Science Fiction Book Review


Batman Begins

(2005) Dennis O'Neil, Titan Books, 5.99, pbk, 305pp, ISBN 1-84576-162-6

This is hard to write about in a way. So here's the easy bit: as film novelisations go, this one is fine. It's been a long while since Denny O'Neil wrote a bad word about Batman, either in the comics or spin-off novelisations, and he's done his job here - faithful rendition of film plus 'extras' in the form of detail from the comics not exploited in the film. So no worries about this being a good read; it's perfectly adequate. The problem is that it's not Denny's story, but that of David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan and, of course, it's not really even their story, since Batman's "origin" is a story told many times in varying amounts of detail by numerous writers and artists. Which brings us to the hard bit...

Nearly all comics characters have undergone revamps over the years and, in reading comics, you kind of get used to the details of characters' lives changing. I always just think of them as 'alternate worlds' versions and that satisfies me. Normally. But of all the comic characters it is Batman whose origins have been least tampered with, and for very good reason: his origin makes sense (at least comic-book sense). So if you mess with this origin, you better have something pretty excellent in mind. Which is where the whole Batman Begins movie/comic/novelisation falls down, because changes have been made and, I believe, they are so significant that the origin story here doesn't make sense and will disappoint, maybe even offend, some Batman fans. And it's all wrapped up in two iconic moments and what they sandwich...

The first iconic moment is, obviously, the killing of Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of young Bruce. The circumstances in the comic are important: Bruce has been to the cinema with his parents - the detail of the film being Zorro was added later - and they are leaving and, here's the important bit, Bruce is deliriously happy. So when his parents are shot it is a real shattering of Bruce's state of mind. But in the film story Bruce is much more traumatised by his falling down a well into what will become the Batcave, and he goes to the opera with his parents and is further upset by the opera showing (Mefistofele by Bioto - a detail in the novelisation not made explicit in the comic adaptation. If the writers were going to be that obvious they might as well have made the opera Die Fledermaus). Consequently by the time his parents are killed, Bruce is already in an upset and apprehensive frame of mind and, while still a traumatic event, it is robbed of power by its foreshadowing. It's like the parents are suffering an operatic, pre-ordained, pre-destined doom, rather than being snatched away with random abruptness. In the comic version of the origin within a few days Bruce is making a vow to spend the rest of his life warring on all criminals. His determination and intelligence lead him to train his body and mind, and he also acquires several mentors. His determination is everything. But in the movie version Bruce doesn't know what he wants to do, has a ludicrous attempt at killing his parents' murderer (saved only by a mobster's moll beating him to the punch. Yeah, real convincing), then runs away to sea, getting regularly beat up (the psychologists will have a field day with that) until he learns to defend himself. He is 'spotted' by Ra's al Ghul and trained to join Ra's' League of Shadows, but backs out at the last minute, setting up the conflict for the rest of the film. Now that might all be satisfying from the filmmakers' point of view - all that lovely symmetry; I made you, you made me, etc. Er, done already I think in Tim Burton's Batman (with the Joker, remember). In other words, a bit obvious. For the record, I don't mind the conflation of the characters or Henri Ducard and Ra's al Ghul; in fact that could have saved the whole mess if done correctly. I also understand why they did it from the point of view of making the whole film about fear (and facing up to it), allowing free use of the Scarecrow as the villain, which makes sense in context even though I've always thought of him as a naff villain (personally I think they could have re-molded several birds with one stone here if the villain, conflated with Ducard or otherwise, were Professor Hugo Strange...). The second iconic moment is, probably, the most famous single comic panel image ever: Bruce in the armchair, wondering about his disguise, when through the open window comes an enormous bat. No matter how many updates and revamps and insertion of detail Batman's origin has had, that image has been written and drawn again and again. But it's not in the film. There is a bat, it is in Wayne Manor, but it's treated like a sparrow just peskily blew in and Bruce, with memory jogged, wanders back down the well into the Batcave. No! Bruce is brooding on his problem of identity, on the fact that "criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot", he's looking for that terrifying disguise late at night in the darkened study. He's not wandering through his house, seeing an unwelcome pest and saying, "Ah fuck it, I can't think what to disguise myself as. Oh, a bat. That'll do." So, a big thumbs down from me. As for the rest of the story, it's contrived, obvious, and written to be good from a film image point of view, but is actually quite pedestrian. I won't be rushing out to see it.

As mentioned the comic adaptation of the film is available, in a trade paperback that adds four other glimpses of Batman's comic origins (Titan Books, 7.99, tpb, 160pp, ISBN 1-84576-067-0). Scott Beatty's writing can be blamed on the film script, which is closely adhered to, but the pacing doesn't work and Kilian Plunkett's and Serge LaPointe's art is scrappy and unconvincing. Of the remaining four stories the only one that's really any good is Denny O'Neil's and Dick Giordano's "The Man Who Falls" which is, in any case, available in the Secret Origins trade paperback - you'd be better off buying that rather than Batman Begins. So, a big thumbs down all 'round then.

Tony Chester


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