Featured Post

NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, January 23, 2009

THE LETTER KILLETH THE SPIRIT

Hmm, my 100th post, and I can't think of anything better to do than finish up the thoughts I said I'd get to the other week:

"I'll come back to these matters of authorial integrity and misprision in another essay soon"

I'll start by saying that despite my avowed critical stance on modes et al, I'll admit that I possess, as much as most fans, a knee-jerk desire to see the Thing I Like In Comics be faithfully rendered in another medium. It's certainly not a desire confined to fans, as attested by the legions who raise the cry: "The Book Was Better Than the Movie." However, there are different variations on faithfulness. According to II Corinthians 3:6:

"The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth LIFE"

On one messageboard I encountered a couple of fans who expressed their preference for the first professional audiovisual adaptation of THE SPIRIT, a 1987 TV-movie written by frequent comics-movie scribe Steven deSouza and starring Sam J. Jones as the Spirit. I saw the movie once, and as I recall, it was far closer to be a letter-faithful adaptation of Will Eisner's work than the Frank Miller film.

And yet, it was also pretty forgettable for me, except that I recall that Jones had a creditable turn as the masked crimefighter, and that some of the visual set-ups were borrowed from Eisner panels. Still, I don't think that particular letter-faithful rendering was especially true to the spirit of The Spirit. (I'll try to make that my last pun on the word.)

Now, the 2008 film is more like Eisner seen through the unique lens of another significant comics-artist. It's not letter-faithful in the least. But is it "spirit-faithful?"

I think that in a few scenes, it is. For instance, Miller made his version of the hero supernaturally resistent to injuries in imitation of certain Eisner sequences where Eisner had the hero survive being hit with objects that ought to have given the Spirit a concussion at least.

Now, some fans' readings of the Spirit would privilege the feature's more nuanced moments, but there's no question that though the Spirit was never meant to be a "metahuman," Eisner did revel in slamming the hero around through walls and such, all with the aim of creating reader sympathy and identification-- and maybe with an artist's love for inventive fight-choreography. Eisner's SPIRIT was never as dominated by the use of violence as the work of Frank Miller has been, but the feature made a definite appeal to the reader's enjoyment of same. In the 2008 film's first major fracas between the Spirit and the Octopus, wherein hero and villain batter each other back and forth like an equally-matched Tom and Jerry, Miller succeeds in putting across both the intensity and some of the comic feel found in Eisner's donnybrooks.

I would also say Miller succeeds in terms of evoking the other great kinetic constant of Eisner's feature: the sex. Again, Miller's version of sexual thrills is much more intense than that of Eisner, but contrary to some of the expectations prior to the film, I don't think Miller made every hot Eisner babe into a Sin City prostitute. His Silken Floss is a goof, of course, but not because of making her a prostitute, while both Sand Saref and Plaster of Paris are presented as formidable females. Ellen is a dull "reality-principle" female, but face it: she was dull in the comic too.

But the way Miller does betray the original "life" within the Eisner feature was by failing to evoke good melodrama. Contrary to the opinions expressed by Gary Groth in his Eisner obit, Eisner's greatest strength was not humor but melodrama, which he Eisner could play straight (the original Sand Saref tale) or for fun (paging "Young Doctor Ebony.") In the segment that retells the early years of Denny Colt and Sand Saref, Miller pretty much botches the feeling behind that simple but evocative melodramatic setup, and because of that failure, the film's raison d'etre doesn't come together. If it had-- well, I might even have bought into the bit about the blood of Heracles.

Misprison, I argue again, is inevitable. Kenneth Branagh's most faithful adaptation of Hamlet is still Branagh's Hamlet, not Shakespeare's, and some of the worst renditions of classics have been done by people who claim they want to do a letter-perfect version of the original. It's because of this fundamental principle of misprison that I don't take it so seriously when one adaptation travesties an original. Sometimes, as with KISS ME DEADLY, you get two interesting works out of it. Sometimes you get a work far less rewarding than the pulp original, as in the cases of both Kubrick's THE SHINING and Losey's MODESTY BLAISE. Sometimes Shakespeare did great in his adaptations of old legends (HAMLET) and sometimes, not so much (PERICLES). But I'd rather watch even a failure that got a few things right, like Miller's SPIRIT, than a passionless letter-perfect rendition of anything (say, Tom Cruise's incredibly-tedious VALKYRIE).

No comments: