Comics Adaptations and True Believers


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This presentation from 2007 at Comic-Con's Comic Arts Conference features my theorization about the importance of fans in considering how to adapt a comic book or graphic novel to film.

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Comics Adaptations and True Believers

  1. 1. Comics Adaptations and True Believers: Incorporating the reader’s perspective in comics adaptation theory CarrieLynn Reinhard, MA Ohio State University July 2007
  2. 2. As comic adaptations have made billions for Hollywood, they have become a new genre for research.
  3. 3. Purpose of today’s presentation <ul><li>Considering primarily comics-to-film adaptations, as comics-to-television allows for more “faithful” transferences </li></ul><ul><li>To discuss the differences between comics adaptations and literary adaptations </li></ul><ul><li>In discussing differences, will highlight how considering comics readers and fans is important when discussing comics adaptations </li></ul><ul><li>Will not attempt to offer a recipe for creating the “perfect” adaptation, although will make basic suggestions based on fans’ thoughts </li></ul>
  4. 4. Literary vs. Comic Adaptations Different information means different readings
  5. 5. Literary adaptation theories <ul><li>Cardwell (2002) described the major theoretical trends for analysis of film or television adaptations of novels. </li></ul><ul><li>Medium-specific theories decried any attempt to compare the adapted to the original due to the unique properties of different medium influencing content. </li></ul><ul><li>Comparative approach allowed for adaptations to be considered, because different media were considered to have systems of signs that served as the basis of comparison for the whats and hows of representation. </li></ul><ul><li>Recently, others have argued for the need to include contextuality and intertextuality to understand the impact of sociohistorical and institutional factors. </li></ul>
  6. 6. Fidelity as main issue <ul><li>Underlying all attempts at theorizing adaptations is some form of comparison to assess the level of faithfulness or fidelity the adaptation shows to the original. </li></ul><ul><li>&quot;When we say an adaptation has been 'unfaithful' to the original, the very violence of the term gives expression to the intense sense of betrayal we feel when a film adaptation fails to capture what we see as the fundamental narrative, thematic or aesthetic features of its literary source.&quot; (Stam, 2005, p. 14). </li></ul>
  7. 7. How to determine fidelity? <ul><li>According to narrative theory, any narrative is composed of two main parts: the content and the form (Barbatsis, 2005). </li></ul><ul><li>Some argue for the comparison of specific narrative elements (Whelehan, 1999). </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Their content or functional elements (what is shown) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Their form or descriptive elements (how it is shown) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>But descriptive is the reader’s interpretation, “filling in the blanks” of what it should look like based on the novelist’s hints (Elliott, 2004, Stam, 2005). </li></ul></ul>
  8. 8. Comics are not literary texts <ul><li>Differences between texts lies on the interaction of two levels of information provided for meaning-making. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Narrative information (Content) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Presentation information (Form) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Importance of incorporating readers’ reception of the original versus the adapted texts begins when considering these information levels. </li></ul><ul><li>And importance continues when considering fan communities developed around comics texts. </li></ul>
  9. 9. Narrative Level <ul><li>This level contains information that constitutes the story elements used to construct the diegesis. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Characters </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Setting </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Plot </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Theme </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Information that allows the reader to understand what is happening, when and where and to whom, and maybe even why. </li></ul><ul><li>If we think of the human body, this level is the bones, the organs, the circulatory and nervous system – everything that gets a person going. </li></ul><ul><li>However, the reader only has access to this information via the presentation level. </li></ul>
  10. 10. Presentation Level <ul><li>Provides the sensory information that makes perceivable and knowable the narrative level. </li></ul><ul><li>Back to the body metaphor, this level is the skin, eye and hair color, the voice, shape of face, clothing – everything we can see, hear and interact with in order to know a person. </li></ul><ul><li>Visual and auditory are the main ways we come to know characters and settings and thus information about plot and theme. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>But at some point, virtual reality may provide other sensory information to come to know a story world. </li></ul></ul>
