From Page to Screen - The Faithfulness of the Screen Adaptation - Part Two (II) Superman
In Part two, we look at the Reeve era of the Man of Steel.
(NOTE: The Bob Holiday Superman television musical is being excluded here as a CBM adaptation. I think if Superman went a musical direction, he wouldn’t have as many fans as he does today.)
By the 1970’s, audiences weren’t largely into costumes and capes for their screen heroes. Dark and gritty characters like Dirty Harry Callahan, and Paul Kersey (The ‘Death Wish’ series) were the box office draws. Superheroes were relegated to Saturday morning television - now, “TV” by modern slang. Comic houses like Marvel and DC enjoyed their Silver Age as it drew to its close with sales numbers steady. Marvel had experienced success with it’s “The Incredible Hulk” TV series, but not so much with it’s “Doctor Strange”, “Spider-Man” or “Captain America” TV movies. DC had gone the way of television with a campy TV special entitles “Challenge of the Superheroes” returning Adam West and Burt Ward to the Batman and Robin roles, and even introduced new heroes for the first time in live action with Hawkman, Green Lantern and The Huntress. Most notably absent from this Justice League due to licensing were “Wonder Woman”, enjoying her own life as a television series with the memorable Linda Carter, and of course, Superman.
The decision was made to revisit Superman on the big screen once again, and Warners executives contracted writers Alex and Ilya Salkind to update the modern superhero. This incarnation would be both a closer look into the origin of the man of steel, planet Krytpon and the elements of his life on earth. Particular attention was paid to both Krypton and the Kent farm, the former becoming a template into future visions of Supermen to come. This film would become the benchmark for all CBM’s to come.
In this version of Krypton, director Richard Donner envisioned a cold sterile world; stark whites and blacks marked the landscapes and costuming. This was the one that defined the evolution of Kal El from strange visitor from another planet to Earth’s mightiest hero. The search for the man of tomorrow was reportedly extensive. Actors approached for the role were the big names of the day, in demand for the box office draw and television popularity. Names such as Burt Reynolds, Patrick Duffy and even Sylvester Stallone, based on the popularity of “Rocky”. However, Donner was determined to make a star of an unknown. Literally thousands of resumes were reviewed and passed over until Donner arrived at one that caught his eye. The casting director, Lynn Stalmaster actually became weary of seeing this actors name on top of all the submitted resumes, and had his resume thrown away three times before being asked to audition. Christopher Reeve had been known basically for stagework, and very little in the way of film, but his agent convinced him to audition anyway. Reeve was eventually called and after screen testing in a superman costume, he was cast immediately.
The film itself actually dedicated time to let the audience get to know Kal El; his escape from a doomed world and the arrival on planet Earth and his adoption by the Kents. The connection to Jonathan Kent was given attention, and when that character died the effect on Clark was felt by audiences as well. The following emotional scene with Clark looking out into the distance, telling his mother it was time to move on remains one of my favorite moments from that film.
Lex Luthor was played by Gene Hackman, who was portrayed not as a scientific master mind, or a wealthy criminal, but a dweller of an abandoned subway station that could easily pass for a mansion on the surface. By this time the Luthor of the comics was headed in more of a sci-fi direction, clad in purple and green tights. But given the benefit of the doubt, this Lex was enjoyable if comically near campy. This Luthor was in his own incarnation, and not apparently based on any previous depiction. Along with new original cast, including comical Otis, and (who can forget that shrill) “Ms. Tessmaaaacherrrrr!!!!!” , this Lex was difficult to take seriously as a threat, but remains a memorable movie villain.
“Superman: The Movie” opened on December 15th, 1978 with the tagline: “You will believe a man can fly”. I certainly was made a believer, (but being a kid at the time I also believed that if you pissed a scientist off, the likelihood of him growing a foot and turning green was not only possible but also to be avoided.) The reviews were definitely in favor of this new Superman. Sadly, beyond “Superman II” the franchise managed to deflate itself. Nonetheless, Christopher Reeve remains in both the hearts of the fan and movie history *as* Superman.
Here’s where the source material goes a little left. We were never before (or since) made aware of the whole “few thousand laps around the globe to make things cool again.” But you know what tho? Even though Donner kept this into the script, we willingly suspended disbelief…
…right up til the cellophane “S”.
In the next part I’ll look at the post-Reeve incarnations and see whether it lived up to the source material it was based on.
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