August 4, 2009

WAGNER TO WATCHMEN: RUMINATIONS ON ADAPTATION

This weekend I finally saw “The Watchmen” film—since my wife and I have a 9-month-old son, it’s increasingly difficult to make it to the movies, especially one that’s almost 3 hours long. Based on Alan Moore’s highly acclaimed graphic novel (though not, in my humble opinion, Moore’s best work), the movie was much criticized by both fans and non-believers—opinions ranged from it being too faithful to the source material and therefore not unique and interesting, to it not being faithful enough and therefore sacrilegious. To this I ask the simple question—who cares? I thought “The Watchmen” was a beautiful and brilliant adaptation. A comparison with the graphic novel misses the point.

I’ve also just finished reading P. Craig Russell’s “The Ring of The Nibelung” graphic novels—literally, a comic book adaptation of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” operas. Were the graphic novels as good as the operas? Isn’t that an absurd question? You can’t really compare a graphic novel to an opera, as the media are so very different. And despite the fact that films and graphic novels are enjoying so much overlap these days, I think the principle is the same—the media are actually very different. What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen and vice-versa.

The biological definition of adaptation is the process in which an organism adjusts or changes its behavior, physiology, and structure to become better suited to its environment.

In art, it’s the same. In working an adaptation, the artist’s job is to adjust or change the art such that it becomes better suited to it’s new medium— not necessarily “better” overall, just better suited to it’s new form—whether that be a film, an opera, or a graphic novel.

Russell’s “Ring” adaptations are brilliant in that he captures the spirit of the source material and both adjusts and changes it to suit the graphic novel medium. The results fascinate and soar. Where Wagner employs leitmotifs (“a sort of musical signature—think of Darth Vader and his distinctive entrance music”), Russell creates visual leitmotifs, recurring images to introduce, re-introduce, or subtly include the effect of a character or theme. He adapts the concept of leitmotif from music to visual art seamlessly, and it works brilliantly.

So rather than ask, “is the new art better?” we should be asking first, “does it work in it’s new medium?” And if it does, then the adaptation has been a success.

The next question, of course, is “does it entertain or inspire?”

All pretentious ruminations aside, I thought both “The Watchmen” and “The Ring of The Nibelung” were great. And I’m glad I never stopped to ask whether they were as good, or better, than their sources.

VJT

[As an aside: It’s widely known that Alan Moore did not endorse or see “The Watchmen” film, and if my understanding is correct he didn’t want his graphic novel to be adapted at all. Whether or not “The Watchmen” film should exist is a separate issue, revolving around artists’ prerogative and legal rights. That’s for a different rumination.]