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Monday, January 25, 2010

FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: Soon I Will Be Invincible!

This Christmas I received the IO9 reading list. Nothing but highly recommended sci-fi and fantasy novels. I’ve been plowing through them and so far they’ve all been great reads. But it got me thinking on how I would adapt these into screenplays. They are all wildly different and each poses its own set of challenges to the screenwriter/adapter. So first we’ll look at the stories as they are now and what it would take to successfully turn them into screenplays. Then I’ll put on my producer hat/play “If I ruled the world” and try to package the deal; match our newly adapted screenplay to the perfect director or cast.


Soon I Will Be Invincible

The first book in my reading list was Austin Grossman’s novel of superheroes and one tenacious super villain. Soon I Will Be Invincible was released to a lot of fanfare and made a lot of Holiday gift guides for geeks in 08-09. Its first chapters debuted in the New York Times. According to Wikipedia, Strike Entertainment is already at work adapting it. Well, if you’re listening Strike, here is a free set of notes for ya.


Lot’s of spoilers ahead! If you haven’t read the book yet (and I highly recommend you do so if you have not) STOP READING RIGHT NOW!

Super Quick Synopsis:

Soon I Will Be Invincible follows the super villain Doctor Impossible who it turns out has shared history with the Earth’s mightiest heroes, as he makes his umpteenth attempt to take over the world. Both Doctor Impossible and his enemies the Champions have lots of personal issues that overshadow their battles with each other.


Doctor Impossible:
What makes this novel tick is the character of Doctor Impossible. This mash up of Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom is the main character and his inner monologue is incredible. Grossman paints a compelling picture of a chronic anti-hero, someone who is keenly aware that he could be doing something worthwhile or profitable or at least legal with his time, but to him that would just be the final surrender to a world that never gave him much of anything. The book does the nearly impossible feat of actually making you route FOR this guy to defeat the heroes and take over the world. I remember thinking “Oh No!” when accidentally runs into the Champions before he’s ready for them. He’s so desperate for just one thing in his life to turn out the way he planned. It makes everything from the battle blimps to trying to control the moon seem almost logical and believable. The finale between him, CoreFire and Lily is classic writing 101, where the main character’s internal and external conflicts collide but in a way we never would have imagined at the start. In the end his plan is foiled by Lily, his ex lover/partner; a being apparently made out of living indestructible Lucite. But it turns out she’s not who she claims to be. Even as she’s putting the kibosh on his latest scheme, she reveals to the good doctor that he actually did win a victory in the past but never realized it. He did get the girl once.

Fatale: The other main character in the book is a cybernetic heroine called Fatale. She’s described as a cross between an Amazon and Robocop or as a female version of the Teen Titan hero Cyborg. She’s somewhat new to the hero game and has a huge crisis of identity. She literally doesn’t know who she used to be and is ill at ease with her new lot in life. She’d constantly unsure of herself as a hero, always expecting to get drummed out of the Champions every other chapter. She’s as vulnerable as any woman with super strong mechanical limbs can possibly be. We hope that in the end she’ll finally prove herself to herself and take her place among the Champions. It doesn’t turn out that way but we feel she’s finally in a better place inside. Combine Fatale with Dr. Impossible and the personal hang ups of the other Champions and Grossman has really put on a clinic of anti-heroism. To be clear anti-hero does not mean villain necessarily. The term Anti-Hero covers all kinds of flawed characters. Grossman gives us both someone who does the wrong things for understandable reasons (Dr. Impossible) and people who try to do the right thing but who are plagued with personal shortcomings (Fatale and just about every member of the Champions.) It gives this story about people who can fly through space and lift mountains over their heads a sense of grounded humanity. It’s a lot like The Watchmen minus the bracing sting of Alan Moore’s misanthropy.

