Transforming a graphic novel into a movie might seem straightforward, but not everything that works on the page makes sense on the screen. Walt Hickey, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for illustrated reporting, recommends five outstanding comics that were turned into films—with varying degrees of fidelity, and varying degrees of success.
What determines whether a graphic novel is suitable for screen adaptation?
To make a graphic novel into a good movie requires an excellent graphic novel, and also requires the person who is adapting it to be willing to make really strong choices.
Lots of people who are casually looking at the space will look at a comic and think, ‘Perfect. They’ve made an excellent shot list with which I can make a movie.’ Oftentimes, movies that are filmed by viewing the comic as the pre-visualization will flop because the graphic novel is a fundamentally unique and imaginative medium that can do things with color that a director can only dream of.
Adapting a graphic novel or a comic into a film requires the audacity to maintain the heart of the story, to maintain the characters and understand what made people love them to begin with, and the willingness to take the necessary choices to make it suit a significantly shorter runtime, a significantly less complicated plot, and a visual medium where one’s hands are tied, compared to what can be done on the page.
You’ve worked on comics yourself; specifically, in 2022, you and your colleagues won a Pulitzer Prize for your graphic reportage on the plight of the Uyghur community in China. Can you tell us more about that project?
In 2021, I worked on, reported, and edited a comic profiling Zumrat Dawut, a Uyghur woman who, during her life in Western China, was arrested, sent to a detention facility, and tortured. Thanks to some dogged work from her husband, she was empowered to escape, and was able to flee the country and get to safety. A detention camp is not exactly an easy place to get a camera into. As a result, there was very little visual representation of the conditions and the difficulties that people faced in this system in Xinjiang province.
We adapted her story in a comic book format as a way to illuminate a very big problem that hadn’t been sufficiently illustrated in the press through traditional visual means, and to tell an incredibly searing and touching story about a woman who endured a lot and, I’m very glad to say, eventually made it to a safe place.
I picked Watchmen for a lot of reasons. It’s arguably the most important comic book ever made. It fundamentally changed the way that the entire world viewed comic books and what they could accomplish, and everything that came after it is fundamentally different than all that came before it. The other reason I picked it is because if I did not pick it for this list, there would be pitchforks outside of my apartment, and I did not want that.
Typically, Silver Age comic books tended to be formulaic. We were very much at the start of something. We were watching people tackle a new medium and find how we can tell superhero stories within it.
Then, you get to the 70s and 80s, and you can watch the generation that was raised on comics come into its own. They take on those comic books and make them into plotlines more ambitious than anything you’d ever seen. Good examples of that are what Walt Simonson was doing with the Thor comics, and what Chris Claremont was doing with the X-Men comics. They took characters that had been established for mythology or ripped as genetic freaks, and they turned them into bold and audacious stories about enormous mythological consequences, consequential people’s lives, and day-to-day experiences of discrimination at the time, and adapted it for the era of LGBTQIA+ rights.
In the 1980s, you saw the comic medium get stocked with more talent than it’s ever had before, including people who were taking a somewhat critical or reactive eye to everything that had come before, and that’s when you get to Watchmen.
“We’re fundamentally visual creatures”
Watchmen is a revelation. It takes the characters that had been left in the dustbin of comic book history, reinvigorates them, and tells a story of realism and verisimilitude. What would actually genuinely happen if Superman was real? What would happen if God was American? What would happen if you had vigilantes roaming the streets? What if these people accumulated some degree of celebrity?
For a while, it was considered to be definitively, absolutely, no questions asked, un-remake-able. You could not make a film out of it; you could not make a television show out of it. This was held to be the gold standard of inability to adapt. Now we have two adaptations.
We have the 2009 Zack Snyder Watchmen film, which is very true to the comic illustration. He takes lots of the illustrations from the comic and very directly adapts them. And, we have the recent HBO, Damon Lindelof-led miniseries, which takes this as an inspiration. This is a world in which the events of Watchmen have happened. Necessarily, the world has changed as a result, and here are the people who are within it. It’s a world that explores some of the themes that are unexplored and explored within Watchmen itself.
