Everyone knows that it’s tough to turn books into movies. How do you deal with internal monologues? With the world-building that good writers do effortlessly, and in the background? Do you just give up on conveying the tone of the writer’s words, and focus on the narrative?
Yet it’s also true that, if you turn a popular novel into a film, it can do very well; adjusted for inflation, the best-performing movie of all time remains 1939’s Gone with the Wind
, which earned $3.3 billion in 2014 dollars. Steven Spielberg succeeded similarly with Jaws
(adapted from Peter Benchley) which was the first summer blockbuster, and later with Jurassic Park
(from the Michael Crichton novel) the first movie to crack a billion dollars in receipts. And of course, if you happen to have a series of books to adapt, you can laugh all the way to the bank; the Lord of the Rings
movies have earned almost $6 billion, and Harry Potter
series over $8.5 billion. If there’s one reason why these worked, it was, in my opinion, that the film-makers sought to be faithful to the mood of the books, and to the fates that the authors assigned the books’ characters. You might want to know how Harry is doing now, and a movie about it might earn a billion — but there’s no chance that you could do it without JK Rowling agreeing, and seeing if it fits into her vision of the Potterverse. What the film studios want is not going to factor into her decision. Paradoxically, that faithfulness to a vision first put into print is precisely why the movies are trusted by audiences — and thus why they would do well in the first place.
Yet that is also why the most successful genre of adaptations from print to cinema is also the most uncertain, and in which storytelling might be most influenced by the fear of closing off future box-office receipts. The most successful series of movies by far is, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with 19 movies so far that have grossed about $800 million each. And, of course, a sizeable fraction of humanity over the past seven days has seen Avengers: Infinity War, the latest instalment of the MCU, which will almost certainly end its run having cracked $2 billion. Like most of the 19 movies that preceded it, Infinity War is a loose adaptation of a Marvel comic book series; in this case, a 1991 six-part series called The Infinity Gauntlet.
The task of adapting comic books or graphic novels for the screen is, in some ways, easier than adapting a book; one obvious advantage is that graphic novels are, of course, more visual. Yet the very odd nature of comic-book reality — in which characters never vanish, but tend to have their worlds recreated around them — is problematic in a very particular way. Novels, or regular book series, are frequently meant to finish. They have a specific story arc. This lends itself to self-contained cinematic storytelling, in which people invest in the characters. But comic book characters go on forever. Superman will never die, as long as people want to read about him. And yet, of course, DC Comics in 1992 killed him off in a series called The Death of Superman — the fastest-selling comic-book ever — only to promptly bring him back a couple of years later.
In regular books, authors own their characters. They are attached to the narratives they have created for them; they are also willing to lay those characters down, in many cases, and move on to writing others. In comic books, characters are owned by companies. They care nothing about the narratives, and can always hire another talented writer to work with those characters.
What does this mean? It means that the comic-book companies have to keep the stories going on forever, constructing increasingly baroque back-stories and explanations for past cliff-hangers. (Comic books have given us the wonderful word “retcon”, meaning “retroactive continuity”, the fictional version of fake news.) If you’re an author who is given these characters to work with for a few years, you are always tempted to do something terrible to them, force them to face ever-larger crises, and — ideally — kill them off. What happens later? Someone else’s problem.
The problem, of course, is that the profit motive means that these characters will inevitably return. Death is never final in the comic-book universe. But those who died in Harry Potter
— an equally fantastical world, surely! — are definitely not coming back. And big studios like Disney, which owns the MCU, have exactly the same incentives. In other words, adaptations of comic books into movies just aren’t as trustworthy as other adaptations; look carefully, and you will see studio executives hard at work preserving their future income
Which leads me to the point of this story: You, reader, will no doubt soon be one of the third or so of the English-speaking world that will watch Infinity War, if you aren’t already. I’m not giving anything away when I say that, well, perhaps one or two of your favourite superheroes die. But don’t worry: They are actually immortal. You can thank capitalism for that.