Copyright by DC and Warner.
The poster above this paragraph for the upcoming 2020 Birds of Prey movie was released a couple of weeks ago and it generated a wide variety of reactions from the audience, with some liking the poster, others disliking it and obviously some of us were just indifferent. And while I was firmly on the side of those that disliked it, primarily because I don’t think it’s visually appealing, I also had the following question on my mind: Are DC and Warner Bros. paying attention to the source material?
Now, someone could tell me that I should wait for the movie and not pass any judgement based on a poster and other teasers, but that is the exact point of said elements: to generate expectation and curiosity among their target audiences. And from the early images and showings from this Birds of Prey film, I have the feeling that the material in the comics not very influential in this story, which made me go from the original question to a greater one: What makes a good adaption?
Birds of Prey. Copyright by DC Comics.
This debate about what constitutes a quality adaptation of a book, a comic or any other type of storytelling medium has been going on since we can remember, but I will focus on comics because that’s what this blog is all about. And with so many superhero movies being created today and so many ideas, concepts and stories to take inspiration from in the comics, one can’t help but wonder what are the core elements that make an adaptation work. Birds of Prey will be the main focus of this article because it’s a very unique situation.
Hollywood is no stranger of taking the source material and giving us their own spin on things, almost drifting away completely from the original concept. One great example is Sylvester Stallone, who has two of his biggest and most successful films, Rambo and Cobra, inspired by two books, but he only drew lightly from those sources and gave both movies his own interpretation and a more violent approach. Stanley Kubrick’s handling of Stephen King’s The Shining, while now regarded as a masterpiece of horror cinema, has been highly criticized by the author himself, claiming Kubrick didn’t understand the meaning and message behind the novel.
I would argue that comics is an even more controversial topic because it’s a visual medium and one can see the main differences between the source material and the adaptation. And while a few differences are understandable given that some elements of the comics cannot be taken to the screen in the best possible manner, there are moments where you make so many changes and you end up missing the whole point of the characters and stories you’re trying to tell.
I’m one of those guys that truly believe that when adapting a fictional character for a TV show or a movie, their physical appearance should adhere a lot to the source material for three reasons: 1) It shows appreciation and respect for what the creator was trying to convey from a visual point of view. 2) You get the good will and interest from the readers of the source material in the teasers because they can see their favorite characters taken to life in the most dedicated manner. 3) It tells the viewer, without any context, who these characters are.
Supermen. Copyright by DC and Warner.
Let’s take a look at the five actors playing Superman in the picture above. We can debate all we want about the quality of their respective adaptations (I will get to that in a moment), but the moment you take a look at them, you know they are not only Superman, but also Clark Kent. The suit is iconic and the look as well. For the viewer, for the potential consumer, you know what you’re getting with just one look.
And this is Superman we’re talking about–the first and biggest superhero in the entire world. A worldwide brand that has been adapted multiple times. But yet, there are elements that must be respected in order to be a good Superman adaptation: his origin story (escaping from a dying planet, adopted by the Kents and life in Smallville), his core values (beliefs in justice, dignity, kindness and care for human life), his iconic appearance (we already covered that), his main cast (Lois, Lana, his parents, Jimmy, Perry and a few others) and his foes (Brainiac, Lex, Zod, Doomsday, etc.).
You can make a few changes, sure, but those elements that I have mentioned need to remain in order to be an adaptation respectful of what the characters represent. And if you are familiar with the different versions of the image, you would know that these five adaptations are all different while respecting those pointers I mentioned.
Watchmen. Copyright by DC and Warner.
Of course, just covering the physical and visual aspects is not everything. Let’s take Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie: he was very respectful of Alan Moore’s creation in every panel-to-screen moment like the picture above and not only did what I personally considered superb casting choices for the roles, but also worked really hard to do justice to one of comics’ most popular works. Did he succeed? To this day, the Watchmen movie is still divisive and some people actually felt that being too faithful to the source material made the film suffer. While I disagree with that perspective and I truly like this film, I can understand their perspective.
