More Than One Shade Of RED

Curator's Note

The most interesting thing, to me, about seeing writer Warren Ellis’ and my RED adapted into another medium was the process of the interpretation itself. The original 3-issue comic book—yes, I know the current Hollywood-favored parlance is “graphic novel,” but I guess I’m old-fashioned that way—was a stripped-down, simple piece of revenge fiction about a supposedly obsolete human weapon, or as Warren has put it, "unexploded ordinance of the twentieth century." It was violent and humorless, as it was intended to be. The film was extrapolated into a pretty different story with a much more lighthearted tone.

The most overt thing that survived the translation was the opening scene featuring Bruce Willis’ retired agent character, Frank Moses (Paul Moses in the comic). Now, the beats of the sequence survive: Moses is alone and lonely, marking time in his retirement, when he is suddenly attacked by what’s called a “wet team”—assassins who expect to get bloody. Moses dispatches them like the professional killer he’s always been, gathers supplies, and escapes into the night to…

What, exactly? In our comic, it’s simply to exact revenge, which Moses does with cold efficiency before finally committing what is essentially suicide. In the movie, it’s to protect the woman he loves, reassemble his old team, and discover the reason for the attack. These are wildly different results from what is essentially the same scene.

But let’s look at that opening scene again. As I said, the beats are all still there, but the subtext is very different. Paul Moses lives affluently in a Frank Lloyd Wright house filled with trophies of his world travels, and is haunted every night by the people he’s killed and the choices he's made. The only friendship he allows himself—with Sally, his CIA handler-- is at a distance because he doesn’t feel he can trust himself around normal people. As I said, his response to the attempt on his life is one of retribution.

Frank Moses, on the other hand, lives on a government pension in a blue collar house in a friendly neighborhood. He is not haunted. In fact, he’s rather stoic—except for a puppy-ish crush on his CIA handler, Sarah, whom he only knows from long, flirty converstations on the phone. When he escapes from his attempted assassination, it’s mainly to protect her.

Definitely not what Warren and I had in mind. But valid? Of course it is.


Cully's remarks remind me of Donald Crafton's observation that when film adapts material from comics, it tends to import nothing more than a set of character relations (Batman, the Joker, Commissioner Gordon) and an iconography (the Batmobile, the Bat-signal).  Hollywood reconfigures those recognizable (and sellable) elements into whatever story arrangement it wants. 

However, Cully brings up a more nuanced point, that the different requirements of art direction for comics and film influence how we interpret the material.  Comics can create as detailed or as sparse an environment as the artist wants.  You can have the action take place against an almost abstractly plain background (as many newspaper comic strips do).  In film this is not an option.  Because of the way the camera captures space, there's a particularity of environment that comes automatically when you turn the camera on. And so by changing Frank's house to a familiar suburban home, this change of art direction also tweaks the story itself.  The process of adaptation involves all kinds of "casting" decisions.  Not only do the filmmakers have to decide to what extent Bruce Willis will (or won't) activate certain portions of Frank Moses's character, but they also have to "cast" the house in which Willis/Moses lives. 

It feels to me that Red's filmmakers are trying to make a different political point than the original comic.  The film seems to have a sense that there's something "cute" about being old and a shared sense that all of us (government retirees included) have a cynical belief that the government is feckless.  The comic feels to me like it has more of an active "Warren Ellis" anger about it.  In this way, the film does what comics artists and writers have been doing for a long time: reinterpreting comics material to tweak its original political intent.

 Greg and Cully,  

Tone, to me, has always been my main concern with adaptations as a fan.  For instance, I was disappointed in "Wanted" the film because it threw aside the darker aspect of Mark Millar's series.  Yet, it was a fine action film on it's own accord.  Bad adaptations can be fun or good films, essentially. 

While I admit that I have not read "Red" (that doesn't exactly come off the keyboard with grace!), being familiar with Warren Ellis's material did have me scratching me head when I watched the film.  Yet, I again enjoyed the experience of the film, probably more so than I would have if I had read the book.  The one adaptation that leaves me frustrated is "The Walking Dead."  I love the comics and Kirkman's ability to introduce a stereotype, only to undermine it later.  The show doesn't really do that (yet) and while the other deviations left fans frustrated (the CDC subplot), I felt the inevitable betrayal by the show's unfaithfulness to Kirkman's ability to nuance ideology.  

