WARNING: Spoilers for The Killing Joke
MOVIE. ADAPTATIONS. OF. BOOKS. DO. NOT. NEED. TO. BE. ACCURATE.
Well, now that I’ve isolated most of my audience, let me elaborate further. There’s this weird kind of myth that a movie adaptation needs to be note perfect accurate to its source material, and that has never rang true for me. I mean, it’s a really poor excuse for why certain movies actually suck, for one. Off the top of my head, many people consider The Shining, Jaws and Forrest Gump to be superior to their source novels, and all of them take drastically different approaches to the story.
Outside of it being a rather convenient excuse for disappointment in adaptation, I’ve always felt that sticking too faithfully can really hurt adapting a story to a different medium. Film has a different language, different needs, a different approach in terms of the collaborative effort and limitation of the big screen compared to literature. If a funny line, poignant moment or even a plot point is lost in translation, then they were lost to make a better product. A good filmmaker can look at a text and pull out what could make it work on the big (or small) screen while keeping the spirit and creativity of the source intact. Usually, when they’re freer to express themselves creatively and not tethered by strict fidelity, it can turn out to be better.
As an example of this, I want to look at Alan Moore. Moore’s work making the big screen is infamous for the fact that Alan Moore disowns it entirely, usually insisting his name get removed from the films. While I could write reams about my issues with the Watchmen film (and I may…later), one of its biggest issues is that it just plays it too safe. One of the most daring and creative take downs of comic book lore ends up with a movie that doesn’t really take any risks outside of the ending. V for Vendetta, in contrast, is incredibly different from its book and, while it’s not as good, I think it’s a stronger film for it.
I’m not going to look at either, however, and instead focus in on the recent adaptation of Moore’s The Killing Joke. Considered one of the most definitive Joker stories of all time, the people adapting it…chose to make a 30-minute prologue for Barbara Gordon to try to ‘fix’ the fact that she’s essentially a prop for other characters to feel sad in the story. And it’s awful, and everybody has complained about it. And while I will talk about it because it does add to why this adaptation doesn’t work so much, I’m just gonna be blunt here; everything after the prologue doesn’t work, either. And I think it’s something that should be discussed.
But first, what everyone and their mothers have strong opinions on:
Barbara Fucking Gordon
So Babs has kind of been a thorn in this story’s side pretty much since its release. The former Batgirl was made a sort of sacrificial lamb for Batman and Gordon’s stories. Despite her shooting being integral to the plot, her character is not. And so we get the maiming and paralysis of a major legacy character (as a minor defense of Moore here, he didn’t intend The Killing Joke to be canonical with the DC universe) where 1. It was her first appearance in the story, and she barely appears after, and 2. Is only done to advance the emotional arcs of two men in her life.
Now, people point to the fact that Barbara was reimagined as a hacker with the codename Oracle after she was paralysed, being one of the few seriously disabled comic book superheroes out there (at least until DC undid her paralysis and made her Batgirl again a few years ago). But this doesn’t happen in The Killing Joke, nor was it likely that that was Alan Moore’s plan in her involvement. It’s just a lazy and sexist trope to bring up the stakes and get some catharsis in Commissioner Gordon’s punishment until it shows that he stays morally absolute, so I totally get the want to give Babs a little extra weight in the narrative.
Here’s the thing though, and this may have gone over their heads even WITH them insisting this was just a prologue…nothing about what they added actually has any consequence to the main story. In fact, it’s how jarring it is that really rubs people the wrong way. We go to this kind of creepy but otherwise really standard superhero melodrama about duty being put over love and an incredibly lame villain with a stupid name (I don’t care that the movie made fun of it!), and then BAM! Way more lyrical and thoughtful dialogue and a story about the nature of sanity and how close we all are to breaking.
