17 Films and TV Shows Inspired by Comics and Graphic Novels that Often Get Mistaken as Films and TV Shows That Weren’t Inspired by Comics and Graphic Novels
1. RED (2010)
With so many comic books getting turned into movies or TV shows these days, you can’t blame the average filmgoer for wondering when the studios are going to stop turning to comic books for inspiration (short answer: “not any time soon”). But while most of the media hoopla focuses on the next big superhero movie to come down the line, the fact is Hollywood has also been busy mining many of the medium’s other non-superhero genres for its plots. Case in point: RED, an action-comedy starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and a few other distinguished actors. The story of a former CIA black ops team brought out of retirement by government-sanctioned attempts on their lives, RED (the title refers to the ex-agents’ file folder: “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”) was based on the 2003 comic of the same name, a three-issue mini-series created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. Fans of original comic might have been put off by the emphasis on comedy in the film (a sense of humor not as prevalent in the books), but Ellis himself didn’t appear to mind, noting the film, which did better than expected at the box office, “needed to generate more material than the book itself actually constituted.” A sequel is in the works, and even if it featured only a quipping Helen Mirren shooting things for two hours it’s hard to imagine how it could miss.
2. A History of Violence (2005)
Comic fans can be a prickly lot when they learn their beloved stories and characters are making the transition to film; witness the organic-vs.-mechanical-shooters flame wars when details about Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film came out. A History of Violence, a 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, was a comic that differed greatly from its film adaptation, but this was a rare case in which most critics agreed the film was the superior of the two. While the basic premise in both is the same (man on the run from the mob starts new life in small town until the mob catches up with him many years later), the film script ditches the comic’s complex flashback structure and rewrites the second half of the book, particularly the relationship between the main character and his criminal brother. Perhaps because the original book did not have a huge following, director David Cronenberg — who admitted in an interview he had no idea he was working on a comic adaptation until well into production — was spared the usual cries of outrage from comic fans. Of course, it also didn’t hurt the movie was a gorgeously filmed piece of art that scored Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (William Hurt, the aforementioned brother).
3. Road to Perdition (2002)
Just so we’re clear, it’s not just Hollywood that’s prone to borrow ideas from other sources. Released in 1998, Max Allan Collins’s Depression-era tale of betrayal and vengeance drew much of its inspiration from the classic Japanese manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, a tale in which an honorable warrior brings his three-year-old son along on a mission of vengeance against those who disgraced him. In Road to Perdition, Irish mob enforcer Michael O’Sullivan finds his wife and son murdered, and it’s up to him to keep his other son safe while he exacts his revenge. It was tautly written, powerful stuff, so it’s no surprise the story was optioned almost immediately by Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks, with production underway just three years after the first graphic novel was published. Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directed the likes of Tom Hanks, Peter Newman (in his final screen appearance), Jude Law and Daniel Craig in key roles, but despite the major star wattage the movie’s six Oscar nominations only netted one, for Best Cinematography.
4. Wanted (2008)
While 2008 may be remembered by comic and film aficionados as the year Iron Man made comic-book movies fun again (and the year The Dark Knight made Heath Ledger an Oscar winner), it was also the year that gave us Wanted, a based-on-a-comic film that proved you didn’t need people to know you were based on a comic to still rake in the dough. First published by Top Cow Comics in 2003, Mark Millar’s book tells the story of a young man who is heir to a career as a super-villain assassin in a world where such villains have secretly taken control of the planet. (In a cute bit of meta-commentary, the villains in the story took over the world in 1986, the same year real-world fans saw their own comics grow darker and grittier with the publication of Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and the like.) The film retained the young-man-inducted-into-action-filled-underworld premise, but the super-villains were turned into self-righteous assassins who take it upon themselves to prevent bad things from happening by executing the people about to cause them (don’t dwell too much on how they know these things; just sit back and enjoy the special effects). And with Angelina Jolie cast as the mysterious yet deadly Fox, it’s understandable why many moviegoers probably missed the “Based on a comic book” credit at the start of the film.
