Comic books now dominate the multiplexes, and are rapidly filling up SVOD services and basic cable. An easy explanation would be to say the geeks have inherited the earth (which is true), but the mass appeal of comic book films and episodic series over the past several years reveals a much broader audience beyond the traditional comic book collectors.
Adapting comic books for film requires the distillation of several arcs and reboots across a universe of characters and stories — how do you find the right one? Episodic series lend themselves to the potential to stay faithful to comic book series run, but that might not be the best choice for the medium — or even possible if the writers are dealing with restrictions from network standards and practices.
In a recent episode of Austin Film Festival's On Story, writers Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Angela Kang (The Walking Dead) reveal some of the keys that have made their adaptations of comic books so successful on both the big and small screen. Check out the full episode below. If you don't have time to watch right now, I've gleaned four keys that you can read below the episode.
Write what you love
Perlman grew up loving science fiction and fantasy genres. When she was accepted into Marvel's now defunct writers program in 2009, Perlman gravitated to developing Guardians of the Galaxy because the series was the most science-fiction story of all the potential choices that Marvel presented. Perlman admits that other writers in the program were surprised by her choice because Guardians was out on the fringe of the Marvel universe, but the characters and story resonated with her.
Kang was a big fan of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, reading all of their books while she was growing up. She has always been a fan of genre fiction, including horror, Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone. Kang's first writing gig after grad school was on an NBC sci-fi drama that never made it to air, but from that job, she landed at FX's Terriers with a group of seasoned genre writers. When Terriers only lasted one season, she made the move to The Walking Dead for its second season based on the strength of her pilot for a militia survivalist story, and continues to write for the hit series.
Know your source material inside out
To find the right story to tell for a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, Perlman had to dig through a trove of comics, including individual character series off-shoots and Guardians character appearances in other series. Marvel was excited about the possibility of a Guardians movie after a 2008 reboot of the series introduced self-mockery and humor to the title. To truly understand the characters, though, Perlman found herself reading 800 pages of comics some weekends and discovering key character details in the most obscure issues.
Before Kang even started writing for The Walking Dead, she read every comic in the series. She was eager to staff on the show after she saw how they were adapting the material for basic cable. Knowing the material so well means Kang and the other writers on staff recognize the key themes and story points that the TV series should hit along the way, even when they decide to add new material to enhance the storyline.
Know when to depart from your source material
Even though the humor of the 2008 comic reboot of Guardians was the inspiration for developing a screenplay for a feature film, Perlman discovered that the protagonist Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) was a traditional noble hero with selfless intentions. Perlman wanted to make Quill more of a "lovable rogue" in her screenplay to make him more fun and interesting. The idea of family was also core to Perlman's story approach. She explains, "We wanted to have the theme be one of family and being able to create lots of orphaned people coming together and forming their own family. That was a very big departure from the comics." This departure gives the film its heart, and Perlman points to the scene of Groot's cocoon and sacrifice for the other Guardians as one of her favorite scenes from the shooting draft of the script.
Kang points out that the comic of The Walking Dead is much darker than the TV series — they just can't show certain things on basic cable. Instead, the comic "serves as inspiration" for the TV series. The comic's author Robert Kirkman has told the writing staff that even he would do some things differently if he was writing the story now compared with his early 20's. As a result, the show's writers have used key elements from the comic and remixed them for the TV series. For example, Kang describes writing an episode where zombies kill the character of Dale, who lives much longer in the comic. A few seasons later, Kang co-wrote another episode where the character of Bob is given the death that Dale originally had in the comic to stay true to the spirit of the comic. Plus the character of Bob in the comic is an old white man, but during casting, the producers decided to go with the younger African-American actor Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. in the role of Bob, again taking license with the source material.
Recognize that genre films are not just for boys
Perlman notes that Guardians of the Galaxy had the largest female audience of any Marvel film released to that point, and Kang states that The Walking Dead in the number one TV show among women. According to Perlman, "Nobody's like, 'Remember, we're writing for fourteen-year-old boys," because I don't think [Marvel] think[s] that. I don't think we're thinking we're writing for fourteen-year-old boys because we're not." Kang underscores this notion, "The idea that genre is just for boys is shifting." The audience certainly agrees.
Be sure to check out the full episode of Austin Film Festival's On Story. You can also subscribe to the On Story podcast to hear more insights from today's leading screenwriters.
Source: Austin Film Festival's On Story