It’s profitable to turn graphic novels into movies. That is the reality of the movie business in this day and age. This is both good and bad in a variety of ways. The best possible thing a cinematic adaptation of a graphic novel means that the graphic novel now has much more exposure than it did before, since it is a widely agreed upon fact that more people watch movies than read graphic novels (sad as that is).
The worst that a cinematic adaptation of a graphic novel can do is either completely distort the point of the source material or become the de facto way a studio can make money instead of taking a chance on a new idea. For the most part, most graphic novels which have been made into movies, they usually are treated rather well and adapted faithfully (e.g. The Rocketeer, Sin City, and Scott Pilgrim).
There are a handful of bad cinematic adaptations of graphic novels, but they are not the focus of this list today. There a many graphic novels that simply scream to be made into movies, but due to trouble on either the side of the author (or their estate) or the studio, rights issues, or other silly reasons why graphic novels are not made into films; they continue to sit on shelves waiting to be discovered by people who might one day accidentally stumble upon them.
In this list, I am going to list five graphic novels which are I think are the most deserving of a cinematic adaptation. As a caveat, I will not list any Marvel/DC superhero comics or any reinterpretations therein because that would be too easy to do; I am only going to be writing about original material outside of the big two publishing companies (i.e. self contained works).
#5: Donjon (Dungeon) – Joann Sfar
The nation of France is much kinder to the medium of comics made on their shores than we (i.e. Americans) are to our own comics. Unlike us, France never had to fight against the Comics Code Authority or contend with bastards like Frederic Wertham. There is a mountain of evidence that France treats comics like a fine art and seem to generally have a lot more respect for the medium and the artists they associate with it (e.g. Moebius, Rene Goscinny, etc).
This brings us to the first entry of the list: a beloved comedy fantasy series known as Donjon (better known as Dungeon in the States). Donjon is quite simply one of the best examples of comedic fantasy that I have ever seen. It takes all the tropes, commonalities, and cliches inherent to all fantasy media and skewers it… for laughs! Donjon is split up into several series that all have a name after it (e.g. Donjon Zenith, Donjon Parade, Donjon Twilight, etc) to denote which time period the comic takes place in.
While the cast of characters can vary with each series, the common element between all the series is a standard, fantasy dungeon that adventurers and the like wander into to emerge victorious. However, this dungeon is always run by a Dungeon Keeper (exactly who varies depending on the series) as if it were a business in comedic fashion.
With the advent of shows like Adventure Time (which is the closest equivalent to the style and subject matter of Donjon) as well as the way the absolutely goony and cartoony style of art comes across, it mystifies me why this incredible series of comics has not yet been made into an excellent series of animated movies.
There are an infinite amount of movies that could be made from this series to tell stories that are both very interesting and hysterically funny. Equally respected in France is animation, and there is no better medium to adapt Donjon to than animation. C’mon you French animators/studios! Hop to it! Gimme a Donjon movie (or two…or three…or ten)!
#4: Peepo Choo – Felipe Smith
Just by looking at the cover, you can see that Peepo Choo is a manga. However, unlike 90% of most manga that is produced, it was written and drawn by an American comic artist named Felipe Smith (who I like to think of as the geeky reincarnation of Bob Marley) and had it run in a Japanese manga anthology. Peepo Choo is not any one thing as it has so many different tones and paces that operate in tandem with one another (yet none of them do not feel removed from one another) , but for the sake of summarizing for a list; Peepo Choo at its heart is a story about miscommunication between cultures.
The protagonist, of which there are many, that is for the most part the front and center in this comic is a 16-year-old kid named Milton. Milton and a bunch of his other slobbering anime fan friends are crazy about a Japanese anime known as “Peepo Choo”, which is an amalgamation of every obnoxious stereotype of anime rolled up into one singular work.
Milton’s dream is to be an otaku and live in Japan where will not feel oppressed or ridiculed and everything will be perfect without strife. Through various events, Milton ends up winning a contest that takes him to Japan and he can hardly believe that his otaku dreams will come true. When he gets there… he finds that not everything he dreamed about is the case, as is expected, and the Japan in his mind is not even remotely close to what Japan is like at all.
I can easily see this as an excellent live-action satirical film which highlights the dangers of miscommunication, projection, and having excessively ridiculous expectations of things. If a movie of this is ever made, I predict that what it will do is that it will be something that will shatter the wildly unrealistic expectations of outcasts who wrap themselves up in their passion in order to feel any amount of self-worth and force them to live in the real world and actually look at it for what it is.
#3: Bone – Jeff Smith
The fantasy genre has a very special place in the world of graphic novels as some of the best graphic novels are fantasy series; The Sandman and Fables being two of the most well-known.
Amongst those series is a fantasy series that, on the surface looks as if it is for kids (due to the cartoony character designs), but when one digs into it; it is quite a shock as to how serious and epic it gets: Jeff Smith’s Bone. Bone is a high fantasy series which nominally stars three white creatures that resemble bones after a fashion: Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone.
After being chased out of their town after a scam pulled by the greedy and selfish Phoney Bone goes awry they get lost and, at some point, find themselves in a world which is not their own. The world they have entered is a place where the period is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, and dragons and rat creatures live amongst the people there. Because Phoney Bone wears a shirt with a star, people believe him to be a legendary hero and that he will save them from a pestilent figure known as “The Hooded One”.
What follows is a fantasy tale that has the gravity of and grandness of The Lord of the Rings… punctuated fairly often with funny jokes. What makes Bone such a ripe property for an adaptation is that, in addition to having the ability to draw people in who like fantasy films, it can also draw both kids and people who like comedies in as well. Rare is it that there is an epic fantasy story that dares to be funny and/or does not take itself too seriously; Bone is both in spades.
