Up until recently, I had no idea that the 1994 film The Crow was based on a successful graphic novel written by James O’Barr. And it’s a weird thing to realize that a movie that had such a profound effect on you as a teenager had a whole other life as a book before it came into your world. And even weirder to realize that there are fans of the graphic novel out there who think the movie is awful.
I was 15 when The Crow came out in theatres, so it’s basically impossible for me to believe that the movie is anything less than perfect (#nostalgia). When I rewatched it recently it became very clear that this film was basically made for me. And when I say “me” I mean all angsty teens of the 90s, of course. The movie looks like every good 90s music video smashed into one, and its soundtrack is one of the best things to come out of that entire decade.
So when I picked up a copy of the James O’Barr graphic novel I was pretty sure I’d like the movie version better, but I ended up liking O’Barr’s version just as much. In the introduction to the special edition of The Crow released in 2017, O’Barr wrote about what inspired him to create the comic back in the early 80s. His girlfriend was killed by a drunk driver while she was on her way to pick him up. “I’d hoped by putting all my murderous fury into ink on paper that somehow, magically, all the pain, hurt, and self-destructive behavior that followed would dissolve.” The inspiration for the story of The Crow is heartbreaking and it comes across in the pages of the book. The movie is a love story at its core, but it’s more superhero than schmaltz.
The movie and the book are pretty different from one another, even though the basic story is the same: Eric comes back from the dead on a chilly October night (Devil’s Night, October 30th, in the movie) to seek revenge on all the people who killed him and, more importantly, the love of his life.
The graphic novel has flashbacks to Shelly and Eric together. They’re just so happy. Until the night it all ends. They’re out on a drive when the car starts acting up. A car-full of guys pulls up and just like that, Eric is getting shot in the head. Then the guys have their way with Shelly and she’s gone, too. Only Eric’s not dead yet. He dies later in the hospital, which is reversed in the movie since Shelly dies later in the hospital while Eric is thrown out a window and dies instantly.
In the book, Eric comes back and kills everyone and makes it look easy. But in the movie, there are moments when Eric sort of gets his ass kicked, which makes the whole thing more interesting. I agree with this point from Mashable: “An audience needs its hero to struggle. The audience needs to think, if only in a superficial way, that the hero might not get the happy ending we think they deserve. So, all the little tweaks begin adding up to a Hollywoodified movie.”
And speaking of Hollywood, there are car chases and sexy scenes added to the movie, as well. Not to mention the fact that in the movie, Eric (named Eric Draven in the film) is in a band called Hangman’s Joke, which means that the movie can have quite a few scenes of a brooding Brandon Lee playing guitar. Guys, I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but Brandon Lee playing guitar makes an excellent addition to the movie.
I was happy to see that the movie had all the bad guys, too. Top Dollar. Funboy. Tin Tin. The movie made Top Dollar into the lead bad guy who is also into some occult stuff, and that isn’t in the book at all. And speaking of not in the book, Sarah in the film takes the place of Sherri from the graphic novel, and she also has a much more important role in the story in the movie version.
In the graphic novel, the crow (the actual bird, not the person) tries to protect Eric and he talks to him, too. He says things like “You were the luckiest man alive, weren’t you, Eric?” And he tries to get him to stop remembering what happened that night him and Shelly were killed. In the final pages of the comic he explains to Eric that none of this was about justice or revenge, but about forgiveness. “Are you mad? I could never forgive them,” says Eric. The crow replies, “Not them, idiot. Yourself. You couldn’t save her, Eric. There was nothing to be done, boy. If you want to leave this in-between place you have to let it go.” Eric calls him a stupid bird, he tells the bird that he hates him. But we all know the bird is right. And it’s at this point that Eric goes home to Shelly, which is what he always wanted.
In general, I’d say that the comic is more poetic than the film. To its credit, the movie has some memorable lines, like “Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.” But it’s hard to compete with the comic when it quotes Voltaire (“One owes respect to the living. To the dead one owes only the truth.”) and includes Joy Division lyrics. In the acknowledgments, O’Barr thanks Joy Division and The Cure for the inspiration and the “courage to explore the darkness.”
Since music was such an influence for James O’Barr when writing The Crow, I think it’s pretty incredible that the filmmakers managed to get such incredible artists, including The Cure, to be part of the soundtrack. I feel lucky that I was a teenager when the movie came out because when you’re that age and you hear music like that for the first time, it really means something to you. It becomes part of your life in a way. If you want to read an in-depth piece on the soundtrack for The Crow, the A.V. Club has a great one on their site.
If you’ve always been a fan of the movie, I recommend reading The Crow as well. It brings a new depth to the story and will make you appreciate the film adaptation even more.