Before I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest box office dreadnought from Marvel Entertainment, I read in the Huffington Post about a post-credit sequence featuring Howard the Duck. “As fans might remember,” the article pronounced, “”Howard the Duck” was first released in 1987, and would become a giant bust for Marvel and producer George Lucas.” But that’s not what I remember. What I remember is that Howard the Duck was an incredible comic book written by Steve Gerber, one of the only comics outside of Mad and Cracked magazines that I read as a boy.
I also remember that the Howard the Duck of the movie, the Howard the Duck who came from “Duckworld,” a dreadful place where no duck-themed pun was too low, the Howard the Duck who romped through second-rate science fiction in the name of anemic political satire, was the Howard the Duck of writer Bill Mantlo, the writer who succeeded Gerber and drained the title Howard the Duck of all its verve and originality, the writer who co-created Rocket Racoon, arguably and surprisingly the most interesting character in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy.
For me, that Gerber’s comic has been eclipsed by Lucasfilm’s turd of a movie is a warning for writers that film adaptations can be a Faustian pact. Some time in the past two years, a novelist I admire (I can’t remember who at this point) verbally shrugged off an interviewer’s question about whether or not he was concerned about the possibility that a film adaptation of one of his novels might be so bad it could ruin his book’s reputation. The author insisted that, as bad as any movie version might be, his book would still be there for people to read. A movie could never change that.
But whoever said that was wrong. Movies can quickly become the way people know books, at times supplanting the book itself. “The Body”? Never read it. Neither have most of my friends. But we’ve seen Stand by Me. How many know that the novel The Planet of the Apes actually takes place on a different planet rather than a future version of Earth? Or how many have even heard of The Short Timers, let alone read it? But it seems that people have at least heard of Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of it.
One might argue that some texts, like the ones above, might be better remembered by their movie versions. I would definitely say that’s true of Kubrick’s The Shining, which is, for my money, mostly superior to Stephen King’s novel. But what about more highly esteemed novels you might know only from movie versions that significantly changed their stories? The Tin Drum, for example, ends about halfway through the events narrated in the novel ; Blade Runner only resembles the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the broadest of ways. Most notoriously, to return to Kubrick one last time, A Clockwork Orange excludes the final chapter of the novel, the chapter in which Alex loses his taste for “ultra-violence,” one that upends the point where the film ends.
Admittedly, movies don’t always displace the novels they’re based on—thank goodness Catch 22 is still best remembered as a novel—and sometimes they actually give life to books that might no longer be in print were it not for the success of the movie. One wonders if Mario Puzo’s lurid The Godfather would still be around were it not for Coppola’s films. But for any writer, allowing someone to make a movie of your work is a gamble.
Regardless, I know this: I never need to see the Howard the Duck movie again, but after reading Ed the Happy Clown, Chester Brown’s early graphic novel that reminded me of the pleasures I got reading Howard the Duck, and seeing the cigar smoking fowl’s name in print again, I might just pull out those yellowing back issues of the comic and see what the stink is all about.