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The Dark Knight Returns and The Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking

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Not wanting to spend the entirety of my life figuring out how to put the entirety of my life into boxes and move it across the country, I decided to watch the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Directed by Jay Olivia and released in two parts in 2012 and 2013, it belongs to the Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking, in which the idea is to replicate particularly stirring comic panels on the big screen by unwittingly mangling the elements that make them stirring.

Consider Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. We don’t even need to venture past the opening credits to see where the film misses the point. But before we do that, I should note that I’m not complaining generally about a lack of faithfulness in adaptation. Comics and film are different media and ought to be treated as such. I don’t mind if changes are made that alter the narrative in an interesting fashion. But Snyder preaches fidelity as his ethos, so taken at his word, deviations from the comic in his films aren’t “interesting alterations” so much as the “necessary accommodations” of adapting any medium into another. These changes are being made by a lover of the source material who would never be unfaithful to the “spirit” of the original. For what it’s worth, I think Snyder’s dead honest about his commitment to accurately representing both individual panels and the “spirit” of the original work on screen — he simply happens to be terrible at doing so. Back to the opening minutes of Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s investigating the Comedian’s murder. Both the novel and the film begin with a close-up of the Comedian’s iconic image before pulling back to the skyscraper window from which it fell.

Book:

Film:

I’ve turned on the subtitles in order to make the difference between the novel and the film clear. Although both pull back to great heights, in the novel the emphasis during the slow transition from the ground floor to the Comedian’s apartment is on the content of Rorschach’s journal. You can tell because it occupies a little more than a third of the first three panels and the other visual information is merely repetitive. This isn’t necessarily the case when a camera zooms out — and readers of the novel recognize that there is relevant information in the third panel — but in this case seeing some anonymous man walk through the pool of blood isn’t necessarily useful information. (Readers might associate the anhedonic tone of the journal and the callousness with which the redheaded man walks through the pool of blood, but who among us was that clever at eleven?)

Point being: Snyder’s made the minor directorial decision to move the interior narration of the journal to when Rorschach actually appears:

Same lines from the first panel of the comic, they’ve just been shifted forward to remove the mystery of their author. There’s just one problem: in the film, the implication is that Rorschach’s thinking about the awfulness of the city when he discovers the Comedian’s badge. His behavior’s motivated by his disdain for the people he deigns to protect. His anger drives his actions in a very conventional manner: this man named, clearly identified as Rorschach, is a moralistic vigilante who prowls the streets at night preventing crime, picking up shit from sewer drains and inexplicably using grappling guns. He’s in a mood — the only one he ever has — and he happens to find something that sets him off again. Not so much in the novel:

Notice how quiet Moore and Gibbons’ panels are. By shifting the narration from the zoom out to Rorschach’s discovery of the Comedian’s pin, Snyder’s demonstrated that he fundamentally misread those three panels. The point of them — which will be made more strongly shortly — is to establish Rorschach’s skills as a detective. It’s too easy to turn a character of Rorschach’s pedigree into a mindless vigilante, which is why Moore and Gibbons use Watchmen‘s opening pages to establish his credentials as a detective. He finds evidence of the Comedian on the street; stares it down in attempt to ascertain where it came from; then decides it must have fallen. Only then does he look up at the building. It’s a slow and contemplative progression of panels that the film turns into an minor action sequence complete with “all the [drowning].” And of course once Rorschach arrives on scene:

He says nothing, because he’s investigating. He’s thinking his own thoughts about what he sees. If he had a Watson or a Wilson or a companion he’d be vigorously shushing them at this point because he needs to think. In the film?

He’s thinking that right there as he’s perched in the window. He’s not being an effective detective — he’s being a bitter blogger stuck doing something else but silently composing posts he’ll write when he gets the chance. Even though they made the juxtaposition of the journal clear when he first opened his mouth by having him “think-read” “Rorschach’s journal, October 12, 1985,” the manner in which Snyder uses the non-diegetic voice-over in the scene makes it appear to be a interior monologue, right down to the emphatic eighties-action-hero-overstatement of his final “No.”

