Batman returns adapting a comic book superhero to the silver screen



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BATMAN AND BATMAN RETURNS
ADAPTING A COMIC BOOK SUPERHERO TO THE SILVER SCREEN
By
Benjamin Robinson

batmanbenjamin@yahoo.com

________________


A Thesis Presented to the
FACULTY OF THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY
Dodge College of Film and Media Arts
In Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree
MASTER OF ARTS
(Film Studies)

May 2006

Copyright 2006 Benjamin Robinson

DEDICATION

THIS THESIS IS DEDICATED TO MY MOM, REBECCA ROBINSON,

AND MY GRANDPARENTS, IRVIN AND SHEILA ROBINSON,

WHO HAVE ALWAYS SUPPORTED ME IN THE PURSUIT OF MY DREAMS

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This thesis could not have been possible without the support, critiques and knowledge of many people: First and foremost I wish to thank my best friend Jennifer Billips, who while also writing her own complex thesis, knew everything there was to know about mine. I may leave with a Masters degree, but meeting her was the best part about my time at Chapman.

I would also like to thank my thesis committee members, Eileen Jones and Mildred Lewis. No matter how much they had on their plates they always found time to read my drafts and meet with me. As soon as I announced my subject of Batman they each familiarized themselves with the character and the films to better assist me. Hopefully I have taught them a fraction of what they have taught me along the way. I would like to also praise Mildred for teaching the first thesis prep course which was extremely useful. Again I was amazed at how well she was able to keep all of our thesis’ in her head at the same time and still be an expert at all of them.

This brings me to my fellow Film Studies colleagues who were also invaluable to me on my thesis. I wish to thank Jennifer Klunk for her inspiration, Michael Rennet who gave me the confidence to write authoritatively about Batman without so much of a need for quotes, and finally Lisa Champ who found and fixed hundreds of grammatical errors in my thesis along the way.

I also greatly appreciate all of the others who have read and contributed their thoughts to my thesis along the way, including Jonathan Wysocki, Jon Vessey, Eddie Feng and Stanley Bronstein. Finally thank you to Raleagh for agreeing to post my thesis to batmanmovieonline.com where it can be read by all the Batman fans of the world for a long time to come.

ABSTRACT


Batman and Batman Returns: Adapting a Comic Book Superhero to the Silver Screen functions as an example of a deliberately “faithful” mainstream Hollywood studio adaptation of a comic book film, Batman (1989), and a “freer” auteur director’s reinterpretation of the character, Batman Returns (1992). These films were chosen because they illustrate a complex negotiation between several different, equally important elements: the body of work (Batman comic books and graphic novels), fans (both of the comic books and the 1960s television show), and lastly studio producers (Peter Guber and Jon Peters) and an auteur director (Tim Burton). These ingredients serve to shape and mold any given Batman film, yet the amount of control exerted by the elements changes from film to film.

Batman illustrates that it was producers Guber and Peters’ intention to create a very faithful adaptation of the Dark Knight, and that their perception of “faithful” was to adapt the original character of his first year in the comics (Spring 1939 - Spring 1940). I examine where they succeeded and failed in this task, and more importantly why, by looking at the character as he appeared in the first year in comparison with what was captured in the finished film. While the producers had hand-picked Tim Burton to direct Batman based upon his dark, original and creative works of the past – namely Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
and Beetlejuice (1988) - this thesis will show that distinctive stylistic traits were all they wanted from him.

Lastly I illustrate that after the phenomenal critical and financial success of Batman, coupled with Burton’s rising influence and popularity as a director, he was able to get more creative control to create his own individualistically interpreted Batman in its sequel, Batman Returns. Even though this was a personalized vision of Batman, it is argued that Burton’s vision was nevertheless in the “spirit” of Batman (in his first year in the comics) due to Burton’s innate understanding of the character, which comes more from his similarity to the character than from his knowledge of the comics or any attempt to adapt them directly.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

DEDICATION…………………………………………………… i

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS……………………………………… ii

ABSTRACT……………………………………………………… iv

TABLE OF CONTENTS………………………………………… vi

Chapter 1 INTRODUCTION

Focus of the Research...................................................................... 1

