by Mike Baron
A great book does not insure a great movie. In fact, the opposite is often the case. Literature is not cinema, and the list of botched movies based on good books is endless. Bonfire of the Vanities, Around the World in 80 Days, The Razor's Edge to name a few. On the other hand, cinema based on lesser literature often succeeds, brilliantly. The Godfather is not a great novel. But it is certainly a great movie. Much of this is due to cinema's unique gifts: the lighting, the acting, the sound, the music, things that literature cannot bring to the table. But literature's gifts are of a more cerebral sort: the reader agrees to block all external stimuli while converting the writer's words into a living world.
The current synergy between movies and comics owes much of its success to Hollywood's low-brow expectations. Movie producers often skip college on their career path from mail boy to mogul, and they almost certainly don't read a lot of books. They hire other low-brows to read the books and write reports. Even a movie producer can read a comic, hence their popularity. Why, many of these producers grew up reading comics! As literacy rates fall, interest in comic-based movies has grown. Falling literacy hasn't helped the comics industry, which is only now beginning to expand its long static base due to the influx of manga-minded teen girls.
The hit and miss nature of most comic-based movies has less to do with adherence to the source material than the producers' and directors' vision. Chris Reeves' initial Superman isn't very good in retrospective. Marlon Brando sleep-walking through that endless bad art scene, the corny villains. Alec Baldwin's Shadow disappears as soon as you think of it. Billy Zane as The Phantom did not set the world on fire.
Comic writing is getting better, and the movies reflect it. Spider-Man, X-Men, and now Batman are all successful franchises because at long last the screenwriters are taking the characters seriously. But what of movies based on non-franchise material? V for Vendetta was a flop in my opinion. The Road to Perdition was hysterically overrated. Which brings us to A History of Violence, an anomaly among comic-based movies, in that it both honors the source material while improving on it. The graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke is a gripping experience. Wagner's a Brit, but his descriptions of the American heartland ring true. It's not the detail. His details are generic. But his story-telling instincts are spot-on. He's seen and read enough about America (and may well have spent time here) to understand how a small town functions. He doesn't try dialect. The language is simple and natural.
Vince Locke's artwork is also deceptively simple. At first glance it's just a series of doodles that somehow coalesce into scenes - or suggestions of scenes. It's a far cry from the hard edges and heavy blacks of most comic superstars. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), the proprietor of Stall's diner, appears to be an ordinary working American until two thugs threaten violence. Stall's uncommon valor raises questions about his past which the novel proceeds to explore. Wagner's story is operatic, reaching for pathos and horror the movie wisely avoids. In the graphic novel there is a very long flashback sequence detailing Tom's criminal early years in Brooklyn. The pay-off is an unbelievable plot twist - a jarring note of Grand Guignol.
The movie ditches the flashback and plot twist and resets the action in Philly. In the novel, all the bad guys have Italian names. In the movie, the gangsters become generic, possibly Irish, to good effect. But what really distinguishes Director David Cronenberg's movie from the novel is the emphasis he gives to Edie (Maria Bello), Tom's wife. She comes alive in the movie as a moral force and a person. Her outrage upon learning of Tom's secret past is perplexing but possible. Tom's showdown with his brother (William Hurt) is exciting and satisfying. The ending, which left many readers of the graphic novel perplexed, makes sense too, taking advantage of cinema's subtle shadings. This is probably Cronenberg's best film, and a decent little B action movie that is destined to create a cult following.
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