When comics become movies — with no superhero in sight

For most people, when you mention films based on comics, superheroes immediately spring to mind — but comics are a medium not a genre, and in some of the best adaptations there isn’t a cape or pair of tights to be found. Take Ghost World (2001), which first brought Scarlett Johansson to the world’s attention and won Dan Clowes an Oscar nomination for his screenplay based on his own graphic novel. Or the acclaimed Tom Hanks vehicle Road to Perdition (2002), based on a comic by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Then there was the controversial lesbian love story Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), which was adapted from Jul Maroh’s graphic novel and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Very much in this superhero-free tradition is the upcoming film Paris, 13th District, directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone), which explores the complex sexual relations of a group of millennials living in the Olympiades district of Paris. It is adapted from short stories by comics artist and writer Adrian Tomine (mostly his book Killing and Dying), who enjoys a rare position as a cartoonist: he is highly regarded by the literary establishment, his work championed by the likes of Zadie Smith.

And films are Tomine’s other great passion. “I became obsessed with comics at the same early stage in my life that I became obsessed with film,” he says. “As I was teaching myself how to make comics, I was using my dad’s Super 8 camera to make little movies. I think I ended up pursuing comics because they were so much easier and cheaper — and didn’t require friends.”

A page from Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel, ‘Killing and Dying’, on which ‘Paris, 13th District’ is largely based

When it came to considering a screen adaptation, Tomine’s top priority was trusting the person to whom he was turning over his material. “I’m by nature very protective of my work and sceptical of these endeavours. Things really changed when it was Jacques Audiard reaching out to me. I had said no to opportunities for so many years . . . That was important to me: having a really good working relationship, not a combative or terrifying one.”

Tomine’s experience is in stark contrast to that of the creators of the iconic 1990s comic character Tank Girl. On paper, the futuristic punk seemed a perfect anti-heroine for the big screen at the height of the grunge era in 1995, and Hollywood studio MGM snapped it up for adaptation. The comic was the work of writer Alan Martin and artist Jamie Hewlett, the latter of whom went on to co-create the virtual band Gorillaz with Damon Albarn. Entering into negotiations with the studio, however, youngsters Martin and Hewlett lacked the kind of cultural currency Tomine now has. Comics also had nowhere near the critical respect back then in the US and UK that they enjoy today. (The situation was different in countries such as France and Japan, where comics have always been highly regarded.)

Gorillaz cartoonist and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett
Gorillaz cartoonist and ‘Tank Girl’ artist Jamie Hewlett © Getty

Hewlett recalls the film shoot as something out of one of their own strips. “It was the first time we ever went to Los Angeles. We had Mohicans and Doc Martens so we went to Oxfam and bought really bad suits. MGM wanted to dazzle us, so we flew over first class.”

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. “For us it was all about putting a female character in a comic book and making her strong and giving her something to do and her being as outrageous as possible. They misunderstood the whole idea.” Hewlett and Martin were well treated by the studio, but quickly realised their input wasn’t wanted. “The only thing I managed to get in the film was the opening scene,” says Hewlett. “They wanted her riding in on a white horse, and I managed to change it to her drunk on a water buffalo. Kind of like Lawrence of Arabia, but drunk.”

‘Tank Girl’, the 1995 film — Hewlett says Hollywood misunderstood the character and, for example, wanted her riding a white horse
‘Tank Girl’, the 1995 film — Hewlett says Hollywood misunderstood the character and, for example, wanted her riding a white horse © Suzanne Tenner/United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock

Hewlett recalls his youthful naivety with good humour. “Our manager at the time struck a deal with MGM that we weren’t even part of. We got something like £50,000 in our bank account. We thought we were rich! Alan went out and bought the biggest Scalextric set, and we built a giant track in our spare room. Then we realised we didn’t have any rights and that the deal was appalling.”

The difficulties inherent in translating comics to the screen have long plagued filmmakers. One of the contributing factors is the common misconception that the two mediums are basically interchangeable. Both are, after all, sequential visual narratives.

“I would say almost the opposite,” says Tomine. “They may intersect in places, but they’re very distinct. That purity of voice — whether it’s through the artwork or through the words — is hard to achieve in a collaborative medium, which film, by definition, has to be.”

Hewlett agrees: “There’s something about the way stories are told in comics that you can never really translate to cinema. It’s like reading a book. It’s your personal journey, the way you follow a page of drawings; you put your own voices on in your head; you read it at your pace. I believe that some of the greatest living artists are comics artists — but I don’t think that translates easily and naturally to the big screen, which is often why it’s a disappointment. But I think it’s getting better.”

The reason for Hewlett’s optimism is the increasing input of comics creators in these productions. “If Alan Moore had directed The Watchmen movie, I’m sure it would have been brilliant!” he says. “But that’s never going to happen. So, somebody else had to tell the story. It’s removed from the original idea, like a second or third generation photocopy. Take the film Akira [1988] — Kushiro Otomo directed the movie of his own comic. That’s why it was so good.” Another case in point is Marjane Satrapi’s animated film Persepolis. Directed by the comics creator herself, it tells the story of Satrapi’s childhood in Iran following the revolution and won her the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.

Hewlett says Akira (1988) is a good example of a film succeeding because the director (Kushiro Otomo) was the original creator of the comic book
Hewlett says Akira (1988) is a good example of a film succeeding because the director (Kushiro Otomo) was the original creator of the comic book © Capital Pictures

Happily, the increased involvement of comics creators is a trend that both Hewlett and Tomine are benefiting from. Hewlett is in the early stages of adapting his Gorillaz project into a feature film with Netflix. “We’re involved every step of the way. I’m going to direct the movie as well,” he says. Tomine meanwhile recently finished a screenplay based on his graphic novel Shortcomings and is working on a TV adaptation of his most recent book The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist.

Tomine’s experience of the making of Paris, 13th District was very different. “I was not involved,” he admits. “I signed the paperwork and met Mr Audiard once before the film. That was it, really.”

The director has very much made Tomine’s material his own — relocating the action from the US to France and even inserting entirely new characters. Yet somehow, by doing so, he has retained the spirit of Tomine’s work. “There were things that felt very familiar to me, but I was quickly able to detach from watching it in terms of how faithful it was to my work, and just got enveloped in it as its own work of art.

“The film has a youthful energy and a real vibrancy,” continues Tomine, who is now in his late 40s. “The source material was the work of a younger man — younger than I am now, and certainly younger than Jacques Audiard. One of the great strengths of the film is this feeling of being alive and being young, especially at this point in history . . . If he seized on something in my work that led to those qualities, then I’m flattered.”

‘Paris, 13th District’ is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from March 18

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When comics become movies — with no superhero in sight