The rise of comic book blockbusters may be a recent phenomenon, with movie studios everywhere now seeing that sequels aren’t the real money-maker – but shared universes full of heroes and oddball characters too strange for the real world. Whether it’s Marvel’s Avengers, Fox’s X-Men, or DC’s Justice League stars, comic adaptations are quickly becoming Hollywood’s heaviest hitters. But that isn’t the whole story.
There’s a reason that comics have persisted this long, and while the most patriotic, cinematic or action-packed tales may be adapted for the mainstream fame they’re likely to win, lesser-known titles (to the world at large) like Cowboy Ninja Viking, Chrononauts, Sex Criminals and Preacher show comics are a vast, varied medium – but nonetheless suitable to live-action. The medium is so varied, in fact, many moviegoers may not even realize that some of their most beloved characters and stories originated in comic form.
Here is our list of 20 Movies You May Not Know Were Based on Comics.
Film fanatics had the opportunity to show off their global movie wisdom when Spike Lee’s Oldboy hit North American shores – a remake of South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park’s film of the same name. Substituting western actors into the central roles didn’t help the remake reach the same levels of cult fame as its predecessor, but fans of the original film may not know that the story hails from a 1996 Japanese manga, “Old Boy.”
It’s nearly impossible these days to remain ignorant to the ginger orphan Annie, or her unwavering belief in just what “Tomorrow” may bring. Most modern moviegoers may have more personal experience with the recent Annie remake placing Quvenzhane Wallis in the title role, with the songs scattered throughout reminding viewers that the film is an adaptation of the musical – based on Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip – itself loosely based upon the 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley.
2 Guns (2013)
Given the recent film choices of Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, it made sense to see the two action stars join forces for 2 Guns, a story in which both men were secretly working undercover for government agencies – Washington’s ‘Trench’ a DEA Agent, and Wahlberg’s ‘Stigman’ working for Naval Intelligence. The film itself was a surprisingly satisfying shoot-em-up, but fans may be even more surprised to know that the story was based on a graphic novel of the same name by Steven Grant and Mat Santolouco. Not every comic adaptation must be a blockbuster.
Men in Black (1997)
The Men in Black series is best known for helping propel Will Smith into Hollywood superstardom, pairing him with Tommy Lee Jones as members of a shadowy organization tasked with monitoring (and, if need, eliminating) alien activity on Earth. The original comic created by Lowell Cunningham was nowhere near as successful, running for just ten issues – under three different publishers (including Marvel). Unlike the film, the original comic’s ‘men in black’ were tasked with all paranormal supervision: including demons, zombies, mutants, and other mythological creatures.
The Addams Family (1991)
No movie fan who lived through the 1990s could have missed the sudden success of The Addams Family, an odd, comedic look at a macabre – but loving – American family. Older audiences remembered the family’s debut in a 1964 TV show, as well as numerous live-action and animated specials, children’s series, and books. But it all got its start in Charles’ Addams’ single-panel comic strip – implying a “Family Circus” media explosion should be coming any day now.
Road to Perdition (2002)
The Prohibition-era setting of Road to Perdition is familiar to classic gangster films, but the themes of fatherhood, family, and vengeance steal the show. Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) has claimed he was looking for a story that said more with images than words – making the graphic novel by writer Max Allan Collins and artist Richard Piers Rayner a logical choice. The story was just one chapter in Collins’ larger story, and itself an admitted homage to the Japanese manga “Lone Wolf and Cub” by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima.
A History of Violence (2005)
The David Cronenberg drama/mystery/suspense tale A History of Violence is notable not only for being the last major film released on VHS, but as the first comic book from John Wagner adapted to film since Judge Dredd (1995). The fact that the story owed its origins to the comic book page wasn’t grasped by most audiences – apparently including Cronenberg, who would later say comic book movies were “incredibly limited creatively.”
The Mask (1994)
There was a time when Jim Carrey’s most eccentric humor and behavior went entirely unchecked, to the delight of audiences – with no better example than The Mask (1994). A magical mask that heightened the traits of its subject (and rendered them invincible) was actually the idea of Mike Richardson, eventual founder of Dark Horse Comics. The concept would be refined into a standalone comic series, with the mask itself passed around to multiple DC Comics characters – including The Joker.
The Crow (1994)
Alex Proyas’ The Crow is remembered for a number of reasons: the perfect timing of an unconventional revenge tale and an undercurrent of ’emo’ or ‘goth’ subculture, or the accidental death of star Brandon Lee just as the film was completing production. The film would go on to become a cult hit, but has since gained even mainstream recognition. However, many will still be surprised to find that the film’s dark twist on a comic book vigilante tale actually began in the comics, as the work of James O’Barr.
Some casual moviegoers might have looked at Wanted – a film in which James McAvoy is recruited by Angelina Jolie to join a cryptic order of assassins – and simply assumed its plot could only be dreamt up in a comic book. Unfortunately, the film bore little resemblance to Mark Millar’s (Kick-Ass, Kingsman) original series. In the comic version, the ‘hero’ Wesley discovered comic book superheroes had once been real, before their villains joined forces and wiped them off the planet – with his father among them. Nods to a defeated Superman and Batman threw winks to readers, but all movie audiences got were inexplicably curving bullets.
