Adapting a work from comics or literature is always fraught with difficulties – from Gone With The Wind to Lord of The Rings, there is always the likelihood that the fans of the original book are not going to be happy with liberties taken with their favourite works. Comic book adaptations are twice as risky, since the narrow market and age-group that the original books appeal to are unlikely to appeal to the wider audience necessary to make a film financially viable. The original material therefore needs to be adapted to fit with cinematic conventions so that a non-comic book audience with little interest in superheroes and supervillains can relate to it. Turning Hellboy into a movie was particularly difficult since a cinematic adaptation risks toning down or cancelling out the quirkiness that is precisely what makes the character special and successful in the first place. As a cinema adaptation however, Hellboy has the advantage of having the original creator Mike Mignola involved and pairing him with a like-minded cinema director, Guillermo del Toro, who understands precisely what it is that makes the character great in the first place and has an affinity for putting this type of material onto the screen. Combine that with the judicious choice of Ron Perlman who uncannily captures the appearance and demeanour of the comic creation and the project is beginning to look promising.
Hellboy the film gets off to a good start by sticking fairly closely to the origins of the character and his introduction to the world of paranormal investigation covered in the Hellboy collection, Seed of Destruction. Scotland, 1944 – a team of US marines led by Professor Bruttenholm (Kevin Trainor), paranormal advisor to President Roosevelt, foil an attempt by a group of Nazi occultists to turn the course of the war by summoning the Seven Gods of Chaos from a portal into hell. Before they can close the infernal gate that has been opened however, something makes its way through – a little red creature with horns and a tail, a baby demon who Professor Bruttenholm adopts and the soldiers name Hellboy. Cut to the present day and John Myers (Rupert Evans) is assigned to the BPRD – the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence, a government organisation that doesn’t officially exist – where he is teamed by the older Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) with the BPRD’s top paranormal investigator – a rather large red creature with shaved down horns and a tail, who looks rather well for his sixty-odd years and despite rumours of sightings in public, also doesn’t officially exist. Investigating a paranormal disturbance at the museum, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his team discover that the Nazi occultists behind the 1944 incident – Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) former advisor to the Russian royal family, Nazi commander Ilsa (Bridget Hodson) and a strange masked creature called Kroenen (Ladislav Beran) are not dead, but behind the new outbreak of rather serious paranormal activity. Suddenly the BPRD are in business big-time.
So far, so good. The film matches the tone of the original graphic novels and fully translates to the screen all those elements that make the source a magnificent piece of comic work. The film perfectly captures Mignola’s marvellous sense of graphic tone and balance, on occasions practically lifting the artwork and colour schemes off the original Seed of Destruction pages, but borrowing also from the look of other Hellboy comics like The Wolves of St. August, The Corpse and The Right Hand of Doom. Unfortunately, a straight translation of the graphic novels was never going to be enough – and would be pointless in any case – so the dumbing down of the material for a worldwide movie audience is perhaps inevitable. “Dumbing down” is perhaps not the appropriate phrase for a character that was only ever about bashing Nazis and demons in subterranean caverns and lagoons littered with rotting corpses or battling werewolves in snow-covered cemeteries and ruined monasteries. Much as I love the comic books I have it admit that, while their literal translation would look cool on the big screen (and Hellboy – The Movie does indeed draw magnificently upon these elements), they would have limited cinematic potential. The ending of Hellboy books moreover was always quite weak, setting up situations effectively, drawing on arcane elements of occultist folklore and Lovecraftian mythology, only to end up with Hellboy slugging it out with a monster in the last act - a trait that is unfortunately carried over to the movie.
Realising that the story needs a slightly wider appeal, the creators have introduced the traditional Hollywood movie elements and stock character types. We have the rookie (Agent Myers), the seasoned professional who is a bit of a maverick (Hellboy), the wise old mentor (Professor Bruttenholm), the buddy character (Abe Sapien) and the love interest (Liz Sherman). True, most of these characters are in the original books, but they certainly do not conform to the easily identifiable stereotypes they are burdened with in the film here. Fortunately the bizarreness and uniqueness of their original characterisation (an amphibian humanoid and a human flame among them) lifts them above these restrictions. Even Hellboy, perhaps worst of all made to play up to the “-boy” tag in the name than was ever featured in anything but the spoof Hellboy Junior comics and having a completely pointless new affection for cats, manages nonetheless to rise above these rather inane characterisations, thanks partly to his superbly designed look and mysterious demonic background and partly down to finding the perfect actor to portray him in Ron Perlman.
