By Bob Clark
In the modern film age, it’s possible for projects that began and failed to find a foothold in the movie industry gain a new life in any number of other ancillary markets. Projects that began as major motion pictures have found themselves resurrected in any number of forms, particularly as comics, where the shared visual components of each medium help ease the transition somewhat while providing a creative vehicle a little less bound by the restraints of time, money and competing egos. Some filmmakers have even found whole secondary careers in the realm of comics, with talents as disparate as Alejandro Jodorowsky to Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon penning scripts for mainstream superhero narratives and groundbreaking sci-fi epics that could never be told in the confines of film or television without breaking bank somewhere in the world. Furthermore, given the number of films both mainstream and indie alike whose roots begin as comic books, repurposing a screenplay as a graphic novel can just as easily wind up a mere detour back to the original destination of a feature film in the first place, in much the same way that John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men boomeranged from script to novel and back to script again. As such, it’s interesting to chart the development of Darren Aronofsky’s third film, The Fountain, from its roots as a prospective mainstream studio effort starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, to its second wind as a graphic novel illustrated by Kent Williams, and then back to its ultimate cinematic form starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, not only to observe its creative development through the channels of contemporary Hollywood, but moreover to be thankful that we wound up getting anything of value at all.
After all, Aronofsky’s film in its current shape is certainly a singular vision, and an impressive blend of epic and abstract filmmaking, to say nothing of how it challenges mainstream narrative conventions and blends all manner of genres to tell a story of love and mortality beyond the ages. But it very nearly didn’t happen, as the failure of its initial development following the release of Requiem for a Dream illustrates. With a star-stutted cast and a planned international shooting that would’ve included the same Central American jungles and temple used in the original Star Wars, the initial plan for The Fountain was nearly as much of a globetrotting adventure as the story itself, juggling strands involving a Spanish Conquistador searching for the Fountain of Youth at the behest of Queen Isabella in the midst of the Inquisition, a contemporary scientist on a mad-search to cure his wife’s terminal cancer, and a Zen space traveler flying a dying tree to a nebula where a star is set to explode, hoping to save it with its cosmic energy. With that kind of epic scope and highly charged star-power, it almost seems inevitable now that the original production essentially priced itself out with its ballooning budget, conflicting schedules with the headlining actors, and constantly shifting creative vision. With production ceasing even after massive sets had been built and shooting begun, the film was for all intents and purposes dead, leaving Aronofsky with recycling his screenplay as a graphic novel, an option he’d wrestled in his studio contract as an effort to keep the story and vision of the project alive if the deal with Hollywood fell short.
By that time, the notion of Aronofsky involving himself in a comics collaboration was one that made a lot of sense, due to his previous intersections and near-misses with the industry. He’d already worked with Edward Ross Flynn on The Book of Ants, a comics work inspired by his debut film, Pi. Among his tentative film projects following Requiem for a Dream were collaborations with Frank Miller on adaptations of Ronin and Batman: Year One, not to mention the long-developed creative relay race that was the Watchmen film before it was finally finished by Zack Snyder. Even after all of these projects had fallen through, he would later find himself attached, however briefly, to a Wolverine movie alongside Hugh Jackman, which again would have aligned him with Frank Miller in the prospective source material of the artist’s collaboration with Chris Claremont for a story set in Japan. As such, the graphic tendencies and obsessions that Aronofsky had shown in the cinematic world seemed as though they could find an ideal home in the unrestricted realm of comics, especially at the storied halls of DC’s Vertigo, home to acclaimed comics works that matched the epic and mature ambitions that the filmmaker sought for The Fountain. Paired with the painter and illustrator Kent Williams, it briefly seemed that although Aronofsky’s most creative vision to date would not be realized as a film, that it would at least be given a second life befitting its originality.
And maybe that’s what the Fountain graphic novel is, in some respects, but that doesn’t make reading it any less of an effort. Though the narrative it tells is easily recognizable to anyone who’s seen the film, much of the story can at times feel incomprehensible thanks to the jumble of sloppy lines and thick coats of paint that is Williams’ style throughout the disparate strands of the different tales. It’s an alternately sketchy, line and color heavy manner of illustration that readers may occasionally find familiar, somewhat akin to the styles of Ben Katchor’s comic strips or Dave McKean’s collaborations with Neil Gaiman and solo-effort Cages. Indeed, at times Williams’ illustrations can be rather striking for how they encapsulate Aronofsky’s vision on the page. In the larger splash panels, we sometimes get an experience not unlike looking at epic pieces of pre-production art, allowing us to savor in a version of the director’s creative object without the restrictions of time, budget or ratings. Some passages of the story take on a new significance, particularly the starship sequences, which portray the interstellar traveler as naked, revealing all his tattoos from his long voyage to the dying star, and haunted by an equally nude vision of his long-dead wife. There’s something to that vision of the two of them trapped in that bubble with a dying tree of life, become like Adam and Eve flung across the galaxy in a cosmic Eden that would seem right at home in a Tralfamadorian zoo– the book of Genesis in an epic crossover with Slaughterhouse Five.