Significance of the Research..…………………………………..… 2

Methodology..…………………………………………………….. 3

Review of Literature..…………………………………………….. 5

I. Adaptation Texts……………………………………….. 5

History…………………………………………….. 6

Alternative Terms………………..……………...… 11

Comic Book Verses Novel Adaptations………...… 14

II. Batman Texts ……………………………………...….. 16

III. Batman Filmmaker Texts…………………………...… 21

Chapter Outlines………………………………………………...... 23

Chapter 2 WHO IS BATMAN? THE ORIGINAL CHARACTER AND THE EVENTS THAT ALTERED HIM


Invention and Early Influences.……………………………………. 27

First Appearance of Batman: Establishing the Character………..… 32

Origin.……………………………………………………………… 34

Defining the Character: Five Key Components…………….……… 35

The Altering Events……………………………………….……….. 40

I. Introduction of Robin, The Boy Wonder…………..…… 41

II. Killing the Killing: The Honorary Member of the Police

Force……………………………………………...…..… 43

III. The Seduction of the Innocent and the Comic’s Code….. 44

IV. The Campy Batman………………………………...…... 48

Chapter 4 THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: WARNER BROS.’ BATMAN

Pre-Production…………………………………………………….. 55

Graphic Novels……………………………………………………. 58

Tim Burton…………………………………………………..…….. 61

The Screenplay………………………………………………….…. 65

Michael Keaton and Batman…………………………………….… 68

Jack Nicholson and the Joker……………………………………… 70

Production Design…………………………………………………. 74

Production……………………………………………………….… 75

Debut and Reception…………………………………………….… 79

Conclusion……………………………………………………….… 84

Chapter 5 TIM BURTON’S BATMAN: BATMAN RETURNS
Getting Burton Back: Green Lighting “A Tim Burton Film”…....... 89

Batman Returns’ Burton Characters………………………………. 100

Reception and Fallout………………………………………… ….. 105


CONCLUSION……………………………………………………………………. 111


BIBLIOGRAPHY…………………………………………………………………. 114

FILMOGRAPY……………………………………………………………………. 118

CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION

Focus of the Research

This thesis serves as an analysis of the adaptation of a comic book character to the movie screen using Warner Bros. Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) as specific case studies. For Batman, I will demonstrate that it was the producers’ - executive producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker and producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters - intention to create a very faithful adaptation of Batman, and that their perception of “faithful” was to adapt the original character from his first year in the comics (Spring 1939 - Spring 1940). The producers relied on the fact that by making a film adaptation of this time period in the character’s existence, they would be capturing a portrayal that would satisfy not only comic book fans, but also the general movie-going public. This thesis will thus examine this attempt at fidelity by examining the character of Batman as he appeared in that first year in the comics, in comparison with what was captured in the finished film. While the producers had hand-picked Tim Burton to direct the film based upon his dark toned, original and creative works of the past – namely Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) - this thesis will show that his specific, distinctive stylistic traits, such as his gothic expressionism, were all they wanted from him. This thesis will reveal that producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber took the young, up-and-coming director and told him how they wanted Batman done. I would approximate that Batman was roughly 70 percent controlled by the film’s producers and only 30 percent formed from the imaginative mind of director Tim Burton.

This thesis will also illustrate that after the phenomenal critical and financial success of Batman, coupled with Burton’s rising influence and popularity as a director, he was able to get more creative control to create his own individualistically interpreted Batman in the sequel, Batman Returns. Thus, if Batman was 70 percent dominated by the films producers, Batman Returns, contrarily, will be argued to have been 90 percent Burton with only 10 percent of the input coming from the studio. Even though Batman Returns is a personalized vision of Batman, it will nevertheless be argued that, Burton’s particular vision is still within the “spirit” of Batman (in his first year in the comics) due to the director’s innate understanding of the character, which comes more from his personal similarity to the character than from his knowledge of the comics or any attempt to adapt them directly.

