Graphic novels spawn box office hits

Ben Raymond

By Ben Raymond

Staff Reporter

Filmmaking is an art form defined by trends. What’s fashionable one day is old news the next. To satisfy modern moviegoers’ lust for newer, sexier cinema, the Hollywood establishment must constantly adapt, providing audiences with the freshest in innovation.

But innovation is not limited to advancements in technology. Introducing crisper, louder, bigger special effects is not the only way the movies are changing. Some of the best-performing, most recognizable films of the past five years have come from a new, rising medium: the graphic novel.

The public frenzy for films like “Sin City” and “300” appears to be only the beginning of the meteoric rise of the graphic novel in modern cinema. With the highly anticipated release of horror flick “30 Days of Night” just a few weeks away, now seems the perfect time to examine the short but eventful history of the graphic novel and its role in modern moviemaking.

Caught somewhere between novella, pulp magazine and comic book, the graphic novel has been the delight of every maladjusted teenage male in this country. I like to think of it as anime’s ugly American cousin: bleaker, bloodier and far less annoying. The graphic novel has its roots in the pulp “picture novels” of the ’40s and ’50s. The modern graphic novel began in 1992 with Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir “Maus,” which won a Pulitzer Special Award that year.

Unarguably one of the most influential works in the graphic novel’s brief history, “Maus” has impressed casual readers and literary experts alike; it has even been taught by professors here at Villanova. Now, the graphic novel has outgrown its cult phenomena and exploded onto the public scene after its recent film industry coup d’état. And the man behind the reigns of the cavalcade is the once-and-future king of the graphic novel, “Sin City” and “300” creator Frank Miller.

The long-awaited film adaptation of Miller’s “Sin City” premiered in the spring of 2005 and, within days, America’s love affair with the graphic novel in moviemaking began. Wildly entertaining and one of the most unique films in years, “Sin City” dazzled even the most traditional of critics and had mothers countrywide grounding their sons for watching it.

The public demand for more films based on Miller’s work came full circle earlier this year with the release of his Spartan war epic “300.” Although I hated this film like nobody’s business, even I cannot deny the tremendous influence it has had on pop culture. It is one of the highest-grossing films of the year (both in theaters and in DVD sales) and is the all-time favorite film of every no-good, low-grade male in creation (until something bloodier and with more half-naked men comes out, that is).

On Oct. 19, the latest graphic novel adaptation hits screens with “30 Days of Night,” a claustrophobic, throat-gashing vampire flick that’s sure to make a killing at the box office.

Gurus will be happy to know that a number of new films are in the works including “Watchmen” (from the director of “300”), and Miller collaborations “The Spirit” and two sequels to “Sin City.” Filming on “Sin City 2” has been delayed nearly six months already and negotiations with potential stars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp have stalled. One can only hope filming begins soon.

It is easy to see why these films have performed so well; they’re flashy, fast and require no thought whatsoever to enjoy. American moviegoers love flashy stuff and not having to think. But why did Hollywood initially choose to push these films into theaters?

The answer to this is a simple one. Graphic novels are the easiest possible books to adapt to film. Why? They’re already storyboarded. Each square in the book can be translated directly onto screen. There’s little need for artistic vision (convenient arrangement for “300” director Zack Snyder), and the movies are made cheaply and can be filmed almost entirely in front of a single green screen in a shoddy warehouse.

Graphic novels are pre-wrapped, perfectly-packaged fodder for a movie adaptation. They come already depraved, pre-written and pre-directed, providing production companies ample opportunity to minimize production cost, maximize debauchery and see profit fly through the roof. We flock to theaters to see them. Production companies love to make them. Expect the trend to continue. The graphic novel is here to stay.