Contributed by Steve Van Samson
Note: This article contains minor spoilers for the film THOR: RAGNAROK, but nothing much if you’ve watched the first trailer.
Adapting a book into a film is a slippery slope. Filmmakers who do so, may have a built-in audience, but it is an audience that is ready to slash out with tooth and nail, should the film fall short of their lofty expectations. Earlier this year, Nikolaj Arcel directed a film version of Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER for Sony Pictures. The result was a confounding mess which stomped over both character and plot–clumsily rewiring an already complex story for what seemed like no good reason. In the end, little to nothing of the books remained and the vast majority of fans were left feeling cold and bitter.
Personally, I hated the thing but my wife, who had never read the books, enjoyed it. This made me wonder… maybe the real problem wasn’t the quality of the film, but rather it’s title.
They called it THE DARK TOWER, but aside from a few key names, relationship dynamics and the odd line of dialogue, the source material was tossed out the window in lieu of creating something totally new. As a fan of the books, this enraged me, but then I got to thinking… what if those few remnants had also been cast aside. Is it possible to have a good film which blends elements of a popular story, after rewriting 90% of it?
Before last night, I would have said no.
THOR: RAGNAROK is the seventeenth and most recent entry into the vast, interconnected landscape that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Brought into direct was indie-darling Taika Waititi (WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, 2014). Waititi is known primarily for his use of quirky comedy and low energy but highly endearing characters. The result is a Thor film unlike the first two in almost every way, but one that is unabashedly Marvel. In his director’s toolbox, Waititi packed bright colors, plenty of humor, the pounding hard rock of Led Zeppelin and one very big, very angry supporting character.
Regarding the big, green elephant in the room… before 2012, the Hulk’s cinematic track record was somewhat less than incredible. But after stealing the show in THE AVENGERS, comic fans finally got a glimpse at how the character could work when properly realized. Since then, many have asked–nay, clamored for a live action film version of one of the character’s most beloved story arcs. It is a story that will eventually bring us full circle, back to my original point.
Bear with me here.
Written by Greg Pak and published in 2008, Planet Hulk told the pulpy yarn of a wayward Hulk, tricked into exile by the likes of Tony Stark, Reed Richards and Dr. Strange. Having been dubbed once and for all “more threat than hero” the decision was made to send the Incredible one off-world–to a distant planet with plenty of game but no sentient life to bother him. Unfortunately, after learning of the treason and plot, an enraged Hulk nearly tears his ship apart from the inside out. Veering way off course, the ship crashes down on a strange planet called Sakaar, where various John Cartery hijinx ensue.
THOR: RAGNAROK is pretty far from an exact retelling of Planet Hulk, but the thing is… it doesn’t claim to be. In it, Waititi has created what I like to think of as a spiritual adaptation of PH. Something that contains the core essence and certain key elements, while incorporating them into something altogether fresh. In T:R, Thor has replaced Hulk as the protagonist, but his initial experiences prove nearly identical. In a nutshell, he crashes down only to be promptly captured, enslaved and forced to fight for the local despot, in a Colosseum-style arena.
In PH, Hulk begins his gladiator career out with a few small matches before working his way up to a big fight with the arena’s grand champion, in issue #3. The idea there was to throw in a surprise guest appearance–one that the both the reader and the main character would never see coming. With the entire story occurring on a never before seen planet, Hulk was the only familiar Marvel character… that is, until those doors opened to reveal the arena’s grand champion.
In the original comic version of Planet Hulk, the role of the champion was given to the Silver Surfer. In 2010, an animated version of the story swapped out the Surfer for Beta Ray Bill, but the effect was the same. In both versions, Hulk recognized the character, even trying to avoid the fight by talking them down. In THOR: RAGNAROK, the spirit of this classic reveal/confrontation is intact. Here, with Thor as the main character, it is Hulk that gets to burst out of the big doors as the surprise cameo. And just as Hulk did with the Surfer, Thor does try to reason with his old friend, before eventually being forced to defend himself.
While the characters changed over the three different versions, the point of the scene was never lost. Across comic, cartoon and film, this one scene contains every single thing I love about shared universes. That said, beyond the grand champion fight and a couple of side characters, Waititi didn’t use a whole lot of Planet Hulk. And if the movie had been called PLANET HULK and not THOR: RAGNAROK, perhaps that would have been an issue.
Thinking about it now, I can’t shake the feeling that the changes made to THE DARK TOWER were done for no reason. It wasn’t a matter of rights, nor runtime, nor budget that forced scenes from book 3 and and characters from book 6 into the story. The alterations felt random at best and at the worst, callused. It felt like the filmmakers held so little affection for the original books, that they decided to do their own thing, still happy to slap the book’s title on the package to sell more tickets.
Maybe it’s just me but, while we will never get a proper film adaptation of Planet Hulk, I think Taika Waititi has delivered the next best thing. A film that incorporates the pulpy spirit as well as the setting, characters and a few key scenes of that series into one crazy, hilariously original spectacle of a movie. A thin adaptation at best, but one that doesn’t leave you cold.