The conventional cinematic traditions are also upheld in visual terms. The opening battle of Hellboy and Sammael in the museum that introduces the BPRD proper, comes across with the familiarity of a cross between Ghostbusters and The Matrix. The characters also are still a little bit on the strange side so they are also made to appear reliably familiar, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) coolly voiced by Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce, coming across as a friendly C3PO character and Hellboy himself given a much more human nature in his love of Babe Ruth candy and his love-sick schoolboy hankering after old-flame (…sorry, couldn’t resist that) Liz Sherman (Selma Blair).
So while these are certainly the least appealing elements of the film I have to admit that they do at least work well within the context of a film adaptation. Yes, they are predictable movie conventions, but they are at least carried off with a sense of humour and knowingness. In another example, the other stock character, the dumb-ass boss who enforces adherence to the rule book and bawls out his maverick law-enforcers (Jeffrey Tambor’s Tom Manning, Head of FBI Special Operations), has a bit more character than this type of role usually allows, actually ending up being helpful and proving his competence - even if the film can’t resist a mid-credits epilogue showing him indeed getting a mild comeuppance. This type of throwaway moment and gentle subversion of expected movie conventions is however carried off with a good sense of pacing and comic timing, knowing that they are necessary for scene setting and easy audience identification, but never letting them dominate the originality and strength of the concept that made the Hellboy graphic novels great. The sense of pacing throughout the movie is simply superb in this regard, wasting no more time than necessary in the initial set-up and fulfilling opening-act introductions in the most exciting manner possible. And it continues that way, retaining the attributes that make the best comic book adaptations for the screen work – Spider-Man 2, Hulk – in presenting a strong sense of origin, in structure, in pacing, in colour and in broad characterisation – never letting the monumental proportions of the end-of-the-world scenario overwhelm the smaller intimate moments. As long as the film carries off this kind of trick, the comic book fan is likely to be more than happy to put the comics aside and enjoy the film for being a film, while it opens up a whole new audience for its ideas and, one must in this case hope, the sequels.
Lagging far behind its American theatrical and DVD release, Columbia Tristar finally bring Hellboy to Region 2 DVD. This current release is a 2-disc set of the original theatrical cut of the film. If you have been following the news of the release of the Region 1 releases, you will know that a 3-disc director’s cut version is likely to follow this release. You will find links to reviews of those Region 1 counterparts at the bottom of this review.
There is not too much wrong with the video quality which looks quite striking throughout, particularly in its colour reproduction. Occasionally shadow detail isn’t all there, but since Mike Mignola’s original artwork relies heavily on solid black relief work, this could be an intentional look. The image isn’t always perfectly clear and there is some softness and minor grain, but a non-clinical look suits the film. There is some evidence of edge-enhancement in rather harsh looking edges, but it’s only noticeable in one or two scenes – this does seem more pronounced on my computer monitor than on the television screen though. I didn’t see any other marks on the image or any signs of compression artefacting. A strong solid picture.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is also fairly strong and solid, though it never really carries the full-bodied sound that you would expect a DTS mix would be able to achieve with this kind of film. As it is the DD 5.1 track is certainly more than adequate, rumbling deeply when the occasion demands, but sounding a little bright and artificial at times. A DTS track should really be obligatory for films like this and I wouldn’t rule out a DTS mix appearing on another future release of the film.
The disc is fully subtitled for hard of hearing in English and Italian, for the feature and for most of the extra features including both commentaries. Other subtitles are for the feature only and details are listed on the sidebar to this review.
Extras Disc 1
Director Guillermo del Toro introduces the viewer to the first disc of the Special Edition.
Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola make an entertaining enough double-act, but I didn't find they had much of interest to say in a very scene-specific commentary. They mostly point out the colour schemes of each scene and discussing which scenes are Mignola-like and which are del Toro-like. It is interesting to note that most of the typically movie-like and pushed over the edge elements come from del Toro, particularly the rather more mundane elements of the characterisation and romance, which he takes rather too seriously. Not as compelling as the making of documentary.
The cast commentary features Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor and Rupert Evans. Ron dominates the proceedings, which are light-hearted and mildly entertaining, but hardly essential. There are some fun anecdotes about making the film, but the main focus is on which scenes and effects they like.
DVD Comics (7)
These can be accessed from a pop-up icon during the film or directly from an index. Most of these consist of a single screen of minimally animated artwork, scrolling text and eerie sound effects. Not really comics, but a treat for anyone who hasn’t seen creator Mignola’s gorgeous artwork before and it gives some background details on the mythology and folklore that the comic work employs.