To summarize, this thesis functions as an examination of a deliberately “faithful” mainstream Hollywood studio adaptation of a comic book (Batman) and a “freer” stylistic director’s reinterpretation of the character (Batman Returns) in order to illuminate the challenges and pitfalls of adapting a comic book character to the silver screen.


Significance of the Research
This thesis is significant to the field of Film Studies, because to date, most of the work that has been done on adaptation has revolved around the adaptation of literature, in the form of novels into film. This thesis will be a first attempt to talk about adaptation in terms of comic books to film in a sustained academic way. The character examined in this study is one of the most popular and iconic figures in literary history. He has been in existence for over 65 years and just like James Bond and Mickey Mouse, Batman is a cultural icon.

Adapting a figure such as Batman to the silver screen is not, and was not, an easy task, due to the sheer volume of ever-changing source material and his loyal fan base. In this thesis readers will gain an understanding of the difficulty there is in adapting 50 years of comic book history into a two-hour film marketed to the general movie going population as well as to comic book fans, with the entire culture split on whether they see Batman as “serious” (as he was portrayed originally) or “campy” (as he appeared in his popular 1960s TV show).


Batman and Batman Returns illustrate a complex negotiation between several different, equally important elements: the body of work (Batman comic books and graphic novels), fans (both of the comic books and the 1960s television show), studio producers and an auteur director. Each one of these ingredients shape and mold any given Batman film. Batman illustrates how studio producers wanted to satisfy fans by looking to the body of work, particularly the original year, and how this was achieved through hiring a young, up-and-coming director whom they could impose their will on. Batman Returns illustrates a situation where studio, producers and fans were all but sidelined in favor of a singular vision from the films director.

Methodology
For this thesis I am going to apply the concepts of fidelity found in adaptation theory to comic-to-film adaptations of Batman. In order to do so, I have divided this thesis into two sections: The first section (Chapter Two) serves as a general overview of Batman’s history leading to his 1989 film adaptation. It is here where his key traits, as illustrated in his first comic books, will be laid out for later use in understanding how the character was adapted onto film. This section also explains how the Batman character, as he was originally laid out and executed for one year in the comics, changed, through discussing several distinct events. These were the key events in the Dark Knight’s historical journey leading up to his 1989 film that altered him from the dark, lone vigilante that he was created to be in 1939. These events will prove that Batman was a character that constantly changed to fit the public’s needs and that after being shaped and molded so many times, there was very little of the original/core character left, promoting a return to the character’s roots in the comics, which in turn inspired Batman’s producers to go that direction for their film.

The second section of this thesis will discuss the actual adaptation of the character using the films Batman (Chapter Three) and Batman Returns (Chapter Four) as specific case studies, each time noting their portrayal of the character based on his source material. These two films were selected because they have much in common yet, due to their execution, are also very different. Both films are similar in that they feature the character of Batman, as portrayed by Michael Keaton, and are each directed by Tim Burton, yet they differ due to Burton’s increased personal involvement in the second film.

To aid in discussing the adaptation of Batman from comic book to feature film, adaptation theory will be examined and applied, most notably the concept of fidelity. The following literature review will explain that the notion of fidelity is an extremely problematic term in the study of adaptation. Due to the difficulties that the term “faithful” introduces to the issue of adaptation, this thesis is not concerned with the fidelity or accuracy of the representation of the Batman comic books in either Batman or Batman Returns. As such, this thesis will not be arguing that any specific Batman film is “correct,” but rather it will make observations involving the types of adaptations that they are, allowing readers to make up their own minds.


Review of Literature
The sources that made this thesis possible fall into three distinct categories: Adaptation texts, Batman texts, and Batman filmmaker texts: consisting of director Tim Burton and producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber. This literature review will start with the adaptation texts. This section will also lay out the history of adaptation, the concept of adaptation theory and how it will be applied to this thesis. The following adaptation sources focus primarily on the adaptation of novels to the screen, yet most of their premises are also applicable to comic books.

