Adapting 'Hellboy'


Ron Perlman as Hellboy. See more superhero pictures.
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

With the success of films like Spider-Man and X-Men, Hollywood is turning to the shelves of comic-book stores to find the next blockbuster. Nestled on the shelves is the dark and edgy Dark Horse Comic "Hellboy."

Sony Pictures, Revolution Studios and director Guillermo del Toro (Blade II, Devil's Backbone) have taken on the project of bringing "Hellboy" to the screen.

"Hellboy" is the creation of cult hero and comic-book illustrator/writer Mike Mignola. Mignola also serves as a visual consultant on the film.

As with any adaptation, the challenge lies in converting one type of storytelling into another. One of the rules in film storytelling is: Show, don't tell. This can be quite a challenge when adapting the story of a book or graphic novel into a film.

The compelling and complex story of Hellboy unfolded for almost 10 years in the pages of a Dark Horse Comic. When del Toro set out to bring this red behemoth to the screen, he had to figure out how to condense 10 years of story into a commercial, feature-length film. Add to that the burden of casting the right actors to portray the comic's unique collection of characters and the challenge of transferring the distinct look of "Hellboy" to film.

Pages from the Dark Horse Comic "Hellboy" Pages from the Dark Horse Comic "Hellboy"
Pages from the Dark Horse Comic "Hellboy"
Image courtesy Dark Horse Comics

In this article, HowStuffWorks learns from del Toro, Mignola and other filmmakers on the project about the process of adapting a comic book into a motion picture.

A Hell Spawn is Born

Hellboy creator Mike Mignola
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The first challenge of the "Hellboy" adaptation was to impart to both fans and first-timers the essential core of the comic. Like most super heroes, Hellboy has a complex history explored over years in dozens of different stories. To begin to understand this, let's look at Hellboy's origins.

"Hellboy" the comic book was created in 1994 by Mike Mignola and published by Dark Horse Comics. In the 10 years that have followed, Hellboy has made his way into a comic book series, trade paperbacks, novels, illustrated short-story anthologies and a video game.

Mignola pulls heavily from his fascination with the occult and folklore to weave the world of "Hellboy." Reminiscent of the pulp detective novels of the '40s, Hellboy is filled with strange characters, bizarre monsters, conspiracies, shadowy agencies and secret Nazi armies.

Image courtesy Dark Horse Comics

The first "mini-series" Mignola created was "Hellboy - Seed of Destruction." This mini series covers the origins of Hellboy the character.

The book that started it all: "Hellboy - Seed of Destruction" The book that started it all: "Hellboy - Seed of Destruction"
The book that started it all: "Hellboy - Seed of Destruction"
Image courtesy Dark Horse Comics

So The Story Goes...

An interrogation, Hellboy style
An interrogation, Hellboy style
Image courtesy Dark Horse Comics

Hellboy was summoned from Hell by Nazi occultists and evil madman Grigori Rasputin to turn the tide of WWII against Allied Forces using the power of the nether world. Hellboy's true destiny is to bring about the apocalypse. That was until he was rescued by Professor Broom, founder of the clandestine B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense).

Professor Broom raised Hellboy as a son and protected him from the public eye. Hellboy grew up in the B.P.R.D. As he became an adult, his special powers made him a perfect candidate for a B.P.R.D agent. Hellboy now leads a team of freaks, including the mer-man Abe Sapien and the troubled pyro-kenetic Liz Sherman, in a secret war against forces of paranormal evil.


"I had always enjoyed reading folklore, legends, ghost stories, as well as monster comics and occult-detective stories. So I thought, 'What if I do a monster as a good guy who fights other monsters?' Hellboy pretty much fulfilled my life-long ambition to do nothing but draw monsters. Ten years later, I still love drawing it."

- Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator

Loveable Demon Seeks Director

The producers, Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin, with director Guillermo del Toro on the set.
The producers, Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin, with director Guillermo del Toro on the set.
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The "Hellboy" project is almost seven years old. Producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin had the vision to see "Hellboy" on the big screen. The success of TV shows like "The X-Files" and "Millennium" reinforced the idea that a movie about the world's greatest paranormal demon detective would be successful.

They also knew that "Hellboy" rode a delicate line as far as being commercially viable. As a film, it would neither be a traditional comic-book movie nor a traditional action flick. The story had elements of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and good old-fashioned monster movies. It also had a hero that people unfamiliar with the comic book may find hard to swallow. Lloyd and Levin both knew that the key to successfully adapting "Hellboy" would hinge on their ability to put the right person in the director's seat.

Director Guillermo del Toro Director Guillermo del Toro
Director Guillermo del Toro
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Guillermo del Toro was at the time a young director with a growing resume of impressive films in the fantasy/horror genre. He was also a huge "Hellboy" fan. When he got wind of a potential "Hellboy" project, he used all his resources to get a meeting with the producers. It didn't take long for Lloyd and Gordon to realize he was the man for the job.


"Not only did we respect the talent he'd already shown as a filmmaker, but we were bowled over by his understanding of the comic book and his enthusiasm. It's as if he'd been there, somewhere in the room with Mike every day since he first created it."

