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Is TV the Natural Medium of Comic Book Adaptations?

It recently surfaced that David E. Kelley (creator of Ally McBeal and The Practice) is working on a Wonder Woman television show. Presumably it will be somewhat less campy than the Linda Carter version. Last month news broke that there are plans for a television version of Neil Gaiman’s epic story The Sandman. Later this month we’re see the airing of a live action version of Robert Kirkman’s critically acclaimed zombie comic book The Walking Dead. Part of me wonders if this is the logical shift in the market. After all, comic books arguably have more in common with television than they do with movies. So is this the real future of these adaptations?

It's a Wonder we didn't think of this earlier...

It’s worth noting that comic book adaptations aren’t exactly new to television. Everyone remembers the classic live action Batman! and Wonder Woman television series, which – while favouring a light touch to the material – demonstrated that the stories could be told in a week-on-week format. Hell, even more recently, Superman has been more active on live-action television (with Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville) than he has been on the big screen. And, despite what Entourage would have you believe, Aquaman has come closest to a live action adaptation as a television pilot with Ving Rhames rather than as a potential Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster.

It really makes sense. Most comic books are told over extended periods. A great many – such as Kirkman’s The Walking Dead – aren’t written with an end in mind. Those series which are finite – Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man or Ex Machina or Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman – typically run for many years, rather than serving as a short run.

Although movies tend to be the preferred mode of adaptation – with every superhero and their mother getting a live action movie – it’s worth considering that a movie needs a beginning, a middle and an end. This means that even extended franchises – like Superman or Tim Burton’s Batman – can’t help but feel episodic. Lately some movies have used the format to tell a great arc – Bryan Singer’s X-Men II feels like a continuation of the first, and The Dark Knight feels like the second act in an epic Batman tale – but the problem remains. No matter well a film does, it can never truly condense its character so thoroughly that they will perfectly fit in a two-hour runtime.

Can the walking dead hit the ground running?

As such, television feels like a better fit for these stories. In the past decade, we’ve even seen a slow move away from stand-alone episodes towards somewhat grander arcs. Some of the better series do both – each episode can stand on its own, but fits as a better part of the whole. That said, there’s no denying that some of the more popular series of the past few years (like The Wire or The Sopranos) have been structured almost as chapters in the same book:

David Simon, despairing of and despising most mainstream US television dramas, wants to force viewers of The Wire to concentrate and work hard for the show’s rewards, just as they would when reading a challenging book.

In a sense, The Wire’s aims are literary. “Our models are the big Russian novels,” says Simon, “and also writers like Balzac. We’re trying to do with modern-day Baltimore what Balzac did with Paris, or Dickens with London.” This isn’t quite the boast it sounds; The Wire’s contributing writers include several novelists, including Simon himself and the acclaimed crime writers Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. “The show is structured like a visual novel,” says Simon, “and these writers understand the complexity of theme.”

As such, the ability to tell an expansive story over an extended period of the time is the hallmark of the medium. In fact, people have wondered if some of the bigger comic book movies of the past number of years (most notably Watchmen) might have worked better as a miniseries (which was, incidentally how Terry Gillaim imagined it when he was attached to the project).

The other side of that coin is that most of these productions need a huge budget in order to realise them. The Sandman needs the production values of The Lord of the Rings if it’s going to work on screen. The Walking Dead looks like it has the necessary budget to realise its post-apocalyptic world, but it’ll be interesting to see how the later episodes in the season look (as the budget traditionally gets tight). That said, if television can bring a show like Deadwood to life in all its wonderful historical glory, it should be able to match the scale needed for these sorts of productions.

I think television and comics have the potential to be a match made in heaven. After all, the BBC has consistently demonstrated over the years that they do the very best book adaptations. Compare their version of Pride & Prejudice to the Kiera Knightly version, for example, or simply watch their epic and sprawling version of I, Claudius (it’s a classic). Although perhaps the plans for Stephen King’s The Dark Tower indicate that television can now be taken seriously as a medium of adaptation.

2 Responses

  1. Considering how TV seems to be working itself into another Golden Age, I wouldn’t doubt that frequent comic adaptations aren’t too far behind.

    I think once 3D becomes fully integrated into 3D, you’ll see the number of such adaptations go skyrocketing.

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