Unlike the other comics on this list, there have been actual attempts to make Bone into a film several times. The first time was in the 1990s when Nickelodeon wanted to adapt it faithfully. Except… Nickelodeon seemed to believe that it desperately needed child actors to play the Bones and music from NSYNC (remember them) to make up the soundtrack. Being both smart and not the kind that would sell-out for a paycheck, Smith refused and the project was cancelled.
Allegedly, as early as 2012, Warner Brothers claimed they were working on series of Bone films exactly as they appeared on the page without any of the stupid crap Nickelodeon wanted before and to be CG animated. Australian director, P.J. Hogan (director of Muriel’s Wedding and the 2003 Peter Pan) was hired as the to helm them.
While that does sound exciting, I will believe it once I see an actual trailer, concept art, or something that proves it is not yet another comic adaptation that will languish in development hell for eternity. Also, if it does happen, I do not think the story will work well in 3D because so much of the beauty of the work is that it is 2D, not to mention the fact that the art style is naturally suited to 2D animation and would work much better.
#2: Ode to Kirihito – Osamu Tezuka
Osamu Tezuka is the father of manga and anime. The mediums of anime or manga would not exist if it were not for the unbelievable efforts of Tezuka. Over his life, Osamu Tezuka was a cyborg; meaning he almost never slept and made hundreds (literally) of manga series besides Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, etc.
Far and away, one of the best works that he has ever put out (and he has put out many) is an epic manga known as Ode to Kirihito. As an aside, I have to admit that it was hard for me to not fill this entire list with Tezuka’s work because a large majority of his work lend themselves to either live-action or animated feature adaptations better than most comics deserve to.
The story of Ode to Kirihito, at its heart, is a thinly veiled damnation of racism and discrimination. The main character, a doctor named Kirihito Osanai, is assigned by his hospital to travel to a remote, mountain village known as Doggodale, and verify if the source of a disease that is currently ravaging Japan known as Monmow originates from there.
Monmow causes a person to literally transform into a horrifying amalgamation of a human being and a dog; wherein their bones shift and expand at the same time giving them the appearance of a horrifying amalgamation of a dog and a human; the end result being death. What ends up happening, for reasons that are only revealed later, is that Kirihito’s hospital effectively abandons him and he inevitably catches Monmow.
For a manga author who is primarily known in the States for fun-loving and light shows such as Astro Boy and Kimba; this comic is extremely shocking in how dark, mature, and serious it is… yet it is a masterpiece of the medium in the way that The Count of Monte Cristo or Great Expectations is to prose. This comic was originally serialized in the 1970s, so either an effective or faithful (or both) cinematic adaptation was out of the question because movie making technology had not advanced to the point where Monmow could be portrayed and not look laughable.
An animated adaptation is entirely possible and there is no reason why it should not be made, but in my opinion, I think the story would have much more of a punch and be far more effective in live action because the story is one that is very human and is making a very important commentary on society at large; aspects which tend to come across better in live action.
Now that computers have conquered anything that was impossible back in the day, I think the time to make this movie is now and it is more than fitting if someone like Guillermo Del Toro (the latter of whom will have a HBO adaptation of the manga series, Monster, coming out next year) or the like could make this film and, if adapted correctly, has a high potential to be a very serious and powerful movie that would be neither ridiculed nor ignored.
#1: Maus – Art Spiegelman
If ever there were a work that captured the horror and bleakness of both Nazi Germany and the plight of the Jews better in the medium of comics, Art Spiegelman’s Maus stands alone in that category as what is widely agreed upon as one of the greatest comics ever made.
If you need more proof of that, in 1992 it became the first graphic novel to ever win a Pullitzer Prize; something has to be truly special in order to such a high honor. Fortunately, Maus is deserving of such a high award. The story of Maus is an autobiographical story of Art Spiegelman (referred to as Artie in the book) interviewing and recording his father, Vladek, about his experiences as a Jew during World War II.
His father was sent to Auschwitz and, through a series of tales so miraculous it seems impossible, escapes from it to live another day. The story jumps between Vladek’s flashbacks and Artie in the present trying to deal with both the eccentricities of Vladek and how difficult of a person he is to deal with, something which is both speculated by many in Vladek’s immediate family as well as implied by the narrative to be a result of his experiences.
What makes Maus utterly unique is that none of the characters are human, they are all animals. Specifically, the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis are portrayed as cats. On the surface, that might seem distasteful and kitschy in every way, but Spiegelman has committed a miracle in that the style works perfectly and you are able to completely buy it with not one iota of irony or disbelief at any point.
I completely understand why Maus was not turned into an animated film around the time it was published, as animation was still heavily looked down upon by most Americans and exclusively associated with Disney. If a film adaptation of it were made at the time, it would have been a miserable failure due to the shared culture of Americans’ disdain towards animation.
Now, in the year 2014, having had the anime boom of the 1990s, the advent of Pixar’s films, and the rise of serious, adult animation (e.g. Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis, etc.), and the mainstream appeal of shows such as Family Guy; there is no better time to make a movie of this film than now.
If Maus were made, it can only be told in 2D (any other method is borderline sacrilege) and it would have to be designed in the way the graphic novel was drawn in (à la Sin City), or else it would never work. Although Spiegelman has turned down every offer to adapt it, I think Maus has the potential to be as equally powerful as the graphic novel was if handed off to people who have genuine love and respect for the work.