5. 30 Days of Night (2007)
Given the Twilight-fueled frenzy of interest in vampire lore throughout the 2000s, no one can be faulted for assuming 30 Days of Night was an attempt to make a quick buck off those fans who would likely be referred to as “fangbangers” in the fictional world of Sookie Stackhouse novels. Steve Niles’s story about vampires attacking an Alaskan town that experiences a monthlong spell of darkness every winter actually first appeared in 2002, a few years before the Twilight series hit chain bookstores everywhere. Ironically, the story was initially conceived as a film pitch, and Niles took it to IDW Publishing only after no one in Hollywood expressed an interest in filming it. That attitude quickly changed after the mini-series (with art by Ben Templesmith) came out, and soon after its debut Niles was put to work adapting the comic story for the big screen. While the movie bounced around production for the next few years (and Niles worked on pumping out a number of sequels), its 2007 premiere placed it among a not-insignificant number of vampire-related projects that found a receptive audience. The verdict: the film was pretty to look at, but middling reviews and a pronounced lack of brooding and sparkly vampires kept it from reaching Twilight-level heights.
6. Ghost World (2001)
Depicting the rambling story of two average high school graduates navigating the road to adulthood, the “Ghost World” strip debuted in 1993 in the 11th issue of Daniel Clowes’s Eightball, an independent comic featuring a mix of shorter comedic pieces and longer narrative works of fiction (“ghost world” refers to a phrase seen by the characters as graffiti in various places; one possible explanation for its presence in the series is to underline the feelings of alienation the two young women feel as beings that exist on the periphery of the so-called normal world). Clowes didn’t intend to continue his story past that first run, but the mundane adventures of Enid and Rebecca amassed a sizable cult following over the years, especially when the run was collected and reprinted in a single volume. The film adaptation starred Thora Birch and a pre-fame Scarlett Johansson as the disaffected duo, with Steve Buscemi as the sad-sack record collector that enters their lives through a missed connections personal ad. Though the movie did poorly at the box office, it gathered much critical praise and ended up on numerous “Best of 2001” lists, with film critic Roger Ebert declaring his desire to hug the movie: “It takes such a risky journey and never steps wrong. It creates specific, original, believable, lovable characters, and meanders with them through their inconsolable days, never losing its sense of humor.”
7. V for Vendetta (2006)
There’s a good chance V for Vendetta doesn’t belong on this list; after all, it stars a mysterious masked and caped man (portrayed by a never-unmasked Hugo Weaving) fighting the system in a dystopian near-future, and that’s pretty darn close to being a superhero flick. Then again, the main focus of the film is on Natalie Portman’s voyage from innocent bystander to self-aware freedom fighter, and given its British setting and release at a time in history when everyone was sensitive about showing films that put terrorist acts in a positive light, it’s entirely possible a few moviegoers showed up at the theatre unaware of the movie’s source material. The first chapters of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta originally appeared in black and white between 1982 and 1985 in Warrior, a British anthology comic; in 1988, DC Comics published a 10-issue mini-series that introduced color and presented the final chapters. The story of a masked anarchist fighting the system in Britain struck a chord among those opposed to Thatcherism in the 1980s, and its themes of resistance to authority and government oppression still seemed apropos amid the politics of 2006. Disavowed by Moore (who, it should be noted, routinely does the same with film adaptations of his work), the not-quite-following-the-book’s-plot film was greeted with much controversy, especially among those who saw it as, in the words of one critic, “a vile, pro-terrorist piece of neo-Marxist, left-wing propaganda filled with radical sexual politics and nasty attacks on religion and Christianity.” Gosh, imagine if that critic had read the book first.
8. From Hell (2001)
Speaking of Mr. Moore. Those with a passing knowledge of his work can tell you two things about him: the man has an impressive number of top-notch books to his name; and God helps anyone who tries to work with him to make a movie based on any of them. Moore’s status as an A-list comic writer afforded him the luxury to engage in high-profile battles with his publishers on a regular basis, and film studios that came knocking would also learn the full extent of his wrath (although, given the mess they made of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they probably deserved it). From Hell, a horror-mystery based on Jack the Ripper, was the first of Moore’s works to be adapted into film, and while he allowed his name to be associated with the film, he distanced himself from all aspects of production. As a result, the movie deviated greatly from the source material; Johnny Depp’s character, for instance, is a middle-aged man in the book, and the film condenses or glosses over many of the book’s discussions of occult or supernatural matters. The end result was pretty to look at, but a number of critics familiar with the book remarked that something was lost in the translation from page to screen.
