Why is it so important to the fans that there be a film adaptation of the franchise they love? Why do fans of books, comics, video games, and even television series clamor for six seasons... “and a movie”? For example, I’ve read a lot of articles over the past few days about how excited we all are that there’s going to be a Y: The Last Man film. But why do we crave the film?
The most obvious answer, and the least satisfying, is that we think our chosen franchise would make a good movie. If I’m a fan of Batman comics, and I am, then I’m confident that Batman could also inspire a great film or two. But the Batman concept has just as easily been adapted into a great television show, cartoon, video game, coloring book, action figure, roller coaster, and, yes really, a stage show. Why do we value the movie over the other versions? Why do we say, “I love this book, I hope someone turns it into a movie,” and not, “I love this movie. I hope someone turns it into a book”? (Even in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where I think the novelization is much better.) What magic does a major motion picture have that can’t be found in other media?
I think it’s because movies are the great ambassador for genre fiction. Millions of people who would never read a superhero comic book will flock to a superhero movie. Similarly with dystopian young adult stories, re-imagined fairy tales, and off-beat, sci-fi comedies. After the movie comes out, the story that you loved in some other form is now loved by millions of others, which both financially supports your chosen franchise, and thus encourages continued publication, but also validates your fandom in the first place. “Look how many people like me love Twilight! All these people can’t be wrong!”
As an ambassador, the great strength of movies is not the charm of actors (present in live action television) or the presentation of the impossible (better done in video games, comics, and cartoons), but that movies are short, relatively. Movies have the most complete story in the least amount of time. Two hours is an easy investment for a new viewer. A short novel takes closer to five hours to read. A video game ten to fifty hours. Sure, an episode of a TV series is half an hour or an hour, and an issue of a comic reads in fifteen minutes, but you and I know one installment of a series is like one chapter of a book, and you’re really asking the new reader to commit countless hours of their life over the course of years. Two hours to get the whole story (plus coke, plus popcorn, plus air conditioning on a hot summer day) starts to sound like a pretty good deal.
Unfortunately, films are only good ambassadors if they are actually good, and, well, ninety percent of everything is crap. For every Men in Black there are nine League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And when the image launched into the public consciousness is one of a crappy film, it leaves a long shadow over the rest of the franchise. To this day, it’s hard to sell a comic book series starring Howard the Duck.
And we know it will probably be crap. Back in 2003 they announced at San Diego Comic Con that there was going to be a John Constantine movie. The crowd cheered. Then they announced it would star Keanu Reeves. And the crowd booed. Then Brian Azzarello took the mic. “This is why I hate you fuckers,” he said. “All you do is beg that we make a movie, then you complain about everything that’s made.”
And as unlikely it is to make a good movie out of anything, film is uniquely unsuited to tell long stories. While brevity is the strength of movies as ambassadors, it is their weakness as storytelling devices. The longer the story, the more it suffers from adaptation to film. Among the many failures of The Last Airbender is that it tried to cram the entire ten-hour first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender into less than two, leaving no time for character development. Similarly with Watchmen, The Golden Compass, and basically any novel to film translation. Going forward, I think we’re going to see more films like The Hobbit explicitly released as part one of three.
And that’s just for stories that are long. For stories where the ongoing, never conclusive nature of life is crucial to the story, then films with their conclusive endings are just terrible. The Walking Dead, which focuses on life continuing after the zombie apocalypse, would make a terrible movie but does, in fact, make a great television show.
(Which brings us to the one exception. If I don’t hear “I can’t wait for the movie,” it’s “I can’t wait for the HBO series.” Watchmen should be an HBO series. Preacher should be an HBO series. The Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth, God of War, Mass Effect, all should be HBO series. Not AMC, despite Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. Not Starz or Showtime, or any of the broadcast networks. HBO. Where they can say “fuck” and show tits but still win Emmys because HBO is classy like that. An HBO series, and only an HBO series, can validate a fandom the way a movie can.)
Which is all to say, it’s great to want a great movie, and think that one can make a great movie based on a franchise you love. It’s great to want to share a franchise you love, and feel happy knowing millions love the same thing you love. But a movie is just one way to explore a franchise, and not the end all and be all of storytelling. It is just one medium among many media, and one more way to tell a story.