In 1947, the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short was discovered in a Los Angeles vacant lot. Short was soon dubbed “The Black Dahlia”, and her unsolved murder is one of the most famous in American history. There have been countless works derived from the crime, but probably the most celebrated is James Ellroy‘s 1987 novel, which serves as the basis of this graphic novel written by Matz and David Fincher, with art by Miles Hyman.
Ellroy is a notoriously difficult writer to adapt. His novels are huge sprawling affairs, with hundreds of speaking characters, labyrinthine conspiracies, and protagonists that suffer from gigantic flaws and moral weaknesses that render them extremely difficult to truly like. They’re spiky and complicated books, stuffed with jazzy stylized dialogue; books that offer no easy answers and imply that the world is entirely corrupt and all that makes a character one to root for is that they’re often driven by a desire to atone for sins which are impossible to atone for, and are therefore the least terrible character in the piece. In a career filled with great novels, Ellroy has arguably seen only one adapted entirely effectively to another medium so far, and that’s “LA Confidential.” One of the reasons that film works so well is that it knows what of Ellroy’s novel works for the medium, and what needs to be changed, and isn’t afraid to make those changes.
Fincher, Matz and Hyman wind up creating one of the better adaptations, and certainly one of the most faithful to the source material, though there are a few flaws in how the graphic novel simply needs to compress material to make the novel within the space it has. What the creative team does capture very well is the insane, fever-dreamlike quality of the novel, the way that the narrative spirals more and more into an
almost surreal conclusion that isn’t supposed to make sense in the way most mystery novels tie together. In an Ellroy mystery, the crimes only get murkier and more ill-defined as the plot goes on, not less so, and what is resolved in the end is at best a character’s inner demons. The Black Dahlia captures that here, and that’s probably the most important thing it needed to capture, something Brian DePalma’s almost unwatchable film adaptation never got.
Where the graphic novel does show a flaw is in its dialogue and narration. I love Ellroy’s prose as much as the next guy, but I’d never call it anything but stylized. At first I was hard pressed to to really figure out why some of the dialogue in the graphic novel landed so clunkily, and I think it’s in the structure of the word balloons and text boxes. They get pretty over-stuffed and contain a lot of info, and as result, there’s a loss of emphasis that lessens dramatic impact.
For instance, there’s a passage in the book where Detective Lee Blanchard reveals to his new partner that Lee’s long ago abducted sister was likely murdered. He says, all in one word balloon: So is Laurie. I figured it out when I was fifteen. Mom and Dad kept spending money on handbills and detectives but I knew she was a snuff job. I kept picturing her growing up. It used to hurt like a bastard.
Now, that works when you read it as prose. But picture it as a comic, and I think the dialogue would have had more impact done like this:
Balloon 1: So is Laurie.
Balloon 2: I figured it out when I was fifteen. Mom and Dad kept spending money on handbills and detectives but I knew she was a snuff job.
Balloon 3: I kept picturing her growing up. It used to hurt like a bastard.
Splitting it up makes it seem like Lee is struggling more with feeling, with the memory. Putting it all together made it read, to me, like something casual. It’s a difference between what works as prose in a novel versus the comic book medium, and how something as technical as lettering structure can have a huge impact on the feeling of a story. It’s not a massive problem, but it does cause some important information to land in a clunky way throughout the story.
Unfortunately, that problem I think stems from both the massive amount of information needed to be conveyed combined with what is probably filmmaker David Fincher’s signature contribution to the project, namely the idea to arrange layouts around a largely three strip panel per page layout. The style isn’t rigid, it does break here and there when needed, but it does mean that there’s less space to play around with pacing and emphasis. But that’s really the only flaw I can think of, and though it’s noticeable, it doesn’t affect the overall impact of the story as a whole.
The art by Miles Hyman is beautiful, if unconventional. Eschewing a noir palette, Hyman evokes Regionalist painters and muralists such as Thomas Hart Benton. The result gives the piece the feeling like it was actually part of the period it’s depicting in a way I’ve never seen before. The temptation to makes this evocative of film noir must be overwhelming, but Hyman resists it, the brightness and clarity of the images never allowing you to gain remove from the utter amorality of the story. Hyman never skimps on detail, either, which is a must for a period piece like this.
In the final analysis, The Black Dahlia is a rewarding and compelling adaptation of a book that resists just this kind of effort, delivering a dark and unsettling story about battling your inner demons and obsessions. There are some flaws, but far less than you’d expect coming from such a challenging source. It’s definitely not a story for everyone, but if you’re a fan of pitch black noir that takes unconventional turns and explores the darkest desires humanity has to offer, then you won’t be disappointed. That’s why I’m giving The Black Dahlia an 8/10.