9. Monkeybone (2001)
Probably the only thing harder to find than someone who knew this movie was based on a comic is someone who will admit to seeing the movie in the first place. Brendan Fraser, continuing the downward career arc that began somewhere around George of the Jungle, plays Stu Miley, a cartoonist whose comic strip features a rascally monkey named Monkeybone. After falling into a coma, his consciousness ends up in Downtown, a purgatory-like carnival landscape populated by all manners of people and creatures (like his now-living cartoon creation), and all kinds of madcap antics ensue as he fights to return to his waking life. The film was based on Dark Town, a 1995 comic by Canadian writer Kaja Blackley and illustrator Vanessa Chong that was intended to be a mini-series but only saw the first part of the story published. That was all that was needed, though, for a fan to pass it along to future Monkeybone producer/director Henry Selick, who fell in love with the story and vigorously pursued the film rights. Given the final numbers ($75 million budget, $7 million in gross revenue), he probably should have pushed a little less hard.
10. The Walking Dead (2010)
And if the vampires don’t get you, the zombies will. Between 28 Days Later, the Resident Evil franchise, a Dawn of the Dead remake and Zombieland (my personal favorite), the 2000s were a bountiful time for fans of the hungry undead. Robert Kirkman deserves some credit for helping to revive the zombie genre with his self-published comic The Walking Dead, a brutally stark depiction of life in a zombie apocalypse, as seen through the eyes of small-town police officer Rick Grimes. Debuting in 2003, the ongoing series was still running strong when a six-episode television adaptation premiered on AMC Television Oct. 31, 2010. While the writing was inconsistent from one episode to the next (and online fans griped about the stupider decisions made by the ragtag band of survivors at the heart of the show), critics and audiences alike were riveted by the 70-minute premiere episode, and AMC wasted little time ordering up a second season of 13 episodes for the fall of 2011. To its credit, the show managed to satisfy fans of the original series despite several sharp deviations from the original plot, including the non-appearance of some of the book’s more popular characters. But then, it wouldn’t be life in a zombie-infested landscape without a few surprises…
11. The Rocketeer (1991)
The Rocketeer has to be one of the more unfortunate attempts at a film franchise that ironically failed to launch. Right from the start, Disney was clear about its intention to turn The Rocketeer — a jetpack-flying hero who first appeared in a 1982 comic series by Dave Stevens — into the next major movie franchise, with everything about the movie (and its accompanying marketing push) designed to satisfy a perceived audience demand for the type of clean-cut heroics embodied by the Indiana Joneses of the world. Unfortunately, The Rocketeer was a little too clean-cut for most moviegoers, enjoying respectable reviews but earning nowhere near what studio executives had hoped. Film critic Roger Ebert summed it up best in his review; where the Indiana Jones movies took their inspiration from the cliffhanging serials of the 1930s and ’40s, The Rocketeer flat-out copied them, creating an irony-free piece of entertainment that was a little out of step with modern audiences’ expectations. The movie succeeded in one respect, though, in that it was pitch-perfect reproduction of the book itself, an homage to the art deco pastiche of the era it depicted. Also, Jennifer Connelly displayed a fine set of gams.
12. The Losers (2010)
Arriving as it did just prior to that summer’s hotly anticipated A-Team movie, The Losers appeared to be an attempt to cash in on the hype by offering another film about a group of lovable rogues out to settle the score with their former employers. But the roots of the film go back farther than even the original A-Team TV show from the ’80s — back to 1969, in fact, when DC introduced the Losers in one of its war titles. Set during World War II, the strip followed the wartime adventures of soldiers drawn from various divisions of the armed services who all suffered some form of bad luck during their careers; true to form, they bit the dust during one of DC’s recurring crossover events in the 1980s. A new Losers team — the one the film was based on — was introduced by DC’s Vertigo imprint in 2004; that critically acclaimed series by writer Andy Diggle and artist Jock (pen name of Mark Simpson) moved the setting to the present day and followed a team of hard-luck special forces soldiers out for revenge against their backstabbing CIA handler. By necessity, the film had to condense the 32-issue series down to its action-packed essentials, and director Sylvain White told interviewers prior to its release that he’d be open to telling the rest of the story in future sequels; alas, middling reviews and a so-so box office take make that seem an unlikely prospect.
13. Whiteout (2009)
You’d think a murder mystery set at a research centre in Antarctica would be a pretty easy affair to solve, what with the dearth of people to consider as suspects (to say nothing of the lack of getaway options). But leave it to veteran comics scribe Greg Rucka (Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, Checkmate, among others) to take on the challenge. Published by Oni Press in 1998, the four-issue mini-series (with art by Steve Lieber) follows U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko as she investigates a murder at McMurdo Station, a research facility that can support about 1,200 residents during the polar summer months. As she chases down suspects and encounters more dead bodies, she’s attacked by the killer and left for dead in a storm — a serious matter in a land where temperatures often dip to -50C. Despite the intriguing premise, the film starring Kate Beckinsale and Gabriel Macht was a massive bomb at the box office, grossing only $17 million against a budget of $35 million, and critics enjoyed the chance the movie gave them to trot out “slower than frozen molasses” comments in their reviews.