  11. 11. The levels: comic vs literary <ul><li>Presentation level nearly nil in literary: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Narrative is known through words. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Any constructions of visual and auditory sensations are in the reader’s mind. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Comics exist as text and images. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Thus has information provided through the visual sense, as well as suggestions for sounds and movement. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>May not actually know what &quot;snikt&quot; or &quot;bampf&quot; sound like, but our knowledge of English phonetics helps us make sense of these words and expectations are formed. </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Providing visual information means less cognitive construction of characters and setting, and perhaps more space available to process plot and theme. </li></ul></ul>
  12. 12. Why visual information important? <ul><li>Whether serial or novel, having visual information imprints “the” representation for that particular narrative element in the reader’s mind. </li></ul><ul><li>We come to be familiar with a particular visual representation of a character or a setting piece. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>This is especially true if the representation occurs in a serial that has not been fundamentally altered during its run. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>This link creates an expectation that whenever the element is mentioned, the presentation will match or else not stray too far. </li></ul><ul><li>This means adaptations must strongly consider the presentation information of the original text. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The resonant tropes (Coogan, 2006) of The Batman remaining the same across his incarnations and adaptations: the cowl, the cape, the belt, the logo. </li></ul></ul>
  13. 13. The Batman through the years, in comics, film and television.
  14. 14. Comics adaptations and fidelity <ul><li>With a novel it is hard to know what the adaptation is supposed to be faithful to on a presentation level, because the information in the presentation level is distinct for each person. </li></ul><ul><li>Novels worry about the narrative level for faithful adaptation, using hints at the presentation level for guideposts. </li></ul><ul><li>For comics adaptations, issues of fidelity occur on both levels and are easier to recognize when it does or does not happen. </li></ul><ul><li>Because the levels are so linked in comics, deviations on presentation can compound awareness of deviations on narrative, OR fidelity on presentation can ease problems with deviations on narrative. </li></ul>
  15. 15. Fidelity across media differences <ul><li>The narrative level can transfer across medium, with perhaps changes due to time restrictions. </li></ul><ul><li>However, the medium changes the presentation level because different media have different combinations of sensory pathways they reach (Christiansen, 2000). </li></ul><ul><li>Because it is through the presentation level that we know the narrative, the narrative must change to accommodate, or at least it is interpreted as having been changed. </li></ul><ul><li>Adaptations need to consider how these two levels are being engaged by the reader, because the type of engagement required varies across media. </li></ul>
  16. 16. The importance of readers Why considering reception matters
  17. 17. Because True Believers do exist… <ul><li>All roads lead to understanding the consumers of the original comic texts. </li></ul><ul><li>Fans of original comic texts are more likely to be devout and vocal when compared to their literary text counterparts. </li></ul><ul><li>There are a number of reasons for this, which can provide for its own presentation. </li></ul><ul><li>Being here at this convention provides evidence to support this assertion. </li></ul>
  18. 18. … and they matter to Hollywood <ul><li>&quot;The idea of appealing to the fans, of the fans having a legitimate stake in the production of superhero films, has become commonplace in the marketing buildup to the release of films...&quot; (Coogan, 2006, p. 5). </li></ul><ul><li>Studios are working to court and cultivate fandom. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Attending conventions like Comic-Con to unveil a new movie </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Sponsoring message boards and fan theories at their official websites like the producers of Heroes </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Creating Internet media specifically for fans who want more during the summer than reruns of Lost . </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Because of the Internet, with websites like, a minority can become very powerful and grow into a majority. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>For every vocal fan, there are other fans not as vocal, but who may be influenced by those who speak out loud and often. </li></ul></ul>