This is, in essence, why the prologue hurts this movie. Outside of the fact that they may as well have had ‘time filler’ stamped on it because the real reason it’s here is that TKJ is too short to be feature length, but it gives the impression going in that this story will very heavily relate to Babs and her relationship to Batman. And it doesn’t, not at all, because the main conflict of the story is between Batman and the Joker with Gordon acting as a cipher for their philosophies. Their weird sexcapades kind of changes the context of Bruce’s reaction to the attack, but it does not change the situation from the book that much at all because injuring Babs was always more about getting to her father than the Bat. Building her up as a character of importance and weight to this story, pretending she is the protagonist and she matters more than just being a dangling emotional carrot for other people, is way more of a disservice than just having her first appearance be the scene where she gets shot.
That’s all I’m going to say about this, because all the other problems have been talked about pretty thoroughly. Babs’ awful characterisation, how terribly cheesy and unimaginative the story is, her tryst with Bruce doesn’t make any sense, that stupid bit where she beats up a guy because he’s being slightly rude, her painfully stereotypical gay BFF. Outside of the opening chase scene and some decent voice work from Tara Strong (perfect casting btw), this prologue is a waste of time.
So, do you get a better film is you do skip it?
The Killing Joke Falls Flat
What’s interesting about this movie is that it gives us both approaches to adapting a previously existing property. The stuff with Batgirl in the prologue is all originally written for the movie, and is an annoyingly pointless addition that just hurts the story and characters. The rest of the movie is almost religiously faithful to the book, from the way it frames a lot of the panels point-by-point to getting the dialogue almost entirely accurate. And it suffers from that too.
So ignoring the obvious, and the fact that the people who have read TKJ know where this story is going, why this doesn’t entirely work is that movies have a very different flow from comic books. In order to translate the tone, pace, ideas, flow and language of the text, you need to find a way to work this into a differing medium. And this never really gets there because of it’s so utterly in love with the comic it is adapting that it never stops to think that there could be a way to turn this second dimension into a third.
Take Lord of the Rings, for example. It changes a *lot* of stuff from the books, adds character arcs, expands on things not covered in Tolkien’s text, but what makes it work so well is that it knew how to capture the majesty and wonder of Middle Earth by shifting perspectives and bringing a more modernist point of view on it. It captures Tolkien’s spirit even with a larger penchant for action scenes and Jackson’s predisposition for inventive gore (though in a PG sense, of course).
Outside of the fact that the books are way too fucking long to adapt, there are a lot of lull moments or bits which really don’t go anywhere that would severely hurt it as a film. What was best to translate this story was to move away from it slightly and do its own thing where necessary. And this barely ever happens in TKJ-even the stuff they added outside of the prologue doesn’t exactly make great strides to move away from its source.
There’s also context, and this brings in comics lore. I’ve heard people complain that Civil War wasn’t more accurate to its comics counterpart. I think this is silly because 1. The Civil War book sucks, and 2. You cannot make it more accurate without first having to establish about 50 years of continuity and a massive world that the MCU was nowhere near close to replicating. Comic books have an advantage over other media in that they can just jump into a story without much need for set up. You either know what the stakes are and who the characters are or, if you don’t, it’s not that hard to find out.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, we don’t need some tedious explanation of Batman and the Joker and their relationship or whatever, but it certainly has a lot of baggage that could be better established for the purposes of this self-contained story. The book got away with this, partially because I think the opening is better laid out, but also because it can have faith that the audience has an intimate and personable knowledge of how these two characters operate. It’s almost as if, I dunno, a prologue could have been used to help better flesh these layers out…or maybe the first scene in the prison is the first story beat in the book for a reason? Who know?
This may seem a weird thing to outline, as this more has to do with the culture surrounding the medium rather than how itself operates as a storytelling device, but this is something you have to consider when adapting. You go into a film expecting things different than you do picking up a comic.
