The 300 Controversy:
A Case Study in the Politics of Adaptation

Dan Hassler-Forest

 

Since its release in March 2007, Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 has been the subject of heated debate. Not only have most American critics from both sides of the political divide focused on the film’s political subtext, it has even prompted the Iranian government to voice complaints against the film’s portrayal of barbaric Persian hordes. It is unusual for an escapist blockbuster action film to attract this kind of debate, especially one that is based on a comic book. But as V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2006), viewers and critics alike have viewed the film first and foremost as a political allegory, and have based their judgments on the film in large part upon their political/ideological interpretation of it. As the following analysis aims to show, the debate surrounding the film raises issues that reveal a great deal about public views of literary adaptations, and in this case more specifically: comic book adaptations.

Critical, academic and public debates on the quality (or lack thereof) of a film adaptation of a work of literature have traditionally focused on the degree to which the film version is faithful to the source text. Besides the trimming down of narrative information from lengthy novels to accommodate commercial films’ limited running time, a major area of contention has always concerned the visualization of characters, locations and events that are arguably more abstract on the page. A case in point is the most recent film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which actors Keira Knightley and Donald Sutherland were attacked in the film’s public and critical reception for departing too strongly from many viewers’ ideas of those characters. One reviewer describes Knightley’s Lizzie as “chronically unable to conceal an emotion or deliver a sarcastic quip without a giveaway twinkle in her eye and puckering of her cheeks”, while Sutherland is lambasted for having been “bizarrely charged with playing Mr. Bennet as some kind of neo-Victorian hippie” (Dorr).

These debates on literary adaptations are in large part the result of inherently medium-specific differences between traditional literature and the cinema: whereas film is a visual medium, most literature is not. The reader’s visual imagination is called upon to construct the images the author is attempting to conjure up, thereby leaving room for individual variation and interpretation. The idea that “the word is only a partial expression of a more total representation that requires incarnation for its fulfillment” is what Kamilla Elliott has identified in her article on literary film adaptation as the “incarnational concept of adaptation” (234-5). According to this notion, the book’s more abstract signifiers are elevated by their materialization on the screen into “word made flesh” (235).

For adaptations of comic books (or graphic novels), a large part of the debate is usually, once again, focused on fidelity. But as comic books are made up of both images and words, visual faithfulness is targeted much more specifically. The publicity surrounding Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004), for instance, often included side-by-side comparisons of well-known specific comic book panels and shots from the film that copied them “faithfully”. A more recent film that took fidelity to visual source material to extremes was the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City (Robert Rodriguez, 2005). A deluge of publicity consisting of interviews with Rodriguez and Miller (who was famously granted a co-director credit on the film) surrounded the release. Since then, the tale of how Miller refused to sell the film rights until Rodriguez showed him a demo reel that showed how faithful his adaptation would be to Miller’s visual style has become a well-known Hollywood legend. As with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), much of Sin City’s promotional campaign, as well as the extra features on the DVD release, continually stressed aspects of visual fidelity to the source material, with leading actors from the film repeatedly emphasizing their dedication to the source text in interviews. On the DVD’s audio commentary, director Robert Rodriguez even goes so far as to reject the very term “adaptation”, explaining that the film constitutes a “translation” to another—similar—medium that leaves the original work entirely intact (Miller and Rodriguez 2006).

Following the success of this much-hyped Frank Miller film, it came as no surprise that the publicity around the next film to be based on this graphic artist’s work should again emphasize visual fidelity first and foremost. The movie’s website was launched by producer/distributor Warner Bros. in December 2005, a good fifteen months before the film’s theatrical release. The first images to appear on the website were instances of “conceptual art” that illustrated (often through side-by-side comparisons) how closely the film’s visual style would adhere to the comic book. Throughout 2006, video journals were added to the website that documented the film’s development, each of which continuously pointed out that this was not to be “a Hollywood version” of Miller’s book, but that it was intention to make it “real”. Through these specific marketing strategies, the studio and the filmmakers clearly drew on the popular discourse and seal of approval that had been granted the Sin City film two years previously, not just in the strong emphasis on visual fidelity, but also on the similar production process, using actors before a green screen and creating digital environments and lighting effects in post-production.[1]

This sustained emphasis on the film’s visual fidelity to the graphic novel successfully defused any negative feedback from the fan community, which was also actively encouraged to contribute to the film’s online publicity campaign through its strong presence on Myspace.com. Instead, the controversy the film has generated has focused almost entirely on the film’s political and ideological message. The campaign to legitimize the film’s fidelity to its source material has in fact been so successful that much of the negative criticism it has received has been directed squarely at Frank Miller, whose only credit on the film is that of executive producer. The film, which has quickly developed into an international box office phenomenon that has broken box office records in the US, Greece, Japan, and many other countries, has clearly been embraced by moviegoers, even as it became a serious point of contention amongst critics. Reviews in the mainstream media once again reflect today’s intensely polarized political climate: critics from the left have lambasted the film for its reductionist East-versus-West conflict, some even going so far as to define it as “fascist art” (Moore), while reviewers from the American Right have praised it—again from a political perspective—for telling a story in which “heroes [stand] up for God and country” (Kahane). Adding to the debate, as well as contributing inadvertently to the film’s ongoing free publicity, the Iranian government has publicly denounced the film for its depiction of Persian hordes as “bloodthirsty, demonic zombies” (Danikas).

