Graphic novels were often seen as the highbrow cousin of comic books. As a format, it allows for a concentrated look at societal issues, often times via the skewered manipulation of associated archetypes — particularly superheroes. Here, having powers doesn’t cast one as a villain or a hero, but a complex human being caught in between. The same goes for the everyman, a character that seems to run exclusively within the world of graphic novels; allowing a relatability that isn’t often provided by the writers of Marvel or DC.
Coined in the late ’70s, the term ‘graphic novel’ was used to describe comics too mature for young audiences. It wasn’t until 1986, with the release of stories like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that the medium began to gain traction. Today, it is seen as an equal of the literary novel, to the point where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (1987) received a spot on Time Magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels. Hollywood has taken note, but many have yet to work out the kinks that come with adapting classic material (The Spirit, I, Frankenstein). There are, however, a select few who have mastered this tricky art, and for those filmmakers, we are thankful.
Here are Screen Rant’s 12 Best Graphic Novel Adaptations of All Time.
12. V for Vendetta (2006)
Dystopias, Fascists, and anarchy are all crucial to V for Vendetta, the graphic novel by David Lloyd and Alan Moore. It is perhaps the most overtly political story of its kind, painting a vision of hostility that could’ve spawned from Watchmen’s alternate ’80s. The script for this 2006 film, co-written by Matrix creators Lana and Lilly Wachowski, sought to update the original Thatcher-esque mood for a modern political context — drawing the ire of Moore in the process. The comic icon felt the story’s meaning was lost within Americanized ideals.
Despite this disagreement, director James McTeigue’s final product is a simmering display of civil unrest, potent in allegory and red color schemes. The air of mystery that surround Vendetta’s title character (Hugo Weaving) truly feels dangerous, as do the hardened themes that ensure its place at the table of grown-up graphic novels. Controversial to its core, it’s still tough to ignore as a film experience.
11. Ghost World (2001)
Not much happens in Daniel Clowes’ 1997 graphic novel Ghost World. In its bland setting, observations about modern society, maturity, and self worth come to light, but only if you want them to. Its the kind of obtuse stuff perfectly suited to a graphic novel. When it came time to adapt Ghost World into a film, director Terry Zwigoff and cinematographer Affonso Beato made it a point to stay true to the source material. Any variations, and the entire thing could become a bore.
The box office for the film was predictably underwhelming. Still, Ghost World received unanimous acclaim from critics and fans, who praised its tone and ability to translate tricky emotions without losing a beat. The performances of Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch as Enid and Rebecca are superb, with Johansson offering the first glimpse of her future stardom. Even now, fifteen years later, this eccentric journey makes us sit and think.
10. Hellboy (2004)
Guillermo del Toro loves to blend horror mythos with macho fanboys, and nowhere has this been more apparent than 2004’s Hellboy. Adapted from Mike Mignola’s 1994 novel, the film benefits from being in the wheelhouse of del Toro narratives; colorful creatures, human flaws, and a maturation theme that humanizes the title character. That it never strives to outclass its source, but rather compliment it, is a stylistic trick that should be seen more often in film adaptations.
Amidst all the nuance, the real kicker here is the casting of del Toro favorite Ron Perlman. The Sons of Anarchy star makes an ironclad (or iron fist) case that no one in the world could’ve better captured Hellboy’s cocktail of charm and immaturity. Serious topics like Satan or Nazis are pretty prevalent throughout the plot, but Perlman’s unimpressed swagger keeps things fun for kids and adults alike.
Our fingers remain firmly crossed for a third entry in the series, despite Perlman’s recent expressions of pessimism.
9. The Crow (1994)
A perfect storm of content and context, The Crow (1994) has become the chilling embodiment of Generation X angst. The title character, a dead rock star brought back to life to seek vengeance, was equal parts Kurt Cobain and Bruce Wayne — a vigilante with a penchant for self-mutilation when he wasn’t stalking his prey. Alex Proyas was the perfect director to take over the reins for creator James O’Barr, ensuring the dark traits that made the novel so refreshing would remain.
Proyas’ film delivers on all fronts, with Brandon Lee starring behind a pale mask that predates Heath Ledger’s Joker by two decades. The brutality, black set design, and clever symbolism comprise a visual experience that overwhelms most music videos of the era– even those involved in the metal scene. Plus, with each subsequent spinoff and TV reboot having been amateur at best, this film remains the defining image of O’Barr’s character.
8. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a graphic novel that basks in energy– something director Edgar Wright knows plenty about. His Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy is some of the sharpest, most insightful comedy of the millennium, so it only seemed natural he’d be the one to take a crack at Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Canadian slacker. Adorning Michael Cera with a role suited to his soft-spoken talents, the film version of Scott Pilgrim is an A.D.D. odyssey that benefits from the always-ahead Wright; flashing an array of hyper-realistic characters.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jason Schwartzman, Brie Larson, and Chris Evans all excel in supporting parts, letting the conversations flow before bursting out in musical action that’s pure candy for the eyes. It didn’t do too well financially, but fans can rest assured that Wright got it right.
7. A History of Violence (2005)
Film noir isn’t often associated with graphic novels, which is why A History of Violence often goes forgotten. It’s a story so steeped in cynicism that author John Wagner could’ve easily dusted off a lost novel from 1952 and no one would be the wiser. Director David Cronenberg captures this mood in his 2005 adaptation, closely following the first act of Wagner’s novel. He eventually veers into new territory in the final act, but the doomed characters and tropes of the genre remain fully intact.
