Fans had been eagerly awaiting the premiere of Batman: The Killing Joke, the animated film that adapts the controversial graphic novel of the same name. The film ended up being controversial as well, though not for the same reasons as the source material; instead, the controversy surrounded some of the material added to the film and the expansion of Batgirl’s story in particular.
Speaking at Comic-Con, writer Brian Azzarello discussed some of the challenges involved in adapting the story and why the decision was made to adjust Batgirl’s role in the story. He also spoke of the ambiguity of the original ending, how the studio handled that in the adaptation, and why the choice was made to stick with an R rating for the film.
During a Batman: The Killing Joke interview, Azzarello revealed why the filmmakers needed to add new material to the story. The main reason was to make the film a feature-length movie, since sticking to just the events of the graphic novel would result in a much shorter runtime:
“The similarities had to be within the actual story of The Killing Joke itself. When we first started tearing it apart, we realized really quickly this was about a half-hour tops of really good story. Once it’s filmed it’s only going to be a half-hour and they needed it to be longer. So it was my job to write scenes for The Killing Joke that you realize weren’t in the original.”
Once it was established that there needed to be more material, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl was one character that the filmmakers felt needed to be expanded on. Part of the reason for this is that her role in the comic was rather limited, as Azzarello explained:
“In the comic, she’s there to get shot and then cry in the hospital and to make cocoa. It’s not a character. I was like ‘How do we approach this? I gotta write some stuff about her in here.’ So Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett came to me and said ‘We want to make this a feature, we’re going to need you to write something that takes place beforehand.’ Rather than pad out the actual Killing Joke more. Immediately, I said Barbara needs a character arc, she’s got nothing, and they were like ‘That’s what we think, too.’
The opening of the film is pretty much… she’s the focus. Out of all the characters in the original, she’s not even defined. That’s something that, as a comic writer, I can get away with with all you guys because you know the characters. She’s in it; you’ve got her whole backstory in your head.”
Despite the changes, Azzarello and the filmmakers tried to maintain much of the ambiguity of the source material. They felt that this was a key part of what made The Killing Joke as powerful as it is. Speaking of the attack on Barbara and the film’s ending, he said:
“It’s blurry and ambiguous. It needs to be. There’re somethings in the original — I mean one of the reasons the original is so powerful is because there’s a lot of, like the ending — it’s very ambiguous how that book ends. When we first started doing this I was with Bruce and Alan and I think Dan DiDio was there and we were talking about this and it’s like ‘Well, how do you think it ends?’ and we all had a different something in mind.”
Azzarello also commented on the film’s R rating, saying that it was necessary to capture the feel of The Killing Joke (and seemingly taking a slight dig at Batman V Superman at the same time):
“We’re keeping true to the source material, and the source material is rated R. I think you just can’t do it justice otherwise. But our Batman doesn’t kill anybody, like in that movie.”
While Azzarello’s explanations likely won’t win over those who are upset because of the specific additions that were made to Batgirl’s story, he at least offers insight into why the filmmakers deviated from the comics and added new material at the beginning of the movie. The idea was a sound one, if nothing else.
Batman: The Killing Joke is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.