This is my list of the best comics that have ever been adapted; not the best comic adaptations, necessarily. As far as graphic novels go—just in terms of historical import, its quality, the fact that the entire comic book world is unrecognizable after its creation, and the fact that to this day we’re still reconciling what this comic started, in terms of more nuanced portrayals of comic book heroism—you have to start the list with this one. Again, I’m begging people to leave their pitchforks at home.
You say the world was different before and after Watchmen—how so?
Watchmen introduces a new degree of moral complication. Not only had it never been imagined in comics before this, it was not printable. In many cases, these heroes are terrible people. They’re essentially archetypal figures that, in any of the pages that came before, would have been celebrated or had their edges sanded off. They are turned into monsters.
It forces us to contemplate the implications of a superpowered world in a way that has become very popular these days. You can look at shows like Invincible and The Boys. You can look at any of these postmodern takes. Some groups of people having significant amounts of power over other groups of people has ramifications that hadn’t been explored. You had the specific elements of it, such as with great power comes great responsibility, and you had different motivations and empathies for different kinds of characters.
The idea is that if the world was as it appears in the comic books we all know and love and contained the heroes that we all know and love, this world would be terrible; it would be worse. It would give power to terrible people and then celebrate them as heroes. That was a question for the entire format that only Alan Moore could pursue.
I’m talking about it at surface level because Watchmen needs to be read to be beheld. It’s fair to say that it was asking questions that not only hadn’t been asked before but hadn’t even been in the lexicon of superhero comics before then.
Let’s jump to the present. Heartstopper is an ongoing, bestselling graphic novel series and is extremely popular. If you walk into Barnes and Noble, they will practically hit you in the head with it immediately. You might know it because it is a massive Netflix hit. The reasons I wanted to talk about Heartstopper are some of its content, as well as what it means for our current era.
You came to me asking about graphic novels, and this is a very strange term that, at some point, meant a very specific novel designed to reach a very specific audience and write one single, defined story. Over time, it came to mean the collected editions of a larger comic book, whether or not they were conceived of as a novel in and of themselves.
Heartstopper started out as a webcomic. It was part of a new wave of comics— the vertical-scrolling comic that was innovated in South Korea and spread to the United States, specifically through platforms like Webtoon and Tapas (formerly known as Tapastic, originally as Comic Panda).
It is the most successful of its generation at this point, I would argue. There are a number of other comics that are extremely good and competitive, and some of them are in various different states of adaptation; but, as we speak in 2023, it is undeniable that Alex Oseman’s Heartstopper has been one of the most commercially and critically successful comics of this entire decade.
Heartstopper takes place in England at a public school (UK equivalent of prep school). It’s a gay romantic story between a somewhat geekier kid and a guy on the rugby team. It shows how the two protagonists, Nick and Charlie, confront the world around them, and the latent homophobia around them, but it’s a very pleasant read. ‘Cozy’ is a word that many would use to describe it.
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While its plot—and this is not intended to diminish it—is not necessarily breaking any new ground; the manner in which it’s told is extremely compelling. Oseman’s art style has a reality to it that people really gravitate towards.
The series has been ongoing for a number of years now. It started in 2016. The understanding is that it’s in its final act now. The comics that are going to be coming out on the internet, and then published and aggregated, are winding towards their conclusion. It is impossible to think of a webcomic that has been more explosively successful as an adaptation than Heartstopper has been.
It is a sign of the times that even as we have countless superhero movies and dramas, and superheroes are becoming the definitive genre of our time, the comic that is arguably the most successful right now is Heartstopper. It is doing bananas numbers on Netflix. It was in the top 10 English language titles almost immediately. Based on Netflix’s methodology, within the first week, it got 24 million hours viewed. It is a juggernaut, in a way that is fundamentally difficult to comprehend.
