From The Utility Belt: The Dark Knight as an Adaptation

Director Christopher Nolan on set of The Dark Knight (2008)

The wave of superhero films in the 2000s can trace its roots back as far as the 1930s, when comic book superheroes came into prominence thanks in large part to the popularity of characters like Superman, and of course, Batman.

What makes superheroes so attractive to filmmakers is that their stories work on multiple levels. Superheroes are the 21st century gods and goddesses. They are the mythology of our times. Their stories often speak to relevant social issues and universal themes, which make the characters relatable, despite their fantastical situations. Superheroes also possess the ability to stretch filmmakers visually, as comic books are naturally driven by vivid imagery. Their panels translate well as storyboards, outlining the action fluidly and, more importantly, cinematically.

So it’s no secret as to why the comic book film has exploded the way it has. Now that cinematic technology has advanced to the point that filmmakers can realistically depict the extraordinary feats of the characters, the superhero film has emerged as an action sub-genre all its own. And because the characters are often entrenched in sociopolitical and psychological themes, the films offer a rare combination of entertainment and substance. For this reason alone, the comic book film has come to redefine the “quality” of the summer blockbuster.

Batman is at the head of the pack when it comes to the number of adaptations to his name. The character has appeared in multiple animated series, from the 1960s through the 2000s. The character has also spawned seven feature films, one of which was an adaptation of his own popular live-action television show.

If there is a central reason for Batman’s longevity in the cinematic form, it is due to his very nature as a hero. Batman combines aspects of pulp detective fiction, film noir, and Shakespearean tragedy, all of which are immensely attractive to cinematic storytellers. He relies not on superpowers or unnatural abilities, but instead relies on his intellect, physical prowess, and creativity to fight crime and corruption in his hometown. And when you consider that his motivation for fighting this personal war is driven by childhood pain, it becomes perfectly clear why the character has been beloved over time. He is as relatable as any popular comic book character yet created.

The Dark Knight is the definitive representation of the character’s cinematic evolution. Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, the film incorporates many of the character’s historical trademarks, initially working as something of a universal blend of past Batman stories. But when examined closer, it becomes quite clear that the film takes much of its story and thematic approaches from two very specific sources in the Batman canon: the graphic novels The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke. While the film can’t be considered a direct adaptation of either book, the glaring similarities make The Dark Knight unique as a loose adaptation of previous material.

In approaching The Dark Knight, the problem for the Nolan brothers was twofold. On one hand, the film was a direct sequel to a successful first installment, which meant audience expectations were inherently high. The other challenge was in telling a story that would be both fresh and relevant to the character’s fan base. If the Nolans were to try something out of left field, the reaction would be more than likely hostile. However, if they were stick to a formulaic approach or structure, those same fans would cry for something more original.

For all filmmakers, these are the trappings of adapting a comic book character. There’s an abundance of history and back stories readily available to adapt from, but how do you synthesize it all to find the right story for a film?

The Dark Knight’s predecessor, Batman Begins, was something of an adaptation in its own right. The film took much of its style and core ideas from the graphic novel Batman: Year One, written by Frank Miller, who has become a filmmaker himself. That novel touched on several issues that became critical to the structure of Batman Begins, namely the origin of Batman and Bruce Wayne’s journey back to Gotham after the death of his parents, the rise of Gotham’s mafia under Carmine Falcone, the relationship between Batman and the Gotham City Police Department, as well as the emergence of police lieutenant Jim Gordon. Stylistically the novel was gritty, realistic, and deeply faithful to film noir traditions, much of which can also be said of Batman Begins.

So in approaching the sequel, the Nolan brothers dove back into the world of graphic novels to find their main sources of inspiration. In terms of basic story structure, The Dark Knight’s skeleton is derived from The Long Halloween. Written by Jeph Loeb, who would go on to work extensively in television, the novel tells a complex story of murder, trust, and betrayal, which ironically serves as a sequel to Batman: Year One.

The Long Halloween served as critical inspiration for the film’s plot

While the major storyline woven throughout the 13 chapters of the novel deals primarily with a unique murder story, in simply describing The Long Halloween it becomes obvious where the Nolans got many of the strongest elements in The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent’s campaign and its slogan “I Believe In Harvey Dent?” Present in The Long Halloween. The triumvirate of Jim Gordon, Dent, and Batman? Present in The Long Halloween. The deconstruction of Gotham’s mob underworld? Present in The Long Halloween. Dent’s transition from popular district attorney to vigilante Two-Face? Also present in The Long Halloween.

The film also adapts several smaller moments from the novel, such as the rooftop meeting between the three heroes and Gordon’s line “He does that” in reference to Batman’s stealth-like disappearing tricks, as well as a sequence involving the burning of a large mound of dollar bills. In the film it’s the Joker. In the novel it’s Dent and Batman.

Much of the very backbone of The Dark Knight is composed from pieces taken from The Long Halloween. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan do eliminate many of the major elements of the novel, such as the appearances of villains like Poison Ivy and Catwoman, while also eliminating the entire Holiday murder story. This, of course, is due primarily to time constraints as well as budget constraints, and also simple cinematic logistics. It’s simply too much story to be told within the context of a single feature film.

The Killing Joke heavily inspired Nolan’s take on the Joker

The Nolans, instead, replace these elements with a much more focused and psychology stimulating antagonistic storyline involving the popular villain, the Joker. And this is where The Killing Joke comes into play. In the novel, written by Alan Moore (V for Vendetta and Watchmen) the Joker shoots Jim Gordon’s wife and kidnaps Gordon, placing him in a cage. The Joker then psychologically tortures him, attempting to break him and force him into insanity.

Here we find a direct connection to one of the major themes of The Dark Knight. In the film, the Joker kills Harvey Dent’s significant other, Rachel Dawes, then visits a scarred Harvey in the hospital and attempts to “push” him into insanity by relating Dent’s trauma to anger and, therefore, chaos. The Joker’s motivation in both the novel and the film is to prove that any civilized person can be driven into insanity if the circumstances drive them in that direction. To quote the film’s Joker, “Insanity is a lot like gravity. All it needs is a little push.” The Nolans pulled these elements from directly out of The Killing Joke and used them to craft their own version of the Joker for film.

Taking a step back, it’s fascinating to consider just what Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have done in crafting The Dark Knight. While the film isn’t an adaptation in the most traditional sense, the comparisons between it and these two popular works are striking. The Nolans could have looked across the spectrum of Batman stories and characters and tried to create a hodgepodge of a story out of various moments in the Batman universe.

But instead, they took the antagonist and core thematic idea of one story (The Killing Joke) and combined it with the basic structure and outline of another (The Long Halloween), bringing the two together to form one cohesive cinematic piece.

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