For more examples on the production side, let’s look at audio (heh). TKJ has kind of a dead soundtrack, but what’s weird is that the tracks themselves are great! They’re noir-esque but with a comic book twinge to them, it’s a pity then that I can barely remember the songs in the movie itself. Really, this just feels like poor direction, as what I remember in terms of sound is all those times the score was killed to try to make a moment hit, and it just never did. In all likelihood, these moments should without a soundtrack, but it’s just poorly planned out and doesn’t have a good pacing or energy to make those moments work.
That’s what I mean about it being ‘dead’; it’s got a great score, but undercuts it by not putting proper thought into how it will heighten a scene. Joker’s reveal in the flashback and the final laugh do not need a soundtrack because they are impactful moments for the audience, not because the scene is better carried without music (my intention here is NOT to say that those moments needed music-and it’s entirely possible they could have played great with music-but the movie doesn’t try to earn the drama through proper build up or impact because it doesn’t need it to make these moments land. Tbh, I could go on forever about the impact of silence, but let’s not lose [sound]track).
Well…there is one song that sticks out. The ‘Looney’ song is given a melody and even a more vaudevillian treatment rather than being seen from Gordon’s perspective as he slowly loses his grip on reality. While I think this is a bit unfortunate as the impact is supposed to be on the Joker wearing down Gordon’s mental faculties before the big reveal of the photos and not…Joker be whacky, this is honestly an interesting change that could really display how unhinged the Clown Prince of Crime really is and why he holds that position-because he is in charge here. Unfortunately, the staging and timing of it is just all off; it feels amateurishly Broadway than displayed in a creepy, unnerving way. This could have been the perfect way to display both visually and lyrically the Joker’s ego and sanity, and Mark Hamill really sells it, but again it’s just interested in showing the song instead of really displaying it.
Speaking of Hamill, he’s easily the highlight and practically sings his dialogue. He’s been wanting to do this movie for years and revels in its coming to life. The rest of the cast is kind of not great. I think Tara Strong does okay, and her voice suits Barbara, but being the central focus of the worst decision ever and not having a lot of dialogue in the book, she gets the bum end of the bad writing. Kevin Conroy, who is my Batman, just doesn’t seem that engaged at all. Ray Wise plays Commissioner Gordon, another fantastic actor, and they don’t seem to get anything out of him either. Again, this feels like lacklustre voice direction as these are all great performers, but nothing in this feels passionate, as I’ve stated about a billion times above.
So, we have a really pointless prologue and a creative team sticking so rigidly to its source material it does nothing to really evolve beyond an incredibly straight telling. So, let’s talk what’s really important about a visual medium…
…You Know, the Visuals
The Killing Joke is one of those stories that helped revolutionise the comic book genre (for better or worse) in the 80s. It’s lurid, nasty, evocative, creepy, and yet intimate. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland really capture the emotion and psychology of this person despite how crazy and over the top he is. They found the humanity in the inhuman. So, despite them basically using the comic book as a storyboard (which…you know, makes sense), and copying panels to the number, why does everything feel so…distant?
A lot of that does have to do with the problems in the direction and sound work mentioned above, but I suppose it goes back to what is untranslatable from the books. Alan Moore is a pretty meticulous guys-detailing everything down to the number. Watch this excellent analysis of the movie from Hbomberguy for more info on that. And not to take away from Brian Bolland’s work on the book-the man can draw detail in faces so striking, there are moments where the artwork can make your heart stop. It’s no wonder they try to recreate his work so faithfully-he brought out the spirit of essentially these cartoon characters without losing their roots in the process. Some artists overcompensate by adding too much realism or just making everything murky and gritty, but outside of how violent it is, it really feels just like any other Batman book. And a large part of getting that across is framing: both in panel placement and structure.
Look at this panel. Look at the detail, look at the background. Look at every little moment coming up to it beforehand-how the detail in the background so effortlessly captures this character’s mood until it just fades, fades into the laughter that will be his state of mind. It is insanity being formed. All in the fact that this panel not only takes up an uneven portion of the frame, or that it breaks the classic structure to emphasise the crack in Joker’s psyche, but because you can hold on that image for as long as you wish. Letting it sink into your brain.
