Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s 300 worked in tandem with Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the film to create one of the closest examples to a perfect movie adaptation of a comic book.
Note: This is a heavily revised version of an essay I previously wrote in December for a class studying graphic novels.
If you have not read 300, expect story spoilers in droves.
Miller’s 300 acts as a perfect bridge to film because it made an unprecedented use of color grading, imagery in motion, and subjective imagery.
300, the novel, proved how similar films, namely superhero films, were to their comic counterparts and how important their influence was. A huge part of 300’s style of moving characters has them mid-action in most moments which is a reflection of film’s emphasis on human action during fight scenes.
The art of 300 is a figure drawing student’s nightmare, constantly placing characters in realistic poses while often disfiguring characters. The film is both infamous and famous for its gratuitous use of slow motion during combat, and the precision in human motion in the novel allows for this seamless transition of print to film.
An important part of superhero comics is their use of contrasting ink blacks with bright colors. 300, a novel whose color palette consists of brown, gray, black, red, and subtle blues proves how important contrasting blacks with bright colors is in film.
Miller, Varley, and Snyder all understood these three aspects of comic art perfectly, and heres why.
Highly successful superhero movies not influenced by Frank Miller make little to no use of staple art techniques used in comics, resulting in lackluster color presentation and thus poorly presented scenes that would otherwise be fantastic representations of their drawn counterparts—a sentiment widely held by cinematographers, comic critics, and film critics alike. Use of color aids in relaying tone to the reader or viewer, and differentiating in uses of color is necessary to differentiate narratives.
Miller’s novels, primarily 300, have an extreme emphasis on color palettes to match the tone of each of his novels’ tones and art styles. 300 has an extreme emphasis on dark tones and their contrast with the few bright colors, but other works of Miller reach for the opposite extreme such as Sin City’s entire lack of color as a means of matching its bleak narrative.
Alongside proper color palettes, proper use of perspective and framing, called cinematography in film, is vital to an adaptation’s success. The 300 film, as well as other Snyder films do make use of comic book arts’ influences which results in an experience much more emulating of comics art instead of emulating the story of a comic.
The point being made here is not that 300 the film is a good adaptation of a novel. In fact, 300 in both cases, film and comic, is an appallingly poor representation of the actual events 300 is based on due to Miller’s highly offensive world-views seeping into the narrative and Snyder’s unrelenting desire to make the film way more alike than necessary. This includes Leonidas’ referring to Athenians as “boy lovers” as an insult. Homophobic implications aside, its incredibly ironic since ancient Sparta was a society which was not only okay with homosexual relations, but actually encouraged it as a means of improving the bond between Spartan soldiers. Ill advised story elements like this are present throughout the whole story sadly.
Fun fact: The 300 film inspired widespread boycotts from Middle Easterners, mostly Iranians, due to its depiction of Persians as flamboyant and evil in contrast to the testosterone-filled, noble Greeks. This was seen as anti-Persian propoganda as it promoted a west-is-good, middle-east-is-evil prerogative.
Frank Miller was never a master of fact-checking or political correctness, but he was a master of comics. 300 the novel provides everything needed to bridge the gap between film and comics and 300. It couldn’t be an easier comic to adapt.
The relationship between modern superhero comics and films give a perfect explanation as to why 300 is the perfect comic to adapt. What 300 the novel does very differently than superhero comics is its color palette and contrast. Superhero comics uses many bright primary colors, utilizing every primary color and most secondary colors, but 300 includes a restrictive watercolor palette. The novel uses dark tones, primarily brown, but accenting those already dark colors with an emphasis on inking. Miller has always been a fan of inking, as evident in Miller’s Sin City, which was drawn entirely in ink—a style of art rare in the 80s and 90. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud attributes the rise of bright colors in comics to the rise of publishing comics in newspapers where color were usually limited to around four colors.
This separation from other novels’ color palettes proves important and unique because it shows the great importance of inking as a means of contrasting colors. In a video essay titled Why Do Marvel’s Movies Look Kind Of Ugly? Patrick H Willems points out that Marvel’s cinematic universe lacks black contrasts entirely.
