The adapting of comics to television and motion pictures has more pitfalls than expected. While all three are visual media, the artwork in comics allows for a greater range of imagery that budget and physical restrictions disallow in movies and on TV. A laser beam is easily drawn, inked, and coloured on the page; on screen, that same blast takes longer to add, with multiple frames drawn on and edited. Something along the lines of Jack Kirby’s dots are prohibitive without the advents of modern CGI.
Adding to just the difficulty of adapting the visuals of powers is the sheer mass of continuity, some of it conflicting with itself. Marvel has fifty years of Spider-Man stories establishing the character and the setting. DC Comics, the older of the Big Two, has over seventy-five years of Superman* stories, with the added bonus of continuity being an afterthought during the Golden Age. Adapting a character may mean sifting through the years of issues to find the hero’s essence.
With Wonder Woman, there are other elements that come into play. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, had ideas he wanted to present in the title. Working under the penname Charles Moulton, Marston created Wonder Woman to offset the more violent titles featuring male heroes like Superman and Batman. Instead of pummeling a miscreant into submission, Wonder Woman would use love to put the villain back on the path of good. To emphasize the different approach, Wonder Woman came from Paradise Island, populated by just women, where they were able to advance technology and philosophy because the the threat of violence was non-existent. The early run of the title explored bondage and submission; defeated villains would be bound by the golden Lasso of Truth and submit to Wonder Woman, only to be released reformed. Comics Bulletin has more about Moulton in a review of The Secret History of Wonder Woman.
With the first appearance in late 1941 and the first issue of the title released in 1942, Nazis appeared often as the villain. Wartime comics were used as propaganda, keeping American morale up while warning of the dangers of the Axis. The war intruded on Paradise Island when a plane piloted by Steve Trevor, an American intelligence officer, crashed on it. While the women on the island were not keen on getting involved in the man’s war, Wonder Woman, then just Princess Diana of Paradise Island, fell in love with Trevor. She earned the right to take him back to the US, competing against other athletes in disguise. Diana received the Lasso of Truth and magic bracelets that would let her deflect bullets. In the US, Diana took on two new identities, the first being the superheroine Wonder Woman, the other being Diana Prince, assistant to Steve Trevor.
As time passed, Wonder Woman stopped fighting Nazis and started dealing with criminals and other would-be world conquerors, always using love instead of fists as her weapon of choice. In the Sixties, the title ran into sagging sales. To bolster readership, the character lost her powers, becoming secret agent Diana Prince, who used her head and heart to investigate. By the end of the decade, though, feminists were demanding that Wonder Woman get her powers back. Wonder Woman had become a feminist icon.
In the Seventies, ABC was looking for a new series. The network ordered a pilot for Wonder Woman, a ninety minute movie starring Lynda Carter as the heroine and Lyle Waggoner as Major Steve Trevor. The creators went back to the early years of the comic and set the movie during World War II. Maj. Trevor was assigned to a mission to stop a new Nazi bomber from destroying a secret base. Ultimately, Maj. Trevor rammed his fighter into the Nazi craft. Both pilots bailed out before the collision, leading to a gunfight while parachuting that left Maj. Trevor critically wounded and the Nazi pilot landing amidst sharks.
Maj. Trevor was more fortunate where he landed, an uncharted island in the Bermuda Triangle known by its inhabitants as Paradise Island. Two women spot the parachute and run to investigate. One of the women, Princess Diana, picks up the wounded pilot and rushes him to the island’s hospital where he is nursed back to health. While Maj. Trevor is never allowed to see his surroundings, Diana does what she can to spend time with him. As the Major heals, the Queen announces a competition to see who accompanies the American back to Washington. Diana is forbidden to enter the contest, but she does so using a disguise. The final event, Bullets and Bracelets, is down to two women, one being the disguised princess. Diana wins after she wounds her opponent without being touched by any of her shots. She reveals herself to her mother, who reluctantly lets her go.
Diana receives her costumes, her Lasso of Truth, her bracelets, and a belt that allows her to keep her strength and speed in the man’s world away from Paradise Island. She takes Maj. Trevor back to Washington in her invisible plane, leaving him at a hospital before disappearing. As she walks around the city, Diana and her costume attracts attention from both men and women. Diana is unfamiliar with the customs outside Paradise Island but is unfazed. During her exploration of Washington, she stops a bank robbery, through deflecting bullets, tossing the robbers, then picking up the back of the getaway car, all insight of a promoter, played by Red Buttons. The promoter makes Diana an offer, she performs on stage and she gets half the ticket sales. Not knowing better, Diana agrees.
The show is very much vaudeville. Diana is billed as Wonder Woman, capable of stopping any bullet. A number of people line up to take shots, from a revolver to a rifle to an old woman with a Tommy gun. Diana blocks every shot. Having earned enough money to get clothes and her own apartment in the one show, Diana leaves showbiz and returns to helping Maj. Trevor. The Nazi plot to destroy the secret base is still going. A second bomber has been sent, and there are Nazi agents even at the offices of Air Force intelligence. Diana also infiltrates the offices, posing as Petty Officer First Class Diana Prince, all the better to keep an eye on Maj. Trevor.
For Steve Trevor, his return to the US was a shock. He had been declared missing, presumed dead, after the collision in the Bermuda Triangle. No wreckage of his plane was recovered. His return meant that the defense of the base was still possible. The Nazi agent is also surprised by his return, having mourned him with the general. The Nazis kidnap Maj. Trevor, forcing Wonder Woman to rescue him. She is unsurprised to see the promoter; Diana had suspected something was out of place when an older woman with a machine gun showed up at the show. A shoot out starts, but the promoter is well aware of how effective shooting Wonder Woman is. Diana frees Steve and gets the identity of the Nazi infiltrator after using the Lasso of Truth. Back at the OSS offices, the Nazi tries fighting Wonder Woman, but loses. The second bomber is stopped by Maj. Trevor and the secret base is saved.