- Lawrence Gordon, Producer

When You Want Something Done Right…

del Toro directs actor Ron Perlman, who portrays Hellboy.
del Toro directs actor Ron Perlman, who portrays Hellboy.
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

"I've always wanted to make a monster movie, and this one has outlandish characters and fantastic monsters and settings; but in order to have the audience connect with it, I had to find a couple of emotional through-lines."

- Guillermo del Toro, Director

 

Del Toro's first task in adapting the saga was to get a screenplay that could convey all the important elements of "Hellboy" in around 90 minutes. He needed a story that would appeal to fans of the comic book and connect with audience members who had never heard of "Hellboy."

Screenwriters normally handle the job of screen adaptation. They often have no familiarity with the subject outside of the research they do to write the script. This lack of familiarity often comes across in the final product. Guillermo decided the best person suited for the job of adapting the script would be a true fan. The biggest Hellboy fan Guillermo del Toro knows is Guillermo del Toro.


"It was clear to me from the start that Guillermo was the only guy who could make this movie. He brings his own personality to it. He's one of a younger breed of directors who love comic books and take them very seriously. They understand them and see them as a legitimate film genre."

- Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator

 

Writing the screenplay himself gave del Toro total control over which story elements from the comic were fleshed out and which were let go. It also allowed him to carve a plot that was true to "Hellboy" while still fitting it into the format of cinema storytelling.

Plot Points

Hellboy and FBI agent John Myers compare weaponry.
Hellboy and FBI agent John Myers compare weaponry.
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The film version pulls heavily from the "Seed of Destruction" mini-series to provide audiences with Hellboy's origins. Del Toro chose to elaborate on some of the themes that were not really developed in the comic.

The film expands on the father-son relationship between Professor Broom and Hellboy. The film also introduces a love triangle between Hellboy, his fellow B.P.R.D. agent Liz Sherman and the young FBI Agent John Myers. Del Toro created the character of John Myers to facilitate this plot point.

Hellboy harbors a secret crush on fellow agent Liz Sherman. Hellboy harbors a secret crush on fellow agent Liz Sherman.
Hellboy harbors a secret crush on fellow agent Liz Sherman.
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

These choices are often difficult for a fan like del Toro, who is so passionate about all the nuances of the story. But whenever he ran into difficulty, del Toro had the ultimate guide in Mike Mignola.


"There were things I alluded to over the past 10 years in bits and pieces that were condensed. [I told Guillermo] change what you want. Make it your version of my thing... For instance, Abe Sapien [Hellboy's sidekick] is different from the comic book original. Guillermo gave him more personality and altered him visually. But he's certainly true to the spirit of what I did, whereas the [villainous] Sammael is completely a del Toro character. And in the climactic scenes where Hellboy and Kroenen duke it out, it's like a Mignola character fighting with a del Toro character."

- Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator

Who is Hellboy?

Hellboy battles the forces of paranormal evil.
Hellboy battles the forces of paranormal evil.
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

A monster that fights monsters, Hellboy is a far cry from your virtuous tights-and-cape wearing superhero. A beer-guzzling, football-watching, regular guy, Hellboy is a more human superhero. That's saying a lot, considering Hellboy is a huge red demon who was meant to bring about the end of the world. Casting an actor to play Hellboy was a decision that del Toro couldn't make alone. He sought the advice and approval of the series creator Mike Mignola.


"Soon after we first met, I said to Guillermo, 'So who do you think should play Hellboy?'"

- Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator

 

Casting the right actors is a challenge for any production. In many cases, it can make or break a film. In adaptation, the additional challenge is that the characters already have a very distinct look. An actor had to be found with the physical build of a monstrous, muscular hell-spawn, who was also talented enough to convey all the subtleties and conflicts of the complex Hellboy character.


"There was a little bit of sizing each other up -- like who's going to say it first. And we both said Ron Perlman at the same time. We both immediately knew Ron Perlman should play him. He's got Hellboy's demeanor. He's got that working stiff, been-there-done-that quality in almost everything he does. And he's got the perfect voice."

- Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator

 

The actor Ron Perlman was the natural choice. With more than 80 productions under his belt in film and television, Perlman had the experience to play the role and the name recognition to draw audiences to the theaters. But there was more to taking the role of Hellboy than simply saying, "Yes."

Perlman was scheduled for six months of rehearsal and shooting. Performing action sequences and acting in full make-up requires tremendous energy. Perlman had to get in peak physical condition to both have the Hellboy look and the stamina to perform for hours at a time.


"Physically, I knew I was in for six months of fighting crime against monsters and demons -- the big dudes that Hellboy has to take down."

- Ron Perlman, Hellboy

   

Perlman prepared for the role for almost a year. He spent five to six days a week in the gym doing cardiovascular exercises and working out to build physical strength.


"Hellboy has the physical body of a half-century-old red ape, but the heart and mind of a young teenager. He is very spoiled, he's very temperamental and he's very unruly. [Hellboy] is actually a lovable under-achiever. He was born with this enormous strength and immortality, yet all he wants to do in life is kick back with a six-pack of beer and watch football on TV with his girlfriend -- like a regular guy. Ron Perlman is Hellboy."