As happens so often when books are adapted into films, the authors of these reviews have only rarely read the book. Especially in a case like this, where the original work is from the culturally disparaged comic book medium, critics seem to have equated the film’s politics with those of Miller’s book. But although the filmmakers went to great lengths to ensure visual fidelity to the book, a closer comparison of the film and the book reveals that many of the issues that seem to have caused this controversy are ones that have been added to the narrative by the film’s screenwriters.

 

A Question of Authorship

The film’s most obvious departure from the book is the addition of an extended subplot in which Leonidas’s wife, Queen Gorgo, attempts to rally political support for her husband’s efforts to counter the Persian invasion. As the battle of Thermopylae rages on, the audience is repeatedly returned to Sparta, where Gorgo wages her own battle against shiftless politician (and draft-dodger) Theron. This shifts the story’s political balance quite strongly from where it lies in the book: in Miller’s graphic novel, the blame for Sparta’s decision not to go to war is placed firmly on the Ephors, the corrupt religious mystics who have been bribed by the Persians, and who legitimize their decision by staging a predetermined rite in which they call upon an oracle. The portrayal of clerical figures of power as hypocritical, perverse and corrupt is a regular motif in Miller’s work: it recurs prominently several times in his Sin City books, including two of the stories that appeared in their film adaptation, as well as in Ronin and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In the graphic novel 300, they are explicitly described as “worthless, useless remnants of the old time – before Lykourgos the law-giver – before Sparta’s ascent from darkness” (Miller 1999, p. 20).

But although the scene with the Ephrons is faithfully included in the film version, the introduction of Theron shortly thereafter deflects blame from the deformed mystics (who never reappear after their only scene in the first part of the film) to scheming, self-serving politicians who would rather seek diplomatic solutions than go to war. Even well-meaning political allies in the Spartan council ultimately prove ineffectual against Theron, who betrays Queen Gorgo after she has bribed him with sexual favors. Only when the queen herself resorts to violence on the Senate floor after being humiliated by Theron are the other senators’ eyes finally opened and are they ready to support the war that will ultimately bring about the total annihilation of the Persian forces. It is precisely this depiction of politicians as pliable, cowardly and reluctant characters in the film that makes the film’s main point so problematic: as in Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the filmmakers here seem to be “attacking what, in practice, they support”, namely the implied advantages of a military dictatorship over a free democratic process (Klock 49).

 

Turning Spartans into Palatable Heroes

This issue becomes even more problematic when one considers the second major area of departure from the book. As Frank Miller has conceded in interviews, his book deliberately leaves out aspects of Spartan culture that might alienate contemporary readers from the story’s heroes, because he wanted readers to be able “to root for the Spartans” (Miller 2006). The book’s opening establishes the Spartans as proudly suicidal fighting machines with a strict code of honor, before almost immediately leaving behind every kind of societal context. Miller is then free to plunge his main characters into the heat of an extended battle that celebrates Spartan stoicism, militarism, and utter lack of emotion.

The film, on the other hand, introduces elements that unwittingly emphasize the basic contradictions at the heart of this narrative. King Leonidas for instance is humanized by the fleshing out of his relationship with his wife and son. The harsh, brutal treatment of small children as they grow up to become fearsome warriors or die, as the film’s prologue establishes so vividly, is also conspicuously absent from Leonidas’s household. In fact, in the film, he repeatedly shows physical affection for his son by patting him on the head and shoulder, hugging him, while an elaborate sex scene with Queen Gorgo not only illustrates his “softer side”, but also contrasts with the explicitly perverse, kinky, and mainly non-heterosexual forms of sexual behavior featured later in the film at the Persian court.

The film’s sex scene, which is shot in slow motion, in the style of high-gloss Hollywood glamour, is referenced in the book in entirely different terms. It does not appear visually in any of the panels, but is referred to briefly by Queen Gorgo when she learns that Leonidas plans to set out on his own against the Persian army. “This explains your enthusiasm last night”, she quips, to which Leonidas’s curt response is merely: “Yes. Sparta needs sons” (Miller 1999, 22). The emotionless quality of this exchange again underlines the vast difference between the characterization of both speakers in book and film. The film’s other sequence that features sexual acts is set in Xerxes’ court, where the deformed Spartan Ephialtes is persuaded to betray his people. In the book, a single panel shows Ephialtes between two seductively naked female figures (Miller 1999, 62). In the film, this is expanded into a montage of images showing various grotesque figures engaged in lesbian sex, the scene’s function clearly “to differentiate ‘good’ sex (matrimonial) from ‘evil’ sex (everything else).”