The pilot did well enough in the ratings for ABC to pick up the series. Etta Candy, one of the comic’s supporting cast, is introduced as a corporal, subordinate to Diana. Etta, played by Beatrice Colen, was a contrast to Diana and was a more representative woman of the era. Wonder Woman still faced Nazis, but also some domestic threats. The cost of keeping the series in the Forties led ABC to drop the show at the end of the season. CBS, though, was willing to pick it up, with changes. The second season brought Wonder Woman to the today of 1977. The first episode of the season starts with Diana back on Paradise Island after the end of WWII. Overhead, a private jet with Inter-Agency Defense Command agents has been infiltrated, with the hijacker unable to keep his gas mask on during a fight with Steve Trevor, Jr, played by Lyle Waggoner. The plane starts to crash in the Bermuda Triangle, but women operating a magnetic field bring the craft down safely. Diana is again the first to board the craft, where she sees Steve. After the war, Maj. Trevor found someone else and had a son who grew up to look just like him. Everyone is healed up, and Diana earns the right to follow the plane in her invisible jet after another Bullets and Bracelets contest.
Diana again must adjust to life in Washington. Fashion has again changed, as have prices. This time, though, she’s prepared. Her mother, the Queen, gave her some vintage, undamaged drachmas, which Diana is able to sell for a good price. Diana is quick to learn computer programming and adds new data to I.R.A.C., the Information Retrieval Associative Computer, that creates a background for Diana Prince. Most of the opponents Wonder Woman faces come from Diana’s job at the IADC, though she also has to deal with aliens and telepaths. Through it, Wonder Woman still tries to turn people around from their wrong-doing ways, but will fight if she must.
Season one of Wonder Woman took its lead from the early comics. Season two and three took some ideas from when Diana lost her powers and became a spy, but let her keep her powers, with some Seventies-specific ideas, like ESP, added. At the time, concerns about television violence and repeatable stunts were making the rounds, forcing Wonder Woman to find a way to stop an opponent without throwing a punch. That requirement worked out well, though. Wonder Woman went from punching to throwing, using a judo-like maneuver. Martial arts like judo and aikido are known as soft arts, using the opponent’s energy against him, fitting in with Wonder Woman’s original concept as envisioned by Marston.
Casting was key. Lynda Carter was ideal to play Wonder Woman. Beyond just looking like the character, Carter had the poise and confidence in the costume to be Wonder Woman. She performed feats of strength while looking like she wasn’t making an effort, but when effort was needed, she showed it. Wonder Woman wasn’t confident because she was sexy; she was sexy because of her confidence, and Carter portrayed that aspect well. For Maj. Steve Trevor, Lyle Waggoner may not have looked like him, but he was comfortable enough with his masculinity to be the damsel in distress of the series. Waggoner had been on The Carol Burnett Show and, prior to that, appeared as the first nude centerfold for Playgirl. Sex appeal and a sense of humour, both needed for the role.
As mentioned above, the key to a good adaptation of a comic is the ability to find the essence of the character or characters and bring them out on screen. With Wonder Woman, the TV series did that. Casting, as mentioned above, helped. Gender-flipping the hero/damsel dynamic emphasized Wonder Woman as the superheroine. Lynda Carter’s poise and confidence mirrored that of the character in the comic. The creators went out of their way to make sure that the source was honoured. Many of Wonder Woman’s opponents in the TV series were also women; if they weren’t in charge, they were the mastermind. The introduction of Wonder Girl, played by Debra Winger**, in the first season let the series show how well Diana adjusted to living in the man’s world. Even after the time and network jump, Diana kept her confidence and was allowed to do more investigating in her secret identity, only changing to Wonder Woman when needed.
The TV series became influential on the comic. Before the show aired, Wonder Woman changed clothes in two different ways. Originally, she just took off the top layer, revealing the costume underneath, much like Clark Kent changed into Superman in a phone booth. As the title continued, Diana would twirl her lasso, which would change her clothes for her. That method, though, would require a level of special effects not available yet in the Seventies. Instead, the creators came up with the idea of Diana twirling, using a platform. Carter suggested that she just twirl herself, taking advantage of her dance training. At first the twirling showed her clothes coming off, but to save time and money, an explosion of light marked the change from Diana to Wonder Woman. This twirl was then adapted by the comic.
The other influence was on artists such as Phil Jimenez and Alex Ross, who had watched the show when it was ion the air. Jimenez, in his last issue on the title in 2003, managed to get permission to use Lynda Carter’s likeness as Wonder Woman and as Diana. DC Comics has also released Wonder Woman 77, a continuation of the TV series. The Wonder Woman series caught the core essence of the comic and of the character.
Next week, the Adaptation Fix-It Shop looks at Battleship. Can the movie be salvaged?
* Action Comics #1 was released July 1938.
** The same Debra Winger who would go on to be nominated for an Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, and Shadowlands, among other awards. Her version of Wonder Girl was Diana’s younger sister, Druscilla, created by Dru to hide her identity from the Nazis. The Nazis, though, confused her with Wonder Woman. In the comics, Wonder Girl was, first, just a teenaged version of Diana, and later a mantle taken up by Donna Troy and Cassie Sandsmark.