But throughout the rest of the book, Williams’ style is rather hard to follow, both for the way he draws and paints the action and illustration inside his frames, and especially for how he structures his sequences from panel to panel. Though taken individually each image can convey a kind of passion and liveliness that gives Aronofsky’s sometimes remote, archetypal feeling fable a newfound life and energy that it can otherwise lack on the page, it’s hard to reconcile the often sloppy and leering results that the art has, especially when it comes to faces. Working largely from models, Williams’ art has the same kind of distancing effect that other comics artists can have when working too closely from photographic reference material, resulting in a finished work that often has the worst qualities of drawn art and the photo-comics medium of fumetti. Like other photo-referenced illustrators like Ex Machina‘s Tony Harris, there’s a kind of uncanny valley aspect to Williams’ artwork throughoutThe Fountain, and it’s telling that the best moments of the graphic novel tend to be the ones that either stay away from portraying faces, or at the very least avoid layering too many coats of color and detail to the image, underlining their artificiality with every brushstroke.
The balance between this and his sketchy, heavy use of distorted linework throughout makes it a very mixed experience, in terms of art. Some illustrators like McKean or even Southland Tales‘ Brett Weldele have shown themselves able to render their disparate styles with a sense of strict discipline in their details, but Williams lacks that kind of restraint throughout. Coming less from the world of comics and more from the realm of pure illustration, he constructs each image of The Fountain with more of an eye for how it stands on its own, and less of an appreciation for how it appears and reads on the page, an aspect which becomes more and more evident as he builds his stand-alone friezes into sometimes confusing sequences from panel to panel. The sense of geography throughout action sequences is messy and rushed, making it hard to tell what’s going on without the exposition of frequent dialogue boxes. The fact that he’s working from the initial, much more traditionally action-heavy script that Aronofsky had written makes this lack of panel-to-panel clarity even more problematic, especially that most of this demanding action occurs during the Spanish and outer-space sequences of the story, where the demand for period detailing and easy-to-follow illustrations are at their highest.
It’s unfortunate, because throughout the whole of the graphic-novel there’s an honest attempt to render the director’s vision, one that was far too ambitious and expensive to reach the screen as it was originally planned, with a sense of scale and passion that exceeds the parameters of traditional comic-book artwork. Yet at the same time, it’s clear that Aronofsky’s world required the very same kind of illustrative discipline and tradition that Williams’ work here avoids. Compare this to the strict, spare ligne claire style that Moebius adhered to throughout his collaboration with Jodorowsky on The Incal and one can see how a true mix of discipline and style can make all the difference in portraying surrealistic visions of the future and past. When Williams seeks to portray the ordinary tenures of the story’s present-day realities, his artwork shows its greatest successes, investing those everyday moments with just the same kind of life and energy that Aronofsky encourages his audience to find in every waking moment. At the moments where we see the very extent of the epic scope that derailed the original Fountain production as a film are where Williams’ hand as an artist fails the graphic novel the most. Comics are, after all, a medium of sequential art, and Williams’ illustrations of sequences remain muddy and unclear in a way that his stand-alone moments are not.
At the same time, perhaps it’s more due to the nature of the imagery Aronofsky had in mind for The Fountain being more inherently cinematic in nature, and being singularly unsuited to the temporally fixed nature of the comics medium, in general. As such, it’s something of a blessing that Aronofsky decided to return his script back to the realm of cinema after quickly rewriting it for a lower-budget, and finally bringing it to completion in 2006. Perhaps it’s even a godsend that he was able to iron out some of the kinks of the original screenplay by putting it out in the form of the graphic novel, thus enabling himself to streamline his vision for a leaner, more concentrated experience on the screen. One wouldn’t think that the director were holding himself back too much from the finished film itself, of course– it’s just as jaw-dropping and epic in its presentation as any blockbuster spectacle in recent memory, full of special-effects enabled visions and beautiful usages of set-design and cinematography that would seem right at home in the most epic of any space-opera tapestries.
It helps that in this version of the script, he cut out most of the action beats that one might expect from this kind of visual smorgasbord, if rendered as a big-budgeted blockbuster. Gone are most of the epic battles between Spanish explorers and Mayan warriors or the Inquisitor’s guards, as is the literalized love story between the Conquistador character and Isabella. Instead, Aronofsky emphasizes his sets as settings, rather than set-pieces, focusing on the characters and drama of each scene than putting too much action to get in the way. Likewise, his toning down of the historical romance adds it the greater weight and depth of classical chivalry– there’s a nobility to the knight’s quest for immortality with his Queen that provides a contrast with the more emotionally and physically volatile relationship in the present. Furthermore, he helps keep his imagery focused throughout by a canny use of match-cuts that underlines the visual echoes and symmetry throughout, helping his viewer witness the continuity between the different narrative strands in a way that makes his fable come to life on the screen than it can ever hope to on the page. By adding more elements of abstraction to the narrative and aesthetics, he winds up humanizing the bulk of the story.
Again, Aronofsky’s vision feels more at home as a motion-picture, rather than a series of stills, especially as it deals with themes revolving around the temporary nature of human existence. Yet in a roundabout way, it’s for the best that the film managed this detour of realizing itself as a graphic novel, and thus purging itself of its inessentials, before coming back in sharper form to the screen. Just like the various ends and rebirths experienced by the disparate characters of its story, The Fountain needed to be killed and brought back to life in order to exist on its best possible terms. Death was indeed its road to awe.