There are a number of seminal Batman graphic novels adapted to animation (among them The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One), but one of the most anticipated has been 1988's Batman: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland.
The story journeys into the dark psyche of the Joker, from his (possible) humble beginnings as a struggling comedian to his fateful first encounter with Batman that changes both of their lives forever. Years later, the Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum (again) to follow through on a plan based on the notion that one bad day can make anyone as insane as he is. His target: Commissioner James Gordon. It's then up to Batman to save Gordon and stop the Joker while simultaneously trying to broker some sort of peace between them before they kill each other. Following a new prologue focusing on Barbara Gordon's Batgirl fighting alongside the Dark Knight, the film stays true to the original graphic novel, which many fans believe to be one of the Holy Grails in terms of adaptation. With the animated film's release imminent, it's a notion that producer Bruce Timm and actors Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (the Joker) have spent a great deal of time considering.
Bruce Timm (producer): You know, there's a lot of sides to that. On one hand, yeah, it's one of those famous comics from the '80s that kind of brought worldwide attention to comics and to Batman in particular. Tim Burton sited it all the time as his favorite Batman comic around the time he was making the first Batman movie. So obviously it had a big impact. I think it was one of the first really adult Batman stories that DC had ever done. It's pretty seminal.
Kevin Conroy (actor, "Batman"): When I got the role twenty-four years ago [on Batman: The Animated Series], my only exposure had been the Adam West show, which was wonderful, but almost kind of a Warhol take on Batman. A pop art Batman. So they had to bring me up to speed on the Dark Knight, the film noir quality of it and the tragedy of his childhood. Ultimately I just used my imagination and improvised while I was in the studio, because I did not have a lot of background on it. As I brought myself up to speed, Mark Hamill, who's a real maven about this stuff, turned me on to The Killing Joke. I read it and thought, "Now I see what everyone's so excited about. This is a great story."
Mark Hamill (actor, "The Joker"): I can't imagine how people are going to react to this, because I'm a Killing Joke purist. When they first talked about it, I said, "The only way we can do this is as a book on tape so that we honor every comma, every word, every letter, every syllable of Alan Moore's script. We can add music and special effects to enhance it." They kind of said, "What are you talking about? Nobody is doing this as a book on tape. It's not commercially viable for us to do it that way. See if you can get the rights and record it in your basement or something if that's what you want to do. This story has to be expanded." If we just adapted The Killing Joke as an animated film, it would maybe be fifty-five minutes. They've actually done a really incredible job of supplementing it with Barbara Gordon/Batgirl material.
Timm: We thought if we were going to expand this to feature length, we didn't want to just pad out the original story by putting in a bunch of stuff between sequences of the story, because it's literally a whole other half of movie that we could add. So we took that opportunity to basically tell a Batgirl story, which we don't often get a chance to do these days. And it was great, because we could spend more time with her as a character and get to understand what she's all about and how she's similar to Batman in some ways, and really different in others. They come at the crime fighting thing from two completely different places. The good side of that is we get to spend more time with her and learn that she's an interesting character. We get to really like her. The bad side of that is that we get to like her so much that when The Killing Joke part of the story happens, it's, like, "Oh, no!", because we really like her. So it's a double-edged sword.
Hamill: Even that surprised me, how edgy the Batgirl material was. This is not your father's Batman. The one regret I have is that if I was nine years old, there's nothing I would rather see more, yet it really isn't for kids. I hope people understand when they say it's R-rated, they mean it.
Timm: This is actually the third time that The Killing Joke came up for production. The first time, it was because we had told the home video department that chances are if we do this story, it's going to get an R rating. This was years ago, but they said, "We're okay with that, but we're going to kind of hedge our bets monetarily." The idea was because the source material was not really long enough to do a full movie, we were going to do a shorter movie at a lower price point, so that would hopefully offset the loss of sales that we would have by the fact that it wouldn't be an all age title. But right around the time we were ramping up, the Watchmen movie was released and underperformed. Everybody kind of took a step back and said, "Well, maybe the time's not right for an R-rated superhero movie, so put it on the shelf."
A couple of years later, it came up again and we even had started production with character designs and stuff. But then that horrible shooting at the Dark Knight Rises theater happened and everybody got nervous again about it, because of gun violence, so we put it back on the shelf. Go forward a couple of more years and it came up again. At this point we kind of looked at the whole thing and felt if we were going to do it, there were certain things about the original story that had always kind of bothered me. I mean the idea of adapting this story always kind of terrified me, because of how relentlessly grim and bleak it is. And what happens to Barbara Gordon in the story is very controversial to this day.
Hamill: I love the fact that the Joker is so unrelenting in his lack of humanity in this story. He's so extreme that it pushes Batman to the edge of not adhering to his code of honor. Which can happen. You almost question whether or not he's going to make an exception in this case, because the Joker is so extreme. It's chilling stuff. When I'm in character, and, yes, I'm in the studio so I'm not turning into the Joker by any stretch of the imagination, but what I'm saying is that if you're in character and in the zone, you relish it. Then you take a break and you think, "Jesus, what did I just record?" That was really creepy.
Conroy: Despite everything that goes on, the humanity of Batman comes through so much more in this script than many of the others. The struggle of Batman with evil and with wanting to reconcile himself to evil, to subdue evil and actually save the Joker. That's the wonderful thing about this script... actually all the Batman scripts are so psychologically complicated. For an actor, there's a lot of material to sink your teeth into. Batman is such a complicated guy that there's always another realm to go to with him. He's not just the square-jawed action hero, like Superman. You know, "Here I am to save the day." He's this complicated, dark, broody guy and so much fun to play. He's very much locked into a pattern. He's almost the victim of his own success, and he does what he does so well. He's accommodated the tragedies of his childhood by adjusting in such a complete way that I think he feels trapped in there. He doesn't see a way out, which is why no one can really get close to him.
Timm: The thing about The Killing Joke is that it was probably the darkest story that had ever been told with those two characters up until that time. But these characters aren't set in stone. They're, for lack of a better analogy, kind of living characters in terms of who's in charge of telling the story. I'm going to tell different kinds of stories than Scott Snyder's going to tell or Frank Miller's going to tell. I've said this before, but one of the great things about Batman is that there have been so many different iterations of him. Everything from Adam West on the one hand to Christopher Nolan on the other and all the different flavors in between. There are just so many different things you can do with the character, especially Batman's relationship with the Joker. Actually, one of the saving graces of The Killing Joke, one of the things I always liked about it, was that even though it supposedly gives Joker's origin story, Alan Moore kind of hedged his bets by giving the Joker that line towards the end where he says, "Well, sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes I remember it another."
Hamill: When the Joker says, "If I'm meant to have a path, I'd prefer it to be multiple choice," I agree with that. I think it takes a lot of the mystery out of him to do a flashback and show who he was before he was the Joker. When you unmask the Phantom Of The Opera, you go, "Well, that's not so bad. It's like a bad sunburn or something." Unless you're looking at the silent version with Lon Chaney. That was horrifying. It's all about the mystique. It's like taking Darth Vader's helmet off: "Oh, it's just that guy with the egghead and the scars? That's not so scary." With the flashback in this, you get the idea that if it was the Joker telling the story, you could doubt him. He's a pathological liar. I think he's one of those people that lies so much or lives in his own fantasy that he's not even sure if he's lying or telling the truth.
Our truth is that Batman: The Killing Joke will be available on Digital HD beginning July 26th, and on disc August 2nd.