- Guillermo del Toro, Director

Curses, Foiled Again

The evil Rasputin
The evil Rasputin
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Every super hero has to have a villain to battle. In the film adaptation, Hellboy battles his nemesis, Rasputin. Rasputin is a Russian holy man thought to be dead. An evil sorcerer who has worked for Russian Czars and Hitler himself, Rasputin uses the resources of his employers for his own evil ends.

Rasputin summoned Hellboy to the Earth to destroy it, and disappeared after being defeated by Professor Broom. Many years later, Rasputin has resurfaced to make sure Hellboy fulfills his destiny.

Famous Czechoslovakian actor Karl Roden was cast as the madman Rasputin. Roden worked with del Toro on "Blade II." The director knew that Roden possessed the acting chops to pull off this strange foil.


"Rasputin has been perpetrating evil through the ages. Hellboy is key to his apocalyptic plans. He's the piece of the puzzle Rasputin needs in order to bring Hell to Earth. He really believes there's a cause to be fought, that Earth should be destroyed because of its impurities..."

- Guillermo del Toro, Director

 

Del Toro intentionally developed Rasputin as a villain who was as different from the traditional villain as Hellboy is from the traditional hero. Roden took this into consideration when developing the character.


"He thinks he wants to rescue the world. He may be doing bad things, but from his perspective, he is trying to achieve good."

- Karel Roden, Rasputin

 

Magic Casting

John Myers, Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman and Hellboy are on the case.
John Myers, Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman and Hellboy are on the case.
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Hellboy is a character-driven comic. The movie has followed suit. Mignola and del Toro chose all the actors for their abilities and physical resemblance to their comic-book counterpart. The result is an ensemble cast that drives this adaptation to the level of impact of its source.

Abe Sapien and Professor Broom Abe Sapien and Professor Broom
Abe Sapien and Professor Broom
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

"John Hurt as Broom looks exactly like the character in the comic book. At times I thought I must have looked at a photo of Hurt when I drew this guy. It was spooky."

- Mike Mignola , Hellboy creator

 

Looking Like Hell

"Abe, you always do this."
"Abe, you always do this."
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The final step in the adaptation of the comic book was making sure that the world the "Hellboy" characters occupied fit the bill. Stephen Scott was brought in to build that world.


"My art is very graphic, and it would seem that there's a limit to what you can do with it in the real world, but Guillermo perfectly captured the feeling of it. He set certain rules in doing that, assigning certain shapes and colors to the various character and design elements. It's an extremely controlled atmosphere."

- Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator

 

Stephen Scott's production design took its cue from Mignola's comic books, but also expanded it by blending it with the Gothic environment of the film's Prague shooting location.

Demon-red Hellboy is a stark contrast to the dark world created for the film. Demon-red Hellboy is a stark contrast to the dark world created for the film.
Demon-red Hellboy is a stark contrast to the dark world created for the film.
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

"From [the comic] we developed the sets, incorporating images from the book and trying to be true to the comic's color scheme -- black and brown, black and gray with a strong hint of purple and green. That makes the character of [the decidedly red] Hellboy pop out more."

- Stephen Scott, Production Designer

 

In order to coordinate his efforts with del Toro's vision, Scott came up with a method to ensure that all the films tricky shots would be possible in the sets he planned. Scott made sketches and models of all the sets before building the full-scale sets and outdoor locations to suit the film. He then used a mini camera that was plugged into a TV monitor. This mini walkthrough gave both the Director and the Director of Photography an idea of which shots were possible on any given set.


"A model always tells a lot of stories. It conveys the scale and enables you to see everything in a three-dimensional way."

- Stephen Scott, Production Designer

 

Hellware

Heads up!
Heads up!
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wendy Partridge worked closely with the make-up, stunt and special-effects departments to coordinate the film's over-1,200 costumes with the logistical needs of filming.

For instance, one of her challenges was dealing with Hellboy's tail. Wendy had to design costumes that would conceal all the wiring that operated the moving tail. The physical nature of the film required dozens of duplicates to be made of each costume because they would get damaged so often.

Partridge combined store-bought clothing with hundreds of fabricated costumes to match the film's look and feel. Partridge also used the comic book as her guide and often had to make decisions about which textures and fabrics Mignola was drawing.


"Just coming up with the right coat for Hellboy was a challenge. Do you make it out of fabric? Leather?"

- Wendy Partridge, Costume Designer

Last Words

World's greatest paranormal detective
World's greatest paranormal detective
Photo courtesy HB-042 = Egon Endrenyi © 2004 Revolution Studios Distribution Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

In the end, it took almost six years to make this film. Through careful attention to detail in scripting, casting, and visual coordination, del Toro was able to guide "Hellboy" onto the screen, blending his vision with Mignola's creation.


"I didn't want to do a carbon copy, because a movie is its own creature. I think of it more as a great sort of a jazz riff inspired by the comic book."

- Guillermo del Toro, Director

 


"Hellboy is a truly interesting melding of Mike Mignola and Guillermo del Toro. There's a lot of me in there, and there are things that are different. But it's true to the spirit of my stuff."

- Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator

 

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