In what ways is it useful to discuss The Dark Knight as an adaptation?
Full disclosure: I still haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises, and I’ve avoided as many spoilers as possible, so it’s likely that some of my comments may run counter to what’s presented in that film. Also, I rambled on for over 1,000 words, so my apologies.
Cast your mind back over a month ago to McFarlane. After discussing integrational and distributional functions, cardinal functions and catalysers, etc., he brings up another way to understand narrative structure:
If we take V. Propp’s notion “that the all-important and unifying element is found… in the characters’ functions, the part they play in the plot,” that these functions are distributed among a limited number of “spheres of action,” and that the “discernible and repeated structures which, if they are characteristic of so deeply rooted a form of narrative expression, may… have implications for all narrative” (i.e. not just for folk-tales), then we may see a further way of systematizing what happens in the transposition of novel into film…. To Propp, “Function is understood as an act of characters, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.” (McFarlane 24)
McFarlane further elaborates that these “spheres of action” are “named for their performers – ‘villian,’ ‘helper,’ etc.” (25). In The Dark Knight and the canonical Batman universe, the Joker is the villain, and Batman is the (anti)hero. This dynamic is preserved for most, if not all, adaptations, including Nolan’s – therefore, those and his adaptations are successful in a Proppian sense. Comic books revolve around this simple formula of good versus evil, and even though Batman is distinguished as a more morally ambiguous antihero – a vigilante – we the audience still root for and identify with him because he is designated as the hero. Thus in adaptations of comic books, plot seems less important than these character dynamics, these “spheres of action,” which brings me to Jerry Maguire.
Mini-spoiler alert ahead for Jerry Maguire?
I always felt the phrase, “You complete me,” was misplaced in its original setting. I never believed that Jerry loved Dorothy, and even in the phrase’s original iteration between the hearing impaired couple in the elevator, a scene that could be argued was meant to characterize Dorothy as a romantic and set up Jerry’s confession and nothing else, it still seemed out of touch with the tone of the film and the surrounding scenes. In The Dark Knight, it fits. I know it’s just a passing reference, but what’s an adaptation but a glorified reference?
Both instances of the phrase occur at pivotal moments of disclosure, and the connotation of a deep-seated relationship carries over. In a Proppian sense, the hero cannot exist without the villain and vice versa – their character functions complete each other. The Joker explains to Batman, “You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun.” It’s not just that Batman won’t kill his enemies – he can’t because without them, he becomes the villain, the outlaw, which is exactly the role he assumes by film’s end. Conversely, the Joker can’t kill Batman because then he would have no one to challenge and be challenged by, no one to justify his role and actions as villain. In psycho-philosophical terms, they’re each other’s Other, the external force that defines them. This is what’s great about Batman as a character: the line between him and his enemies, between “good” and “evil,” is as ambiguous as morality itself.
So, in sum: “spheres of action” influence each other and dictate narrative structure and audience response. But if, according to Propp, adaptation simply entails a preservation of character dynamics, of intersecting “spheres of action,” then of what use is it to discuss adaptations in any strict sense? If this is the minimum according to which derivative works are deemed adaptations – indeed, any minimum that invokes narrative and “functions” – then the field is left wider to include greater artistic licenses than many moviegoers and critics may care to allow. In other words, in our more advanced age of cultural and artistic evolution, of critical and historical awareness, the discussion of adaptation as is must give way to discussions of intertextuality – Leitch’s Textual Studies. It is not enough to say The Dark Knight was based on a comic book, especially after it follows so many other adaptations – what does it add to the discussion of Batman?
In this light, Batman and other comic book universes could be deemed our modern-day folktales: few of us have encountered the original source material, and it’s not necessary that we do because 1) the fundamental “spheres of action” have been retained – good versus evil, character versus character – which is what most comic books – and arguably most stories, especially those that are repeatedly adapted – come down to, and 2) how adaptations handle the material surrounding Propp’s character functions is far richer and more revealing than the source originally allowed.
For instance, if one extends Propp’s “spheres of action” beyond character functions and into narrative itself, then the intertextuality model gains greater traction. In other words, what a character does to move plot may not be as important as what a character says to improve story. Instead of envisioning each character as occupying a certain mode of action, one could argue characters as nodes of intersecting narratives. Harvey Dent tells the story of Ancient Roman citizens appointing a single authority at times of crisis, which reflects Batman’s role in Gotham; Alfred tells the story of the Burmese rubies to elucidate the Joker; Dent and Jim Gordon allude to the former’s time in IA to set the stage for his transformation into Two Face; and even in the opening sequence, the clowns talk about the Joker as though he were a mythical figure, elusive. In fact, this is what makes the Joker so frightening: he can’t be explained – he has no (back) story. The story of his scars changes with his audience, just like adaptations in general. It’s not important to know the real story, if any of the ones he tells are in fact true – what matters is not the content but the telling itself, the reiteration of the narrative impulse. Perhaps stories, narrative, and by extension, adaptations are not linear devices composed of characters, actions, and themes but a chain of intersecting narratives that cyclically recur – stories as intersecting smaller stories.
In a related note, I hope someone discusses Heat. Christopher Nolan openly acknowledged that he was influenced by Michael Mann’s film, and if I remember correctly – it’s been years since I last saw Heat, and YouTube is no help – the opening shots from both films match: the camera zooms in from behind on a man holding a mask who is then picked up by a van en route to a robbery. This would swing the discussion further into the realm of intertextuality, which is where I think Batman belongs, given his history of and evolution through adaptations.