Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #8, and the question is a simple one…
What are the ten most atrocious, terrible adaptations to TV or film of either a storyline or character from comic books, novels, or other forms of media?
Now, I spoke to Rod about this a bit more and it turns out that even though he mentions “other forms of media”, he’s really talking about places where things went from print to screen. So, comics and novels that became movies or TV shows. I’m going to fudge those definitions slightly but in general I’ll stay away with another category I was thinking of, which is TV shows or movies that are remakes of previous TV shows or movies.
Coming up with ten items for this list is a bit challenging, because for something to qualify it’s got to actually fulfill several different criteria;
- I have to be familiar with the source material
- I have to be familiar with the adaptation
- It has to make strange or misguided choices in the way the adaptation is made
- It has to be legitimately bad
That last one is important because otherwise you could easily put something like Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine on the list, or even James Whale’s classic Frankenstein movie. Neither looks much like the source material, but you’d be hard pressed to call them bad.
So, what would qualify? I’ve thought of ten, with the vast majority being based on DC Comics properties. I guess it makes sense considering how much of that I’ve read.
1. Hal Jordan
Adaptation: Green Lantern (2011, directed by Martin Campbell)
Source Material: 52 years of comic book material, especially the run of stories written by Geoff Johns, which had started in 2004
Green Lantern is a notoriously bad movie, but one of its most annoying problems was its uninspired representation of the lead character, Hal Jordan. Green Lantern comics have been talked a lot about the requirement that their characters be fearless, and this has sometimes been treated as literal, and other times simply shown that the candidate must be courageous, or in other words, able to overcome fear. This was Geoff John’s take on the character, and the one that the move attempts to emulate. However, it does this very poorly.
At one point in the story, Carol Ferris encourages a mopey and moody Hal that “The Ring didn’t see that you were fearless. It saw that you had the ability to overcome fear.” Well, maybe the ring saw that, but the audience never did. Indeed, the first significant thing he does in the movie is become overcome with fear and crash an airplane.
Really, it’s only because of this dialogue that the audience knows that this is part of Hal’s character. For the most part, we just see him as a bit of a loser who gives into fear, discouragement, and grumpiness. Well, it’s possible there are other qualities in there but they are completely lost in the film’s confused structure and lurchy pacing.
2. Jonathan Kent
Adaptation: Man of Steel (2013, directed by Zack Snyder)
Source Material: 74 years of comic book material!
Unlike Green Lantern, Man of Steel is only a mediocre movie (not notoriously bad), but one of its worst elements is the portrayal of Jonathan Kent, Superman’s adopted father from earth. Kevin Costner seems like a natural choice for such a role, but the writing of the character strangely focuses not on the way he gives his alien son whom he loves as his own a sense of morality and direction, but rather on him imparting fear and anxiety about what bad things might happen to him if he helps people too much. It’s a weird creative choice for anyone familiar with Superman and his relationship with his father, although admittedly, it draws some inspiration from Birthright, which is quite a well-done Superman origin story. That aside, it is still a poor representation of the character, which is the most clearly seen in the character’s death scene. Let’s compare:
• Golden Age comics – “John” Kent dies of natural causes, telling Clark before he passes away that he must become a powerful force for good.
• Silver Age comics – Jonathan Kent dies of a strange disease, after reminding Clark that he must always use his powers for the benefit of humanity.
• Superman, the Movie (1978) – Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack after telling his son that he knows he is there for a reason. He doesn’t know what the reason is or whose reason it is, but he knows it’s more than playing football.
• Post-Crisis Superman comics – Jonathan Kent confronts his son’s selfish behavior (basically, using his powers to win football games) and gives him the wake-up call he needs to inspire him to become the world’s greatest hero. He lives for a long time after Clark grows up, dying finally of a heart attack after a whole lifetime of helping to guide and inspire his son.
• Man of Steel – Jonathan Kent tries to urge his son to stay in Smallville and be a farmer, and then dies in a tornado because he refuses to let Clark help him for fear that it will reveal his secret.
Adaptation: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, directed by Zack Snyder)
Source Material: 77 years of comic book material!