The film is presented in stark, minimal style, with moments of brutal violence piercing through. Cronenberg takes his patented “body horror” concepts and instead applies them to the desperation of a trapped man– one with plenty of experience as a contract killer. In this story, any hint of fantasy is left behind for lean, mean pulp. Star Viggo Mortensen was correct when the acclaimed project came out, calling it: it’s “the perfect film noir.”
6. 300 (2007)
Sure, 300 (2007) was bashed for its lack of realism and historical accuracy, but no one can accuse director Zack Snyder of straying from his source. He took Frank Miller’s fictional retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae and converted it directly to celluloid, where the name of the game was epic battle. The colorful panels of artist Lynn Varley were also treated as gospel, as slow-motion edits and choreography played as additional frames. While the acting may be amateur in spots, Snyder dispenses style with the precision of a master.
Bolstered by a boisterous Gerard Butler (a man destined to inspire ancient warriors), 300 was one of many CGI-reliant projects made in the 2000s. And while Sin City (2005) was the first to crossover, there’s something about this earthy palette that remains stunning nearly a decade later. Dining in hell never looked so cool.
5. Oldboy (2003)
Violence continues to be a defining trait in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003). Oh Dae-su (Choi-Min-sik) is imprisoned in a hotel room for fifteen years without explanation, only to be released into a new world with the intent of seeking revenge. It’s an insane premise, rich in thrills and neo-noir style while honoring that of it’s inspiration: Garon Tsuchiya’s manga-turned-graphic novel. But while the core narrative is followed accurately, Oldboy poses perhaps the only example of a film going farther in brutality than its source material.
Chan-wook’s emphasis on action repeatedly comes into play with a body count that runs circles around the novel. The film’s kinetic highlight is the now legendary hallway scene, where Oh Dae-su engages an army of henchman with nothing more than a hammer and his rage. His tortured past is another area in which the film tinkers; replacing the relatively less troubled Goto that Tsuchiya created. A bleak masterpiece of world cinema, this adaptation towers above Spike Lee’s 2013 remake.
4. Road to Perdition (2002)
Another unconventional graphic novel, this time from the pages of Mickey Spillane disciple Max Allan Collins. Road to Perdition is a story that makes no attempts to hide its father-son core, whether through Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his boy (Tyler Hoechlin) or boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) and his weakling heir Connor (Daniel Craig). With that in mind, director Sam Mendes was an inspired choice to tackle the film, providing a delicacy that was crucial to its dramatic power.
Perdition is acting at its finest. Hanks, Newman, and Jude Law bring the dialogue to life and imbue a real ethos behind these murderous thugs. Mendes, who has since gone on to helm the stronger of the James Bond entries, shows a flair for action in the gangland shooting. Silhouetted from the streets with bodies at his feet, Sullivan cuts as tragic an image as one is liable to find in the last twenty years.
3. Snowpiercer (2014)
An attempt to stop global warming results in a new Ice Age, and the remains of humanity are relegated to a train car. Social classes develop, and those on the lower end spark revolution against the elite passengers in the front. Therein lies the brilliance of the graphic novel Snowpiercer. Originally written by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, it’s a story capable of carrying any political meaning that viewer can muster– particularly with regards to classicism and the poor.
Director Bong Joon-ho, operating under meticulous set design that stands as one of the film’s hallmarks, pushes these given ideas to a frenzy. Claustrophobic battles make for a tense adaptation; surrounded by metallic dirge that likens the whole thing to a disheveled battery. It prods and preaches, but similar to its French origins, Snowpiercer instills political thought through white-knuckle entertainment.
2. Watchmen (2009)
It couldn’t be done. Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass had made valiant attempts in the past and failed. Some fans demanded perfection, some authenticity, and others never wanted to see it adapted in the first place. But somehow, director Zack Snyder managed to encompass thirty years of obsession into a 160 minute (original cut) epic; the “unfilmable” film. Watchmen’s sheer existence is a triumph of both the artform and the advancement of visual effects.
In staying faithful to the greatest graphic novel ever written, Snyder composes each frame as though it would be judged by millions of fans. But even with this pressure, his ability to arrange narrative with action and keep them engaging is something to be marveled at. The acting is cold and distant, matched by a world that maximizes its chroma-key aura — arguably the pinnacle of CGI filmmaking. Summated best by IGN critic Patrick Kolan: “It’s the Watchmen film you always wanted to see, but never expected to get.”
1. Sin City (2005)
Despite the worthy efforts of its peers, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City still takes the cake as the quintessential graphic novel adaptation. Co-directed with creator Frank Miller, the film offers an attitude so provocative it couldn’t even be duplicated with A Dame to Kill For (2014). Sin City is an anthology of interlaced stories that chronicles the downfall of a weary cop (Bruce Willis), a muscle-bound loner (Mickey Rourke), and a facially reconstructed sap (Clive Owen). All against the backdrop of what can only be described as the first “hyper-noir.”
Perhaps it’s the chopped-up format or the aggressively hard-boiled dialogue, but the film maintains its luster from start to finish. Rodriguez, Miller, and guest director Quentin Tarantino stick a pin in the noir genre and inflate it to almost disfigured levels of style — each shadow and street lamp only maximizes the flamboyant mood. That it remains the first of its kind is merely a moot point. It takes the top spot because it’s the best.