thought process, mental anguish and eventual enlightenment. It’s a personal journey that each individual reader gets to take part in.”
TinTin fans looking at the feature's array of talent are likely to draw confidence from it, but for a creator that has seen his own work make that leap, hope is not be enough, “Fans have a right to expect that during the transition from graphic novel to film the source material will not be diluted and the integrity of the novel and its characters remain intact. Hollywood development execs are taught that if you adapt something, you change the material to suit your own needs. I would argue that you don’t need to change a strong concept, only flesh it out.”
That fleshing out process is what turned Dark Town into Monkeybone, “The phone rang at my studio one afternoon and [producer and director] Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) was on the line. He said something to me like, 'We share the same brain' and 'I’ve been searching for a project like this for a very long time.' He flew me down to California for a few days and we hashed out a series of ideas for the studio pitch. I was most impressed with the beautiful sets that he and his team had built for Dark Town. It was amazing to see my characters in 3D. We continued to talk on the phone and he visited me in Toronto, but as the project grew wings and more people became involved with the movie, I was phased out. C’est la vie.”
Monkeybone went on to become a flop both critically and commercially. Of its reported $75 million budget, it recouped just over 10 percent. On the two most popular film review aggregators, it holds a 40 out of 100 on Metacritic and just a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Film critic for Variety, Dennis Harvey, perhaps zeroed in on the problem in his review upon its release, “[It] wastes little time lowering imaginative expectations via hackneyed characters, stale/underdeveloped conflicts and puerile jokes that presumably water down the source material, Kaja Blackley and [artist] Vanessa Chong's '95 graphic novel.” The Adventures of Tintin on the other hand is on target to ride its star power, massive international fan base and well-timed family friendly release date to a big opening, but it is facing its own share of criticism for its computer generated characters and in particular for its action set pieces from reviewers including Rodger Ebert.
While Spielberg was reported to have received Hergé's blessing to make a Tintin film before the creator's death, The Adventures of Tintin was produced under the auspices of the Hergé Foundation which carefully holds the rights to Hergé's creations. Blackley is living, perhaps living down, Monkeybone and even after over ten years his opinion hasn't softened, “I think it’s crap, and that’s not sour grapes talking. I made the decision to sell the rights and I was paid in full. And truthfully, there is no one I would have allowed to develop Dark Town but Henry Selick. He’s an exceptionally talented man. Unfortunately, he allowed my material to be diluted and changed to the point that it lost its value and became completely unrecognizable.”It's a possibility that the great variance between the source material and the final film will help Dark Town fans, and fans of other comic properties made into poor movies, retain their love of the original book. The distinction could even allow the uninitiated to enjoy it without realizing its connection to its filmatic counterpart. Either way, Kaja Blackley has moved on. Today, he is the Chief Creative Director of the graphic novel publisher Art House 7. They have just released an all-ages book Kid K-OS and next year will release The Assassin’s Telegram written and drawn by Blackley.
Tintin fans, like those of Dark Town (and Watchmen and V for Vendetta and 300 etc...) are now stuck, for good or ill, with a different vision of their favorite book than the singular one they shared with that book's creator, but those creators, like Kaja Blackley are not entirely maudlin on the concept, “Although sequential art and film are cousins and share the same alphabet, the vernacular of each is quite different from the other. For that very reason, fans should not expect an exact replica of their beloved title. A quality hybrid is all you can wish for.”