By Mark York
Indulge me, dear readers, as I once again bring up adaptations, and stretch any semblance of theming present in “Reads” as I discuss “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse.”
For you see… Spiderman was originally a comic book… a comic BOOK. Granted, its contents will not be discussed in this article, and yes, I have never read said comic book myself, though I beg for patience! These topics are heavily relevant to the written word. While I previously made a case on why adaptations should be allowed creative freedom in what they change, this new, friendly neighborhood Spiderman movie has led me to a new conclusion – adaptations are absolutely necessary for establishing original, creative evolutions in what mainstream audiences accept in a medium.
And I do mean “necessary”… imagine the word in huge, neon lights if you must. Without adaptations, the art of storytelling would be a significantly duller place. Such a statement, I realize, seems counter-intuitive – an adaptation is by definition a product built on something else, and it can be argued that we have too much of that. But, in a world where entertainment seems more similar than ever, adaptations are also the key to breaking this mold. To better illustrate my point, I refer once again to our favorite arachnida-superhero.
“Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” – or as I better know it, “Spiderman: Into the Better-Win-Best-Animated-Pictureverse” – is built on a pre-existing property (being an established franchise), but it is an experience unlike any other. Out of the near 100 years that animation has been in cinemas, never before had I seen such style, such motion and such aesthetic identity realized so prominently.
Made by the same minds behind “The LEGO Movie,” we see the same precision put into the animation of this film. Each frame has been painstakingly made to look like a living, breathing comic panel, and so many different styles have been seamlessly incorporated to feel as though they’ve always belonged together in the first place. I am not the only one praising this animation – rest assured, I am not living under a rock. What I find intriguing, however, is that this film is getting such widespread praise in the first place.
Experimental animation such as this – or any other piece of unorthodox visuals – hardly receives the limelight it deserves. Similarly acclaimed films like “Secret of Kells” and “Kubo and the Three Strings” have made similar heights in unique aesthetics, but unlike “Spiderverse,” they have slipped from the mainstream. Thus, we see a sad truth once again in action – the mainstream consumer is not comfortable with radical changes from the norm. And how brutish that is! Uncivilized! Uncultured!
I have never seen any of these movies either. But, the question remains – why has “Spiderverse” avoided this fate? How did this film spare itself from the ‘Thanos Snap’ that is the public’s attention span?
As it so happens, I found the answer during my animation workshop, in which there was a copy of the official “Spiderverse” artbook ready to lull me into intense distraction (my apologies to my workshop coordinator). Eyes widened, I flipped through the pages and came across a quote by film director, Bob Persichetti: “We are all lucky to be working on a property that has such a huge audience invested in it. That’s why we could be riskier with our choices and make the movie visually different from what a summer or winter blockbuster is expected to look like.” It was, at this moment, when my mind was blown. I could practically feel my brain clashing with the particle accelerator and being sent to a different universe. Adaptations can evolve what we, as an audience, might consider normal, while still giving us that teaspoon of familiarity to avoid alienating us. It is in this realm where artists are free to go truly experimental, without as excessive of a risk.
This applies to the writing of “Spiderverse” as well. One thing you will hear time and time again throughout the film is that anyone can be a hero, and the plot as a whole revolves around this theme. Millions of viewers admire Spiderman, but imagine if this film was written with some other figure we’ve never heard of before… the message is the same, but now we have Sardine Man, or Taxpayer Joe. Even if this new, unknown superhero was the coolest thing ever, the audience would have no pre-established relationship with the character. Because the film features Spiderman, however, we relate to protagonist Miles’s journey. We both have experience looking up to the same hero. Therefore, we are put right in protagonist Miles’s shoes when he realizes that it is not a lack of powers that keeps him from acting as a hero, but an unwillingness to act. This kind of story can ONLY be told as an adaptation.
Pre-established properties have a history of revolutionizing art forms. Need I remind you that Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – the first cinematic animated feature (according to most people) – is an adaptation of a well-known fairy tale? In fact, the nature of many Disney fairy tale adaptations, I would argue, have changed the face of the modern day musical genre. It is ironic, then, that it is Disney, with its constant abuse of the public domain, that prevents this phenomenon from repeating itself, though I’m afraid this beef will have to be grilled another day.
The point is, if the success of “Snow White” helped to kick off a whole new medium, then “Spiderverse” has the potential to spur a whole new age of aesthetic experimentation in mainstream entertainment.
Imagine if other adaptations did a similar thing. What if there was an animated “Sherlock Holmes” film that replicated the sketchy, illustrative art style of the original books? What if there was a new “Winnie the Pooh” film that replicated the narrative wit of the original stories, telling a tale of growing up? What if we adapted one of the Greek myths of old, and used it to explore the role legends have in modern society? And what if more experimental products, completely independent from any pre-established properties, are able to find receptive audiences because the trail has already been paved by adaptations before? These ideas are rough, sure, but I hope that you can see the new, bold and fascinating stories that could come from playing into an audience’s familiarity with the old.
This, I believe, is a glimpse of a new, exciting climate of entertainment, and I am not solely referring to film. Literature, comics and even poetry (somehow, I’m sure) – the written world has lots to benefit from this new model of storytelling. In order to advance the way tales are told in ALL mediums, we need to make these works of old more accessible for new minds to transform.
The “Spiderverse” of today, in other words, could help the overlooked “Kubo” of tomorrow.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.