Tag Archives: adaptations

The Punisher Lives


No doubt you’ve heard the news, Netflix’s Daredevil series is promising to come back with a figurative and literal vengeance in 2016 by finally bringing back the most popular “underground” character in the entire Marvel Comics Universe, The Punisher. This is tremendous news for the character’s fans who have for years been desperately clamouring for an authentic cinematic adaptation of Frank Castle, even before the arrival of the superhero tent-pole phenomenon.

There was the ultra low-budget 1989 Dolph Lundgren romp that arrived the same year as Tim Burton’s wildly successful Batman (but shared none of its success), 2004’s shameful display starring Thomas Jane (and to our chagrin, John Travolta), and worst of all, the 2008 travesty called Warzone (Ray Stevenson) that offended fans on basically every conceivable level.

Strangely, all three films seemed to get the casting down for Punisher pretty well; Dolph’s admittedly limited acting range actually helped in the portrayal of Frank Castle by giving him a really hollow, numb characterization that worked great. He was shocked, barely talkative, brutal, physically impressive. Doplh Lundgren’s Punisher may be the stuff of parody today but a closer look at his rendition is surprisingly on-the-money, even capturing Frank’s black sense of humour when he finds himself in grim situations. Louis Gosset Jr. was a great supporting actor too and brought genuine humanity to the proceedings. Some part of me believes that this version may have actually been the closest to the mark and might have even been a hit today with its 80’s B-movie feel.

Thomas Jane, many will say, has so far been the most successful casting choice for Frank Castle, and his actual portrayal was heartfelt and researched. This of course just made it worse when we had to listen to him recite nauseating dialogue and engage in awkward sitcom-type comedy sequences in the hopelessly tone-deaf 2008 film. Set in Florida (WTF!), this Punisher was barely recognizable as far as the grit and darkness of the comic book are concerned. Then there was the ridiculous plot, the lack of any interesting action or violence (in this case, a capital offense), and the scene chewing stylings of John Travolta. Punisher fans were left confused, frustrated, but most of all, severely disappointed.

A few years later we would get Warzone, a reboot of sorts that promised to set things right. It cast a more mature Ray Stevenson (who dazzled in HBO’s Rome), Dominic West (from The Wire) as Jigsaw, and gave the impression in its pre-release hype that it would finally give the fans the goods. Garth Ennis was involved, Tim Bradstreet was consulted, all the elements were in place for that R-rated Punisher fans had been praying for. What we got instead is a (somehow) even lower-budget piece of garbage that almost murdered the character itself. In a way it actually did; Punisher remained a sceptic topic of discussion in Hollywood with almost no chance of being ever given another big run until last week.

It now appears that Netflix has come to the rescue of Frank Castle in an absolutely unexpected and spectacular way. Daredevil, (the other similarly fouled comic book property) has made it to the big screen to resounding acclaim and opened up an entirely new chapter in comic-to-film adaptation. This humbly produced and intelligently executed marvel (of you’ll pardon the pun) has changed the game by opening up a parallel dimension where we can finally glance into the darker side of Marvel Comics, a side that may now get a fair shake and that has so far surpassed big-ticket properties like Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of sheer storytelling, substance and maturity.

The new Punisher will come by way of Jon Bernthal, a casting choice that is likely to cause a bit of controversy (when doesn’t it?), but one that could be absolutely perfect. We’ve established however that the casting has never really been the problem with The Punisher franchise, so what’s it going to really take to make it work this time?

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Great Adaptations


Adaptation in cinema has rich and complex history with many stories traditionally drawn from novels and historical records. A few interesting ideas have emerged from this process of transmutation over the decades:

We have discovered that many books/tales simply do not translate well to the big screen, or at least not without considerable hacking and slashing or outright neglecting of the source material (or a due to a genius adaptor behind the camera). The Count of Monte Christo is a good example, or even the much-cursed saga of Don Quixote. HBO and other similar companies, on the other hand, have shown us the power of the series format and possibly bridged this long-standing gap between film and the written word.

The most enduring stories tend to be ones that either re-affirm our collective value systems, revisit popular sentiments or evoke the most powerful emotional impulses we share. The best stories are like good observational humour; we all get it on some level because most of us have lived it or can get behind the situation. Life and death, love and hate, revenge and atonement, betrayal and loyalty, innocence and corruption, fear and fearlessness; these are constants that seem to inhabit the human soul and immediately compel us to nod our heads in recognition.

The only true way to innovate upon these classic storytelling artefacts is to play with expectations like it is done, for instance, with espionage and counter-espionage. A cheap approach is to indulge in gimmicks and stunts which will carry you for a while but eventually reduce you to a alleyway three-card peddler, or to simply draw in the audience through brand recognition and nostalgia only to bend it to your corporate agenda. A more rewarding technique is to strip down these classic story elements and ask yourself how they would play out in the present context of values and beliefs. A good adaptor identifies the precious building blocks of a great story and elaborates upon them.

A great example of a solid adaptation can be found in Marvel’s Ultimate Avengers comic book series. The idea was to reboot the Marvel universe and give it a more modern socio-political edge while also doing the most amazing thing; exploring at classic characters like Captain America and really asking some valid questions about the psychological state of, in this case, a WWII-era super-soldier who wakes up from a 70-year sleep to a post-911 America.

It was genius because the average fan still got to see him be a hero and cartwheel out of danger while slinging his shield, and yet there is now a more complex side to him that makes him tangible and credible in the 21st century. In one scene Cap finds out that his teammate Hank Pym has been physically abusing his wife (Wasp) and tracks him down 1940’s-style to “teach him a lesson”. This kind of situation pays tribute to the character while also revealing something potentially new and believable about his personality. The series gives the other Avengers a similar treatment going so far as to make them look like recognizable Hollywood actors and would eventually go on to heavily influence Joss Whedon’s Avengers film.

The lesson here is that adaptation works best when the heart/soul of a story is what is carried over, not just the aesthetics, symbols, and names. The Transformers films ultimately failed to capture the power of the cartoons because it was all spectacle; nowhere to be found were the inner-turmoils of Optimus Prime or the boiling game of betrayal between Megatron and Starscream. Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey managed to capture all of Arthur C. Clarke’s incredible imaginary complexity while pulling the story masterfully into the context of the birth of the Space Race.

Next time I’ll discuss some stories I would love to adapt myself and why/how.

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