Sin City and the Art of Adaptation

The images in Sin City may be black and white, but the morals certainly aren’t.

Frank Miller created a series of comics, now generally collected in to seven volumes, that tells the stories of one singularly corrupt town.  He exposes the underbelly of a city full of thugs, hit men, dirty politics and polluted justice.

It is dark and violent and often rainy in Sin City.  If there are good things or happy people in Sin City, they don’t make it into these stories or they don’t stay that way very long.

That’s because bad and sad make great literature, and good and happy make boring books.

Sin City is not for everyone, and if you like your stories bright and full of happily ever afters, it is not for you.

Three things that make Sin City a great adaptation

1. Tone

If you are unfamiliar with the unique look and feel of the Sin City comics, it is hard to appreciate how wonderful an adaptation the 2005 Sin City movie is.

Sin City Covers
Sin City Covers

The stark contrasts in dark and light, the exaggerated shadows, the looming silhouettes, the dramatic perspectives and the singular articulation of movement make the comics something special.

The Sin City movie is a live action film that possesses all the best qualities of the comics.  It leaves enough of the comic book feel to infuse the movie with a sardonic gallows humor while keeping the heavy, often disgusting, reality of this awful place alive.

2. Story

Every adaptation needs to edit out some of the source material, even the relatively lean narrative of a comic book.  Within the individual stories of the comic books are nods to continuity and clues to chronology.  While only selected stories were used in the first film many of the continuity ties remain.

The movie incorporates three of the more substantial Sin City story lines along with some of the shorter narratives included for filler.  The editing of the stories into one film is done very well, and while it doesn’t feel like one narrative, the threads are connected in a way that makes sense and flows well.

 3. Casting

There are flashes of sheer brilliance in the casting of this movie.  Mickey Rourke as Marv runs away with the movie.  He captures Marv’s violence and questionable mental state—his “condition”—as well as his solid, albeit unconventional, moral code.

Powers Boothe imbues his singular and brief scene as Senator Roark with all the menace and corruption that can be squeezed into two minutes of screen time.  As bad as he is, he leaves you wanting more of him.

Benicio Del Toro turns Jackie from a bit of a throw away character who spends most of his story dead into something memorable and hilarious.

Sin City Poster
Sin City Poster

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

It took a while to put a finger on exactly what the second movie missed, and it is definitely missing something.  It looks like Sin City; it sounds like Sin City; it has most of the same cast as Sin City, but Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is anything but.

Recapturing the magic is the holy grail of sequels.  It is one of the hardest things to do in movies.  The second movie is trying too hard.  Too much time is spent trying to recapture the magic rather than spending it making new magic.  It misses in a couple of big ways.

Leaving the Graphic Novels Behind

Usually when an adaptation leaves behind the source material and creates new characters and stories things go poorly.  This happens in the A Dame to Kill For movie.

Frank Miller was very involved in the writing and directing of the second movie, so it would seem logical that if the original creator comes up with new material it should work.  It doesn’t.

Shoehorning Characters

As I mentioned, the first movie got real lucky in its casting.  So lucky that it made the filmmakers a little greedy.  They wanted to do more of that.

You thought Marv was the best?  How about lots of Marv?  Powers Boothe was phenomenal?  How about Powers Boothe prominently figuring in every story line?  You think Jessica Alba was super hot as Nancy?  How about we give Nancy a long segment?

Sometimes less is more.  It was in Sin City, and it would have been in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Ignoring Continuity

The problem with adding a lot of stories to squeeze in favorite characters is that it mess with the continuity.  This becomes especially problematic when a character like Marv has already had his story arc tied up in the previous movie.

Dwight Reborn [Some SPOILERS]

The titular story of the second movie, A Dame to Kill For works the best.  Eva Green is fantastic, proving yet again that she does femme fatale like nobody’s business.

The problem with the story is Dwight.  In the first movie Clive Owen plays Dwight, and in the second movie Josh Brolin does.  Having two different actors play Dwight makes sense since Dwight changes his appearance drastically at the end of A Dame to Kill For—or at least he is supposed to.

The two problems with the Josh Brolin version of Dwight is first Josh Brolin now looks older than Clive Owen in the first movie, and if anything it should be the other way around.  The second problem is that after Dwight is supposed to change his look, he still looks like Josh Brolin—just with long hair.

Fixes

If I had to fix this movie, I would cut all the stories that weren’t originally in the graphic novels.  Something would need to be added.

My suggestion would be to include the “Blue Eyes” stories, which are some of my favorites, and Miho’s adventure.  Adding just one story would probably have made the movie uneven, but including both would add the necessary thematic cohesion to create a girl-power trifecta.

Conclusion

Some people don’t care about continuity.  And some people don’t believe less is more.  Some people like to see the same thing over again.  Personally I find this failure to create something original and unique to be pandering and lazy.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is not a terrible movie, but it is not as good as the original movie.  More importantly it is not as good a movie as it could have been.

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