So I’ve got far too much to talk about this week. On the one hand, last week was a great week for funnybooks, with new issues of Lazarus, Casanova, and Prophet alongside a new book from Grant Morrison and the final issue of Brubaker & Epting’s Velvet. An embarrassment of riches. But I also saw the film adaptation of The Killing Joke on the big screen last night, and that lets me talk about two of my very favorite subjects: Alan Moore and Batman!
So here’s what I’m gonna try to do: tonight, I’m talking Killing Joke. And later in the week, time and energy permitting, I’ll do my funnybook reviews. Now, long-time readers know how that sort of thing often goes: best of intentions, weak flesh, no updates. But we’ll see. We’ll see…
Killing Joke! At the movies!
To get the big question out of the way first… It’s an okay adaptation. It’s not great. There are places where they seem to have used the comic as both script and storyboard, and those are generally the best parts of the movie. Then there are places where they go completely off-book, and those are generally the worst parts of the movie. Particularly bad is the half-hour prologue they stuck on the thing. I’ll speak on that in more detail later, but it’s an entirely separate story with only the slightest connection to The Killing Joke. It might have made a halfway decent little mini-movie if they’d fleshed it out and made it its own separate thing. But tacked onto The Killing Joke, it does not come off well. It’s bland.
“Bland” is a word I could apply to the adaptation as a whole, though. It lacks style, and that robs it of much of the book’s power. In part, that’s because the animation budget obviously had its limits. It’s hard to bring that Brian Bolland oomph to something…
…when you’re dealing with limited animation.
They do reproduce a few panels very faithfully…
…but for the most part, the film simply lacks imagination. It handles the best moments of the book competently, but without much fire. And when it has the opportunity to improve upon the source material, it generally falters.
Take the song, for instance. It’s an oddly endearing quality of Alan Moore’s writing that he’s tried so many times to do funnybook musical numbers. Almost none of them have ever worked, but still he keeps trying. Not in every project, of course, but there have been enough that I chuckle (and cringe) a bit whenever he tries it again. There’s one in The Killing Joke, a little ditty that the Joker sings to Commissioner Gordon when he’s trying to break the poor man’s mind. And true to form, it just doesn’t work. I like the lyrics, but without the music… without the tune to follow… It doesn’t play.
What a perfect opportunity, then, to fix that in the film adaptation! Film has sound, after all! So give us a tune, and do a big production number! Give Mark Hamill a chance to really ham it up! It could be great! And to their credit, they do try.
But there’s some really wonky animation in that sequence, and the way they mixed the sound, some of the lyrics get stepped on by sound effects. I’m not sure the final line of the song is even audible, and considering that’s one of the most memorable panels in the book…
…I can’t imagine why they’d cut it that way. They sacrificed a chance to create the proper nightmarish mood for the whole thing in favor of… I dunno… pointless realism?
But I don’t mean to just crap on the film. The adaptation is, as I said, very faithful. They get in all the important stuff, all the macabre details and all the Joker’s philosophizing and one-liners. They stay true to the spirit of the story Moore and Bolland told, inventing only things that are incidental to the story as we know it in their attempts to pad out the running time. I even like one of the new scenes, a bit during the mental torture of Jim Gordon in which the Joker slaps a judge’s wig on him and has him declare sentence on a cardboard cut-out of Batman.
It’s a nice touch. It undermines Gordon’s sense of self, confronting him with his own support of a violent vigilante. But it also throws Batman and his mission into a different light. Later on, the Joker will go on at length about how all it takes is one bad day to break anyone, and how Batman’s already just as crazy as he is.
But the trial throws shade on Batman’s whole method of operations. Seen in a certain light, he’s a bully delivering punitive beatings to people less physically capable than himself. He does things no cop could ever get away with, and he’s not only cheered on by the public, but the commissioner of police endorses his behavior with a bat-shaped light on the roof! Talk about crazy! Now, like all the Joker’s arguments here, that falls apart in the face of reality. But we see just enough of Batman brutalizing thugs in this story to give us pause, just for a minute. The trial scene could have been longer, to establish a better mood and give it more impact, but still. It’s a worthy addition to the tale.
And that’s hardly the only good thing to say about the film. The acting from the two leads is also quite strong. Kevin Conroy just IS Batman to me now, and he handles the more adult material here with aplomb. It’s Mark Hamill’s Joker, though, that impresses the most. His voice drips with theatrical flair, dipping to a sort of jaded growl when he’s angry or disappointed. He’s fabulous in the role, and was the perfect choice to deliver Moore’s very florid Joker dialogue. I sat down to re-read the book last night when I got home from the movie, and swiftly realized that when the Joker spoke, I was hearing Hamill in my head. Not just because I’d spent 45 minutes hearing him say the same lines, but because it really seemed like they’d been written for him.
So, yes. The Killing Joke movie adaptation is okay. I liked it well enough, in spite of its many weaknesses. It’s lacking in style and sheer damn lunacy, but I didn’t hate it. And I really expected to hate it.
Now. About that prologue…
They tacked this thing on the front end of The Killing Joke for two reasons. One, they needed to pad out the running time. And two, they needed to establish for the mainstream audience that the redhead who gets shot in the spine…
…isn’t just Gordon’s daughter, but also the super hero Batgirl.
And maybe they were also aware of one of the modern criticisms of the book: that the Joker’s crippling of Barbara reduces her to a plot device, another funnybook woman mutilated to give the male heroes some kind of motivation. So they wanted to flesh her out a bit, give her a story arc of her own to take the curse off. It’s not a bad idea, per se, but holy crap they didn’t do it well. The prologue is dull, a prosaic mob story with no real connection to The Killing Joke itself. They do try for some thematic resonance, giving Batgirl a nemesis whose obsessive relationship with her mimics Batman’s relationship with the Joker. And (without delving into spoilers) the way that story plays out does add a bit of tragic irony to what happens to her in The Killing Joke proper. But it still feels tacked-on, a different story told in a different style that just doesn’t work with the story we came to see.
I will say that the hullabaloo that was raised over it after the film screened at San Diego Comicon seems like a huge over-reaction to me. The complaint was that the story makes Batgirl kind of pathetic, someone who’s in the super hero game primarily because she’s got the hots for Batman. But I think that’s a dumb reading of the film. Yes, there’s an unrequited romance that ends in bad idea rooftop sex. And yes, there’s a scene of her sitting by the Bat-Phone afterwards, waiting for him to call. But there’s more nuance to it than that. She’s ultimately the more emotionally adult of the two, while he’s kind of stunted and distant about the whole thing. It clearly shouldn’t have happened, and he clearly doesn’t know how to deal with it once it does. There’s also a simultaneous arc going on about Batgirl coming into her own as a hero, and realizing that she doesn’t want to become what Batman is.
So even the prologue has its redeeming qualities. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t work. While I see what they were going for, they might have been better off fleshing the new story out more and presenting it as a companion piece to The Killing Joke proper, a side story showing what was going on in Batgirl’s life before and after the shooting. But trying to weave the two stories together was simply tone-deaf. The Killing Joke is one of those marvelously self-contained little stories that Alan Moore has always been so good at. It has a perfect opening and a perfect closing, and anything you do outside the bounds of those two scenes is only going to detract from it. At the very least, it made me a harsher critic of the actual adaptation than I might have been otherwise. And I can’t think that’s a good thing.