It was cool seeing Ben Affleck’s performance in Batman v. Superman, but generally speaking, his Batman was a moron. He is gullible, easily manipulated and completely given over to his temper and obsessions. He betrays none of the intelligence of steadiness that we usually associate with the character, nor any of the moral stance. He casually runs and kills numerous criminals, and attempts to kill Superman as well for fear of what he might do in the future. It’s a characterization that is forced because of the needs of the story, and there is an attempt to bring him to a new position at the end, but the whole thing is contrived and unbelievable, and ends up being a bit of a fatal flaw (one of several) to the movie.
4. Suicide Squad
Adaptation: Suicide Squad (2016, directed by David Ayer)
Source Material: John Ostrander’s 66+ issue run on Suicide Squad comics
Well, to be fair, the movie draws a lot from later versions of the Suicide Squad comics, which I’m not so familiar with. But it still includes ruthless government operative Amanda Waller who assembles a group of villains to be part of a super-powered black ops team, and includes characters like Rick Flag, Deadshot, Enchantress, Captain Boomerang, and even Slipknot, so yeah, this is drawing a lot from Ostrander’s series. And it’s terrible. I mean, really really terrible. I mean, I know making big movies is a lot of work and a lot can go wrong, but brother, this thing feels like somebody filmed a bizarre fever dream and then edited it with Harley Quinn’s baseball bat. Ostrander’s work frequently exhibited brilliance in its characterization, juggling so many characters with so many disparate points of view, and making them all feel compelling. It was a book that could bring together such diverse characters as Flag, Waller, Boomerang, Deadshot, and so many more, and make me care about them even when I found them morally reprehensible. The movie, on the other hand, works hard to keep me from feeling the remotest level of empathy for anyone, while sticking them in a plot that is so ill-suited for the concept that it sort of defies logic.
I’ve never been able to pull myself together to write a proper critique of the movie, but in my opinion, as soon as someone suggested taking a black-ops team of mid-level villains and making them march across the middle of a big city fighting thousands of magical mutants so they could confront an ancient demon that the main character herself helped to unleash, all while the other main character kept looking for a way to run back to her psychotically abusive boyfriend, someone should have said, “Hey wait a minute, this is really stupid.”
5. Superman meets Lois Lane
Adaptation: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Source Material: Man of Steel #2 by John Byrne
It’s not just recent DC that’s got problems!
The Superman “reboot” originally spear-headed by John Byrne was what made me fan of that character. I loved the take that John Byrne developed on the first meeting between Superman and Lois Lane in his Man of Steel miniseries from 1986. In it, Lois is on an experimental space-plane that suffers a malfunction, and is going to crash. This inspires Clark, who has neither a costumed identity nor glasses at this point, to come out of hiding to save it (a little bit like the first episode of Supergirl). He doesn’t do this for Lois, as he hasn’t met her yet, but just because if he doesn’t the plane will crash. Once it lands successfully, Lois is immediately out the door to find out the story of the mysterious superman who has saved them. “Hold it right there, buster!” she shouts, and the two see each other for the first time. A moment later, they are surrounded by dozens of others, and overwhelmed, Clark flies away. It’s only after that, and because of it, that with his parent’s help he creates both his costumed identity and his “mild-mannered” persona. Part of the cleverness of this was the way that Lois meets the super-powered titan first, which makes her ignoring the ordinary weakling she meets later on more believable.
In the late 1980’s, a new Superman TV series was beginning, and as a fan of the character, I was very excited for it, especially as it seemed to be taking inspiration from the more modern comic book approach: a focus on Clark & Lois’ relationship, with Clark’s parents still being alive, Lex Luthor as an unscrupulous businessman, Cat Grant being part of the Daily Planet offices, and so on. Just imagine my disappointment when the show’s tone turned out to be more light-hearted romantic drama than anything else. Oh well, I held on as I watched the opening episode. I held on, even though Clark wore glasses for no reason whatsoever, and became very connected with Lois right from the get-go. Toward the end of the story, he and his parents finally create his Superman costume, just as Lois is stowing away on a space-shuttle. She finds a bomb on board, and manages to call for help. Superman flies off, and though he’s already in costume and the timing is all a bit off, I thought I was going to see the scene I’d enjoyed so much come to life.