It’s actually a little more complex than that. Interior monologues are typically considered to be non-diegetic — in that they don’t come from a source visible on-screen — but I’d argue that, in film generally, they’re diegetic inasmuch as they are coming from a visible source, e.g. I can see Rorschach’s head and think I’m hearing his thoughts as he’s having them. Which is why this is a little complex: he’s not actually thinking the thoughts the audience is attributing to him, unless he’s got an perfect recall and is reciting his journal to himself. In 1985. Or possibly later if this is a flashback. All of which is only to demonstrate how needlessly complicated Snyder’s made this scene in order to streamline it: now Rorschach’s journal is introduced while he arrives at the Comedian’s apartment. He thinks nothing’s lost by transposing Rorschach’s mad rantings onto his work as a detective. He’s wrong.

The point of keeping Rorschach’s journal distinct from his detective work in the opening pages is to create, in the mind of the audience, a distinction between the man and the mask. The man, Walter Kovacs, is a violent sociopath; the mask, Rorschach, can channel the man’s tendencies into productive policing and temper his violence. This distinction indicates that he’s going to be a character whose psychological state is difficult to read. It’s almost like people will see what they want to see in him because he’s wearing a fucking Rorschach test. By which I only mean to suggest that despite his fidelity to the panels, Synder’s missed the entire point of the scene in order to make it more conventional. That’s why his Rorschach says quite a bit more than Moore and Gibbon’s:

Rorschach’s “HUNH” and “EHH” are thinking noises of the sort people make when lost deep in thought. In the third panel, Rorschach recognizes that the size of the interior of the closet seems odd; in the fourth, he improvises a means of measuring the closet’s depth; in the fifth he measures the exterior; in the sixth he measures the interior. And Moore and Gibbons are clever enough to emphasize the crook in the hanger. It’s literally in the dead center of the fifth panel — meaning it’s in the dead center of a page scripted by Alan Moore and therefore quite important:

Only when he compares the location of the crook on the interior in panel six does Rorschach realize that there’s a secret compartment. These panels are evidence of a process of deduction at work. He’s more than a vigilante obsessed with a citizenry slipping into sin — he’s a proper detective who’s capable of improvisation in the course of his investigations. Or he opens a random closet, slides the clothes aside and sees a button:

Then he presses it. Great work there Detective Rorschach! Not sure how you thought of that! I think my point is obvious: Snyder may be faithful to the design elements of particular panels, but more often than not he entirely misreads the significance of the work he slavishly imitates. Now that I’ve established that, I can say that a similar dynamic is at work in The Dark Knight Returns: panels from the graphic novel appear on the screen in a manner that demonstrates the Olivia, the director, didn’t quite understand their import. Consider this action sequence in which the Batman runs across a tightrope from one building to another:

Is shot square in his symbol and staggers:

Begins to fall:

Then fires his grappling gun at an escaping helicopter:

This sequence seems like typical heat-of-the-moment Batman: expensive body armor and years of training allow him to routinely do the impossible. He doesn’t need to think — he’s a man of pure reaction. Even after all these years of not being the Batman — the word “Returns” is in the title for a reason — his instincts allow him to act unconsciously. Such is the impression created by the adaptation. One problem: although that last capture above does reproduce an iconic silent splash page, the rest of those panels should sound, via interior monologue, like this:

Whereas with Rorschach there should’ve been no interior monologue, in The Dark Knight Returns there should have been. The point of the book is that Batman’s falling off buildings worried about having a heart attack and trying to console himself on the dignity of his impending death. Those are very un-Batman-like things to be thinking in the middle of a fight. Eliminating the interior monologue has reduced him to his body — which I grant is the point of many a Batman story, e.g. Bruce Wayne escaping the vaguely Asian pit in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s just not the point of this one. It’s the opposite of the point. But as with Synder, the desire to be faithful to the original work has resulted in something utterly different and more mundane. I led with the discussion of Rorschach because I don’t want people to assume that I’m making the common criticism that comics handle interiority better than film because we can “see” people think in them. That’s not the point — especially not with a Frank Miller book, since the tone of the interior monologue comes straight from film noir’s tradition of voice-overs — which, of course, comes from the first person perspective of the detective novels on which they were based, but that’s not the point either. The point here is that the films of two of the greatest graphic novels of the 1980s are both significantly worse than they have to be because they were adapted by people who fundamentally didn’t understand how they worked.

They’re the equivalent of a parrot trained to greet visitors with a hearty “Hello! Good to see you!” It doesn’t have a fucking clue what it’s saying but somehow we’re convinced we hear language.

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