In recent years, comic books have become increasingly popular as source material for movies. Once limited to superhero adventures, new genres are increasingly being translated from newsstand to multiplex, with varying results. What things have to be considered when turning a comic book or graphic novel into a movie? To find out, I dissected one of the most popular horror comics ever, 30 Days of Night, and its cinematic counterpart of the same name.
In general, I would consider 30 Days of Night, the movie, made in 2007, to be a fairly faithful adaptation of the IDW comic, which was written by Steve Niles and drawn by Ben Templesmith. In each, the story begins in Barrow, Alaska on the eve of the annual period during which the sun does not rise for 30 days. A band of clever vampires has realized that invading Barrow would provide them with a month of unlimited feeding without the hassle of having to sleep during the daylight hours. General mayhem ensues. The framework for the story is simple, and it is identical in both comic and movie.
Supposedly, Niles wrote the first draft of the screenplay, so if not perfectly faithful to his own material, we can assume it at least started out close to his original vision. However, two subsequent screenplay revisions by two different writers (Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson) altered details of the story in ways that remain unknown. It would be easy to blame them for any shortcomings of the movie, but we can’t be sure they were really the ones responsible.
The fundamental concern in translating the comic to a movie must have been that the original comic book version of 30 Days of Night is only three, 22-page issues. And since many of the pages consist of single panels with no dialogue, a two hour movie needs a lot of original material. This is where its transition to the big screen fails the most for me. While both comic and movie span the same length of time (30 days), the movie chooses to break that time into more scenes than the comic does. The problem is that these scenes are formulaic: our heroes assess the situation, they argue about staying where they are or moving to a different hiding place, Eben (Josh Hartnett) decides to go outside, Stella (Melissa George) joins him, the vampires attack, Eben and Stella return to find something bad has happened. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Individually, some of these scenes are creative, exciting and gory, but one after the other, they become predictable and boring. Plus, it makes the characters seem less intelligent. You’d think after the second or third time of doing something, they’d learn not to do the same thing again. Granted, the structure of the story puts constraints on what can happen between point A and point B; straying too far outside the box could dilute the constant feeling of dread and desperation that the comic conveys so well. However, this is a problem that I’d hoped the movie would do a better job of overcoming.
Another way to fill time is to add more characters, which 30 Days of Night, the movie, does. But this is problematic, also. First of all, wrapped in winter coats, hats and scarves, lurking in the dark or wandering through snow storms, it’s hard to recognize anyone. Second, the purpose of existence for most of the additional characters is simply for them to be killed, so there’s not much time to invest in them as characters. (The movie doesn’t try: the first time we even hear some of their names is right before or right after they’ve been killed.) Finally, if a few new characters do have a higher purpose, it’s only as a device to further the plot. For example, Helen, Eben’s grandmother, exists because she has cancer, she has cancer so she can smoke marijuana, she smokes marijuana so she can grow it at home, and she grows it at home so she can have an ultraviolet light to later test as a vampire deterrent.
Movies use characters to advance their plots all the time; it just seems particularly obvious here. And speaking of obvious, there’s a scene early on that introduces a “muffin cruncher” in the town’s power station. You don’t have to be a genius to know that later on, someone or something is going to meet a grisly destruction in its deadly teeth. Again, this is a common device that movies use. It’s just that in 30 Days of Night, it seems more heavy-handed than usual. And at its shorter length, the comic avoids such clichés.
One of the biggest differences between the comic and the movie may seem subtle, but it represents a difference in the overall dynamic that causes the movie to lose much of the “heart” that’s in the comic. In the comic, Eben and Stella are happily married. In the movie, they are estranged. At some point in the creative process, someone must have decided that it would be better dramatically if, during the story, the two realized they really did love each other and should never have parted. I don’t necessarily agree.
It’s easy to believe that the stress of the situation would cause Eben and Stella to think they made a mistake. But, if two people have enough personal problems that they would separate, those problems are still going to be there after the crisis goes away. Call me a Mr. Half Glass Empty, but I wouldn’t see their relationship lasting. It turns out that it’s a moot point, because their relationship ends up exactly the same in the comic as it does in the movie. I’m just saying, for me, it would have been more effective to show how much they loved each other all along. Call me Mr. Glass Half Full, but I think a consistently happy relationship is more romantic than an occasionally turbulent one. Their relationship in the comic is more heartbreaking for me than their relationship in the movie.
A final way to fill time is to explore new themes. 30 Days of Night, the movie, attempts to weave the “importance of family” theme throughout its story. Not only are the characters of Eben’s grandmother, Helen, and younger brother, Jake new to the movie version, but Eben often opines about family. “Such and such is what family does”… “You don’t do such and such to family”… Like most of the other additions to the movie, these are blatant and distracting. In its efforts to add depth, it just comes across as artificial.
However, I do like the more subtle implication that the vampires are family, also. When the aforementioned ultraviolet light burns a lovely young vampire woman, the head vampire (Danny Huston) is obviously distraught and subsequently kills her to put her out of her misery. That one scene is more touching than any of Eban and Stella’s drama or Eban’s philosophies about family.
It’s odd that the movie jettisoned two entire subplots and one major character from the comic that could have more satisfactorily occupied time in favor of these failed attempts. In 30 Days of Night, the comic, a group in Louisiana uncovers advance warning of the vampire invasion and races against time to reach Barrow in order to collect evidence. Also in the comic, the character of a head vampire named Vicente arrives to chastise Marlowe and crew for drawing attention to themselves; he orders everyone killed and the town destroyed. (In the movie, the town is destroyed simply to make the massacre look like an accident; there is no ulterior motive.)
While the story elements of 30 Days of Night, the movie, are not completely successful in transition from 30 Days of Night, the comic, I’m happy to say that the visual elements fare much better. In the comic, most pages are gray, the only color being splashes of red (blood) and orange (fire). Not as literal a visual translation as Sin City, the movie still does a great job of duplicating the look of the comic, although with its snowy landscapes and blizzards, it uses more white than the comic. That makes an even more stark contrast for all the blood that is spilled.
And the vampires are fantastic. In this one area, the movie actually improves upon the comic. In both, the vampires have mouths full of teeth, long fingernails, black eyes and blood all over their faces. But in the movie, you get movement, and its vampires are fast, brutal killing machines. They don’t so much suck your blood as savagely tear your throat apart. They also have their own language, a nifty addition that probably could not have been successfully sustained in the comic.
I’ve tried to objectively demonstrate the issues to consider when translating a comic book into a movie. Unfortunately, this approach has emphasized the failings of one movie. If you want to have some fun, compare for yourself one scene from both versions. In the comic, it begins on page 15 of the graphic novel; in the movie, it starts at just over 18 minutes from the opening frame. It’s the scene where a mysterious stranger in a restaurant simply wants to order some raw meat. The movie lifts some dialogue word for word from the comic, so it’s the perfect way to examine how two different mediums tell the same story. This scene may make the process seem easy, but if 30 Days of Night is any indication, it’s a lot harder than it looks.