Purists are easy to deride. People who loved Transformers were enraged at so many modifications made to the characters as they were put to use in the live-action adaptations. But any honest person has to confess many films and the occasional television series has gone awry from being too faithful to the letter of source material (Watchmen comes to mind in this regard). Here the focus will be on the Joker and the argument will be we have yet to see a proper rendition on the big screen (I’m not counting certain interesting videogame versions). Before beginning, one has to concede the Cesar Romero interpretation, whatever its genuine brilliance, was too tame by half to truly merit the top spot yet an argument can be made this is the closest to seeing the Joker in the flesh.
The Jack Nicholson version is, unfortunately, too easy to dismiss. Jack is playing … well Jack. Which is fine. Fun. Great. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the Joker of the comic books. But then Tim Burton’s Batman is also his own creation and very far from the original source. Many people have, however, truly been smitten by the Heath Ledger performance. The biggest problem is that the inspiration is not the Joker character itself but A Clockwork Orange and Alex. One can say many things about A Clockwork Orange but apolitical it is not.
The Joker, on the other hand, is apolitical. He is not for anarchy. Or fascism. Or any –ism. That’s the delightful thing about the character: he’s completely nuts. No discernible or logic except his mad whims at any single moment. The sheer unpredictable nature of the character is what gives him the power to last so long. Its hard to figure out what exactly drives the character and this has allowed a lot of clashing but powerful interpretations by Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and others in the comics.
Ledger’s Joker is certainly a powerful and scary rendition. But it remains his and not really the Joker as canonically understood. Does it matter? Well, yes, it actually does. Reading Nabokov’s Lolita one gets an immediate impression Humbert Humbert is a tragic but comic figure. Kubrick’s Lolita concentrated on the comedy. The next adaptation concentrated on the tragedy. To say there is a missing half is an understatement in both cases.
Nicholson’s Joker was genuinely funny but not scary. It was an intentionally fantastic performance. Ledger made Joker frightening but had barely any real sense of stupid joviality. One might chicken out and have the animated Joker of the Animated Series be crowned king but as a kid’s show it couldn’t possibly enter some of the genuinely demented areas that the character has been shown to be capable of. Again, does it matter? Yes, because like Humbert Humbert, a really good character is hard to make and maintain. Lolita still haunts the cultural landscape and so does Joker – but neither has yet to receive their proper cinematic translation.
One can peddle endless theories but the sad fact is most directors having never grown up with the comic book genre from birth usually encounter generic versions of the Joker and honestly think that is the proper take-off point. Compared to Romero, the Burton attempt at making the Joker a crazed artists comes off as, at least, adventurous. But compared to the comic book character, both seem rather tame and docile. This isn’t to argue that a Joker interpretation need be a bloody one anymore than Superman has to be all smiles in order to be effective. Christopher Reeves gave the part a lot through his comic timing and deft use of physicality (which made his “bad” version of Superman truly spooky and, occasionally, hair-raising).
Purist demands, to be sure, shouldn’t always be granted. Going back in time, there were howls of protest of Michael Keaton playing Batman. In retrospect, it’s doubtful even the Bale trilogy, good parts and bad, are going to remain as memorable as Keaton’s version (though a lot of credit goes to his interaction with Michael Gough’s immortal portrayal of Alfred). Changes done properly can yield interesting results. Jim Carey’s Riddler is hardly the Riddler but it has its moments in contrast to the mess that has been of Bane.
But even at basic level of physicality, the Joker seems truly elusive. The Ledger version is too tall and the Nicholson one too short (apparently, no truly thin actors existed to come into the fray). Moreover, there are exceptions like the “latest” version of Spock which will clearly never match the classic Leonard Nimoy interpretation. But, then, its doubtful the new Spock is any realistic attempt to replace our collective image of the character. It’s just an interesting performer but with a canonical interpretation in place not much is lost in experimentation. And that’s the optimistic side of the argument. If a character truly is great then eventually the devil will his due as it were. But in may time a VERY LONG time to wait to see the Joker as the Joker in a proper R-rated or NC-17 rated version for all (adults) to enjoy. Here’s to the future.