Over a decade before he won an Oscar for a Cold War set tale of romance between a woman and a fish man, Guillermo del Toro adapted a comic book that was a simple father/son tale. As a filmmaker, del Toro enjoys dressing up these personal stories in monster movie make-up, and in its heart of hearts, Hellboy is part of that class. It’s just the touching the story about a concerned father whose son must find his own way in life. The son, of course, is a demon born from dark magic by Nazi occultists trying to bring about the end of the world.
The comic book Hellboy was created by writer and artist Mike Mignola in 1993. It was nearly the end of the comic book boom that started in the mid-80s, but companies were taking chances on creator-owned characters. Mignola doodled Hellboy at a comic book convention, but had no intention of doing anything with it, but that “anything” has become over 25 years of comic books, novels, video games, animated movies, and now three live-action feature films.
The initial Hellboy comic series, “Seed of Destruction” was published in 1994 and forms the basis of the plot for the del Toro movie, which was released 15 years ago this week. Looking back, it was an unusual time for comic book movies, but it was also an unusual time for del Toro. As the renowned Mexican filmmaker climbed the Hollywood ladder, he struggled to keep his voice, and to get the studio to allow Hellboy to be as weird as del Toro wanted it to be, and as weird as it deserved.
Struggle number one: the concept. In “Seed of Destruction” we meet Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (played by British character actor John Hurt), who during the waning days of World Ward II leads a group of commandos to a Scottish island where Nazis are trying to bring about the end of the world. The Nazis, who are led by the “mad monk” Grigori Rasputin, are foiled from opening a porthole to bring a Cthulhu-like creature to Earth, but something else comes to Earth instead, a baby demon the soldiers dub “Hellboy”. The first studio note? Does Hellboy really need to be a demon?
Apparently, studio suits thought it was sensible that a bright red demon with shaved horns, a tail, and stone right hand could be something more like the Hulk; Hellboy would be an otherwise human looking guy that would turn red when angry. The counter proposal was the Hellboy could still be from hell, but we would look just like a normal guy, perhaps played by Vin Diesel.
Both del Toro and Mignola agreed though that their first (and only) pick for the character was Ron Perlman. Perlman was well-known for make-up heavy roles like the TV series Beauty and the Beast, and films like In the Name of the Rose and Quest for Fire, but he was hardly a household name. Fortunately, del Toro had new-found clout from the movie he did previously to Hellboy, another comic book feature called Blade II.
Although del Toro didn’t have a screenwriting credit on Blade II, his aesthetic is all over it. Where as Stephen Norrington’s original Blade had an exaggerated music video style that was more Miami Vice than Dark Shadows, del Toro’s Blade II was straight-up Eastern European gothic with the villainous Reapers, and their three-piece jaw bones and multi-pronged tongues, as misunderstood monsters. Blade II also featured regular del Toro players like Norman Reedus, Luke Goss, Karl Roden, Santiago Segura, and Perlman, whose role as the turncoat Reinhardt ended up serving as an audition tape for Hellboy.
Because of Blade II’s success – and a $40 million opening weekend in 2002 dollars – del Toro finally got Hellboy moving after seven years of trying, and with his preferred star. (Roden, who played one of the bad vampires in Blade II, would also come aboard as Rasputin.) Some studio silliness persisted though, a character named John Meyer was added as a “normal” human to lead the audience though the maze of del Toro oddity, and Doug Jones voice as the amphibian Abe Sapien was replaced in post by the more “commercial” David Hyde Pierce, but otherwise, Hellboy emerged with del Toro’s vision intact.
And it is del Toro’s vision as even Mignola will admit that while del Toro was inspired by his comic book, the director made the material his own. Hellboy, as a character, is almost obsessed with ignoring his otherness and plays up the idea that he’s just a regular guy, with a regular job, and is in love with a woman who’s uncertain about loving him back. Here, del Toro translates through Hellboy his passion and admiration for the original Universal monster movies, and the idea that monsters can teach us more about human nature than humans can.
Perlman’s portrayal of Hellboy is far from otherworldly, and more in the mold of the typical American slacker. You can be born in Hell, but you can still be a cigar-chomping, junk food-eating, kitten loving Joe Lunchbox whose J.O.B. is to hunt monsters. Hellboy laments travelling around in a covert garbage truck, that his existence is a secret, and that his girl wants so desperately to be part of the “regular” world that he can never be a part of.
“..del Toro translates through Hellboy his passion and admiration for the original Universal monster movies, and the idea that monsters can teach us more about human nature than humans can.”
Superhero movies, in their heart, are about acceptance. Another comic book movie that came out in 2004, Spider-Man 2, was also about acceptance as Peter Parker struggles balancing his normal life desires with his costumed responsibilities as Spider-Man. Interestingly, the pivot for both heroes is in their films is opening up to the women they love, but the more traditional romance of Spider-Man is more about freak solidarity as Hellboy promises the “pyro-kinetic” Liz Sherman (played by Selma Blair) that he’ll never give up on her, and that he’ll always look as good as he does.
Finding camaraderie among outcasts has always been a theme for del Toro, but in 2004 that was a hard sell in even comic book movie. Guardians of the Galaxy, and its message of losers sticking together and that a-holes can save the world, was still 10 years away, so the audience attention went to more straightforward superhero throwbacks like Spider-Man or Pixar’s The Incredibles. For Peter Parker and Bob Parr life was hell, but it wasn’t their home address.
Of course, maybe hell was the wrong theme for the cinema at the time. Hellboy opened a few weeks after The Passion of the Christ, which meant the Son of God had to share multiplex space with the son of a demon. Cinematic irony, and an audience perhaps unprepared for a full dose of del Toro’s tastes, meant that Hellboy was a box office disappointment even though it was a critical success.
After Hellboy, del Toro made Pan’s Labyrinth, which gave him further critical clout to make a bigger budget Hellboy sequel called The Golden Army. With this film, del Toro loosened himself further from comic book Hellboy lore, and more fully engage in his monsters are people idealism. The film’s villain, Prince Nuada, rejects the displacement and abuse of magical beings by the human world, as Hellboy himself struggles with what now might be cynically called “adulting”.
Again, Hellboy was critically well-received, but release date karma worked against it as The Golden Army opened one-week ahead of The Dark Knight. And although The Golden Army did make more money than the original, it was not enough to get a studio to give del Toro a big enough cheque to complete his Hellboy trilogy.
Next, Hellboy will be remade. Neil Marshall’s version of the character will be released in theatres next week, and it promises to be much more in line with the character’s comic book origins. Marshall, who has solid horror credentials thanks to Dog Soldiers and The Descent, will likely deliver a Hellboy movie worthy of fans in terms of action and theme, but will it have heart?
It’s very rare in the realm of comic book movies that the material can be truly adapted well. Comic book fans demand the characters be translated as they enjoyed them on the printed page, but that’s sometimes tricky because characters change and evolve over the decades with each new writer and artistic team. In the case of Hellboy though, del Toro made the character his own while still honouring what came of Mignola’s original doodle.
Whether or not audiences want a more conventional Hellboy, is still to be determined. Talk about all things Hellboy (old and new) with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, and the Horror Movie Fiend Club Group on Facebook!