Finally, Cully and Greg's points about art direction hit incredibly close to home.  My dissertation engages with the formal differences between comics and film and how some filmmakers have attempted to bridge the gap between them (Zack Snyder, Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez, Ang Lee, Edgar Wright).  A few years back, after seeing "Sin City," I thought that the digital backlot concept and advances in technology would make a remediation of comic form in film possible.  Now, given the rising costs of such endeavours and how much they can be a blessing or a curse amongst fans (looking at Frank Miller's formal interpretation of Will Eisner's "The Spirit" upset fans, drew condemnation from critics, and imploded at the box office), I'm not sure if that window of opportunity is as open as it once was.  "Casting" a house may have replaced "drawing" the mise-en-scene in the formal toolboxes of the vast majority of filmmakers...  

Adaptation from one medium to another usually requires that the materials be subjected to different product and production conventions in determining what aspects are to be kept, eliminated or transformed. Arguably, decisions to option comic book materials in the first place are made with an eye toward both their pre-sold potential as well as their malleability and openness to translation. Quite often, licensing agreements will break a text down to its component parts and assign varying rights to change, add or eliminate pieces with or without creator and/or IP owner consent, so that Red becomes an assemblage of characters, settings, props, and plot devices that can be reconfigured by licensees in various ways. Indeed, at least contractually, their ability to be deconstructed is often one of the most valuable assets that IP offer.  

While licensing contracts spell out such dull matters as accounting and payment terms as well as default and termination of contract stipulations, they also specify who gets to (legally) tell what kinds of stories involving pre-existing characters, stories or brands, under what conditions and in what forms. As such, licensing agreements can also be sites of negotiation and struggle over creative authority and regularly serve as contested cultural resources for defining appropriate representational practices. I am curious, Cully, about the negotiation process between you, Warren Ellis, DC/Wildstorm and Summit Entertainment in setting adaptation terms:  were there aspects of creative control, consultation, representation, etc that were open to discussion? To what extent did the agreement set the parameters of what Red  could become on screen and who had a voice in how it was adapted? Perhaps more abstractly (since you might not want to discuss contract specifics), as an artist, do you feelyou should have the right to ensure that  certain design/story elements you've created  are consistently upheld across media sites (or have input into how they are translated) or do you feel that the optioning process should give licensees the right to make all creative decisions? Is this the case for all adaptations (would you want a different set of options in negotiating the poster art or comic strip rights to Red as the film rights?


I had an addition to Avi's question that, as he stated, you might not be able to comment on given your contract.  

When the rights were sold, did you lose ownership over your artwork?  I'm curious to see to what degree comics have become integrated into the storyboard process.  


In my experience, film rights agreements don't usually cover "adaptation terms."  Contracts cover simply the right *to* adapt, for how long, in what media, and all eventualities in which money changes hands.  In other words, once they buy the rights make a film of THE GODFATHER, they can do it as a musical if that's what they want, and as long as the check clears.  I don't think most authors have any say in *how* their work might be adapted unless they're really giant names, which is rare.  And if there is any further involvement-- such as, say, Mario Puzo writing the screenplay adapting his own novel-- it would be a separate services agreement negotiated with a separate payment structure.  Even then, the studio, producer, or director would have more say than the author over what shape the work would become, because it's their film. 

Every situation is different. On one end of the spectrum is SIN CITY, a literal adaptation in which author Frank Miller co-directed the film.  On the other is RED.

No, I still own my artwork, and Warren and I still own the published comic; DC still owns the right to publish it, since they've kept it in print.  If it had been out of print longer than a certain license period, those rights would have reverted to us eventually, but the movie (and possible sequel) have made sure that DC will keep it in bookstores for a long time.

But my art is my art, and actually, even that gets complicated.  DC owns the right to publish that art, as I said, for a period defined by keeping it in print.  I, on the other hand, own the *physical* artwork itself, and can sell it to collectors as I wish. 

(Incidentally, that's true even on a Batman comic. If I draw one of those, DC owns the character, obviously, and the right to publish the work; I own the physical pages to sell or donate as I please)

Summit Entertainment has the right to use art from the comic in the film or to market it.  They can also hire me to do new art, but that would be, as I said to Avi, a separately paid and negotiated agreement.

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