Comic book panels can have that effect for the simple reason that they stand there. You can take all the time to absorb the information, and however it has moved you is determined entirely in how the page(s) or preceding panels have been to help that moment pop. Now, obviously, film has that too, and holding on a moment at the right time can lead to an amazing moment. Here’s the thing, though: there’s still more going on. There has to be, otherwise you’re not really making a motion picture. Film can capture a moment in time-comic books can create a moment and immortalise it like a statue. Both have their evocation, both have their place. Honestly, it makes me kind of glad that a lot of live action comic book movies just create their own plot and incorporate certain moments into stories they control. It’s difficult getting to translate well into animated movies, never mind live-action!
So back to the Joker’s ‘birth’. I’ve displayed my disappointment in how it plays out in the movie, but let me go into why a bit. One part is the colours. Most of the movie has this very noir-gritty realist vibe to the artwork; still superhero-y but a little bit more grounded. So, when the Joker emerges from the chemical factory, it’s just mud and darkness. No playing with the palette, no evoking what’s going on emotionally outside of the sound of rain (a perhaps gratuitous compliment, but I like how they use that sound effect, especially as it recurs in the final scene). And it just doesn’t have as much impact as it does on the page. It goes by way too fast, doesn’t really brace the significance of this moment and it’s just a few standard cuts til we get to the money shot.
So we’ve discussed the impact of individual panels and how they’re built up-let’s give one more example in terms of how the page in general is structured. As stated above, Alan Moore is a meticulously detailed writer, and one of his recurring techniques is the nine-panel grid, which he uses to open this story. With each passing panel in a neat, orderly way, we see Batman entering Arkham and heading towards the Joker, almost like he’s slowly descending into his own subconscious. It also subtly displays how action-oriented and meticulous the Bat is; carefully approaching his target and being stern and together…then facing the “Joker” utterly interrupts the flow of the structure with the last third of the page pushed into one image with the opening line: “There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…”. Also note the next time the nine-panel structure breaks is when Batman finds out the “Joker” he is talking to is fake, and finally the structure is gone once the main man himself comes in, with a beautiful full face reveal that takes up most of the page.
You can’t get that in film (though film has tried…Ang Lee’s Hulk would be an interesting one to look into). There are certain ways you can edit a movie to get that effect, but not quite in the same way and not with the same formality of panels that can be broken whenever a character’s internalised struggles need to be displayed or a broader point about the world or the themes need definition. Moore and Bolland both get this perfectly, and it’s why making this into a movie in the first place is such a Herculean task.
Why Aren’t You Laughing?
Look, and I meant it sincerely, this was not an easy story to adapt. There’s too much investment in it after fans have been demanding it for years, so it’s hard to say if it would ever have reached our expectations. Even if the prologue is shittily written and gloriously mishandles a character who got a bum’s rap in the source material to begin with, fact of the matter is fidelity hurt this movie as much as that prologue did. There are elements that work; mostly the voice acting from Hamill (his slightly inflection change in the flashbacks is deftly handled). But it’s very by the numbers, it tries way too hard to recapture the comic without ever taking into account the more intricate elements that made it work, and a lot of the direction and animation fails because these people weren’t making a movie. They were making an adaptation of a comic they either loved or needed to get extremely right for fear of backlash. As a result of this, it failed.
I guess if there’s anything to take from this, it’s that medium transference like these take a lot of effort and creativity to pull off. Go too far and you ruin what made the original story great, or try to fix a problem and make it worse. Be too close and you fail simply because movies and comics/books do not have the same languages, and everything comes off as a passionless retelling. The Killing Joke manages to do both, and squanders a great opportunity to adapt a beloved story onto the big screen in a way that truly did it justice.
Godammit, Mark. You deserve a better movie.