Timecop may seem like a predictable sci-fi adventure for Jean-Claude Van Damme, fusing the martial arts and gunplay of the 1990s with a science fiction story of ‘time enforcement officers,’ but it actually began its life two years before the film, as a story told in the pages of Dark Horse Comics. Focusing instead on a runaway robot wreaking havoc in time, it spawned the film, additional tie-in comics, a TV show and a video game.
The adaptation from comic book or graphic novel to live-action film isn’t always a predictable one – a fact proven by Joseph Kosinski (TRON Legacy) as he worked to build his original story Oblivion into a feature film. As the director began developing a breathtaking ‘graphic novel’ with Radical Comics based on his story pitch, it became clear there was something odd about the project – something Kosinski clarified to Empire once the film was released:
“The writers’ strike occurred in 2007 so I had a treatment for a film but I had no way to actually write it. It couldn’t be written by anyone in the guild so the partnership with Radical Comics allowed me to continue working on the story by developing a series of images and continuing to refine the story more over a period of years. Then I basically used all that development as a pitch kit to the studio. So even though we really never released it as an illustrated novel the story is being told as a film, which was always the intention.”
Art School Confidential (2006)
The small selection of films targeted squarely at adolescent angst and confusion don’t change much over the years – Ghost World, Donnie Darko, Wristcutters – but the emphasis on actual animation and artwork in Art School Confidential make an adaptation from a comic seem almost too on-the-nose to be true. But the film proves that comic book stories can be small, quirky, and critically divisive on the page as well as the screen.
The English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho may have had a rocky road to North American release, but Snowpiercer‘s minimalist look at the horrors and compromises of a post-apocalyptic society struck a chord with science fiction fans – if for no other reason than its originality. Much of that originality is due to the creators of “Transperceneige,” the French graphic novel upon which the film is based.
Weird Science (1985)
Again, no other inspiration seems needed for the premise of Weird Science: two high school kids put their knowledge of computers (and some serious teen fantasy) into the creation of the woman of their dreams, Lisa (played by Kelly LeBrock). But the film draws its origins from the original “Weird Science” comic series, specifically, a story contained within Issue #5 (1951) titled ‘Made of the Future!’
The Fountain (2006)
One of the few films on this list that could actually make more sense as a graphic novel, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is nothing if not ambitious. Too ambitious, it turned out, as his original plans for the sweeping three-narrative epic (with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles) proved too costly for the studios. Aronofksy did the next best thing, joining forces with comic artist Kent Williams to develop and complete the story. The film would eventually be made, but Aronofsky’s foray into comics clearly left a mark, later calling on artists like Jim Lee and Dave Gibbons to offer their own interpretation of the screenplay for display on the movie’s website.
Mystery Men (1999)
The Mystery Men may be fondly remembered as a send-up of the comic book superhero, focusing on a band of wannabe crime-fighters and superheroes with somewhat… unconventional powers. Even so, the team of misfits is still based on a comic itself, published in the pages of Flaming Carrot Comics. The team debuted in Issue #16, and while the live-action Mystery Men don’t include the Flaming Carrot, the likes of The Shoveler (William H. Macy), Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) and even Doc Heller (Tom Waits) are present.
The Smurfs (2011)
It’s safe to assume that everyone reading this has at least heard of The Smurfs, even if their animated adventures on the big or small screen were less than a hit with certain demographics. The worldwide omnipresence of the small, blue-skinned creatures makes it hard to believe they began their life as ‘Les Schtroumpfs,’ a creation of the Belgian comic artist Peyo. According to Peyo, their name and language was the result of his friend forgetting the French word for ‘salt’ at lunch, requesting he ‘pass the… schtroumpf.” Peyo replied: “Here’s the Schtroumpf—when you’re done schtroumpfing, schtroumpf it back,” and the rest is history.
There aren’t many anthology films released these days – films containing several shorter, often unconnected stories – but they were a hotbed for hard-hitting and twisted horror in decades past. Few have attained the cult status of George A. Romero’s Creepshow, with a script provided by legendary horror author Stephen King. While not a direct adaptation, all involved openly confirmed their influences from the pages of EC Comics’ horror titles (which sold well as titles like “Weird Science” sputtered). The film would even spawn its own comic series, completing the circle of homages and tributes.
Alien vs Predator (2004)
Some might have rolled their eyes at the notion of combining the titular villains of the Alien and Predator film series, but the comic crossover upon which the film (now film series) handled both creatures’ mythology surprisingly well. The big screen adaptation turned out to be a predictable B-movie, but the comic set the events clearly in the world of Ridley Scott’s Alien, following a new human colony on an alien planet. When Xenomorph eggs arrive to supply a hunt for the Predator clans, only one human ends up surviving, living on the planet alone, eagerly awaiting the return of their Predator kin – and the start of the next hunt.
That does it for our list of memorable movies that owe their origins to the comic book, not the screenplay page. We hope even the die-hard comic fans have found a few surprising inclusions, but if you think we overlooked some entries, or your own favorites were given short shrift, be sure to sound off in the comments.