For many years, the two major houses of comic book publication – Marvel and DC – have dominated the industry, both in terms of sales and media coverage. Their adaptations are often newsworthy events in themselves, as rabid speculation over which actor will inhabit the role of which superhero becomes a frenzy, and each leaked on-set photo is subject to 20-minute YouTube video levels of scrutiny.
Of course, the two publishers are far from the only ones working in the industry. Especially when it comes to audiences that are a bit more mature, there are plenty of publishing houses, often designed to cater to specific niche interests in storytelling. Often a Hollywood studio will back an adaptation based of one of these stories, making for something altogether different from the standard fare we see from the “big two.”
The Crow (author James O’Barr, adapted 1994)
The brainchild of American comics author James O’Barr, The Crow follows the story of Eric Draven, a man who was killed along with his fiancée at the hands of a ruthless gang. He comes back to life to seek revenge on those who wronged him like The Punisher meets Dracula (only Eric isn’t a vampire).
The film is a fascinating, eerie thrill ride. An excellent central performance from Brandon Lee (Bruce’s son) is made all the more tragic by his untimely death on the set. While that story does tend to overshadow the film itself, the fact remains The Crow is a worthwhile watch, and fans of Marvel properties like Blade or The Punisher and Batman fans should all find something to like in this.
The Adventures of Tintin (author Herge, adapted 2011)
The long-running serialized adventures of the intrepid reporter Tintin and his starwalt companion Snowy have captured the imagination of children all around the world since they were first published in 1929. It took nearly a century for him to make his big-screen debut, but along with mainstays Captain Haddock and the Thompsons, they finally did in 2011.
And what a debut it is. A collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, this film is visually stunning, using the best motion-capture technology to blend the animated world with more realistic character depictions and an all-star voice cast. Lovers of adventure movies like Indiana Jones will find plenty in this fast-paced, fantastically animated romp.
Dredd (author John Wagner, adapted 2012)
Although not super-powered, the titular character in Wagner’s bonkers post-apocalyptic universe has a lot in common with other popular costumed vigilantes. He’s dedicated to upholding the law, fighting crime, and dispensing his own brand of justice to the denizens of Mega-City One.
His methods, however, are quite a bit more brutal than some of his more morally bound contemporaries. As Dredd is set in a far-flung future where lawlessness is more prevalent and widespread, Judge Dredd must escalate his own techniques to match. If you think modern superhero films are lacking in the violence department, then look no further.
A History of Violence (author John Wagner, adapted 2005)
The first of the collaborations between filmmaker David Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortensen, it might surprise casual film-goers to learn this is based on a graphic novel. The subject material is very grown-up, as it deals with a man who moved to a small town to live a quiet life as a diner proprietor – until three men try to rob it.
A film that explores the violent tendencies of human nature and their potential causes, along with the struggles of a family defined by fraught relationships, it plays more like a crime drama than a graphic novel. Still, its source material was originally published in 1997. Fans of Mortensen, in particular, should check this film out as it (along with Eastern Promises) is quite a departure.
30 Days of Night (author Steve Niles, adapted 2007)
30 Days of Night takes an intriguing premise – what would happen if a group of vampires showed up in Alaska during the time of year when it is perpetually nighttime? – and runs with it. A game Josh Hartnett plays the town’s sheriff, trying to keep everything together, but Danny Huston’s delightfully unhinged turn as the head of the vampire pack is worth the price of admission alone.
It’s not exactly a classic of the medium by any stretch. Still, some imaginative action sequences interspersed with genuine moments of horror and tension as the townspeople are forced to work together to combat this scourge make it worth a watch. Fans of the vampire genre in particular will probably enjoy this.
Hellboy (author Mark Mignola, adapted 2004)
Arguably one of the most well-known characters outside of the big two, Hellboy’s distinct look – the oversized fist, the ground-down horns, and a cigar perpetually hanging out of his mouth became iconic in comics circles. Long before there was an adaptation of the source material, Hellboy had a profile rarely enjoyed by a character not from DC or Marvel.
Thankfully, when given the task of bringing him to the big screen, the right talent lined up both in front of and behind the camera. Having already cut his teeth on superhero adaptations with Blade 2, Guillermo del Toro was able to embrace more of his own tastes regarding the strange denizens of Hellboy’s world. In addition, Ron Perlman was perfectly cast as the titular demon with a heart of gold.
Kick-Ass (author Mark Millar, adapted 2010)
What if a regular kid decided to take the extreme view of what his beloved comic book characters were doing and join their ranks as a costumed vigilante, fighting evil? This is the question asked in Mark Millar’s graphic novel Kick-Ass. Of course, it is still a heightened reality, but it is much more grounded than many superhero-based comic books.
Talented action director Matthew Vaughn took these concepts and adapted them to the big screen with great effect, as Aaron Taylor-Johnson brought Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass to our screens. It presents a fun, irreverent look at the nature of superheroism, but also with some surprising pathos in there as well.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (author Brian Lee O’Malley, adapted 2010)
Brian Lee O’Malley’s six-volume Scott Pilgrim series is considered to be one of the seminal graphic novels of the 2000s. Following our titular hero as he navigates the trials and tribulations of his early 20s, he meets mystery girl Ramona Flowers – but to be with her, there’s the slight hitch of her league of evil exes.
A quite literal exploration of the lengths we will go to for the ones we love, Scott Pilgrim unfortunately bombed at the box office but has gone on to enjoy cult status. Edgar Wright crafts a film that is so close to what comes out on the page, balancing the book’s themes of old-school video games and manga to create a visually unique, thoroughly engaging thrill ride. Also, the cast is ridiculously stacked.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (author Matthew Millar, 2014)
The second appearance on our list for Scottish author Millar; his special talent seems to be taking a familiar genre and turning it on its side with what, on the surface, seems a reasonably straightforward change. He introduces audiences to the Kingsman organization, an independent spy agency usually made up of upper-class, educated men – and throws a spanner in the works by introducing Eggsy into their midst.
The adaptation is something that sort of came out of nowhere for a lot of people. An unexpected gem, The Secret Service is a delight from beginning to end, blending action, style, and a great sense of humor that’s not afraid to poke fun at itself. The result is one of the better adaptations of a comic book property, regardless of its original publisher.
Sin City (author Frank Miller, adapted 2005)
Sin City is a pretty nihilistic series of graphic novels set in the fictional Ba(sin) City. It deals with the moral degradation of the urban centers of the United States in an indiscriminate period of the mid-20th century through a very stylized and heightened lens. It also has elements of film noir and gritty crime stories to it.
Robert Rodriguez manages to craft a film that is to this day probably the most faithful comic-to-screen adaptation of any graphic novel in history. The action was shot entirely on a green screen, with the actors made up for black and white, which allows Miller’s distinct visual style from the books to be replicated. The film also oozes charm and charisma, and has a fantastic cast.
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