  19. 19. Co-construction of meaning <ul><li>Tradition in literary research says that producers shape a text to have certain features that are expected to be received in a certain way. </li></ul><ul><li>Texts are created with this “ideal spectator” in mind – someone who will see the text as the producer intended. </li></ul><ul><li>However, we now see the actual moment of reception as involving an interaction between characteristics of the text and the reader. </li></ul><ul><li>What the reader brings to the engagement can determine what is gotten from the engagement. </li></ul>
  20. 20. Fans as active readers <ul><li>There are real people who repeatedly return to a particular genre of texts because of desire to receive those features inherent to those texts. </li></ul><ul><li>These fans would be as close to the “ideal spectator” that the producer can expect to find for that text. </li></ul><ul><li>It then behooves the producer to consider these fans in the production of the text – whether an original genre text or an adapted text. </li></ul><ul><li>Fans have expectations for what features will be in the adapted text based upon what text purports to represent – in this case, the original text. </li></ul><ul><li>Producers should consider these expectations when creating an adapted text for their “ideal spectators”. </li></ul>
  21. 21. Importance of expectations <ul><li>Busselle & Bilandzic (2007) used a mental models approach to explain how people are transported into a story, regardless of how the story is presented. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>This approach relies on the reader or spectator being an active consumer of the text. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Models of the story, of what “should be”, are based on previous experiences with stories and are continuously constructed as the reader moves through the story by the information provided on the narrative and presentation levels. </li></ul><ul><li>Disruptions to this construction, caused by inconsistencies between what “is” and what “should be”, can disrupt a feeling of flow, transportation, and then overall enjoyment. </li></ul>
  22. 22. Busselle and adaptations <ul><li>In cases of adaptation, inconsistencies can occur based on expectations from encounters with the original text. </li></ul><ul><li>Unacceptable or unexplainable deviations from the original text could cause a negative reaction to overall adaptation. </li></ul><ul><li>These deviations where the information does not match could be on either the narrative or presentation level. </li></ul><ul><li>This can be potentially more important for comics adaptations, because of the presence of the presentation level and its links to the narrative level. </li></ul><ul><li>The worse the deviation, especially on both levels, the more the perception of inconsistency, the more the disruption and lack of flow, and the more likely the film will be received poorly. </li></ul>
  23. 23. Expectations and identity <ul><li>Violations to expectations can be especially hard for those who see the original text as important to their self sense of self (Grossberg, 1992; Harris, 1998). </li></ul><ul><li>In particular, they may use those texts to express things they see in themselves, or things they would like to see – and adorning themselves with iconic representations symbolizes this connection. </li></ul><ul><li>If the fan sees the original text as important to their sense of self, the fan could be protective of their interpretation of the text, especially those who take their fandom seriously (Staiger, 2005). </li></ul>
  24. 24. Agents as consecrative agents <ul><li>Shefrin (2004), in her work on LOTR and Star Wars fans, used Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural producers to argue for the importance of considering fans. </li></ul><ul><li>“ Due to their close textual readings, their enthusiastic critical analyses, their extreme dedication, and their growing numbers, active fans are beginning to be recognized as important contributors to the formation of collective belief.” (p. 269) </li></ul><ul><li>Fans’ online and offline discussions of a film can influence the opinions and behavior of non-fans, which includes the general movie-going public. </li></ul>
  25. 25. Agents as consecrative agents <ul><li>From this perspective, because fans have expert knowledge on the original text, they become a form of consecrating agents whose reactions help create the symbolic capital (or worth) of the adapted text. </li></ul><ul><li>Thus, how the cultural producer engages with fans may determine the success and longevity of the adaptation. </li></ul><ul><li>The goal for the producer is to learn to navigate between allowing for active participation from fans without giving them power over all production decisions. </li></ul>