I. Adaptation Texts

To define adaptation for this thesis I turned to Dudley Andrew, author of “Adaptation,”1 who says that the word means: “…the appropriation of a meaning from a prior text.”2 Andrew further comments that the model typically used in cinema adaptations is one that is “already treasured as a representation in another sign system.”3 In Batman’s case, the titular character represented is already a treasured character from comic books and his 1960s TV show. Taking note of what Andrew considers the term “adaptation” to be, it is important to think of adaptation as re-presentation, such that the adaptation re-presents the original work in a new medium, and in turn, a new way, as every adaptor will appropriate different meanings from a source text.

History

Joy Gould Boyum, author of Double Exposure: Fiction into Film,4 offers many insights into why and how film adaptations began. Boyum notes that film adaptations began as a result of the once perceived “high art” of literature and the “low art” of the early days of the motion picture. During its early years, film held a position of inferiority to the other arts, because many believed it to be too popular to actually be considered an art. Due to this, filmmakers were always looking for ways to make film more respectable. One of the strategies employed was to have films borrow their stories from literature; as Boyum notes, “to adapt a prestigious work was to do more than merely borrow its plot and characters, its themes: in the eyes of the movie industry, it was – and in fact still is – to borrow a bit of that work’s quality and stature.”5 Since this practice began more than half of every film ever made has been an adaptation of some sort.

One reason filmmakers chose to adapt novels was because they supplied films with a source of plots and characters, and further provided what has come to be known as the “proven property.”6 A proven property is something that has proven itself successful in another medium, and thus already has a built-in audience that a film financier can bank on. The hope of the Hollywood studio is that a pre-sold property’s success in one medium might transfer to another. In the case of comic book characters, it has been seen from the outstanding grosses from their films that there is a large fan base that goes to see any film that features their hero, and they take their friends and family. Superman, Batman, X-Men and Spider-Man are just a few of these films that were amongst the highest grossing films of their respective years. This has made comic books fertile ground for adaptation in contemporary cinema, yet these films have not yet been studied in academia in any sustained and serious way.

A superhero’s film debut is often the pinnacle moment in the history of that character. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, noted just prior to the release of Batman (1989) that “[t]he film will be the highlight of Batman’s long career. The topper of the whole mystique.”7 What Kane is referring to is the fact that the film version of a comic book hero often represents the period in history where the general public is made most aware of his or her existence; for example, the summer of 2005 was a high water mark point in public awareness for the Marvel super-hero team the Fantastic Four, due to their recently released film. A motion picture can have a dramatic effect on a comic book character. For example, a film can increase a comic book character’s popularity, as it did with Superman and Spider-Man, or it can serve as a continuing reminder of the gradual downfall of a once popular character, such as The Shadow (1994) or The Phantom (1996). The irony, as will be illustrated in Chapter Two, is that the title characters in each of these original comic books helped to define the character of Batman, and after the poor critical and box-office reception of both films, each fell out of existence. Influential 1980s graphic novel artist and writer Frank Miller cites that, “time and time again, the best superhero films are those that were adapted closest to their original source material” (that is, the very first comic book issues to feature the given character). Indeed, he further notes, comic book films usually only suffer when they attempt to go in new directions.8 Building upon this foundation, the well-received and highly regarded Superman (1978) and Spider-Man (2002) consist largely of events from their very first appearances in the comics in which they appeared (Superman lands on Earth to avoid his home planet’s destruction and Spider-Man is bit by a radioactive spider and loses his Uncle Ben due to his own negligence – all events from these characters first comic book issues). Catwoman (2004), on the other hand, pays little to no attention to the character as she appears in Batman comics, in the film she is named Patience Phillips, not Selina Kyle (her name in the comics), and works to expose the cosmetic company she used to work for, and was universally panned by critics and comic book fans alike as a result.

It was not until 1957 that the first full-scale academic analysis of film adaptation in America took place: George Bluestone’s Novels into Film: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema.9 In the book, Bluestone argues that certain movies (he uses The Informer, Wuthering Heights, and The Grapes of Wrath) “do not debase their literary sources; instead they ‘metamorphose’ novels into another medium that has its own formal or narratological possibilities.”10 Most theorists and thinkers that followed Bluestone did not share his optimism that a film does not debase its source material; instead, the concept of what came to be known as “fidelity” came to dominate the discussions on the subject of adaptation.

