Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hellboy II and the Problems of Adaptation

X-Men 3, for those of you who forgot, is not a good movie. Working in a comic book shop, though, I learned to keep my mouth shut, lest I crush the hopes of a young, starry-eyed nerd. One day, a week or so after the film had been released, I spoke to a customer about X-Men 3. This customer...we will call him "Weezy"...was very excited about X-Men 3. I inquired, "Why, Weezy, please explain." Weezy responded with excitement that the real name of Gambit, a popular mutant from the comic book, had appeared on a computer screen within the film. Gambit, by many accounts, is the most popular character outside of Wolverine amongst X-Customers. Gambit was not within a hundred miles of the movie. No actor portrayed him, no one mentioned him. He was in no way even peripherally part of the story. But! Weezy! So excited that his name was on a screen! Over the course of the next few days, this same fact was cited by innumerable nerd customers as reason to like the movie. This was when I realized: it is okay to throw comic book fans a bone. They don't need fun, action, a good story, characters. They just need a bone.

There are two great perils to fall into when adapting a comic book, and I have come to know them, respectively, as (1) The Art of Throwing a Bone and (2) The Book's a Storyboard! Wonderful! . While these two problems are nearly antithetical to one another, their source is the same: the stingy hoard of nerdmongers that constitutes a comic-book movie's prime audience. The filmmakers in charge of adapting a comic must find a way to please this unpleasable group of largely-male, detail-oriented shut-ins (I'm not rude I merely speak truth), and this task is by no means an easy one. So, the filmmakers, met with hungry fans that are both fickle and extremely dedicated to the source material, often make one of the aforementioned mistakes in adapting the book to film. They either (1) drop tidbits from the book into the film, referencing an already established mythology and story in order to pretend their film has more depth, character, or story than it actually does, or (2) adhere so strictly the the comic book that it chokes any life out of the film, and often in the process exposes the comic to be sillier than one may have remembered.

For examples of this second kind of mistake, please refer to the following: The ridiculous use of voice over in Sin City, which made the serious-as-a-heart-attack comic book into a funny-as-everyone-talking-to-themselves movie. Or, Ang Lee's Hulk, in which the screen was divided into small panels where people didn't move around much, and new scenes would come about by the "page" turning. Yikes. Or all of the homophobic, homoerotic, I can't tell which 300.

Hellboy, which came out in the summer of 2004, managed to hit on both of these problems. The visuals were lovingly gleaned from the book, but the story had enough holes to where it was practically a prerequisite to have read the book before watching the film. A friend of mine told me after the movie, "I can't help but notice I missed something." That sentence effectively sums up the experience of the first film.

Since then, writer/director Guillermo del Toro made something of a personal break-through with Pan's Labrynth, and it certainly shows in Hellboy II. Guillermo has created, with all it's clunks and creaks, an adaptation that moves away from the two big perils of comic book movies. Most importantly, the story is an original screenplay by Mr. del Toro that is not derived from any specific story in the comic book. This allows him to move around in his own world while still honoring the silly humor, mythology, and personal vingettes that mark the series.

From what I can remember, the movie's plot revolves around an army of ancient mechanical warriors, and they have something to do some ancient, nearly extinct species of elves. This hardly matters, though. The movie is really about Hellboy's struggling relationship with Liz, Abe's lonliness, emotional exposure and isolation. Tecate, extinction, and seeing past appearances. Growing up, connecting with people, and being betrayed. And a hundred more things. Del Toro's narrative is clunky and scattered, but within that is a breadth of subtlety, nimble emotions, and some really funny, bad ass fight scenes.

Narrative fluidity is practically absent from the film. Characters are brought in and out as necessary, and the CGI prologue is a strange, blatant set up that is nowhere near the organic quality of the Harryhausen-inspired prosthetics of the rest of the film. If del Toro wants us to learn a lesson, a character will literally appear, tell us the lesson, and vanish. The difference between this movie and, say, the holocaust that was the new Superman, is that Hellboy never feels bogged down, and always holds on to an addictive fun that remains throughout the whole film. For better and worse, del Toro has created a multidimensional story (perhaps too much so for some viewers) that is always hitting on new action, plot, emotions and visual creativity.

The movie shines when it explores the metaphor of being a monster, and the monsters are myriad. Abe's grace is a joy to watch just as much as Hellboy's awkwardness. Liz in all of her mopyness never moves out of the range of sympathy. From the death of the bean stalk to the troll market underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, del Toro continually manifests different monsters to talk about very human themes. Each character is outcast, misunderstod, or inherently evil, but all of them are caught searching for a solution that they may be destined never to find.

The dichotomy is a poignant one, and most apparent in Hellboy himself. As Abe clicks on his 17th century glasses that allow him to see to the true nature of a creature, Hellboy's sawed-off horns are grown long and his firey crown hangs above his head; a king of hell waiting to get out of a sad funnyman. Del Toro likes to show us that as much as we may think we know who we want to be, we also know who we really are, and that darkness is hard to face.

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