How do you turn a novel into a graphic novel – that is, capture the essence of what is cool and interesting about the original work, and bring it to another medium entirely? Especially when that novel is also the basis for an upcoming motion picture that features one of the biggest film stars on the planet? This was Nick Mamatas‘ task in adapting All You Need is Kill into graphic novel form. This is his story.
There’s a new movie coming out. If you’ve seen the second—of three, Jesus!—Hobbit movies, you’ve likely already seen the trailer. It’s the one where Tom Cruise wakes up, tries to tell us that we’re all in grave danger, and then there he is, in battle armor, ready to save us all! Only, he’s also in grave danger. And then he dies…and comes back to life and falls in love with Emily Blunt at first sight, and first sight, and first sight…
That film, Edge of Tomorrow, is based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill. But there are some key differences between the movie and the original book. The novel tells the story of an eighteen-year-old Japanese man named Keiji Kiriya drafted to fight in the war against the alien Mimics; the movie is about Billy Cage, a fortymumblesomething-year-old white American who ends up on the front lines due to, you know, spoilers.
Once you make that change, well, other changes are bound to follow.
All You Need Is Kill was the first novel published by Haikasoru, the imprint dedicated to Japanese science fiction in translation that I edit for VIZ Media. We had little to do with the film; at one point I wrote a two-page synopsis so that the interns of the assistants of important Hollywood people could hear a two-sentence verbal summary of the synopsis and decide whether to give the book a chance as a zillion-dollar motion picture. Eventually, Dante Harper wrote a spec script that sold to Warner Bros. for three million dollars, and then a director and a star were attached, the script rewritten by a number of writers, and finally there was Edge of Tomorrow.
But we had always been hoping for a visual experience closer to the actual novel. All You Need Is Kill is an action-packed military SF tale of armored soldiers taking on the violent and squishy alien Mimics. And there’s humor, a dash of philosophy, and even a dollop of romance. And we certainly didn’t want the female lead, “Full Metal Bitch” Rita Vrataski, to end up how women in movies and comics so often end up. So we decided to do the graphic novel ourselves, as Haikasoru’s first comic book project. Our company VIZ Media has immense experience with translation and localization of manga, but this was a whole new type of project.
We needed an artist and editor Joel Enos held several rounds of auditions. We got white Keijis—automatic failure. A few drew his fellow soldier Yonabaru with inhumanly tiny eyes—too manga. And one artist’s version of the Full Metal Bitch made her look like a steroid-addled version of Sting’s character from the movie version of Dune (that’s a miss). Finally, we found Lee Ferguson, who drew this:
A normal young woman, realistic yet telegenic enough for the in-story media to make a fuss over. Someone who you could believe had been an ordinary Midwestern girl who by necessity, not choice, became a soldier. Excellent.
I wrote the graphic novel’s script. I’ve done some comics work, and I’ve always wanted to write a graphic novel. “I’ve always wanted to write a graphic novel.” It’s the sort of thing you say if you don’t want to sound strange. I never wanted to write a graphic novel, even though I devoured comic books as a kid. Really, I didn’t even want to be Spider-Man when I was a nine-year-old reading comics in the same sort of dumpy apartment that Peter Parker lived in. I just wanted to open my window and swing across the street, then jump over to the Brooklyn Bridge and crawl on the cables to Manhattan, and hang out in the city all day. Never mind my acrophobia and vertigo.
But it was important that the scripted be handled in-house. We wanted to stay true to the vision of Hiroshi Sakurazaka. There were also other obligations. Imagine a freelance writer being part of an instructional conversation along these lines:
“Remember, this is an adaptation of All You Need Is Kill, not Edge of Tomorrow. So don’t make any changes to the story that might also be in the movie.”
Oh, do I get to read the shooting script for the movie then?
“Of course not, no.”
So…you want me to imagine what changes the filmmakers might make to the movie adaptation, guess correctly, and then just not make those changes?
“Yes, that’s it!”
We did end up getting to see some snippets of the movie, and to hear a producer describe scenes to us, complete with waving hands and descriptions like “And then he’s all like, ‘What the fuck!’” so we had something to work with. Lee, our great artist, created a retrofuture visual design for the battle armor, playing against both the original mangastyle mecha-suits of the novel and the grim’n’gritty look of the film. And when he handed in a cover in which the Full Metal Bitch was attacking the enemy butt-first in the now common female character pose, Joel sent it back and Ferguson cheerfully turned her around.
So we got what we aimed for—a graphic novel that is an adaptation of one of our favorite works of Japanese science fiction, and that is, perhaps, also an adaptation of the movie that could have been. And I can say that I’m a graphic novelist, and that Haikasoru is now in the comic book business.
PS: don’t send us your pitches for comic books.