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Sin City remains a fascinating experiment in panel to screen adaptation

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In theory, movies adapted from comic books should be a cinch. After all, they’ve already been completely storyboarded, providing the director with a ready-made array of arresting images. Production, set, and costume designers can see exactly what they need to replicate, and every camera angle has been pre-selected. All that’s needed is to provide the motion that connects each individual panel to the next.


That sound you hear is thousands of filmmakers laughing uproariously. Maybe you’re laughing, too. Even the most rabid Marvel and DC fans don’t expect to see a movie that treats a particular comic book as a precise blueprint; it doesn’t require a degree in film theory to understand that there are vast differences between the two media—that what works beautifully as drawings organized on a page won’t necessarily make for dynamic, compelling, or even coherent cinema. (The opposite is equally true, as anyone who read Marvel’s Star Wars comics—the early issues that just rehashed A New Hope—can attest. Even the tie-in fotonovels popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s, which used actual movie stills, achieve very little.) Plus, even if it actually were that simple, there aren’t many self-respecting directors who’d be interested in slavishly recreating another artist’s vision. The result would almost surely be bland beyond endurance.

That’s what makes Sin City—technically and significantly called Frank Miller’s Sin City—so unusual. Co-directed by Miller himself in collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, it’s a freakishly direct adaptation of “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard,” striving to accomplish the panel-by-panel correspondence that I just pronounced absurd. The film was shot almost entirely in front of a green screen (at a time when that technique was still being used sparingly) and leached of most color, making it as starkly stylized as the source material; Rodriguez persuaded Miller to approve and eventually join the project by telling him the film would be a translation rather than an adaptation, as if comics and movies are akin to English and Spanish. Again, that’s inane… and yet the result is surprisingly effective, for the most part. If you’re not squeamish about gruesome violence, take a look at this scene from the “Hard Goodbye” segment, in which Marv (Mickey Rourke) takes revenge against killer Kevin (Elijah Wood).


Before folks start trashing the recent, belated, and widely despised sequel, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, I should note for the record that I haven’t seen it—the reviews were so uniformly terrible that I stayed far away. But it does seem telling that most of that one was written directly for the screen rather than being lifted from one of Miller’s graphic novels. To the extent that the original Sin City works (and I still think that’s a pretty large extent), it’s precisely and perversely because Miller and Rodriguez are so obsessed with making the movie a sort of flip-book version of the comics. Some shots are almost indistinguishable from the panels that inspired them—the most prominent example in this scene is the white-on-black silhouette of Marv smoking a cigarette as he watches the dog chewing on the stumps of Kevin’s legs, which differs from Miller’s original drawing only via the addition of some trees. Since the trees were presumably added in post-production, like almost everything other than the actors and some props, Miller must have felt that a movie needs more than a black background, or been convinced of that by Rodriguez. I’m not sure it would make any real difference if they were removed, though. Abstraction is abstraction.

Obviously, great lengths were also taken to make Rourke look like Miller’s drawings of Marv, whose granite profile—square crown, nearly vertical nose directly attached to forehead, massive jaw—is too cartoonish to fit any actual human, much less a movie star. (That said, Rourke may have come to mind because his heavily battered late-career mug is at least in the ballpark.) The prosthetic makeup seems to have freed him, as Marv was his first genuinely notable performance in many years, positioning him for his big comeback in The Wrestler three years later. His gravelly delivery of the voice-over narration is his own invention, by necessity, but seems more or less in keeping with what a reader would expect. On the other hand, Rourke can’t completely eliminate a certain softness that remains visible in his eyes, which makes Marv a bit more cuddly on-screen than he is on the page. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it speaks to the general impossibility of medium-to-medium translation. Actors, in particular, will always bring something of themselves to a role, no matter how self-effacingly chameleonic they may be. Unless the artist had that actor in mind, distortions are therefore inevitable.

Having said all that, the main reason I chose this scene is because it’s haunted me for the past decade, and the main reason it’s haunted me for the past decade is Elijah Wood. Wood doesn’t resemble Kevin nearly as much as Rourke has been made up to resemble Marv; the comic-book Kevin is older, with a receding hairline and what looks like a couple of days’ worth of stubble on his face. But Wood’s perpetual boyishness—he was 24 at the time, but looks about 19—makes the character that much creepier. And Kevin’s refusal to scream, or to display any emotion whatsoever, as he’s being eaten alive packs more of an unnerving punch in the movie. A fixed expression doesn’t mean a lot in a comic book, because every expression is fixed; all Miller could do to indicate Kevin’s psychopathic stoicism was draw him identically in adjacent panels. Wood gets to fix a million-yard stare at the camera, and then hold it, and then hold it some more, in real time, while the sounds of chomping and tearing fill the soundtrack. (Those noises are also arguably more effective than is Miller writing a huge “CHOMP” across the bottom half of Kevin’s face.)


As if often the case with this column, I find myself gradually changing my position as I write it. (That’s a big part of what makes Scenic Routes valuable to me, and hopefully to you. Close analysis chips away at a vague thesis.) My plan was to concentrate on the similarities between this scene and its comic-book incarnation, noting all the ways that Miller and Rodriguez succeed by stubbornly sticking to the graphic novel’s monochromatic stylization. As I rewatch the scene, though, I keep noticing cinematic elements that are simply unachievable without duration. Actually seeing Kevin hop nimbly about during the fight, at a speed that editing renders inhuman, is an entirely different experience from having such agility suggested and/or described. And the addition of time allows for timing—there’s something singularly thrilling about Kevin jumping out of the house through one window a split second after Marv tosses a Molotov cocktail into the house through another, which successive panels can’t convey. There are some things that movies just do better than comics, and vice versa. If nothing else, (Frank Miller’s) Sin City offers a fascinating inventory.