As I mentioned last week, I was looking forward to seeing the movie 300. Now that I have, and after letting it "marinade" in my mind for a few days, I thought I'd share a few of my impressions.
First of all, I'll defer the historical analysis to experts like Victor Davis Hanson. Like I've said before, I don't look to movies for history lessons, but at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised to read Hanson's defense of the stylistic license taken in 300, correctly pointing out that the Greeks themselves often used highly stylized imagery when recording their history.
With the focus diverted away from archeological authenticity, the real triumph of 300 became all the more clear. While watching it, the thought occured to me that we've moved beyond simply adapting superheroes to the screen and are now able to faithfully translate the visions of the creators themselves to film, in this case from the unique imagination of Frank Miller.
Of course, most superhero characters have had literally dozens (if not hundreds) of writers and artists handling them over the years, so no clear sense of an individual vision, or "creative fingerprint" is expected from a film adaptation. At best, a good superhero adaptation can evoke aspects of different creative teams or eras...incorporating a distinctive pose or a famous line here and there...but it's largely just a cherry-picked amalgamation or approximation of the comic book experience.
However, when it comes to creator-owned properties like Miller's 300 (and Sin City), it's the work of a single creator with a coherent point of view...not only visually but thematically as well. As such, an adaptation of such an intensely personal work has a better chance of making it to the screen reasonably intact...since, unlike superhero movies, they aren't beholden to forty years of comic book continuity and the demands of shrill fanboys.
True, movies based on creator-owned properties can still be a disaster (i.e. Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but when creators are as intensely involved as Miller was for both Sin City and 300, the odds are alot better that the "creative fingerprint" will be preserved. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it wasn't Miller's 300 that made it to film, but...in a way...Frank Miller himself.
Okay, kind of a bizarre claim, but hear me out:
Having read most of Miller's comic book work, the one thing that stands out the most is the provocative passion of his stories. Characters don't simply do stuff; they do stuff at an almost operatic, 1000% level of intensity. Determined characters are teeth-grittingly determined! Angry characters are nova-intensity angry. Violent or evil characters are bloody, merciless, and completely irredeemable...and on occasion physically grotesque.
Part of this follows the conventions of the comic book form itself, which (like silent-era films) had to communicate complex emotions (through exaggeration) within a limited format...but Miller's stories transcend even the traditional "volume 11" setting of comics to achieve their own unforgettable brand of intense, bombastic and provocative drama. Even his lesser "phoned-in" work like The Dark Knight Strikes Back or All-Star Batman elicits intense reactions, so at the very least...it's work you simply can't forget (even if you desperately want to).
So, far beyond simply duplicating panels from the comic book version, 300 succeeds in channeling the audacious spirit of Frank Miller himself. Whether evoking the balletic combat of his work on Daredevil or The Dark Knight Returns, the elegantly designed mayhem of Ronin and Sin City, or the jagged street-level ethos infusing all of it, it's clear the creator behind them was the real "star" of 300.
Mutated freaks, treacherous hunchbacks and glam-queen emperors for villains? Frank Miller.
Lines like "Spartans! Enjoy your breakfast, for tonight we dine in Hell!"?
A line of Spartans that looks more like the Justice League?
Sure...some will gripe about it's political allegories while others will gripe about its bloody, fleshy excess (some of which I might agree with, by the way)...after all, griping is what fanboys do best...but at the end of the day, I was entertained (and moved) by the tale of free men who, against all odds, chose to defend their freedom...told in a way only Frank Miller could tell it.