Contrary to the beliefs of my ex-girlfriend, there really is such a
thing as being too faithful.
Adapting any work from one medium to another is going to be difficult.
The most common problem is going from book to film; it’s virtually
impossible to tell a 500-page story in a 2 hour movie. Most films
simply whittle material until all that remains is the essence of the
story. A few films go the other way, maintaining almost a slavish
devotion to the original text. The Harry Potter films are a prime
example of directors adapting books so literally that the essence of the
works themselves become lost amid irrelevant details and the need to
cram in every single scene.
But a comic book is not a regular book. Unlike novels, they rely on
pictures to tell the story, with text to fill in the blanks.
Theoretically, adaptations of comic books shouldn’t be as difficult to
adapt, since the essence of the work is easily transferable.
However, it’s hard to say in practice, since there have been
exceptionally few comic book adaptations. Oh, there have been plenty of
films based on comic books. But very few adapt specific
stories; they’re usually adaptations of characters, concepts and themes,
perhaps loosely based on one or two original stories. Prior to Sin
City, the only real comic book adaptations have been Ghost
World, Road to Perdition, and perhaps American Splendor.
Possibly From Hell, but I’d really rather forget all about that.
At a glance, Frank Miller’s work on Sin City seems
perfect for adapting to the big screen. Miller’s gorgeous black and
white art plays like art house cinematography on the page: Big
entrances, dynamic action, great angles and intense emotion. More than
one observer has compared the pages to movie storyboards, and director
Robert Rodriguez clearly picked up on that as well. With Sin City,
a director doesn’t need to spend as much time planning shots and
sequences; Miller’s done it all so well himself.
But while the visuals are ideal for film, one has to remember that
Miller’s work is highly idiosyncratic. The world of Sin City
is a highly stylized one: It’s full of hard-boiled criminals, beautiful
femmes fatale and tough guys with codes of honour that would make
samurai blush. It’s a world largely based on the pulp detective films
and novels of the first half of the last century; when reading the
books, it’s not hard to hear the voices of Humphrey Bogart, James
Cagney, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre speaking aloud. It’s a dynamic,
somewhat eccentric narrative style that works marvellously on the page.
Unfortunately, it works horribly on the screen. Dialogue that reads
great on paper can come off as cheesy and cliched when spoken aloud.
There are few actors who can say “dame” repeatedly without sounding
ridiculous. But the dialogue really isn’t the problem; Miller &
Rodriguez can get away with a lot because of the style of the film.
While there are a few actors who can’t pull it off, most of them know
their stuff well enough to deliver their lines with the proper tone and
Rosario Dawson in particular stands out with her performance as Gail,
the dominatrix of Old Town. It’s such a ridiculous role that it would
be easy to slip into parody, but Dawson nails it with just the right
mixture of drama and humour. Benicio Del Toro’s drunken fratboy cop is
just about perfect, and Brittany Murphy makes for a nice sultry barmaid.
Though she doesn’t get to speak, Devon Aoki is quite effective as the
silent and lethal Miho. Jessica Alba doesn’t get to do a whole lot of
acting, but she certainly looks nice.
The three leads – Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Clive Owen – are
effective, if unexceptional; playing a stoic tough guy doesn’t allow for
a whole lot of acting versatility. Meanwhile, Jaime King’s performance
in the dual role of Wendy and Goldie is absolutely abysmal. She’s the
most wooden and cardboard actor in the film; she doesn’t even manage to
act stoic or angry. Of all the actors in the film, she seems to have
the least idea of what it’s all about.
The biggest problem is the narration. In the books, Miller’s narration
adds depth to the characters. Internal monologues allow the reader to
learn more about their motivation, and it can fill in the blanks between
static panels. In the film, though, it just gets in the way. There’s
almost a constant stream of narration for two thirds of the movie, and
most of it is unnecessary. We don’t need to hear characters telling us
that they’re upset, sad or angry; even the most amateur actor can handle
that. We certainly don’t need the characters telling us what is
happening on screen: It’s perfectly clear when an actor is reaching for a
gun, coughing up blood or hitting somebody, yet all these things are
Beyond the redundancy, though, the narration really does get in the
way. Everyone keeps talking. They talk and talk and talk, and while
some of it is relevant and interesting, eventually one just gets tired
of listening to everyone talk. There’s just as much, if not more
narration in the books, but the nature of a comic book means it never
gets in the way. The captions are off to the side, acting almost as an
addendum to the images. In his attempt to be ultra-faithful to the
original Sin City stories, Rodriguez has lost sight of one
of the most important aspects: That Frank Miller is an exceptional
visual storyteller. Miller never really needed words to tell his
stories; they were just icing on the cake.