Many theorists and writers have had varying interpretations regarding the issues of adaptation. Of those who have written about adaptation through the years, two distinct camps have emerged: those who consider the original source as something to be held up as a worthy source or goal from which to be adapted, such as the work of George Bluestone, and those who see adaptation as a process that invariably involves change. This thesis examines two Batman films, one that attempted a faithful adaptation (Batman) and one that was freer to adapt and change the source material (Batman Returns).

As Batman sought to portray an adaptation that was intended by its producers to be a “faithful” rendering of the first year of Bob Kane’s original comic book (to capitalize on the proven success of 1980s graphic novels that went back to this time period’s traits), it becomes important to first analyze the problematic concept of “fidelity.” Perhaps if Batman’s producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters had had the advance work of adaptation theorists at their disposal before they produced Batman, they would likely have never attempted to be faithful to the character as he appeared in the comic books, knowing that they would inevitably fail in their task.

Many contemporary adaptation theorists have dismissed, or at least attempted to dismiss the concept of fidelity. Brian McFarlane, author of Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation,11 defines fidelity as a single, correct “meaning” which a filmmaker either adheres to or in some sense violated or tampered with.12 McFarlane describes the fidelity approach to adaptation theory to be both a “doomed enterprise” and “un-illuminating,” because it ultimately revolves around individuals arguing over highly subjective, individualized readings of a text.

Robert Stam, author of The Dialogics of Adaptation, recognizes this problem as well and notes that when an individual reads a novel, they naturally fashion their own imaginary mise-en-scene, interjected with personal desires, hopes and utopias.13 Together, these elements create a conceptualization of the world to which the film adaptation must be “faithful” – or risk disappointing its audience. Stam notes that fidelity is impossible to achieve since a change in medium automatically changes any given source material.14 Stam also finds fidelity problematic because it assumes that a source contains an extractable “essence” which as he believes is very difficult to come by. It is also challenging for a filmmaker to be faithful when many times, not even an author will know his or her own deepest intentions, which has informed the phrase, “trust the tale, and not the teller.”15 Thus Batman producers’ act of hiring Bob Kane in order to ensure that the film accorded with his perception of his creation, did not necessarily make their film an accurate adaptation of the source material; as Stam would insist, Kane himself might not have been able to accurately identify the true, definable “essence” of the original comic books.

Fidelity is a particularly difficult concept to apply to Batman comic books, since the sheer volume of constantly changing texts makes it literally impossible for a Batman film adaptation to be faithful. Batman has been in continuous publication for nearly seventy years; he began in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, and May 2006 saw the 819th issue. In addition to Detective Comics, Batman has also appeared in the monthly comic Batman since 1940, in which May 2006 marked its 653rd issue. Throughout this time, the character has been both written about and drawn by hundreds of different talents at DC Comics, each with a slightly, even radically different takes on the character. If Batman’s Bat Cave were real, there would be literally hundreds of different bat-suits hanging in it, presenting virtually limitless possibilities to filmmakers trying to adapt the character onto film. This leaves the adaptor to choose a version of Batman to be adapted or add to the many personal visions of the character.

To make the process of adaptation even more difficult, Batman comics and his media spin-offs have always contained a great deal of cross-pollination. In other words, Batman comics have shaped his TV and film adaptations, and those adaptations have in turn influenced the source text. For example, the first appearance of Alfred (Bruce Wayne’s faithful English butler) and the Bat Cave (Batman’s secret base of operation, hidden underneath Wayne Manor) in the first Batman film serial (1943) ultimately found themselves in the comics, while the campy nature of the 1960s TV show crept its way into the comics of the same era. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) invents such a rich history for a villain named Mr. Freeze, that the back-story is borrowed for Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997).

As the preceding has illustrated, the fidelity approach to adaptation is an extremely difficult way to go about adapting any given source material; thus many theorists and authors who have written about adaptation have offered up alternative terms that can more accurately describe the adaptation processes. I will now take a look at these alternative terms and see how Batman and Batman Returns can be applied to them.





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