From Page to Screen - The Faithfulness of the Screen Adaptation - Part Two (I): Superman

A look back at the Man of Steel in film incarnations, including one you might not have known about!

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By Reverend Jonny Nemo - 8/22/2011
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How happy are you with your CBM? Do you think they got the costume right? Is the cape the correct length in your personal vision of that character? Was the filmmaker faithful to the source material? Did they take too much creative licence?

Below is the first part of a two part piece on Superman in the media.
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PART TWO: SUPERMAN

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!” The Man of Tomrrow. The Man of Steel. There’s no one who has not heard of the tale of Kal El, lone survivor of the planet Krypton, who in a moment of desperation by his father Jor El rocketed him to safety mere moments before the planet met it’s fate.

The first Superman as he would come to be known was first brainstormed in 1933 by 18 year old creators Jerome Siegel, a Jewish Canadian immigrant and Joseph Shuster. He was conceived of as a bald villain with powers of telepathy and little else. (One can postulate that this version of The Man of Steel was the first evolution of Lex Luthor.) This first version os Superman failed to gain popularity.

Superman, as he appears more or less today made his debut in the launch in the June ’38 issue of Action Comics #1. The character was an instant success. Fans by the thousands including GI’s headed overseas to fight Hitler’s regime well received the character that, though fictional, proved that good could indeed triumph over the forces of evil; he gave people hope for a better tomorrow. Issues flew off the shelves, with Action’s only competition being a character from Fawcett Comics, accused of being a plagiarized version of Superman. By 1943, audiences young and older would gather round the radio for ABC Radio’s production of “The Adventures of Superman” voiced by on radio air talent Bud Collyer.

Of course, one can't mention Superman on film without acknowledging the wonderful animated cartoon produced by Fleischer Studios in 1941 that would be the benchmark of latter animated series, most notably Bruce Timm's work. Though cheaply produced and complete with racist slurs and depictions of stereotype, they endure the test of time as amazing examples of master animation.

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The next logical move, it seemed, would be for Superman to appear as a flesh and blood person. In 1940, for the annual Macy’s Parade, actor Ray Middleton was recruited to fill the cape. Superman made his first appearance in public to thousands of adoring and cheering fans.

By 1948, Republic Pictures sought out actors to wear the now iconic shield in on screen adaptations. Many actors were considered and screen tested, but very few impressed producers until Vaudeville actor Kirk Alyn was screen tested in costume. Alyn had been a choral singer is stage and screen weaterns. 13 serials were produced for Republic with Alyn as Kal El. All of the elements were indeed in place, staying true to written comic works of the day. The special effects being “state of the art” at the time included badly choreographed brawls, hand drawn animation on live action film to simulate taking off, landing and in-air action as well as a costumed mannequin on a zip line for flying sequences. Nevertheless, the public wanted more Man of Steel.

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By the 1950’s the medium of television began to pick up momentum. The standard workload on an individual as well as domestic responsibility forced the average person to remain at home, so television seemed the next trend in home entertainment. One hardly had time to visit the local theater.

In 1951, it was decided to bring Superman to the small screen. The part was offered to bit part actor George Reeves, who was apprehensive, thinking television to be too limiting to his career. The actor accepted the role, and in 1951, the second modern tale of the man of tomorrow hit the airwaves. The show covered all of the comic book mythology, from Jor-El to Jimmy Olsen. Superman on the small screen was very well received by the viewing public. Each week, kids could be found in front of their household sets, sometime with homemade tea towel around their necks as capes. It is widely regarded today, (in it's context) as one of the most faithful adaptation to comic incarnations. However, Reeves would come to resent the role he felt typecast him, and according to legend would personally burn the uncomfortable & heavy wool costume at the end of each shooting season. Reeves tragically met his end in 1957 with a fatal gunshot wound, the source a mystery even today.

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The Man of Steel would not see screen production again for 25 years.
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TO BE CONTINUED IN PT II
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