The problem with adaptations – Adaptation Ad Nauseam
It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a TV series based on a comic would have just been the idle fantasy of fans and fodder for Tumblr casting posts. Now we’re in an era where producers and networks are tripping over themselves to adapt a comic for a TV series. Recent months have seen the following mentioned with regard to adaptations – Preacher, iZombie, Powers, Marvel’s Agent Carter, DMZ, Scalped and The Sandman; this along with the series being produced as part of Marvel’s deal with Netflix, which is set to include Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist leading into The Defenders.
Let’s not forget TV series already in production that are based on comics or in some cases characters from comics which include: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Arrow, the upcoming Constantine, Flash and Gotham and of course The Walking Dead. Then there’s others, like Joe Hill’s excellent Locke & Key which Fox shot a pilot for, before changing their minds and in the process complicating a proposed film, which has now become a mooted film trilogy or Revival the creators of which were in talks regarding a possible adaptation, only for the network to turn it down and then promptly produce Resurrection, a TV series based on The Returned – a book by Jason Mott with an eerily similar premise – which was published sometime after Tim Seeley’s Revival first appeared.
The latest of these adaptations is the just announced Lucifer from Fox. Of course the first problem it will have to contend with is Fox’s notorious habit of cancelling series after one season, regardless of whether they have been well received or not, like Firefly or more recently Almost Human .
The proposed Lucifer TV series brings to light a problem which is set to befall several of the previously mentioned series and is a major hurdle for any adaptation – the only limitations on a comic are the imagination and talent of the creative team. The limitations on a TV series are myriad, the main ones being budget and network interference. Not enough of the former or too much of the latter can sink any adaptation before it even sets sail.
Lucifer, written by Mike Carey, is pretty epic in scope and features a whole host of otherworldy aspects. The character of Lucifer Morningstar, who has the look of a young David Bowie, was spun out from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, where the Lord of Hell grows weary and bored of his role in Hell and ventures to the mortal realm with his accomplice Mazikeen. There he runs the piano bar Lux, whilst pontificating on life, fate and various other existential musings. Lucifer spends a lot of time venturing in other realms, with Hell being just one of them, whilst dealing with a whole host of characters. It’s this that will be the downfall of any TV series.
Lucifer (and its parent comic The Sandman) whilst in essence set in the “real world” feature lead characters that spend most of their time journeying in other fantastical realms. This is a big problem for a TV series, due to budget constraints and the FX necessary to portray these aspects. Further problems arise in the characters featured. Mazikeen is essential to Lucifer’s story, but as anyone familiar with the character knows half of her face has the appearance of a beautiful woman, but the other half is horribly misshapen and skeletal, hidden behind a mask, causing her speech to be nearly unintelligible. This is a core element of the character, a character who is one of the most integral to the story alongside Lucifer himself, but would hardly be viable for a TV series.
Imagine network suits discussing Mazikeen, “What’s with the face? Can’t she just be hot?” “So she’s the love interest right?”, “She can’t speak? What are you nuts?”, “Do we really need her anyway?”etc ,etc.
This leads to another problem. When adaptations change so much from the source material that they may as well be called something else to avoid the ire of fans of said material. The upcoming adaptation of iZombie is a prime example. The comic by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred is the quirky tale of Gwen, a twenty something revenant gravedigger in Eugene, Oregon who has to eat brains (but doesn’t enjoy it) and her friends Ellie, a ghost from the 1960’s and Scott a wereterrier. Amongst other things the trio become unwittingly entangled in a plot by an elder god to devour the Earth after meeting the enigmatic John Amon.
Reading the synopsis for the TV series you’d be hard pushed to see any of that, besides the lead character having the same name and being one of the undead. In fact it actually seems more like a half arsed adaptation of Diana Rowlands excellent White Trash Zombie novels.
The Walking Dead is a smash hit for AMC, but whether it’s a good adaptation is a different matter entirely. The series has become notorious for being what is generally perceived by fans as a poor adaptation of the immensely popular comic about Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors struggling to live in a zombie infested world. The series has been distinctly hit and miss from day one, beset with poor characterisation and becoming known for its showrunners departing including Frank Darabont and Glen Mazzara.
Much has been said about the unlikeliness of Constantine actually living up to the source material – Hellblazer. The critically acclaimed home of John Constantine for over two decades was notorious for adult themes with profanity, sex, violence, ritual magic, anti-authoritarian social commentary and more the norm not to mention Constantine’s chain smoking, an iconic character trait which has famously caused problems for the series already with the network ruling out any shots of Matt Ryan’s Constantine smoking.
The proposed Preacher series coming from AMC will struggle as the story by Garth Ennis centres around former preacher Jesse Custer, now imbued with the voice of God after a freak accident, alongside his gun slinging on/off girlfriend Tulip and Irish friend Cassidy (who happens to be a vampire), tracking down God who has abandoned his creation to ask him why. It’s a twisted Kentucky fried road trip love story, with plenty of fucked-up-ness including Jesse’s redneck family and a clandestine organisation built around hiding the inbred descendants of Jesus.
On the other side of the coin though away from the more gritty material there’s superheroes and superheroes have superpowers and superpowers means special FX, which are hard to pull off convincingly and expensive which means money. And there’s that problematic budget again. One of the things that makes Arrow work so well is the series main protagonist doesn’t have “powers”, but rather relies on athletic ability, skills and equipment, much like Gotham’s Dark Knight, to vanquish his foes. This makes a big difference, as budget limitations can be sidestepped much easier and good action choreography by a talented team always looks better than poor quality computer generated FX. The upcoming spin off series Flash looks set to feature more of the latter and less of the former so it will be interesting to see how it fares.
Whilst casting and direction are an integral part of making any series good, it’s the writing and the adaptation process that could make or break any of these series. This is especially true as networks are seemingly throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Whilst there’s plenty of variety to be had in this glut of adaptations there’s a risk that some of them will fall foul of people becoming sick of the saturation of superheroes in TV.