The Nature of Adaptation: Form v. Content

Hulu added the second season of Fargo to instant streaming recently, and my wife and I devoured it this past weekend. One episode in, and we were hooked. Fargo is an even blend of style, mystery, action, and dark Midwestern humor. It’s a show that uses style, editing, and composition to fully submerge its audience into the emotions of the sequence, rather than hanging its hat on a melodramatic narrative structure.

When we finished, I felt the need to immediately blurt out, “This is one of the best comic book adaptations I’ve ever seen.” This sounded silly and confusing in that Fargo isn’t adapted from a comic book. It carries the name of a popular Coen Brothers movie and crafts crime stories in the style and tone of the film. There were no comic books to be found on the set of the film, and none of the iconic characters from the world of comics even graced the background.

But that’s what makes this adaptation interesting. While Marvel and DC continue to make films using their popular licensed characters, the second season of Fargo is more of a comic book adaptation than either of the “cinematic universes” that the aforementioned companies are dumping into movie theaters.

The Nature of Adaptation: Form v Content
The first two comics to ever ensnare me in a web.

The Nature of Adaptation is About the Form, Not the Content

What happens when we flip open a comic book for the first time? We see two pages of the narrative all at once. Our eyes are assaulted with tiny boxes filled with colors and images and word bubbles. Before we start at the top left of the two pages, we let our senses adjust. Some of us let our eyes wander before we read the word bubbles, taking in the sweeping landscape of color, action, and excitement. Others adjust to the flurry of activity and then immediately jump into the practiced routine of trying to interpret a comic book like a novel. As much as we’d like to treat comics like novels, we can’t. The art has already done its job before we can direct our focus on that topmost tiny box.

A good comic makes us pause for a moment before we begin to read. A great comic arranges the boxes in such a way that we see multiple angles and perspectives harmonizing into a singular emotion all at once. If we’re being truthful with ourselves, we don’t read The Amazing Spider-Man or Batman because we’re obsessed with their characters. Most super heroes share similar origins, powers, relationship arcs, and villain types with very little separating them from each other. We read these characters because we’ve been overwhelmed emotionally by the artistry behind these characters. What we took away from these books was an experience unlike any other, and it was something we couldn’t get in a book, movie, radio play, or video game.

This is why fans appear to always gripe when their “vision” of a character isn’t accurately portrayed onscreen in the latest Spider-Man movie. This is why the geekiest among us nitpick the latest Marvel or DC film. These movies aren’t adapting the comic book art form. They’re merely plucking familiar characters and settings and shoving them into a different format. Can anyone honestly say that the cinematography, editing, or composition for any of the latest Marvel movies was stylized and comic book-like?

I can think of only two “comic book movies” that attempt to capture the feel of a comic. One was Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk film, and the other was Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 Sin City adaptation. Ang Lee attempted to have images splash across the screen and compete with each other while Rodriguez meticulously duplicated individual images straight from the source material. Hulk was panned by both critics and audiences. Sin City was celebrated as a work of art.

The second season of Fargo, on the other hand, found a way to make that overwhelming assault of imagery work in a way I haven’t quite seen before. Throughout the season, moments of tension are composed in such a way that the screen splits and competing narratives are paired against each other. The characters in Story A are shown in a box next to the characters from Story B when something that affects both sets of characters, sometimes from Story C, occurs. This technique is used when parallel stories converge, serving to amplify the emotions and excitement of what’s about to take place. Instead of following convention and cutting from a shot of Character A to a shot of Character B, the audience gets both at the same time. We’re entrusted to interpret two wholly different activities happening in the same space.

This tactic is genius, and it does a great job in separating Fargo from the wealth of crime dramas available for audiences to watch. Even more exciting is that this technique is used only to serve moments of tension. It’s a tool, not a cute gimmick. It’s a way to overwhelm us with fear and anxiety, and yes, it’s exactly how a great comic book would separate itself from its peers. Parallel narratives and competing characters placed side-by-side and frame-by-frame, converging on the same space and overwhelming us.

It never was the heroes we were smitten with. It was the form. In those moments of attachment, we happened to open a great comic that submerged us in an intensity we hadn’t quite felt before, and we became junkies. This is why the comic books always seem better than the movies. This is why Fargo is a more accurate adaptation of the medium than any Marvel or DC movie.

Form is more important than content.


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