After Sin City, the entire process of ‘adapting’ a comic book for the big screen turned a major corner. No longer are filmmakers forced to cast Kim Basinger, Nicole Kidman or Claudia Schiffer as a last minute love interest, or shoe-horn in some absurd soundtrack. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez realized that if you worked with the right material, all of what you need to make a blockbuster film is directly in front of you. In the case of Sin City, several comic books were adapted into straight interpretations onto the movie screen as interlinking short stories.
To be fair, we’re not talking about just any comic book creator here. Aside from Darwyn Cooke, Frank Miller is what I think of as the rightful heir of Will Eisner (for those not in the know, Eisner is responsible for the Citizen Kane of comic books, The Spirit).
Frank Miller has shown in his career that he understands pacing, emotion and action in comic book form so well that the reader can close his eyes and actually see and hear the comic book inside of his head. His early work on Spider-Man and Daredevil are groundbreaking in their complexity and beauty. His later more refined comics such as Ronin and Sin City show a more confident artist sculpting an entire universe straight out of his head.
He took characters that had, for the most part, become safe and stagnant (Daredevil being the best example, a man dressed entirely in red almost disappeared in the page he was so dull), dug his fingers into what made them what they were and created an incredible new vision.
His Dark Knight Returns series is remembered not because of the timely references or for telling the ‘last Batman story,’ but because it made everyone from the jaded comic book fan to Rolling Stone Magazine love Batman. Enjoying a comic was no longer a solitary joy, it was now a ‘scream it from the rooftops’ affair.
With 300, director Zack Snyder and executive producer Frank Miller adapted the mini-series into a stunning and breath taking work of art that is more of a moving painting than anything else. Perhaps Frank Miller‘s most high-art comic book project with longtime collaborator, painter Lynn Varley, it is ironic that the story is at the same time so simple. 300 Spartans hold off the entire Persian army with a simple yet airtight strategy. Done. The film builds on the comic book in places but more or less uses what is on the page.
The dialog, something that is very sparse in the source material, is a kind of mock-Shakespearean that I associate with early Stan Lee comics. Full of juicy lines dripping with imagery and intention, lovers of theater should be filling the seats to see this movie.
The treatment of violence is very inspired from Frank Miller’s ‘splattering’ effects in the comics. Every stab, slash and bash of a Persian and Spartan results in the same computer generated blood effect, yet it retains it’s impact rather than dulling as the film goes on. Everyone is talking about Gerard Butler, the Scots lead playing Leonidas. Never has an actor demanded so much attention on the screen and deserved it. It’s been a long time since an actor this good has been in a movie. Reminiscent of Heston and Olivier, I am anxious to see what is next in line for him.
Actor Dominic West (McNulty from HBO’s the Wire) delivers a creepy and slimy performance that stayed with me after seeing the film. After watching his performance as the oblivious McNulty for years I was not ready to see him so devious.
The pro-war message has been dragged in the media so much that even as a comic book fan it was the first thing I heard about it and it kept me from seeing the film until it hit the discount theaters. It’s a distraction to look for this, because while the film is all about warfare and the glory of dying for freedom, I cannot see a pro war message in the film as it relates to the current world situation.
After the din of the film’s success died down, I have since read that Frank Miller completely supports the war effort and feels that the attack on the World Trade Center waked a sleeping giant just as President Bush had, but thankfully that message did not impact me as viewer. I’m not saying that to open a debate, just that I’m reluctant to see a movie that reminds me of the real life horrors of the world as it goes to Hell in a handbasket… though Children of Men is perhaps the most amazing movie I’ve seen since Blade Runner.
Finally out on DVD tomorrow, I cannot recommend this DVD enough. Much like Sin City, I’m looking forward to viewing the extra features to see what the making of the picture was like. I also encourage readers to pick up the bargain priced hardcover edition of 300. A gorgeous work of art, it operates as a coffee table book as well (due to its unique shape and size) and could turn you into a fan of Frank Miller… and perhaps other great comics as well.
Will Eisner would like that, and I’m sure it would make grim-faced Frank Miller crack a grin as well.