Hellboy is an interesting character. At this point I’ve read pretty much all of the mignolaverse, that being the universe based around the works of Mike Mignola who created the character, and would comfortably say Hellboy is my favorite “superhero” type character. The Guillermo Del Toro movies from the 2000s though I have mixed feelings on.
I've seen these films a handful of times now, and I find myself thinking about what it is specifically that’s different between the comics and these films. What was lost in translation, why, and how would it be done best?
Now Mignola was involved with these films pretty heavily, so it seems insincere to call them “poor adaptations”. More so they are different takes on the same principal ideas. Although I wonder how much involvement the studio had, given just how much the Del Toro films echo "Men in Black" in the storytelling and humor department, and the Sam Raimi "Spiderman" series with the frankly goofy action scenes in both films.
Which leads me to what I think makes the majority of the difference between the films and the comics, tone. More so than just the story and writing, the tone is fundamentally different from the comics to the films, and this reflects onto the characters.
First and foremost is Hellboy himself, who acts like an angsty teenager cracking one-liners in the films. I wonder if this was a choice influenced by the success of the Sam Raimi spiderman films from the years prior. But the difference is that is something spiderman does, he’s always done it, and it works for his stories. Hellboy is generally pretty quiet. And he certainly doesn’t act like a teenager.
I would describe his character in the comics as a kind, perceptive, and empathetic big brother. Often being supportive of others but not one to get involved in everyone else’s business unless he felt it necessary. He is an older blue-collar worker, trying to do right by others, but holding onto a massive weight. That being the knowledge that he is a demon, one destined to bring about the end of the world, one way or another. So, his character is a frustrated one, attempting to live as a good man, rather than a demon guided by destiny.
The film version is an arrogant loudmouth who feels the need to make a name for himself. And seems in need of validation from his peers, so he plays a “hero” role, going in alone and not working with others.
Other characters get changed too, but not quite as severely in my mind. Liz is not romantically involved with Hellboy, and she has a much more tumultuous relationship with the BPRD. Abe is much more human in the comics, literally. He doesn’t really have any powers and is essentially a shut-in guy who feels pressured to lead even though he’s not great at it.
Aside from the character differences, there’s also the storytelling differences. The films are fairly fast paced, moving from one set piece to another, often with little silence between moments of dialogue. Which makes sense of course, it’s easier to advertise a film when it’s not 3 hours long. But I really felt like most of the scenes lacked punch because they didn’t hold on them long enough, which seems to be a trend with blockbusters more recently.
The setting and setup for the films seems directly ripped from Men in Black. An agent unfamiliar with the world gets brought in as a rookie serving as a POV for the audience in a secret government organization hiding a whole other world from the public? It’s just switching aliens for the occult. The comics never really felt like that. Where in the movies it’s a big Area 51 type thing with super advanced technology and lavish buildings, the comics BPRD work in an office. It’s little different from what the actual FBI probably works in. Again, this seems to be a change for the sake of marketing.
Then the action, which I already briefly touched on. The action in these movies feels overtly slapstick-y and cartoony to me. Hellboy gets hit and sent flying, though he looks too slow in the air, so it’s obvious that he’s being pulled by wires. The CGI characters will emote like cartoons, and there’s even slapstick sound effects at certain points.
I have to imagine these were studio mandates because this just doesn’t gel with the comics. The studio must have thought a dark fantasy led by a big demon man full of quiet introspection and depth mixed with high stakes monster fights wouldn’t sell, so they suggested to make it more kid friendly and less somber.
And I think somber is the right word. The comics are often very quiet, sometimes going pages without dialogue or narration. Just letting the atmosphere soak in.
Which leads me to my next thought, I don’t think Hellboy should be live action. Which is somewhat odd since I complained about the films being cartoony, but I think part of that comes from the extreme makeup and costumes necessary to bring it all to life.
Which isn’t to say they aren’t great, the designs of the characters and monsters all look fantastic, but I think it’s easier to accept them and take them seriously in drawing than it is in live action. When you attempt to take the willfully surreal art of Mignola and tie it down to physical forms, it becomes slightly awkward to me. Even as good as Ron Pearlman is, I can’t help but think the makeup looks a bit awkward.
But my ideal Hellboy adaptation would probably be an animated movie made to look like Mignola’s art in motion. It would be somber and introspective, and plenty quiet.
Now it probably sounds like I hate these movies, which I really don’t. It’s just not what I wanted specifically. While I criticize the writing of the character, Ron Pearlman really is perfect casting. The character designs, makeup, and puppets generally all look fantastic, and there's plenty of good moments in both films.
The first film has the Hellhound dogs, and the second has the plant monster and the troll market scene (which felt very Star Wars). And one of the closest scenes to the comics in either film was when Hellboy and Abe started singing in the second film. Sure, it was goofy but in a believable way between two friends. It’s something I could see the comic characters doing.
Altogether both Del Toro movies are probably 3/5 films. They’re fine, with some enjoyable parts. But as a fan of the character, I can’t help but question some of the choices made, because they seem to be films produced based more so on marketability than on the soul inherent in the character. But there is love for it all in there, wrapped in a bow of studio mandated slapstick.