As the bomb is about to detonate, Superman breaks into the shuttle. He races up to Lois in his sadly ridiculous looking cape & tights, with his identical-to-Clark mannerisms, grabs the bomb…and eats it!
And it never quite recovered after that.
6. Cyborg Superman
Adaptation: Supergirl TV series(2015 – present)
Source Material: Superman comics in 1993 and beyond, particularly the Reign of the Supermen storyline
When Supergirl began a couple of years ago, one of the supporting characters was Hank Henshaw, the head of the DEO, a government organization that Supergirl was working with. He was played by David Harewood, and was soon revealed to actually be J’onn J’onzz, the Manhunter from Mars, in disguise.
At the time, we thought that the use of the name of Hank Henshaw was just an easter egg. See, Henshaw was a character from the comics, a Reed Richards analogue whose physical body dissolved while his mind became bonded to the shuttle that had brought baby Superman to earth. He later became a villain who was a cyborg, and looked like Superman. Hence the name, “Cyborg Superman.” In fact, not only did he look like Superman, but he was deliberately impersonating the guy, pretending to be the reborn hero (as he’d recently died). The name was given because he was one of several characters making the claim at the time and people needed to distinguish them from each other.
However, Hank Henshaw on TV is a cyborg who hates all aliens. He doesn’t look like Superman at all, he’s not pretending to be him, and he’s even fanatically prejudiced against him. But still, he boldly and passionately declares that he should be known as “Cyborg Superman!”
What? Why would this guy say that? It’s a tremendously stupid moment that does nothing but draw to our attention how different the guy is from the comic book version. That actually would not have been a problem, except that this bit makes us feel like the production team doesn’t understand their source material, and left me feeling pretty frustrated.
7. Superman arrives on earth
Adaptation: The Adventures of Superman radio show, episode 2: Clark Kent, Reporter (original broadcast date: February 14, 1940)
Source Material: Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, cover dated June 1938
Now, back then when The Adventures of Superman first started up on radio, the comic book character had been published for less than two years. So a lot of the material we’re familiar with now simply didn’t exist. But still, the producers would have known of the basic origin of the character as revealed in the comics: a baby is rocketed from a dying world, lands on earth, is found by a passing motorist and eventually grows up to be the greatest super-powered hero of all, Superman.
But, not in the radio show! In the second episode of the series, the rocket from Krypton lands on earth and Superman emerges…fully grown, and immediately saves a man and his son from an out-of-control trolley car. Thanks to his new friends’ advice, he decides to become a reporter and to name himself “Clark Kent”, believing it to be nicely inconspicuous.
Bizarre, right? It’s no surprise that this take on things doesn’t seem to have been picked by any other version of the story.=
Adaptation: X-Men (2000, directed by Bryan Singer) and its sequels
Source Material: 37 years of comic books!
If my friend Rod were writing this post, I’m pretty sure that there’d be a lot of examples from the X-Men movies on this post. But I’m only somewhat familiar with the source material, even the beloved Dark Phoenix Saga. So for me, it’s Cyclops that sticks out as especially annoying.
I have no reason to think that James Marsden is a bad actor, but he seems badly chosen for Cyclops. I’m used to the idea that Scott Summers is the angst-filled, strategically-minded leader of the X-Men, basically the most seasoned member of the team whether we’re talking about the original group of teenagers or the later group of international misfits.
In the movie, Cyclops is a bit of a twerp who seems younger and more annoying than most of the other team members. He is romantically paired with Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, which is just ridiculous. He’s nine years younger than Janssen, and acts like he’s about 15 years younger. It’s almost like he’s cast to make sure he’s no competition for Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, to make it obvious that really, it’s Logan who is ultimately the man for Jean.
The writing does the same thing, making Cyclops play second fiddle (really, third or fourth fiddle) to Wolverine and nearly everybody else, in spite of the character being so central to the storylines of the comics.
9. The rats of NIMH
Adaptation: The Secret of NIMH (1982, directed by Don Bluth)
Source Material: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien (published 1971)
Well, for Rod (a fan of this movie), this is the obvious thing for me to put on this list, but honestly I didn’t remember it until he reminded me. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is one of my favorite books from my childhood. A Newbury Award winner, the story is about a field mouse named Mrs. Frisby (a widow) who can’t migrate out of a cinder block in a farmer’s field when she needs to because her son is sick, and if he is exposed to the cold air he will die. But if they don’t go, the farmer’s plow will come through and destroy them and their home. She finds unexpected help from an enigmatic community of rats who live on the farm, who have their own mysterious past and surprising ties to her own dead husband.
