Adapting a story from the written page - be it a novel a comic book or any other printed media - to screen is a tricky thing. Even for stories that feel like they're built to make the leap, getting it all right in translation is rare. Something always has to be cut or tweaked together and striking the balance can be a challenge. Other stories are notoriously difficult, some to the point of multiple attempts that never quite work, prompting the suggestion that they are "unadaptable". However, the reality is that any story can be adapted if you take the right approach - and DC has proven that with HBO's Watchmen and The CW's "Crisis on Infinite Earths".
In 2019 (and, technically, the early part of 2020in the case of the ending of "Crisis") both HBO and The CW took on two comic book stories that have long been considered to be if not entirely unadaptable, incredibly difficult to bring from page to screen with Watchmen and "Crisis on Infinite Earths". Both stories are not only beloved by comics fans, but they are rich, complex stories with many moving parts. In the case of Watchmen, there's a lot of nuance to the story and complex concepts that are core to the tale. For “Crisis”, it’s a huge tale with a lot of moving parts. They're daunting subject matter to adapt, but both HBO and The CW did it, with both being well-received in terms of ratings and the response of critics and fans alike. How both networks pulled it off was that they looked at the narratives of Watchmen and Crisis less as comic book stories and more as human stories told in large, visual scale, a move that allowed them to loosen the constraints of pen and ink on page.
With Watchmen, that approach is one that acknowledged the challenge of breathing fresh life into the live-action take by boiling things down to its core concepts. Watchmen television series creator Damon Lindelof used the comics less as a "script" and more as a reference and made it clear early on that it wasn't a sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' original and it wasn't a direct adaptation. Instead, the adaptation became a "remix" that built on the original story.
"This story will be set in the world its creators painstakingly built ... but in the tradition of the work that inspired it, this new story must be original," Lindelof wrote back in 2018. "It has to vibrate with the seismic unpredictability of its own tectonic plates. It must ask new questions and explore the world through a fresh lens."
The result? A series that felt very much at home in the Watchmen world and offered some of the same questions about heroes, masks, society, and justice that the comics did while also bringing those concepts and questions into a contemporary conversation. Not everyone liked Lindelof's Watchmen - you simply cannot please everyone - but the fact remains that he took the "unadaptable" and made something that simply worked and worked so well fans are disappointed a second season isn't in the cards.1comments
"Crisis on Infinite Earths" on the other hand, did use the comics as less a general reference and more of a direct guide but even with that direct focus, the adaptation still hung on the core concepts as it told the story. All of the major beats of the Crisis comics are there, but there's more to it than just that. The CW's "Crisis on Infinite Earths" also did something that made the adaptation more dynamic: it told a story that hadn't already been told by centering it on the Arrowverse’s heroes. The changes that were made to the narrative to fit it into the context of the Arrowverse audience maintained the integrity of the story, but also made it fresh by firmly centering it with characters familiar to television audiences and adding a few twists as well. One thing that sticks out as being an especially interesting element was a change to Mar Novu/The Monitor's story while another was the incorporation of another DC Comics event - Zero Hour - when it sent the Paragons to the Vanishing Point that allowed "Crisis" to remain true to itself but unique as well by revisiting a location with an important Arrowverse history.
The takeaway? Both Watchmen and "Crisis" saw their source material as living entities, stories that grow and change to screen and by focusing less on the literal translation from page to screen and more on how to approach the spirit of the story, they were able to bring two stories to life that many thought couldn't be done to that degree of skill or quality. It's impressive. It's inspiring, and, ultimately it serves as proof that anything can be adapted when it's less about the text and more about the tale. It's all in the approach.
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