F. Paul Wilson's The Keep
IDW Publishing, Paperback, 2006.
Large 8vo. 115 pp. Written by F. Paul Wilson. Art by Matthew Smith. Foreword by F. Paul Wilson [p. 3].
First published, 2006.
This was a mistake. I wanted to order Paul Wilson's novel of the same name. But the virtual Amazon is every bit as dangerous as its jungle counterpart around the greatest river in the world. So I ended with the only graphic novel on my shelves so far. Here is an explanation why I decided to keep this version of The Keep.
For one thing, it is the same cool fantasy-horror stuff - Highlander meets the Nazis for an epic showdown in a remote fortress in Romania during the Second World War - which was originally published in 1981, became a huge best-seller and is still very much in print. Basically the old - but hardly outdated! - story of good against evil. Yet woven into a very suspenseful plot, full of intricate relationships between interesting characters, not without some food for thought, and even spiced up with a short yet intense romance.
What's more, it was Paul Wilson himself who adapted the original for the rather different medium of the graphic novel. He has also written a most fascinating preface in which he explains the mystery of his involvement in the project.
"I'm not sure how many of you are aware that back in the 1980s Paramount Pictures released a film version of The Keep written and directed by Michael Mann. It resembled my novel in name only."
"Since I no longer get crazy whenever it's mentioned, I feel safe saying a few words about it now."
"A novel needs to be changed when it moves to the screen. I know that. It's a visual medium. No inner monologues - what you get is what you see. Subplots have to go, characters must be combined. But when you've got a novel that is an international bestseller, you should be smart enough to realize that it must have something going for it. You don't rip out its heart and display a hollow carcass."
"The film, released in December of 1983, was a critical and commercial disaster - one-star and half-star ratings, with headers like, "You can keep The Keep" and "Keep away from The Keep."
"I remember the last line of Jeffrey Lyons' review on TV: "It could have been wonderful."
"And that's the real heartbreak of the film: All the ingredients were there for a classic - great cast, great set designer, a special effects wizard. Truly, it could have, should have been wonderful."
I didn't have the least idea that such a movie was ever released, though apparently not yet on DVD. Looking at IMDB, the picture does look interesting. I wouldn't cast Scott Glenn as the protagonist, but Juergen Prochnow (the good Nazi), Gabriel Byrne (the bad Nazi), Ian McKellen (Prof. Cuza) and Alberta Watson (his daughter) make for a rather intriguing cast. There is even a trailer on the site, but this looks like a fearful example of the so called "experimental cinema": shaky camera work, weird visual angles, things like that. Of course it's not enough to judge the movie.
Now back to the graphic novel, or rather to the author's preface. Without mincing words, Paul Wilson explains how this "sort of twenty-fifth anniversary edition" came to benefit from his assistance and how the work affected him:
"Back to the question: Why did I script the graphic novel?"
"Because I consider this visual presentation of The Keep my version of the movie. What could have been... what should have been."
"But I have to admit, the adaptation was an eye-opening experience. I better appreciate the difficulty of compressing the events of this novel into pictures with words. I mean, there's a lot going on. For the first time in almost a quarter century, I have a little sympathy for Michael Mann's predicament. A little. (Let's not get crazy here.)"
"You can still find the film online and in some video stores. If you're feeling brave, watch it after finishing the graphic novel. See which version you prefer."
"You decide. My work here is done."
I can't say I'm feeling brave, but I'm certainly curious to have a look at this notorious movie. The author's leaving the decision of preference to the reader-viewer is commendable. But now back to the graphic novel. Again.
The graphic novel does indeed stick close to the original, at least as far as I can remember the latter (it's been years since I read it). This is all for the better. I can easily understand the difficulties with the compression, but I must say Paul Wilson has done an outstanding job. There are no plot holes yet no gross oversimplification of the story, nor are the characters less well individualized or less exciting.
Each scene is realized in a most cinematic manner, that is with minimum of narrative (just a few brief captions to some of the illustrations), a great deal of meaningful and dramatic dialogue, and of course with many close-ups and swift changes that strongly remind one of camera work. The whole novel can indeed be turned into a full-scale movie without any changes whatsoever. I can well see why Paul Wilson regards it as his own visual interpretation. If Michael Mann's is half as good, it is well worth seeing.
My only complaint - hence the one star down - has to do with the artwork of Matthew Smith. I wish it had been less cubist and more naturalistic. His people are still recognizably human, but their facial expressions tend to be too indistinct to express their mental states. And there are some embarrassing misrepresentations. The protagonist is supposed to be in the prime of his manhood. But he looks like a desiccated old man here.
On the other hand, Mr Matthews has captured the dark and sinister atmosphere to perfection. Except for the front cover and four "cover issues" more in the very end of the book, the whole graphic novel is in black, white and some sort of greenish dark grey. The only exception is the blood - and there is a good deal of it under the form of such niceties as cut throats and decapitations - which is bright red and visually very striking. Mr Smith's cubist aspirations, so detrimental to his human figures, confer an impressive and mysterious look to his surroundings.
The layout is very well-done, too. Whoever was responsible for it - and I suppose both the author and the illustrator should share the praise here - he created a remarkably vivid illusion of cinema. Quite an achievement considering how static the medium is. One Tom B. Long should be given some credit as well. On the copyright page he is credited for the lettering and the design. Both are beyond reproach.
Altogether a very enjoyable visual presentation of a compelling clash between good and evil. Neither graphic novels nor horror ones is my cup of tea, but there are exceptions and this is certainly one of them. Paul Wilson's gripping original is of course the first choice. Should you enjoy it, you might try his "movie" as well. Despite some rough treatment of the animate objects by Mr Matthews, much of the essence is retained and certainly not without visual merit.
It may feel a little lonely on my shelves. But it will remain there.