  26. 26. What this means <ul><li>The paradox: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>There is more potential for having a built-in audience who will be high consumers through their repeated viewings and ancillary market purchases; </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>However, there is more potential for backlash before and after the adaptation is released. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Sometimes the paradox destroys an adaptation (Catwoman; Elektra) </li></ul><ul><li>Sometimes will cripple (Fantastic Four; From Hell) </li></ul><ul><li>Sometimes will not matter (X-Men: The Last Stand; Spider-Man 3) </li></ul><ul><li>How to handle the paradox? (Shefrin, 2004) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Listen and talk to fans during production process (similar to Jackson, not like Lucas) to be respectful of fans </li></ul></ul>
  27. 27. What I learned about what they want <ul><li>I posted questions to various online fan communities and used responses to create pilot survey that was completed by 100 people. </li></ul><ul><li>I report here only for preliminary ideas as it requires further, far more extensive and controlled testing. </li></ul><ul><li>First part, they were asked to rate how much liked an adaptation on scale of 1-7, 1 not at all, 7 very much. </li></ul><ul><li>Second part, they were asked to rate same movies on how much saw filmmakers as being respectful to original texts. </li></ul><ul><li>Found that saying they liked a film highly correlated with seeing film producers as respectful to original text: .822, p<.001. </li></ul>
  28. 29. What I learned about what they want <ul><li>Also went to IMDB and Yahoo! Movies for other ratings of how much liked the adaptations </li></ul><ul><ul><li>IMDB ratings, scale of 1-10, where higher is better </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Yahoo ratings, grade scale, A+ to F </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Also used IMDB to gather information of budget to box office receipts ratio </li></ul><ul><li>Correlations with box office receipts </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Liked .706 <.001 </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Respected .420 <.05 </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>IMDB .518 <.01 </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Yahoo .524 .001 </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Suggests that the more a film is seen as being respectful of the original, the more it is liked, and the more profit it will make in the theatres. </li></ul>
  29. 30. What I learned about what they want <ul><li>Part of my survey also had a list of items that may be important to a fan when they consider what makes for a good comics adaptation </li></ul><ul><li>They rated importance of each item on a scale of 1-7, 1 not at all, 7 very much </li></ul><ul><li>The four most important things were: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The spirit, what I love about the original, should be there. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The people making the movie should respect the comics they are adapting. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The characters should have the same personality, behavior. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The people making the movie should respect the fans of the original. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>These considerations were indicated as more important than fidelity to settings, characters’ appearance, and storylines. </li></ul>
  30. 32. What I learned about what they want <ul><li>From my various idea-generating trips into fan communities online, I sought to answer the question: What are fans’ general expectations of comics adaptations? </li></ul><ul><li>They realize 100% translation may not be possible, especially with serials. </li></ul><ul><li>Instead, they ask for two main things: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>To have recognized the canonical aspects of the text, whether narrative or presentation. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>To have their engagement with the original text treated with reverence and respect. </li></ul></ul>
  31. 33. Retain the Spirit <ul><li>Attempt to capture the “spirit” of the original </li></ul><ul><li>This means retaining iconic aspects of the narrative and the presentation levels. </li></ul><ul><li>And not create an adaptation of presentation or narrative elements that has no connection or cohesion to what was already seen in the source canon. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The Batmobile should not have neon colors. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Mystique must be blue skinned. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Sin City should be a violent affair with scantily clad women. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Fans do not seek the same engagement with the adaptation that they had with the original text. </li></ul><ul><li>They want a resonant or additive engagement, not one that is discordant or subtractive of what they saw in the original. </li></ul>