Despite the fixation on narration, Rodriguez is still an excellent
storyteller himself. The visuals of Sin City are just as
good as you’d expect from the combination of Miller and Rodriguez.
They’ve truly given life to Sin City – the characters and setting all
seem like they’ve been ripped from the pages of Miller’s books. They
occasionally stray too far towards caricature – Mickey Rourke gets lost
behind Marv’s prosthetic forehead and scars, and the titular Yellow
Bastard looks a bit too silly to be truly menacing. But otherwise it’s a
dazzling visual adaptation, with exceptional design and some
outstanding action sequences.
The nature of the visuals – the actors did their work in front of green
screens, and CGI backgrounds were added in later – results in some
problems. The backgrounds work, but other components don’t: Despite
everyone standing around in the rain and snow, no one’s hair seems to
get very wet. A few get slightly damp, but certainly not “walking
around in the pouring rain for an hour” wet. Otherwise, the digital
touches are nicely done: Certain aspects of characters – clothing,
jewellery, glasses – are emphasized, and the touches of colour are
dazzling against the grainy black and white.
It all looks great; if only everyone would shut up long enough for the
audience to appreciate it. It’s no surprise that the most effective
sequences are those which cut back both on dialogue and narration; when
Miller and Rodriguez let the story tell itself, instead of imposing an
artificial and clumsy narrative, the movie really takes off.
The root of the problem – beyond a bizarre compulsion to tell the
audience when a character is smoking a cigarette before he’s even
started smoking it – is that Miller and Rodriguez have been too
ambitious in their scope. In amalgamating three of Miller’s stories
into the movie, they’ve clearly bitten off more than they can chew.
Fitting three stories into two hours doesn’t allow for any character
development or natural evolution. The plot points are forced to come
hard and fast, one after another. Like the excessive reliance on
narration, this, too, is contrary to Miller’s original work; he allows
scenes to play out naturally, for characters to spend several pages
doing simple things.
But here, there’s no time to relax. There’s no time to get to know the
characters, either: No time to look at who these people are, or why
they’re willing to die for their respective causes. It’s difficult to
form any sort of emotional bond with these characters. Consequently, The
Big Fat Kill portion of the story plays out the best, as it’s the
least reliant upon emotional reactions.
The shifting time frame is also somewhat puzzling. Those who’ve read
the books won’t have any problem, but newcomers to Miller’s work may
wonder why Marv and Kevin are seemingly re-appearing in Hartigan’s
section of the movie. They do so, obviously, because that’s how the
book was written, but there’s no need for it in the movie.
It’s curious, though, that for all the devotion to the original
material, there are still a couple of odd deviations. For one thing,
Bruce Willis doesn’t look like he’s sixty years old. He doesn’t look
like he’s sixty-eight, either, and he certainly doesn’t look like he
could be Jessica Alba’s grandfather. One would think that the simple
solution would be to either a) cast another actor or b) change the
script to reflect the fact that Bruce Willis is fifty, not sixty. One
must also wonder why Kadie’s, a country and western bar where strippers
wear cowboy hats and play with lassoes, is playing electronic dance
Robert Rodriguez tried to do a very good thing. He found a work that
spoke to him as an artist, and worked with the original author to create
a film that genuinely respected and revered the source material.
Unfortunately, he made two significant mistakes: He tried to do more
than he should have, and he forgot that while they share many
similarities, comics and films are still two very different mediums. He
clearly had the best intentions, and one can hope that Rodriguez and
other filmmakers will still see the value in respecting and properly
adapting comics to the screen; there surely must be a happy middle
ground between Sin City and League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen. Sin City is a fascinating and ambitious
experiment, but ultimately a disappointing one.