One of the things that I enjoy about this in particular is that I have a very special place in my heart for LGBTQIA+ comics. There’s been a renaissance on the Web when it comes to the ability to tell stories about gay and lesbian and trans people, in a way that has never been offered through mainstream channels. Some of the most vibrant and exciting communities and conversations online around comics take place inside these communities.
This is, bar none, the most successful comic, but also the most successful of that world. It is a mainstream moment for a subculture that I have long been very fond of. That there’s an incredible amount of good work going on is very cool to see.
Your next recommendation for us is I Kill Giants, by writer Joe Kelly and artist J. M. Ken Niimura. Can you tell us more about this work?
I Kill Giants was published by Image Comics in 2008 and was adapted into a feature film, which came out in 2017 and starred Zoe Saldana. I will be the first to say I did not care for the film very much at all. We have talked about what makes a successful adaptation and what makes an unsuccessful one. I think that the work that they were adapting may not have been the best suited for the film. Comics can do things visually that movies can’t, and this is an example of a book where I think the silver screen just came up short compared to the visuals of the book.
I will tell you straight up right now, of all the things that I am recommending on this list, this is one of the most searing and beautiful and compelling and interesting short stories that I have ever read. It is a magnificently drawn, beautiful limited series. There’s a genuine chance that as I describe some of the plot elements to you, I’m going to cry.
It’s about a girl who lives by the sea. She is a bit of an outsider. Every night she takes her big hammer and goes out to the sea and fights and kills giants. It’s very much a fantasy construction that is getting her through some interesting and difficult times. My voice is cracking because this is one of the best and most emotionally resonant books that I’ve ever read.
I am very happy that the people who made it got paid for the movie rights. I wish that the movie was as good as this. When we were talking about what you can do in the comic book medium in such a short amount of time, in such a parsimonious space, across just seven issues, this is a really good read. It is genuinely a remarkable book, and it’s definitely worth reading.
You make me want to read it. When you say comics can do things visually that movies can’t, what do you have in mind?
Limitations do exist within comics, but the visual language and the mechanisms with which you can tell stories in comics are unmatched by any other medium. You can get some more verisimilitude with film, but with film you can’t get the degree of imagination, visual flourish, and ambition of what you can represent, that you can on a two-page spread in a comic book. You can draw what you know.
With enough work, anything can be drawn and illustrated. When it comes to how you are able to tell stories by blending the visual with action and words, graphic novels are fundamentally different creatures from traditional novels. You’ll feel empathy far more readily with the protagonist of a graphic novel than you will with the protagonist of a novel.
I know that because I’ve worked in comic book storytelling when it comes to adapting news stories, such as the profile of Zumrat Dawut that we discussed earlier. We’ve seen stories of people that, when they’re in print, don’t necessarily resonate. You’re able to bring new perspectives to stories when you have a character that people can identify and see and fall in love with.
We’re fundamentally visual creatures. There is really no way around it. Comic books are not simply screenplays for eventual movie adaptations, and they are not just books that have pictures in them. In and of themselves, they are a truly exciting art form that allows you to tell stories that you can never tell otherwise.
That resonates for me. But you’ve mentioned that some movie adaptations of comics do work out well, and on that note your next selection for us is Nimona, by Eisner Award winner ND Stevenson. Can you tell us more about this science fantasy graphic novel and its film adaptation?
Nimona is the work of ND Stevenson, who went on to co-create Lumberjanes. He is extremely talented. He has been the showrunner, developer, and executive producer of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. He’s a classic rising star within art and animation.
Nimona was his first book. He did it as a thesis. This is such a cool thing about how creative work is done today: you can go back on ND Stevenson’s Tumblr from 2012 through 2014 and see him come up with the idea for this book, develop these characters, sketch them out, and develop a comic about them.
It’s a compelling book. It’s a little bit about queerness; it’s about identity. The main character is a shapeshifter and works with people who potentially have different morals and values than she does to take on the Institute, a big bad imperial and fascist apparatus. It is a charming, pretty, very good-looking book. It is visually innovative and it’s visually striking.
