Oscar-Worthy Graphic Novel Films: A History of Violence

Originally posted on my blog, The Comics Cove, not too long ago...

This post is the final part of an article I was asked to write for the Houston Public Library blog. The final article will be posted some time in the near future, in its entirety, on that website.

A History of Violence

A crime thriller with a uniquely-executed plot by John Wagner and art by Vince Locke, this story was first published in 1997 by Paradox Press. The film was made in 2005, directed by David Cronenberg and stars Viggo Mortensen with a script adapted from the graphic novel by Josh Olson.

The film received two Oscar nominations at the 78th Academy Awards, including Best Actor -- William Hurt, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) -- Josh Olson. It won neither award, losing Best Actor to George Clooney for Syriana, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for Brokeback Mountain.

Plot: Tom Stall, a diner owner in Milbrook, Indiana, lives a peaceful and relatively low-key life until a pair of killers enter his establishment. He defends himself and his co-workers with remarkable skill, and is hailed as a hero for the incident. But his fame attracts more trouble, as mobsters from out of town have identified him as a man who crossed them a long time ago. Tom maintains his ignorance of these men, but as they target his family, he is forced to defend them, raising further questions about Tom’s past and who he really is. When he confronts the truth about his youth, Tom finds he has unwittingly made targets out of his family, and must do whatever it takes to make sure they don’t have to pay for his mistakes.

Differences from the graphic novel: Considerable, in places. The first half of the film is pretty faithful to the source material, with only cosmetic changes like Tom’s last name (it’s Stall in the film, McKenna in the graphic novel) and the location (Indiana instead of Michigan). Later in the story, however, things diverge significantly from the original narrative. The pivotal character of Richard, for example, is nothing like the character from the graphic novel. There, he was Tom’s childhood friend who helped him double-cross the mob. In the film, he’s Tom’s brother, who is a mobster, albeit one whose life was made more difficult by Tom’s youthful actions. The reaction of Tom’s family to finding out about his past is also handled differently in the film. Whereas in the comic he is quickly and heartily forgiven by his wife and kids, the film seems to handle it more realistically, with his wife especially reacting with shocked outrage at how he kept his past from them and endangered them because of it. It’s one of the few instances where I praise the veracity of the film more than the graphic novel.

As one might argue from their now regular rate of adaptation to the big screen, graphic novels have clearly become a more acceptable form of literature and entertainment by mainstream society. With their recognition from entities like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, graphic novels are solidifying their status as viable source material for popular audiences. If you haven’t done so already, it may be worth it to consider browsing your local library or bookstore’s collections of these easily digestible and artistically expressive tomes.

You never know--you may end up reading a story that someday wins an Oscar!

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