14. Constantine (2005)
When John Constantine first appeared in a Swamp Thing comic book in 1985, he was presented as a chain-smoking British occultist whose talent for being an
utterly ruthless bastard served him well in his battles against the supernatural. Completely sardonic and seemingly irredeemable, Constantine relied on trickery and a network of friends and acquaintances to further his goals. Artists Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben deliberately drew the character to resemble British musician Sting, so who better to play him in his big-screen debut than… um, Keanu Reeves? Who doesn’t even try to use a Cockney accent while he roams the streets of Los Angeles in search of demons to snuff? Okay, then. While the film borrowed some plot elements from a few story arcs in Constantine’s Hellblazer series, the drastic differences in the character’s appearance, abilities and motives for fighting the forces of darkness were enough to make fans wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to licence the character in the first place. Certainly, a quick name change for some of the film’s principal players was all that was needed to convince anyone the movie was based on an original screenplay. And really, considering the mess the movie turned out to be, it’s hard to imagine Constantine himself having a problem with that.
15. Bulletproof Monk (2003)
Michael Yanover and Mark Paniccia worked together at Malibu Comics, a comic outfit that had the good fortune to see one of its more obscure titles, Men
in Black, turned into a hugely successful summer blockbuster in 1997. After the two set off to found Flypaper Press, they looked for characters that would have the same breakout potential as Agents J and K, but they also wanted to emphasize heroes with powers that didn’t arise from far-fetched, sci-fi origins. Eventually, they settled on the concept of combining Hong Kong action movies with a Stars Wars type of mythology, and Bulletproof Monk was the result. Writers Brett Lewis and R.A. Jones were brought on board to flesh out the concept, and Michael Avon Oeming (Powers, Thor) provided the art. Attracting the interest of director/producer John Woo and Asian film star Chow Yun-fat (whose starring role in 2001’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made greenlighting this project seem a no-brainer), Bulletproof Monk made the transition from page to screen in 2003. But while the monk may have been bulletproof, his movie was not; jeered by critics who found the fight sequences inferior to Yun-fat’s earlier work, particularly the breathtaking scenes in Crouching Tiger (which also featured 100% less Seann William Scott), the $52-million film grossed only $37 million worldwide.
16. Human Target (1992, 2010)
The 1970s was a turbulent decade for Marvel and DC, as an audience growing weary of straight-arrow superheroes sent both companies in search of the next big thing. It was a time when publishers were willing to print just about anything that seemed different, including an offbeat action series about Christopher Chance, a bodyguard/detective who takes on the slightly suicidal job of impersonating people marked for death. The Human Target had a respectable run as a supporting player in DC’s Action Comics and other titles before his first starring role in an ongoing series in 1999. He’s also one of the very few comic characters (and the only non-superhero one I can recall) that has inspired more than one television series: the first, on ABC in 1992, starred Rick Springfield (of “Jesse’s Girl” fame), while the second premiered on Fox in 2010 and put Mark Valley in the title role. The first series also followed the comic template closely (with Chance using high-tech disguises and acting skills to assume his clients’ identities), while the second was a more generic action-adventure show that saw Chance assume non-descript cover identities that kept him close to his clients. As far as which one was the more entertaining — well, six of one, really.
17. Surrogates (2009)
Imagine a world where humans use robotic duplicates to interact with each other while they experience life vicariously from the comfort of their homes.
Well, you don’t have to because Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele imagined it first. Top Shelf’s The Surrogates came out as a five-issue mini-series in 2005, and right from the start it seemed destined to be one of those low-profile, high-concept thrillers that movie studios love to adapt because (1) it saves them the trouble of coming up with their own ideas and (2) not a lot of ticket buyers would know about the comic and be scared off by the “based on a graphic novel” credit line. And heck, when you can get Bruce Willis to do his umpteenth take on a world-weary authority figure, what could go wrong? Well, plenty, actually. Without the built-in fan base that a more established comic book could guarantee, the movie’s marketing focused heavily on Willis’s presence and the promise of rollicking good action sequences; problem was, the emphasis on action meant the film never really capitalized on its intriguing premise, and the book’s explorations of identity and existence were overshadowed by all the bang-bang boom-boom stuff in the film. But hey, it’s not as if Hollywood ever butchered a good story before, right?