These changes to the book’s narrative structure bring Miller’s already controversial politics to the fore much more powerfully. The book, which was first published in five installments in 1998, was never the subject of much controversy, fitting as it does in its author’s long-familiar theme of macho vigilante (super)heroes who take the law into their own hands and make a stand against forces of evil (eg. Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City: The Hard Goodbye). But while there is little doubt in Miller’s work as to which side our sympathies should be invested in, the author does tend to leave room for ironic readings of his texts. His most celebrated work Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, for instance, casts Batman as “an older and slightly mad right-wing moralist in a dystopian Gotham City gutted by corruption and vice” (Wright 267). In his 300, the main theme of the story is not so much the importance of defending freedom and democracy from the evils of military dictatorship—for what was Sparta if not a military dictatorship?—but the power of mythology in cementing one’s own immortality. Persian king Xerxes claims to be divine and immortal, which in his own eyes legitimizes his claim to be absolute ruler over Greece. The Spartan king Leonidas, by contrast, glorifies death in battle, which is what ultimately grants him the very immortality that Xerxes would claim for himself. By framing their battle explicitly as an oral narrative oft repeated among soldiers, the power of myth bestows upon Leonidas that which Xerxes explicitly loses at the climactic moment when he is wounded and, therefore, revealed as mortal by Leonidas’s spear.

But because the film shifts our attention away from this aspect of the story, the emphasis, and hence the controversy surrounding the film, is placed on the screenplay’s political subplot. The major turning point in the film comes not when Leonidas faces Xerxes and is granted immortality through the power of legend, but when Queen Gorgo reveals Theron as a traitor and convinces the Spartan council[2] to support the war unambiguously. The final scene, which celebrates the impending annihilation of the Persian forces by a smaller but vastly superior Spartan army is, in the film, the result of a political process that has been interpreted by many as an allegory for contemporary American policies concerning the war in Iraq. “Theron wants to persuade the Spartan council not to send reinforcements to the desperately outnumbered 300 (what is he, a Democrat?)”, writes Dana Stevens in Slate, and her reading of the film’s political leanings is typical of many critics on both sides of the American political divide.

Film critic Walter Chaw described the film’s problems in contrast to the graphic novel most succinctly when he expressed his disappointment that the film had not “resisted the desire to turn its band of homicidal Conans into loving fathers, husbands, and defenders of the bedrock of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – albeit in the form of child abuse, brutal coming-of-age rituals, and a rejection of ideas of social responsibility and stewardship of the weak”. His analysis points out exactly where the film fails as an adaptation: the contradictions inherent in a story about a group of gung-ho militaristic white men in red capes following a dictator of their own to certain death become problematic when this fight is couched in overtly ideological terms that are so similar to contemporary real-world conflicts.

These allegorical readings of the film have been dismissed by its director Zack Snyder in the interviews he has granted: “When I see someone use words like ‘neocon’, ‘homophobic’, ‘homoerotic’ or ‘racist’ in their review, I kind of just think they don’t get the movie and don’t understand. It’s a graphic novel about a bunch of guys that are stomping the snot out of each other” (Snyder). His rather dubious argument seems to consist of no more than that the film should not be read for any subtext, that it exists purely as an experience that offers viewers a kinesthetic experience that, according to the statement released by distributor Warner Bros. in response to the Iranian government’s complaints about the film, is purely “a fictional work with the sole purpose of entertaining audiences; it is not meant to disparage an ethnicity or culture or make any sort of political statement” (qtd. in Jaafar). Frank Miller has also proved to be notoriously reluctant to allow for political or ideological readings of his texts. When pressed to offer a political reading of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, Miller states merely that “anyone who really believes that a story about a guy who wears a cape an punches out criminals is a representation of a political viewpoint […] is living in a dream world” (Sharrett 43).

But whether Miller, Snyder and supporters of the film who dismiss these readings are being naïve, obtuse, or simply unwilling to reveal their own political agenda, their position “smacks of either disingenuousness or complete obliviousness” (Stevens). In an age dominated by conflicts, both real and imagined, between West and East, it may be tempting to re-embrace the simple, oppositional dichotomies that justify viewing entire cultures as inherently “other” from a western “us”. It is exactly this kind of reductive thinking, which was most comprehensively analyzed by Edward Said in his book Orientalism, that for instance cast the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks as “an irrational ‘Other’ bent on destroying the West” (Norlund 3). In times like these, popular films that celebrate those very precepts and lionize a Eurocentric perspective on culture and history may represent a far greater danger than any current military threat to our well-being.

 

Works Cited

[1] The movie poster further solidifies this link by somewhat misleadingly describing the film as “from the creator of Sin City”.

[2] Unlike in the book, where a single panel shows assorted council members responding to Leonidas’s determination to counter the Persian army (Miller 1999, 22), the film features a long, climactic scene in a Spartan senate, further cementing associations with the origins of Western democracy.

 

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