The Language: Grossman gives both of these creations a unique and at times spellbinding voice. Here are the first lines of book spoken by Dr. Impossible.
This morning on planet Earth, there are one thousand, six hundred, and eighty-six enhanced, gifted, or otherwise-superpowered persons. Of these, one hundred and twenty-six are civilians leading normal lives. Thirty-eight are kept in research facilities funded by the Department of Defense, or foreign equivalents. Two hundred and twenty- six are aquatic, confined to the oceans. Twenty-nine are strictly localized-powerful trees and genii loci, the Great Sphinx, and the Pyramid of Giza. Twenty-five are microscopic (including the Infinitesimal Seven). Three are dogs; four are cats; one is a bird. Six are made of gas. One is a mobile electrical effect, more of a weather pattern than a person. Seventy-seven are alien visitors. Thirty-eight are missing. Forty-one are off-continuity, permanent émigrés to Earth's alternate realities and branching timestreams.
They perfectly set up the comic book universe for the novel and told with complete seriousness yet at the same time you can sense a little bit of snark coming from Grossman, almost like a John Cleese Monty Python skit. He knows what he’s doing. This is the world, you either accept it and are along for the ride or else go find the latest James Patterson novel. It’s the voice and the writing that really sucks you into the novel and what powers it through to the end.


What’s Up with Those Names: Superhero and super villain names are always problematic. SIWBI has a few good ones like CoreFire and Stormcloud. Doctor Impossible and Blackwolf are typical if not very original. But when it comes to the female characters a lot of the names inspire a WTF response. Damsel? Elphin? Regina? Rainbow Triumph is a very interesting character, a cybernetic mash up of Robin and Britney Spears but her name makes her sound like she should be on a shelf at Toys R’ Us with a $11.99 price tag. And what does the name “Lily” have to do with being transparent and indestructible? The best female names are Fatale (ironic since her name is one of the hundred things that she frets about in the book) and Galatea (who’s only seen in archival footage).

The Mythology: The novel revels in its own imagined history. Grossman created a comic book universe stretching back to pre-WWII days. It’s crammed with heroes and villains of every stripe. And nobody except the people who actually read the book will know anything about it. Mass audiences are already struggling trying to keep up with the established comic mythologies of DC and Marvel. Asking them to swallow the history of a whole new, unknown universe is a daunting task. And Grossman made this history and mythology an integral part of his plot. Dr. Impossible assembles his arsenal from the discarded tools of defeated super villains and gets advice from the oldest evil genius on the planet.

The Plot: The main problem is that the plot, what actually happens in the story isn’t that much. There’s a ton of flashbacks. We get Doctor Impossible’s entire life story and plenty of history of the Champions and their forebears, but what happens in the present tense isn’t a whole lot. Doctor Impossible escapes, he executes a plan to take over the world, and fights the Champions using a mystic artifact. It’s a throwback to the Avengers and Justice League comics of the 70’s and early 80’s before everything became a 20 issue event crossover. A villain has a plan, he fights the heroes, he loses, he escapes. (My personal favorite from this period was Avengers vs. Count Nefaria!) But this translates into a very minimal movie plot. If you played it out as is, with the dialogue that’s spoken and minus all the internal monologues and flashbacks, then there really isn’t a whole lot of there there. You present simply the physical action of the story it’s going to come up looking short, like Fantastic Four short. People will be asking, “So what’s the big deal?”

The Ending: While the plot is pretty conventional, the ending is out of left field. It’s a revisionist ending. Lily arrives at the end and saves the day but not in the usual 4 color comic book way. She keeps CoreFire tied up as she smashes the doomsday device and lets both he and Doctor Impossible know who she really is. I read that part as a mild critique of the whole superhero genre. Lily seemed to be saying that this was all just games played by boys who refused to grow up. At least that was my take on it. It’s a great monologue and it works in the book but imagine seeing it on the big screen after a number of super heroic fights and confrontations. If it isn’t done properly the audience is going to be scratching their heads.


The problem is the one all adapters face, when do you repeat what’s in the book and when do you write? The best answer is always to stay true to the spirit of the original source material. Embrace the strengths, minimize the weaknesses.
While the plot may be conventional it does provide a very sturdy screenplay structure. It’s linear, straightforward, it’s direct and to the point. It’s very archetypal. One of the big ironies of the storytelling is that good movie plots don’t always make the best book plots and vice versa. In this case the plot of the boom is very serviceable and you’d be foolish to discard it. It makes a fine skeleton upon which to hang scenes.

Ah but what are you going to hang on your serviceable plot?

That’s the make or break decision there.

