Adèle Blanc-Sec

by 06-Feb-11

Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a series looking at film adaptations of comics. Everyone knows, of course, that comics have been hot properties in Hollywood for a while now, as superhero movie after ill-conceived superhero movie stacks up on every self-respecting nerd’s DVD shelf — but there are all kinds of comics, and all kinds of movies being made out of them, and one of my goals is to use film adaptations as an excuse to get around to reading, or revisiting, some of the world’s greatest (or otherwise; Marmaduke got made too) comics.

Jacques Tardi, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Vol. 1: Pterror Over Paris & The Eiffel Tower Demon (Fantagraphics) / Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec (dir. Luc Besson)

Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a series looking at film adaptations of comics. Everyone knows, of course, that comics have been hot properties in Hollywood for a while now, as superhero movie after ill-conceived superhero movie stacks up on every self-respecting nerd’s DVD shelf — but there are all kinds of comics, and all kinds of movies being made out of them, and one of my goals is to use film adaptations as an excuse to get around to reading, or revisiting, some of the world’s greatest (or otherwise; Marmaduke got made too) comics.

I’ve known Jacques Tardi’s Adèle Blanc-Sec comics for years, ever since coming across the Jean-Marc Lofficier’s NBM translationof the first volume in a ratty box on the bottom floor of a comics-and-books store shelf. (Also in that box: multiple copies of Sir Charles Barkley and the Referee Murders.) What initially drew me to him was his sharp, immaculate sense of design and bizarre imagination: the cover image of a turn-of-the-century Frenchwoman with a deadpan face aiming a small handbag-sized pistol at a pterodactyl over the roofs of Paris is almost too good for any interior story to live up to it.

But though Tardi takes the outlandish ideascape of classic adventure comics as his subject matter in his Adèle Blanc-Sec comics, a better introduction to his sensibility is probably the pitch-black war comic C’était la Guerre des Tranchées (It Was the War of the Trenches), an unremittingly cynical and casually cruel World War I story that leaves no detail however horrifying out. Tardi emphatically does not believe in the glamour and romance of war, of adventure, of history; in the Adèle Blanc-Sec volumes, though the plots wind through standard supernatural-adventure tropes of the newspaper-serial sort that would have been common in the period, Tardi’s emphasis on loose ends, official incompetence, random death, and his heroine’s inability to accomplish much of anything even though she’s the smartest, most capable, and least credulously sentimental person in his Paris, makes for oddly static adventure reading, with all of the thrills meticulously extracted and the circuitous plots related through long, digressive monologues which nobody listens to.

Which is what makes Luc Besson perhaps the least simpatico French filmmaker to adapt Tardi’s most popular work to the big screen. A notorious provider of cheap thrills and disposable plots, Besson’s flashily kinetic, brightly-colored style owes a lot to comics — but to American comics and the Métal Hurlant generation of flashy visuals and empty calories. Tardi’s Adèle Blanc-Sec, even at its most outlandish, is an ironized procedural; Besson’s Adèle Blanc-Sec, even at its dryest, is all pulpy sincerity and giddy excitement at all the stuff that’s happening on screen.

Which wouldn’t make it bad, necessarily, just unfaithful to the book, and most of us are sufficiently familiar with film adaptations to expect that. Besson’s movie is extremely if intermittently entertaining, with a couple of excellent set pieces and an attractive, game-for-anything lead in Louise Burgoin, but it’s a pretty hollow exercise. It borrows a handful of concepts from Tardi’s first album (Adèle et la Bête, published by NBM as Adele and the Beast and by Fantagraphics, for some reason, as Pterror over Paris), including the pterodactyl and its psychic awakener Esperandieu, the bumbling Inspector Caponi, the ludicrous big-game hunter Saint-Hubert, and the lovestruck idiot Zborowski, but it plays them big and cartoonishly, like Tardi’s art — and unlike his writing. But, perhaps feeling that there wasn’t enough pointless sentimentality or video-gamey CGI, Besson also rifles through the later volumes, picking up an ancient mummy here, a drunk wanderer through the Place des Pyramides there, the monstrously ugly Dieuleveult elsewhere — and, in the movie’s stupidest and least Tardian sequences, invents a paralytic sister out of whole cloth. As an energetic and visually engrossing French action-comedy, it’s broad and hammy and goofily likeable; as a thriller it’s — save for one or two sequences — a bore; as a reflection of the spirit of the Adèle Blanc-Sec comics, it ground to a halt the moment Burgoin first smiled.

