Comics Are Not Other Media

By | Monday, October 23, 2023 Leave a Comment
I am generally not a fan of re-watching shows and movies that I've already seen; I'd rather spent my time exploring new ideas instead of revisiting old ones. That said, I do understand how people can get some measure of comfort out of returning to the familiar, particularly in times like these when it seems like reality itself is becoming more chaotic and on an increasingly faster downward spiral. One show I've found fits that spot well for me is Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency from 2016-2017. The series is loosely based on the Douglas Adams books from the 1980s but departs from them in several significant ways, perhaps most notably the addition of the CIA division Blackwing which is not only central to the plots of both seasons but deeply integrated in many of the characters' backstories in ways that flatly contradict the books. That's not to malign the series -- in fact, I think the show is excellent and I wish we could've gotten a third season.

But I was reminded of these contradictions recently, after having re-watched the show and breaking out some of the related comics that were published around the same time. The Salmon of Doubt in particular acts as a sort-of prequel to the series but also highlights and explains many of the differences between the original books and the show. (They explain it as a kind of a parallel dimension thing, but not exactly.) And seeing the depiction of the "original" Dirk Gently standing alongside Samuel Barnett's interpretation, I'm reminded of another Douglas Adams character that SHOULD have been changed from the original stories but wasn't... to the detriment of the adapations.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is easily Adams' most famous work and has seen several adaptations over the years. Indeed, the book many people know it from was itself an adaptation from a radio show. And the character I'm specifically thinking of is Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy. In the original, he's described as having two heads and three arms and every iteration of the story includes that. But for all intents and purposes, the extra head and arm are never utilized. Adams used them as something of a throwaway gag to showcase how non-chalant people were about them. "Hi, Zaphod. The extra head suits you." (Changed to "the extra arm" in the TV series.) Aside from a couple jokes along those lines ("He only had the two arms and the one head and called himself Phil.") there's no real story need for them. But every visual interpretation of the story goes out of their way, sometimes at great expense, to create the effects of a second head and third arm, only for them to be little more than a distractingly unnatural piece of decoration. Even the comics, in which it's effectively no extra cost for a fully functional and visually consistent third head, it doesn't work conceptually. Again, beyond a cursory joke or two, the second head and third arm may as well be totally vestigial. Indeed the movie version of the story adds in a sequence to phsyically remove Zaphod's second head and, while it's an unfortunately bad scene by itself, it does highlight the uselessness of that particular design element.

Another work that I really like that's seen numerous adaptations is Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I've reviewed several of the comic versions here on this blog over the years and none of them capture the spirit of the original. To be fair, many don't even try to and deliberately go in a wildly different direction but, to me at least, the most successful versions are the ones that only take the spirit of the original and try to eschew the specifics. To utilize the best facets of their respective media to achieve the feel of the original, and not try to be as literal as possible. Easily the best filmed version of the book is the 1951 Disney cartoon and that varies pretty wildly from the book; it actually mixes and matches elements from both of the original Alice books and utilizes what works best visually in animated form rather than trying to interpret what was often, for Carroll, just amusing wordplay.

There's nothing wrong with the Dirk Gently comics I mentioned earlier, but they don't capture the spirit of the books. Neither does the Dirk Gently TV show from 2010 (which, seemingly oddly, isn't referenced in the comics at all. They actually make a more direct connection with The Big Lebowski than the earlier show). However, even though both are more closely aligned with the books than the 2016 show, it's the latter that does a better job of evoking the style and tone of the books, even if the specific interpretations are wildly different.

My point in all this is basically just to remind creators that, if you're adapting some other work to comics -- whether you're picking up an old fairy tale or a blockbuster film -- let the medium be your guide moreso than the source material itself. The source material should provide the basic ideas and structure, but a throwaway line about sparkling vampires might work well enough in a prose but doesn't translate in any way that makes a lick of sense when presented visually. Just something to consider.
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