You could add more action. Cut back on the voice overs and dialogue and character work. Make it into another Watchmen or Fantastic Four. Pour all your energy into creating FX heavy superhero smackdowns.

But that would violate the spirit of the book.

You’d really just be using the title and the bare bones plot and characters for something totally different. It's been done before (See Wanted.) But it can also backfire. Remember how badly Daredevil sucked because it was trying to Spiderman?

And if you’re going to go that route, why bother adapting this book in the first place?

Why not grab some cheaper title from small or defunct comic company instead?
The whole point of the novel is the character work, the dialogue and more importantly the interior monologues that really put you inside Dr. Impossible’s head. If you’re really going to ADAPT Soon I Will Be Invincible you’re going to have to bring the monologues and the characters to the forefront yet still make it cinematically alive instead of talky and static. And that leads us directly too…


There are a number of directors and actors who could be attracted to this project and who could do the material proud. However there’s only one person who can take the strengths of the novel and turn them into a compelling movie without having to radically rewrite the whole thing.



Given that Tarantino’s a comic book nut, and a 1970’s comic book nut to boot, this would be the perfect project for him to make his mark in the superhero genre. But the synergies don’t stop there. Tarantino is the master of taking the conventional pulp plot and giving it an unconventional twist. Inglorious Basterds is only his latest example. It’s what he’s done his entire career. SIWBI starts out as a typical 1970’s superhero story but it takes some unusual turns. It ends when Lily, who was at one time Lois Lane to CoreFire’s Superman, steps in to save the day. It’s the kind of twist Tarantino puts in his movies. You think Basterds is about Brad Pitt and his team of killers? In the end it turns into the story of a Jewish girl avenging her family.

He’s also proven he can handle voice overs and make them very cool. See Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 as prime examples. A few voice overs would have to be used but they can’t take over the whole narrative. Tarantino definitely knows when to call it quits on the VO.

Tarantino also isn't afraid of mythologies or somewhat cliched names. Again look at Kill Bill. He created an lengthy mythology about Bill and his team of assassins. And he felt no shame in calling them the "Deadly Viper Squad." I doubt he'll have much trouble getting his brain around someone like Baron Ether.

Even more pertinent Tarantino could get the most of the scenes in the novel. So many of the key scenes are simply people meeting and talking. Sounds boring? Oh but that’s been Tarantino’s bread and butter since day one. He’s is one of the few writer/directors who can make a two person dialogue scene seem as exciting and violent as a fist fight. Look at the first scene in Basterds. All it is a simple two person scene with dialogue (at least until the end!) but it was one of the most riveting moments of film in 2009. That’s the kind of approach and attitude SIWBI needs. Take for example the scene where Doctor Impossible escapes. It’s a very simple scene. He is brought into an interrogation room, two novice heroes try to beat information out of him, he gets the upper hand and escapes. It’s the kind of scene that’s going to be ho-hum in the hands of most directors. But it’s exactly the kind of scene that Tarantino can inject with energy, suspense and most importantly character. The dialogue would have to change, Phenom, Bluetooth and The Doctor would get a lot more lines, but the spirit of the scene would remain the same.

QT could also handle the novel’s ending. He could keep the spirit in tact while still paying things off dramatically for the audience as opposed to say the Cohen Brothers for example who’ve taken an almost perverse pleasure in frustrating audience expectations with their endings (see No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading.) Tarantino can make that ending pay off because it is about those three characters at the end. And despite his reputation as a gaudy stylist, Tarantino is almost old fashioned in his attention to and focus on the characters and their stories.

With QT as director the rest of the package would fall into place. I can see him casting Christopher Walken or better Christoph Waltz as Dr. I, John Travolta as CoreFire, Uma Thurman as Fatale, and bringing in Samuel L. as Stormcloud for five minutes of awesomeness as he rips the New Champions a new one around the halfway mark.

Would Tarantino do it?

Good question. He’s pretty ambivalent about CGI and there’s no other way to do Lily and Feral and make them look correct. But everything else lines up perfectly. That still doesn’t mean he’d do it. But hey, we can always hope. And it’s unlikely that Tarantino will ever get a shot at directing a DC or Marvel character. They’d be too worried about the QT brand overshadowing their own brand.

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