But the case of the Birds of Prey is very different to Superman or Watchmen because they are not as well known as the former and not as revered as the latter–they are a very interesting comic book created by legendary writer Chuck Dixon that could very well be considered a cult classic among comic fans. They were Barbara Gordon’s strike force of femme fatales, with a very Charlie’s Angels vibe to them (but actually well-written). It was a comic book filled with action, great dialogue, a lot of sex appeal and with some of DC’s finest female vigilantes. And I don’t see any of that with this film–what I perceive is a story that could have worked a lot better as a Harley Quinn standalone story than as a Birds of Prey film.
Huntress and Black Canary. Copyright by DC and Warner.
This is a comic book franchise that doesn’t have enough commercial appeal to withstand radical changes and still make money, like how Disney radically changed Spider-Man with Far From Home a few months ago. One could argue that’s the reason why Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is going to be part of the film and the main star, but considering how popular Harley and Margot are these days, wouldn’t have been better to just make a Harley Quinn movie, as I said before? Why take a little known franchise to do this type of story?
There was already a Birds of Prey TV show in the early 2000's and while it was a more visually faithful adaptation, it was a half-hearted attempt to cash in on the comics’ success at the time and it fell down in the memory hole faster than Kevin Keagan’s singing career. Much like my example of Spider-Man, they were adaptations in skin rather than in-character and I’ll admit that is one of the main issues with adaptations these days –some people think just having the visual aspects or the superficial aspects of the characters’ stories is enough, when in reality the best adaptations tend to be a grand combination of all these things and more.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first four Game of Thrones seasons are pretty good examples of what you can achieve when you respect the stories, the visual elements and the essence of its characters, but if I had to choose the movie adaptation of a superhero, that would have to be Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.
Spider-Man No More and Spider-Man 2. Copyright by Marvel Comics and Sony.
While it’s true that Raimi took a lot of thematic elements of Stan Lee’s iconic Spider-Man No More storyline of the 60's (plus the iconic panel we just showed you), the main plot of Spider-Man 2 has nothing to do with any specific comic book storyline of the web-crawler, but rather focuses on what makes Peter and his alter-ego tick: his common struggles, his desire of always wanting to do the right thing, the consequences of being Spider-Man in his life, his nature of self-sacrifice, his underdog attitude when life throws everything it has towards him and a lot of inspirational moments.
That’s Spider-Man in a nutshell and while it didn’t require a direct adaptation like Snyder’s Watchmen, it hit what the character is all about and respected the visuals of Peter and his superhero persona, which is equally important. In terms of a classic superhero movie (with all the respect that Nolan’s Batman trilogy deserves, I see them more as thriller films), Spider-Man 2 is probably the best adaptation so far in Hollywood.
Black Canary and Huntress. Copyright by DC.
One look at what we have seen in these Birds of Prey teasers and one can’t help but wonder if the screenwriters and directors are paying attention to what these characters are all about. Perhaps only Harley Quinn looks in character, the origin story is already radically changed from the beginning (it’s Barbara Gordon who founds this team) and the leaks of the plot seem to regard it more as a goofy film rather than a vigilante affair against the criminal underworld.
So, if you can’t offer your target audience visual and thematic respect for the work that you’re trying to adapt, then what’s the point? Why should I bother in watching something that it doesn’t seem to respect itself?
A lot of people talk that this is the golden era of superheroes in mainstream media and while I agree with that sentiment, it can also be viewed as an era of missed opportunities, with Hollywood often looking down on comics as inferior source material and not seizing the amount of quality characters and stories that they have at their disposal.
Perhaps Birds of Prey would be a good movie and true to the spirit of the characters. It can be, stranger things have happened. And I would gladly admit I was wrong when writing a review of the movie, if that’s the case.
But as of today, all I see is yet another half-hearted attempt and a waste of great source material.