The Wild Hunt for the Perfect ‘Hellboy’ Adaptation

Neil Marshall’s film promises a more faithful adaptation of the Hellboy source material.
By  · Published on April 10th, 2019

Remakes have been a cinematic reality since the beginning. We’ve bemoaned them so much that we got sick of the very word and concocted a new term: the reboot. If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. I’m not here to complain; I’m here to celebrate. What worked for Spider-Man should work for Hellboy, right? Of course, the Guillermo del Toro movies are beloved in a way that Andrew Garfield’s outings as Peter Parker are most certainly not.

In the latest iteration, director Neil Marshall and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola promise a version of the character that’s more akin to the guy we see in the source material. PG-13 just didn’t cut it, and they convinced Lionsgate to let them off the leash and provide a Hellboy that is much bloodier and loaded with F-bombs. The trailers are certainly rife with gore, and David Harbour’s titular demonic adventurer appears more confident and gnarlier. Will fans of the comics be pleased? Does that really matter? I’m betting no on both counts.

Creators are rarely allowed to furnish a world from scratch. On that miraculous occasion, when a blank canvas is placed in front of them, it is easy to unload their entire consciousness upon it. One never knows when such a chance will present itself again. Take advantage and let loose.

Mignola spent his early days in the comic book industry as just another illustrator grunt. He bounced between the big two companies working on various titles like Phantom Stranger, X-Force, and Rocket Raccoon. He found success in notable tales like Gotham By Gaslight and Cosmic Odyssey, but his heart was never with superheroes. When Dark Horse Comics went looking to make waves with their creator-owned line of Legend books, Mignola joined their ranks with popular heavy-hitters, Frank Miller (Sin City), Mike Allred (Madman), Art Adams (Monkey Man and O’Brien), and John Byrne (Next Men).

Hellboy was Mignola’s chance to smash all his obsessions into one storyline. The saga of a Government sanctioned occult investigator who in turn is actually a monster himself swung the doors of his brain wide open. What came pouring out were loving, passionate interpretations of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, W.B. Yeats, World War II history, and various bits of folklore from around the world. Who knew how long he’d spend on this particular character, so those first few storylines run the gamut in terms of influences.

Reading early trade paperbacks like Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil, as well as short stories like The Corpse and The Wolves of St. August, do not necessarily scream for a cinematic adaptation. They’re esoteric oddities that drink from source wells that are unrecognizable to most modern audiences. Evil Nazi bad guys we get, Russian witches who haunt the woods from their chicken leg hut are a tougher pill to swallow.

Naturally, a movie maniac and artistic sponge such as Guillermo del Toro recognized the richness of Mignola’s kitchen sink landscape. The director hired this kindred spirit as a concept artist on Blade II, and the two quickly went to work in convincing others that a Hellboy film was a sure-fire bet. Their 2004 film took its frame from Seed of Destruction, focusing on Hellboy’s rebirth on Earth and his battle to stop an undying Rasputin from summoning the apocalypse at the hands of a seven-headed space god. Del Toro added a romantic relationship with fellow government agent Liz Sherman, kept his hero a secret from the world, and leaned heavily into the blue-collar aspect of monster hunting rather than the gloomy, broody prophecy that condemns Hellboy to serve as Beast of the Apocalypse.

The first Hellboy was a modest success, raking in a worldwide total just shy of $100 million from a budget of $66 million. The 2008 sequel did a little bit better, earning $160 million on a budget of $85 million. Several fans were eager to see del Toro do another sequel and for actor Ron Perlman to return to the role for the third time, but the stars never aligned. When we learned that Mignola took his character over to Lionsgate for Marshall and Harbour to reinterpret, many of us were genuinely upset. Hellboy II: The Golden Army ends on a freeze-frame emotional cliffhanger that drastically takes the character down a path never imagined in the comic books. This Red was no longer Mignola’s baby but del Toro’s.

On first glance of the 2019 reboot, Mignola might appear to be wrestling back a little control of his character. The new storyline hints at Hellboy’s World War II origins but will not focus on the smashing of Nazis. Instead, Marshall and screenwriter Andrew Cosby jump nearly to the end of the comic book timeline. Their film is an adaptation of a trilogy of stories that Mignola crafted with artist Duncan Fegredo: Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt, and The Storm and the Fury. They’re more Yeats than Lovecraft.

Gone is the Beauty and the Beast relationship between HB and Liz, and this version of the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) is less of a top-secret organization and more of a known humdrum agency akin to the F.B.I. or the C.I.A. Removing the secrecy around Hellboy and allowing him to operate openly in the world changes the tone of his very existence. He’s out and proud; a necessary hero to topple everyday threats like giants and witch queens.

Lionsgate is waving their Redband like a banner announcing an oncoming military invasion. They have blood, blood, blood. Plus: potty words! Harbour is dropping coarse absurd morsels that garner easy laughs, but the R rating is definitely not in tune with the comic. While monsters and men find themselves torn asunder now and again, Mignola’s art never relishes in the splash. Nor do the comics linger in the profane. You can probably count the “shits” on one hand, and Hellboy would rather deal out an “aw crap” or a “son of a…” than drop an F-bomb.

Marshall is here to have a blast with goblins and ghouls, and he’s using Hellboy’s roster to achieve his jollies. Fans managed to simmer down at del Toro’s changes to the comic and they can continue to do so for Marshall. Adaptation is just that after all. If you want imitation, just read the books.

Hellboy II used the fairy world’s disgust of man as the catalyst to its action adventure, and the new film will do the same. Darkness Calls reveals a kingdom of mythical creatures who are appalled at how the machinations of man are devastating the planet. The witches of Europe gather to resurrect Hecate, the Greek goddess, but Hellboy makes quick work of her. After her failure, they turn to Nimue, the Queen of Blood (Milla Jovovich). She proves to be a much greater challenge for our hero, and in The Storm and the Fury, Nimue finally sends Hellboy to the darkest bowels of his birthplace.

Marshall and Cosby are cherrypicking a Best-Of Hellboy album. We’re gonna get Nazis; we’re gonna get all manner of witches, we’re gonna get bat gods and jaguar gods and pig men and the pulp crusader Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church). Like Mignola when he was first given that blank canvas at Dark Horse Comics, Marshall and Cosby are jamming as many obsessions onto celluloid as possible. There is an energy and excitement to such desperate overstuffing. You’ll either crank the volume to 11, or you’ll shut it off.

There is no perfect adaptation. There are only movies you dig, or you don’t. The most important and crucial aspect of the Hellboy reboot is that it keeps the character in the public consciousness. Success means more sequels in this mode. Failure means another reboot down the line. Don’t bother looking for your Hellboy; you already know where to find him.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)