So far, this plot is exactly the same between the original book and the animated film from 1982. But where the film differs (and suffers, I believe) is in its characterization of the rats and the overall tone of the story.
In both the book and the novel, the leader of the rats is Nicodemus, but while in the book he’s a world-weary figure who carries a vision that his “people” would live a more meaningful and fulfilling existence, in the movie he’s suddenly an ancient wizard with a magical amulet that gives its wearer
Part of the strength of the original book is the naturalistic way it treats the whole situation: the rats are kind of like normal people, tempted to avoid hard work and independence when a more expedient but less fulfilling option is available to them. With this, their leader Nicodemus is a “normal” guy who has realized the social trap that his “people” are in, and while weary from his many struggles but still determined to lead them to something more meaningful. In the movie, by contrast, Nicodemus is a mystical wizard who wields a magical amulet that gives its wearer special powers when they are courageous (hey, kind of like a Green Lantern ring!) Was he a wizard before his was experimented on by NIMH? If so, what difference did their experiments make in him? If not, did the scientific experiments give him magical powers?
All of this might sound a bit pedantic, but it speaks to how the movie altered the books tone. In an attempt to make the story more appealing for an animation audience, the film makers have created something that is simultaneously more violent (with characters being stabbed and crushed to death) and more cartoonish (with characters like Jenner and Nicodemus being distilled into less nuanced and less natural versions of their former selves). Mrs. Frisby appeals as a book not because of it has the magic and spectacle that is normally associated with animated fare, but because it’s a deeply engaging mystery and ultimately a bit of an examination of human behavior, all of which the movie does not capture. It does other things, and maybe it could be argued that it does those things well, but is still in my view a poor adaptation.
10. Sherlock Holmes
Adaptation: Elementary, My Dear Data, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation from 1988, written by Brian Alan Lane and directed by Rob Bowman
Source Material: Various Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle
This one is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but when I think of bad adaptations, I can’t help but to think of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation and his strange fascination with Sherlock Holmes. In this episode, he acts out a holodeck adventure as the famous sleuth, with Geordi being his Dr. Watson. They and indeed the entire ship ends up dealing with a genuinely dangerous version of Professor Moriarity. What makes this a bad adaptation, though, is how poor the holodeck’s (and Data’s) rendition of Sherlock Holmes really is.
Nowadays, we are quite used to seeing a variety of interesting interpretations of Holmes, whether it’s be Robert Downey jr or Benedict Cumberbatch or even the more classic Jeremy Brett. Even if we aren’t the biggest fans of these, we have to acknowledge that each one is driven by an artistic vision that gives it shape and scope. The version that Data plays, on the other hand, is trite and cliche-ridden. With his deerstalker cap and bad British accent and overly-flamboyant dialogue, the whole thing feels like a survey of Holmesian parodies, rather than an honest attempt to engage with the material.
There’s no sense that this is what the episode is going for in particular; it genuinely feels like the show is putting together the best version of Sherlock Holmes that they can, but they are too distracted with the actors playing dress-up to really give it the effort it deserves.
There are so many other possibilities I could have chosen, including at least ten others related to comic book properties (the Daredevil movie, Batman & Robin, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, any movie with the words “Fantastic” and “Four” in the title, and so on.)
Actually, if there is one thing that this post teaches me, it’s that apparently I haven’t read enough non-graphic novels, since I had a hard time coming up with regular book adaptations. I did think of a few, but where I’d say they were “poor”, I’m not sure I could go so far as saying “atrocious” or “terrible.”
I’m thinking things like Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre from 1996 with its truncated ending, or 2010 from 1984 by Peter Hyams, which takes the seminal science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and the engaging novel 2010: Odyssey Two and turns them into a film which is just sort of bland and forgettable. Or the action-based nonsense of John Woo’s Paycheck from 2003, based on one of the many stories by Philip K. Dick.
None of those are particularly good, but they don’t bring out the same sort of teeth-gritting irritation that a lot of the listed examples do.