Without black contrasts, most iconic images in Marvel films, such as The Avengers: Civil War’s airport battle, look like “muddy concrete” rather than the bright candy-like images they would have with proper contrast. Although 300 the film cannot copy the novel’s aesthetic exactly, it was able to use something called color grading.
Willems defines color grading as “the digital manipulation of the colors and tones you see on screen. This was first used in 2000 on ‘Oh Brother Where Art’ Thou’ and has since then become an essential part of literally every motion picture you see”. Proper color grading allows images within film to better contrast its colors by changing the strength of lights and dark through saturation.
The issue within modern Marvel films is not necessarily its improper use of color grading, but its overuse of the same palette. Willems notes that Guardians Of The Galaxy, while a great film, has a color palette identical to other Marvel films, an odd similarity since Guardians Of The Galaxy doesn’t share its light-hearted tone for a story of underdogs with Marvel films. Guardians Of The Galaxy has 80s comics as a huge influence for its tone and story tropes, but it has the same color grading of The Avengers: Civil War, a story of division between two near sibling figures as they tear each other apart.
The color grading should match the tone and influences of the story, as Willems says. Willems notes that films relaying lifelike stories like Sicario or Spotlight benefit from the washed-out realistic color grading that Marvel uses because it matches the films’ tones. 300 has a heavy emphasis on muddy visuals in both renditions of the narrative, something that works well with the story’s gratuitous displays of blood red—a color which contrasts well against brown tones. Willems attributes the popularization of color grading to the rise of digital cinematography in the mid 2000s, which is only partly true.
300 the novel is the truest inception of color grading, as it cemented the idea that proper black contrasts can make even the smallest amount of bright colors extremely powerful.
Uses of red in 300 the novel such as the last page where Spartans charge at the reader with a bright solid red arch of spartan capes provide for extremely powerful images.
Despite the contrast of reds in the comic, it is much more subtle than the final image, being a crimson or maroon rather than a bright primary red. The sudden increased contrast of the bright reds makes the narratives final image much more eye-grabbing as it appears much different to the mostly desolate-looking images before the climactic image.
A better example is the meeting between Ephialtes and Leonidas, in which Ephialtes is entirely ink black save for his cape and helmet. This is a visual empowerment of his cape and its value to spartans, as well as an emphasis on the disfiguration of Ephialtes—a sight so disturbing it can’t be seen so Miller blacks it out.
In the 300 film, Snyder does the same, putting an emphasis on the brown tones while saturating the image to the point that dark colors engulf most parts of a scene. In his essay, Willems attributes Snyder for being able to do what Marvel could not with color grading in the recent Batman V. Superman, and points to the fact that the same goes for Frank Miller and Superhero comics of the time. Willems references a popular trend in the late 90s to the mid 2000s where comics such as Xtreme Xmen ignored the process of inking images and thus lost the contrast of black tones to colored images.
Miller fully understood the power of ink’s contrast with any color and used it to full effect—something Snyder recognized and adapted into the film. Something else Snyder was able to easily adapt to film was the iconic imagery presented by Miller’s style of art in motion.
An aspect of comics common to artists is to draw characters before or at the end of actions, and have the reader fill in the gaps of the motion because its a easy way to avoid difficult free-form figure drawing. This idea has always been blasphemy to Miller, always putting his characters in compromising mid-action positions, and thus creating much more realistic images that tells the reader much more when filling in the gaps between movements.
An example is the disfigured proportions of the Spartan Stelios being beaten by his superior officer on the fifth and sixth pages of the first chapter.
This is something cleverly portrayed in Snyder’s adaptation of the film, where combat in all scenes is made up of constant slow-motion with fast-motion scenes in between each bloody strike. This is meant to emulate the experience of reading a novel, with the fast motion sequences representing the mind’s filling of gaps between each slow motion “image” presented. This is an editing technique no other film takes advantage of, and rightfully so.