Nimona was adapted into a film. It was the last production of Blue Sky Studios, which was the computer animation studio that had been owned by Fox. When Fox was bought by Disney, Disney killed Blue Sky Studios. For a while, it looked like this film, which had so much heart put into it, was not going to get released. Eventually, they were able to cut a deal and sell it to Netflix.
The film has some serious Oscar juice behind it. It has received a lot of attention. It’s a lovingly crafted film. The animation style is very aligned with the comic itself. I think that this is an example of a really successful adaptation. In taking a webcomic and adapting it into a television show, you are taking some liberties, you are compressing character arcs, and doing all that kind of stuff.
Watchmen, somewhat notoriously, had a unique experience with adaptation despite being considered impossible to adapt. I Kill Giants, I think, was slightly botched. Nimona is a really good adaptation that, out of anything that we’re going to talk about today, best nails the source material.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a manga comic written in the eighties by Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to become an acclaimed director. It would inspire his early feature-length film of the same name, which would go on to lay the groundwork not just for Studio Ghibli, not just for Japanese animation, but, I would argue, for animation in general, and for so much of what we’ve been able to see that medium accomplish over time.
If you want to tease it back to where it all began, the Nausicaä manga is where he was understanding how stories worked. You can see he always had a very intuitive sense of how these things proceeded, but I think you can see him becoming more and more imaginative as he writes this manga. You can see him working with different ideas that eventually show up in other places.
There’s a book called Shuna’s Journey, first published in 1983, that came out in English recently. You can see so many of the visual elements that he was working through in real time in Shuna’s Journey appearing in Nausicaä and in some of his later films.
Nausicaä was a big hit. The 1984 film adaptation was a big deal for many reasons, both for film and for the entire industry within Japan. Just in terms of these graphic novel series that can sometimes see an adaptation happen, it is genuinely worth a read.
It is charming. It reads very well. It is a little bit of its time, but you can tell that this is a guy who wanted to do his version of the Odyssey, just as he was developing. I think he’s at the height of his creative talents now, but you can tell that he already had a mastery of the craft back then. It has all the elements of what would become his career: his fascination with visually striking objects, his staunch environmentalism, flight. You can see it all here. It’s the blueprint for everything that he’d be doing for the next three decades.
The influence of his films and his aesthetics in general are everywhere, particularly within American comics, which are trying to evoke some of the Japanese perspective. I think that the entire world would be unrecognizable without this specific comic existing.
Speaking of the influence of comics on our world, your new book You Are What You Watch talks about how pop culture more broadly affects everything we do — can you tell us more about the book?
You Are What You Watch is all about the science of how pop culture impacts the world as a whole—whether that’s our society, our minds, our identities. Whether seeing somebody have a gay relationship in Heartstopper sparks something in you, whether I Kill Giants allows you to cope with grief or stress, these things leave us fundamentally changed in a way that, historically, we haven’t given them enough credit for.
In the book, I try to explore all the different ways in which our society—our science, our military, our minds, our bodies, our psychology, how we see the world and the people within it—is affected by things like this.
Time and time again, we have seen movies act as mechanisms for empathy. Various studies have been conducted in individual capacities showing that. For instance, people who had a very strong relationship with Harry Potter books while they were growing up tended to have a more favorable attitude towards immigrants, refugees and people who were potentially in a state of difficulty in their lives.
One of the things that I mention in You Are What You Watch is tourism. I think that people’s worlds really are broadened by reading because they will oftentimes embark to the very places that they see. The Lord of the Rings movies were a gigantic motivation for a ton of people to start traveling to New Zealand.
For a decade now, Japan has seen a surge in tourism, based on the Pokémon films and the Miyazaki movies. Americans want to visit the country that has produced so many of these interesting and beautiful objects that we’ve come to love. You can see people’s perceptions of the world around them consistently adapt, based on what they see in books.
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