Read between the lines for big screen gold

Apart from the obvious franchises such as Batman and Superman, few people realise just how many films are based on comics and graphic novels. Oliver Good lists some of the more unlikely examples.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones starred in the sci-fi blockbuster Men in Black, about a secret organisation that keeps aliens’ presence on Earth secret.
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The newly released action thriller Red, starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren as "Retired Extremely Dangerous" CIA agents, may sound like the kind of thing that was thrown together in Hollywood over lunch, but the story was actually dreamt up by a writer in a quiet English town and first appeared in the pages of a comic book.

But how could that be? There aren't any capes, knee-high boots or red underpants in the trailer. Not even a sanctimonious voiceover stating that "with great power must come great responsibility". And yet the movie is an adaptation of the Essex-based author Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner's mini-series, first published in 2003.

The story of a former black-ops agent (Willis) who puts his old team back together when his quiet life in retirement is threatened by assassins, Red is just the latest in a growing list of unlikely adaptations of comic books (or graphic novels as Hollywood marketing teams would have us call them). Although big-screen outings for Batman, Iron Man and the like still rake in hundreds of millions of dollars at the global box office, studios have discovered that some of the medium's more obscure titles can also be trusted to attract audiences.

Road to Perdition (2002)

Sam Mendes' Depression-era gangster movie, starring Tom Hanks as a hitman with a murdered wife and son, was based on the series On the Road to Perdition, by Max Allan Collins. While many comic book adaptations are criticised for not living up to the original story, Road to Perdition was a critical and commercial hit. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, eclipsing the success of the book.

Men in Black (1997)

The sci-fi blockbuster, about a secret organisation that keeps the presence of aliens on earth under wraps, was based on a six-issue series published in 1990 by the little known Aircel Comics. Starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, the action comedy (set for its third outing in 2012) took a lighter approach than the Lowell Cunningham-penned comics, which saw agents using any means necessary, including murder, to accomplish their missions.

300 (2006)

Comics are usually more concerned with the future than the past, so many were surprised in 1998 when one of the medium's biggest names, Frank Miller, came-out with a swords and sandals epic. The stylish retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans are said to have resisted tens of thousands of Persians, was just macho and dumb enough to gain the attention of Hollywood.

Tamara Drewe (2010)

Stephen Frears's adaptation of Posy Simmonds's country comic book (originally serialised in The Guardian newspaper in 2005) was a huge hit with critics earlier this year - but then, films about the lives of wealthy English folk, driven by ego and lust, invariably are. The comedy sees the former ugly duckling (Gemma Arterton) returning home from London after a life-changing nose-job and capturing the attention of many of the small village's middle-aged men.

Gainsbourg (2010)

You might think that real life would be the basis for this biopic of the legendary French pop star and lothario - and it is, but only indirectly. Before the director Joann Sfar made his acclaimed movie about Serge Gainsbourg, he wrote the story as a comic. The movie adaptation retains the surreal, cartoonish-style of the book, including a scene in which the musician is chased by a monster with several limbs and has his head turned into a cabbage.

Oldboy (2003)

Most people think of the brutal revenge story Oldboy as quintessentially Korean, but Park Chan-wook's movie was based on a successful Japanese manga comic by Garon Tsuchiya, which ran from 1996-98. The film deviates from the original story dramatically, but both feature a young man who has been locked up for over a decade for no reason he can understand wreaking havoc on his captors.

A History of Violence (2005)

A little known graphic novel, written by John Wagner and published in 1997, provided the basis for David Cronenberg's most critically acclaimed movie in almost two decades. The thriller sees Viggo Mortensen playing a small-town café owner whose secret past as a mob heavy is exposed when he kills a pair of robbers. The comic's Italia-American mobsters became Irish in the film to avoid associations with The Sopranos at the height of the television show's popularity.

Red is on general release in the UAE from today.