There is no artistic reason for a Batman movie to emphasize the action of a punch, because the comics all emphasize the end of each swing alongside a “POW”. Dru H. Jeffries in his great essay (which you should totally read) Comics at 300 Frames Per Second: Zack Snyder’s 300 And The Figural Translation Of Comics To Film makes a simple explanation of this complex topic: “By manipulating the speed of movement and the temporal duration of shots, Snyder emphasizes certain images by slowing them nearly to the point of stasis, by wresting them from the fluidity of motion just as comic books do.”
Snyder’s film and even moreso Miller’s novel makes perfect use of Scott McCloud’s famed idea of “Sequential Art” as a melding of art in sequence while still maintaining the division of individual frames. 300 constantly displays a variety of motions, from a spartan midway through the thrust of a spear, to elephants being pushed off cliffsides by soldiers.
These positions, these moments cannot be properly emulated through film without pausing on single images, but that would ruin the flow of a film. What Snyder did instead is bridge the gap of what Jeffries calls “Psychological Time” in comics and the finite time of film through a use of slow motion to accentuate specific actions.
To McCloud, “each successive frame of a movie is projected on exactly the same space—the screen— while each frame of comics must occupy a different space. Space does for comics what time does for film.”
Comics ask the reader to perform an involuntary bridging of the gaps between each frame, but film leaves no such gap. Miller’s images don’t create gaps for the reader to fill in, but rather the images are the gaps readers would normally fill in. Rather than a series of sequential images, the reader processes pictures in motion.
McCloud finds that comics are independent of film theory because of which state of space the images in said mediums exist, but in reality film and comics have much in common when it comes to a person’s flowing of narrative. 300, both the film and novel share nearly everything; its animation style, its unique narrative, its racist undertones, it’s deprived color palette, but most important of all, the two share the same iconography.
The battle of Thermopylae and the ejection of Persian troops off the bluffs is an iconic moment in both the novel and the film, both for one very special reason.
There is a distinct emphasis on the almost incandescent light in the back while the image of partan’s pushing the soldiers off the cliff is a jet black. The Spartans are pushing forwards, while the Persians fall like ragdolls.
It’s a powerful image Snyder’s film copies almost exactly, albeit some narration replaced by dialogue. The need for iconic moments is important, a sentiment Snyder not only believes, but lives for. As documented by Evan Puschak, better known as “The Nerd Writer” in his essay on the overuse of iconography in Snyder’s film Batman V. Superman titled Batman V. Superman: The Fundamental Flaw where the film’s overuse of moments made to feel momentus feel more average. For the past decade, the words “This is Sparta” have rung in the ears of film and comic fans alike, as a scene most often described with words such as “epic” or “awesome”.
While this scene may be awe inspiring, it points to a fundamental flaw Snyder’s films contain that is not present in Miller’s adaptation. At the same time, this flaw points to 300 the novel’s flexibility as an analyzable piece of media. In the previously mentioned scene, Leonidas kicking the Persian messenger into a poorly explained pit of death is limited to a frame barely taking a sixth of the page. The scene is the last page in the chapter, which means the image will hold stronger with the reader, but it doesn’t literally shout in the reader’s face as the film does, as if to say “I’m about to do something awesome and you should care!”
Similar to McCloud’s idea of leaving space for reader interpretation, the novel abstains from injecting emotion into most scenes spoken words to let the reader act the scenes out in their head. How Snyder interpreted many scenes is boisterous and in-your-face, which is displayed in the movie. By setting the emotion and removing the ability to interpret a scene in different ways, you lose the flexibility that the novel has. Every aspect of the novel fits together to make itself a moving piece of media for viewers to interpret and enjoy as they please.
From the color palette’s enforcing of iconic imagery, to the body language of every individual creating a story in motion, every part of 300 the novel is the influence of and desire to emulate film. This is why 300 the film works so well as an art—because it only had to copy what the novel did through basic editing. 300 is a relatively short novel at a meager 83 pages, a paltry amount when compared to epics of the same time, but its full of narrative and artistic references that allow it to be interpreted and analyzed in so many ways.
Miller made 300 to be something studied. He wanted the story of Leonidas and his army of 300 to be interpreted in every way imaginable.
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