Adèle Blanc-Sec is one of the more intriguing characters in European comics history: an intrepid reporter/adventurer (like Tintin), but immersed in such a specific milieu of period-pulp grotesquerie — the first album, published in 1976, takes place in 1911, and the most recent, 2007’s Le Labyrinthe Infernal, in 1925 — that her relative lack of personality becomes an unflappable stoicism right out of film noir, prepared for the double-cross at any moment and snatching at a few minutes’ quiet when she can. (One of the few straight-from-the-panel shots in the movie is of Adèle smoking in her tiny rentier’s bathtub while she puzzles over her next move.) She rarely does anything altruistically; revenge, self-defence, and a bulldog curiosity are her primary motives. Unlike the Adèle of the movie, she’s not a famous authoress gallivanting all over the world, but a cheap sensationalist trying to make it through the day.

Fantagraphics’ new collection of the first two volumes (the second, La Démon de la Tour Eiffel, provides one minor setpiece in Besson’s film) in a sturdy hardback format is, if not a revelation, certainly the best presentation the material has had in English. Kim Thompson’s translation brings out the sardonic inelegance of Tardi’s dialogue much better than Lofficier’s workmanlike adventure-script translation from nearly twenty years ago, the colors are much more vibrant, and the linework better preserved, than in my old albums. Fantagraphics is apparently issuing the translations in conjunction with new editions by the French publisher Casterman, and they’re built to last, the definitive version of the work.

So should you read the books? Should you watch the movie? I guess that depends on what you want out of the experience. Besson is a hammy, but still (when he puts in the effort) an enjoyable, entertainer; Tardi is a deep cynic who uses the breathless, endlessly-deferred structure of serialized comics to comment on the futility of action and the wretchedness of history’s march. Tardi’s meticulously detailed, enormously evocative Paris is a place to luxuriate in again and again, if you can ignore the grinding plot mechanics; Besson’s stylish cacophony is meant to be enjoyed once, then tucked back in the red envelope. Ultimately, perhaps the question will be decided merely in terms of availability: Fantagraphics’ translations are available in any decent comics shop, while Besson’s movie is not on DVD in English-language markets, and may never be.

Not that that would stop the seriously curious, especially if they’re on the internet to read this. My copies of the original French albums aren’t in physical form either. Ahem.

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3 Responses to “Adèle Blanc-Sec”

  1. See here for my take on this film. (Scroll a bit!)

    If I was a little more enamoured of it than you, that may be simply down to being less familiar with the original comics than you. I really compared it to Tardi’s art style, which you clearly separate from his writing. (Interestingly, we both found the need to compare Adele’s look between comic and film!)

  2. Thanks for the kind words on our edition. I just got my own DVD copy of the movie and am looking forward to watching it with a mixture of anticipation and slight dread, although I’ve long since learned to disconnect my love for an original work from an unfaithful but possibly independently good/entertaining adaptation.

    Since you implicitly asked, and it’s a valid question, I retitled the first story PTERROR OVER PARIS mostly because the original ADELE ET LA BETE is a pun (it plays on the similarity of “Adele” to “La Belle” as in “Beauty” — an English equivalent would be, say, “Judy and the Beast”) and the original U.S. title ADELE AND THE BEAST isn’t. So it was my attempt to give our title something of a funny spin like the original. Also, pretty much ANY volume in the series could be titled “Adele and the Beast” (it would be like naming a Tintin book “Tintin’s Dangerous Journey Far Away” or a Stieg Larsson book “Men Who Hate Women”) so I thought it would be fun to give it a little additional individual juice. And to be honest, once I’d thought of it, it just tickled me.

  3. Ian Moore says:

    Interesting article. I have seen the comics in shops, thought they looked nice, but not yet read them. I saw the film yesterday… and thought that it looked nice but was a bit plot-deficient. I am pleased to hear that the comic is sufficiently different from the film to maybe have its good points but not its bad.

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