  32. 34. Be a Fan Yourself <ul><li>Adhering to the spirit of the original text also means paying respect to this material. </li></ul><ul><li>The most important type of fidelity is not to the content or form of the comics text, but to how important the entire text is regarded by fans. </li></ul><ul><li>Because some fans associate comics texts with their sense of self, showing respect to the comics text is a way of showing respect to the fan, to reassure the fan by legitimizing his/her fandom. </li></ul><ul><li>It is best to have someone involved in the adaptation process that is a fan of the source material being adapted. </li></ul><ul><li>Having a fan can help open a dialogue that can result in fans' expectations and interpretations being treated as seriously as the fans view them to be. </li></ul>
  33. 35. Summary of thoughts <ul><li>Literary and comic texts differ in how their narrative and presentation levels are entwined. </li></ul><ul><li>In comics, this entwinement fosters certain expectations in the readers, which become even more centralized and important for fans, especially those using the comic texts for constructing a sense of self. </li></ul><ul><li>Adaptations need to account for this entwinement, as perceived fidelity to the presentation level can hinder or facilitate perceptions of fidelity to the narrative level. </li></ul><ul><li>Fans of the original are important given how their expectations can hinder their enjoyment of the adaptation, and how they can mobilize others. </li></ul><ul><li>In general, what fans want from adaptations is for the spirit and their fandom to be respected – veer to far, and they will let you know. </li></ul>
  34. 36. Richard A. Becker put it best last year, here at CAC: &quot;Fans are simply extremely enthusiastic members of a general audience, and they tend to want filmmakers to act as their representatives in the Congress of their dreams.&quot;
  35. 37. References <ul><li>Barbatsis, G. (2005a). &quot;Narrative theory&quot;. In K. Smith, S. Moriarty, G. Barbatsis & Kenney, K. (Eds.) Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, methods and media (pp. 329-349). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. </li></ul><ul><li>Becker, R. A. (2006). The crisis of confidence in comics adaptations: Why the people who make comic books and the people who make movies don't believe in the superhero myth. Presented at the 14th Annual Comic Arts Conference, July 20-23, San Diego, CA. </li></ul><ul><li>Busselle, R. & Bilandzic, H. (2007). Fictionality and perceived realism in experiencing films: A mental models approach to (un)realness in narratives. Paper presented at the annual ICA conference, San Francisco, CA, May. </li></ul><ul><li>Cardwell, S. (2002). Adaptation revisited: Television and the classic novel. New York, NY: Manchestor University Press. </li></ul><ul><li>Christiansen, H. C. (2000). &quot;Comics and film: a narrative perspective.&quot; In A. Magnussen & H. C. Christiansen (Eds). Comics and Culture: Analytical and theoretical approaches to comics (pp. 107-122). Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. </li></ul><ul><li>Coogan, P. (2006). Superhero: The secret origin of a genre. Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain Books. </li></ul><ul><li>Elliott, K. (2004). &quot;Literary film adaptations and the form/content dilemma.&quot; In. M.L. Ryan (Ed.) Narrative Across Media: The languages of storytelling (pp. 220-243). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. </li></ul>
  36. 38. References <ul><li>Grossberg, L. (1992). &quot;Is there a fan in the house?: The affective sensibility of fandom.&quot; In L. Lewis (Ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan culture and popular media (pp. 50-65). New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman & Hall Inc. </li></ul><ul><li>Harris, C. (1998). &quot;Introduction theorizing fandom: fans, subculture and identity. In C. Harris & A. Alexander (Eds.). Theorizing Fandom: Fans, subculture, and identity (pp. 3-9). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press. </li></ul><ul><li>McAllister, M. (2006). Blockbuster meets superhero comic, or art house meets graphic novel? The contradictory relationship between film and comic art. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 34 (3), p. 108-114. </li></ul><ul><li>Shefrin, E. (2004). Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and participatory fandom: Mapping new congruencies between the internet and media entertainment culture. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21 (3), p. 261-281. </li></ul><ul><li>Staiger, J. (2005). Media Reception Studies . New York, NY: New York University Press. </li></ul><ul><li>Stam, R. (2005). &quot;Introduction: The theory and practice of adaptation.&quot; In R. Stam & A. Raengo (Eds.) Literature and Film: A guide to the theory and practice of film adaptation (pp. 1-52). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. </li></ul><ul><li>Whelehan, I. (1999). &quot;Adaptations: The contemporary dilemmas.&quot; In D. Cartwell & I. Whelehan (Eds). Adaptations: From text to screen, screen to text (pp. 3-20). New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman & Hall Inc. </li></ul>