“The Right Hand of Doom” Set Visit (18:26)
This can also be accessed while viewing the film, showing the preparations for the filming of 8 scenes. Not really the kind of thing you want to take you out of the film, so there is also an option to view these all together or from an index.
Simeon Wilkin’s storyboards can also be viewed at selected points, but only while watching the film.
“From The Den” – Hellboy Recommends
This section includes 4 Columbia classic cartoons, completely unrelated to the film except that they are brilliant (although one can be fleetingly glimpsed being watched on TV by Hellboy in his den). Three are based on Dr. Seuss’s creation Gerald McBoing Boing - Gerald McBoing Boing (6:40), Gerald McBoing Boing On Planet Moo (6:53), How Now Boing Boing (7:03) and one is a version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (7:29) narrated by James Mason. Mini masterpieces!
Included on the DVD and accessible form the DVD drive on your computer are a Printable Original Screenplay, Script Supervisor’s Notebook and Excerpts from Del Toro’s Director Notebook.
There is also a hidden extra (0:47) behind three dots that appear above the Introduction title on the Main Menu where del Toro makes fun of the cue cards he had to read for the Introduction. Another example of the filmmakers humour can be found behind the three dots on the top left of the main Special Features Menu with the official “Overheard at the Monitor” quotes from the never-at-a-loss-for-words Guillermo del Toro.
Extras Disc 2
Selma Blair does the introduction for disc 2 of the Special Edition.
This section includes three short Deleted Scenes with an optional commentary from the director – Breaking The Ice (0:30), Cab Ride (1:24) and Russian Warehouse (2:34) – a monster two and a half hour Making of Documentary The Seeds of Creation (2:22:53), which sounds somewhat over the top, but if you like to know all the ins and outs of making a film, this is actually a fascinating look at the whole process from conception to realisation covering every aspect of the production. Normally, I hate these kind of things, preferring to not have my enjoyment of the film spoiled by looking behind the scenes, but this one is great, perhaps because both del Toro and Mignola are such open and easy-going characters. It becomes clear that part of the reason for the film’s success is that their light-hearted, having fun approach comes across in the film itself. In the Filmographies & Character Biographies section, the filmographies are brief and the biographies non-existent, or at least elusive.
This section covers the film’s development from rough sketches, storyboard, board-a-matics and animatics to the film version. A Scene Progression shows a short example of this and is developed further in each section, which run to about 10 minutes each. Animatics contains 4 examples, viewable by comparison with the film and in full-screen animatic. 5 Board-a-matics show how the film is paced through basically animated and voiced storyboards. There are 4 multi-angle Storyboard Comparisons which switch between full screen storyboards and film to storyboard comparison, and one hidden one.
Maquette Video Gallery
6 of the creature model designs are proudly (with justification) displayed here with an option to zoom into details.
The promotional material is gathered here, amounting to 2 Trailers, 9 TV Spots, 68 Poster Exploration examples and 13 Final Campaign posters.
As a fan of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comic from day one (is a San Diego Comic Con Comics #2 containing Hellboy’s first appearance worth anything these days?), it’s hard to accept some of the dumbing down movie conventions and characterisation, but the principal advantage of this is that these minor concessions have made Hellboy a great success where it could so easily have failed to connect with the general movie-going public. The reason for this success is a strong pairing of the original creator with a director who understands the material, retaining both the sense of humour and the sense of light horror in its combination of Nazis and demons, and gathering a strong team of technicians who are more than capable of putting those ideas onto the screen. In Ron Perlman they also find a perfect actor who captures the Hellboy’s off-beat, flippant character as well as a strong physical resemblance. Hellboy thus becomes one of the better comic-to-film adaptations, rattling along with a superb sense of pacing and a strong background of mythological horror. Now that we have got the stock cinematic conventions and characterisations out of the way, and fairly painlessly too, maybe now we can look forward to purer sequels that will take these elements of the Lovecraftian horror, mythology and folklore further without talking down to the audience so much.
Columbia Tristar’s Region 2 release of the theatrical cut of Hellboy is impressive in every respect, with a strong, bold audio-visual transfer and a superb, if somewhat overwhelming, number of high-quality extra features. Some fans might want to hold out for the overkill director’s cut, 3-disc edition, or an eventual DTS release, but this current release in no-way short-changes the buyer, who will find here a terrific film on a great DVD that is exceptional value for its content.