Swamp Thing (1982) From Comic Book to Screen

In 1971 writer Len Wein and legendary artist Bernie Wrightson created one of the most iconic and more interesting creations to ever grace the pages of DC Comics Swamp Thing, and then roughly ten years later Wes Craven tried to bring this tortured heroes story to the big screen. Originally just a stand-alone horror story that appeared in an issue of House of Secrets the story of Swamp Thing was about a scientist named Alex Olsen who was murdered by his jealous partner in a lab explosion because the man had the hots for Alex’s wife. Later a shambling muck encrusted mockery of a man would rise out of the swamp to get his revenge and save his dear wife from the clutches of the real monster. Much in the manner of the classic EC Comics this story struck a chord with readers and DC wanted to capitalize on it quickly with a continuing story but neither Wein nor Wrightson were interested. Lucky for us the two eventually decided they didn’t have to continue with the character of Alex Olsen and his muck encrusted life but could instead create a new swamp monster to be an ongoing star.

Issue one of the new Swamp Thing hit newsstands in late 1972 where it kept a little of the origin from the House of Secrets issue but dumped the nasty love triangle and replaced it with corporate espionage. Alec Holland and his lovely wife Linda are scientists working in an out-of-the-way lab deep within the Louisiana swamps on a secret bio-restorative that could end world hunger by making plants that could grow in even the most hostile environment. A trio of corporate goons led by a man named Ferret show up at Holland’s door requesting to buy his formula for a private organization run by ruthless man known simply as Mister E.  Alex of course refuses and the goons leave as a patrol car approaches, but when the nefarious trio return and Alex again refuses their offer the men knock him unconscious and plant a bomb in the lab, he wakes up just in time to catch the full force of the blast and the mixture of chemicals that made up his formula, and wreathed in flames the poor scientist runs into the cool embrace of the swamp.

Linda is later shot and killed by Ferret as Alex, in his new form as Swamp Thing, arrives too late to save her, but the bigger failure in this tale is that of the character Matt Cable who was the government agent in charge of keeping the project top secret and the Holland’s safe. To say he dropped the ball on this one would be a colossal understatement. Cable quickly becomes this comic’s version Inspector Gerard as he wrongly blames Swamp Thing for the death of Alec and Linda and pursues the creature across the globe. Those familiar with the late 70s television version of The Incredible Hulk will remember the reporter McGee basically falling for that same assumption as for five seasons he tried to catch the Hulk who he believed was responsible for the death of David Banner and his wife.

What made Swamp Thing standout amongst all the superhero mags of the time was that though he could cross paths with Batman this title was very much a “monster magazine” and Swamp Thing spent his first dozen issues battling the likes of a Frankenstein monster, werewolves, witches and even an ancient evil right out of the pages of H.P. Lovecraft, but his most notorious and long-lasting nemesis was the vile mad scientist/sorcerer Anton Arcane. In a bid to achieve immortality Arcane spent years creating “synthetic men” in his Balkan castle, these Un-Men as he called them also worked as his servants/slaves and when Arcane became aware of the existence of Swamp Thing he sent these minions to retrieve the muck monster. Arcane’s plan was to give Alec back his human body while taking the Swamp Thing body for himself, and at first this seemed like a great idea to Alec until he overheard the madman planning to use the power of Swamp Thing to take over the world. Needless to say things don’t go all that well for Arcane as Alec gets his body back and the evil sorcerer ended up falling from the parapets of his castle to the gorge far below. Of course that isn’t the end of Arcane who would later return in a grotesque body that was cobbled together and resurrected by his Un-Men.

Swamp Thing is one of my all-time favorite characters and when I heard a major motion picture was being produced about him I was thrilled to death, but alas the final result didn’t quite capture the magic that oozed off the pages found in the work by Wein and Wrightson. I’m not sure what I was expecting but a movie about a globetrotting swamp monster battling supernatural forces would have been a hard sell to any studio and even harder to realize practically, especially if the studio behind it was Embassy Pictures which was most known for such low budget productions as The Manitou, Phantasm and The Fog. Enter director Wes Craven the man who at the time had brought the world The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, a talented man to be sure but not an obvious choice to helm a movie based on a comic book.

Regardless of the end product the poster was pretty nifty.

The 1982 movie called Swamp Thing could be classified as a prime example of an comic book adaptation where the filmmakers most likely flipped through some issues of the comics, taking a few notes and character names, and then kind of went off in their own direction paying little to no heed to the source material. Now the movie does hit the key points of the Swamp Thing origin story; scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is caught in a fiery explosion in his lab when unscrupulous characters try to steal his formula and his burning body falls into the swamp only later to be reborn as moss encrusted mockery of a man.

A couple of character names from the comic books are referenced but they are so far off model to be hardly recognizable but one of the biggest changes, and actually a pretty interesting one, is the turning of the gender of Matt Cable into that of female government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau). By turning Cable into a woman (the character of Linda Holland (Nannette Brown) is now Alec’s sister) the story is allowed to move quickly towards a nice Beauty and the Beast motif. Of course the Beauty and the Beast aspect did crop up in the comic books but that came much later and dealt with Abigail Arcane, the niece of the villainous Anton Arcane.

“A tale as old as time.”

As big as the change of Cable’s sex may be from the source material it’s not as radical as movie’s the depiction of Anton Arcane who in the comics was a decrepit looking old man, a scientist and master of the dark arts, whose goal for immortality led him to create various monsters until he set his sights on taking Swamp Things body for his own.  The version we get in the movie has Arcane (Louis Jourdan) depicted as being a cultured European, and rather handsome looking for an older gentleman, who is after Holland’s formula strictly for it profitability. So basically the filmmakers have taken the character of Mister E from the comic, who ran the mysterious organization knows as The Covenant and had hired Ferret to get the formula, and then stuck that motive onto Arcane. Gone is the medieval castle atop a dark Balkan mountain to be replaced by an antebellum plantation house located in the selfsame swamp.

Anton Arcane, the suave villain of the movie.

Note: One of Arcane’s mercenaries in the movie is named Ferret (David Hess) just so that we have some more evidence that Wes Craven or somebody involved at least looked at the comic.

The combining of Mister E and Anton Arcane is completely understandable as the first one is important to the creation of the hero while the second one is easily a more interesting villain.  I do miss Arcane’s more mystic roots but these are the kind changes one must expect when adapting a long running comic book series into a ninety minute movie.

The other key factor behind some of the changes made from the source material is of course the filmmakers limited budget. According to actress Adrienne Barbeau the original script she was offered differed greatly from the finished product and Wes Craven has made no secret that the Completion Bond people road him like a rented mule to keep the film on schedule and under budget.  Apparently the whole finale of the film was to take place in an underwater grotto which was quickly axed by the men in suits, but that is the nature of the beast when working on a low budget genre film.

As a director you may hope to end up with something wonderful like Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires but more often than not the result is going to end up closer to something like From Hell It Came. At a quick glance the first and most obvious example of the film’s low budget has to be the suit. The Swamp Thing suit built by the effects and make-up team was made out of simple rubber and wrinkled and folded noticeably whenever stunt actor Dick Durock moved, and gone is the massive broad chested figure of the Swamp Thing in its place is this…

Not the most imposing or striking figure in the world.

Changes due to budgetary reasons aside one of the more serious alterations from the source material is the nature of Alec Holland’s formula; in both the comic and in the movie its purpose was to end world hunger by making plants that could survive in adverse conditions (the movie did tweak things a bit by updated it from a bio-restorative formula to one that dealt with recombinant DNA), but in the movie the formula not only makes an orchid grow into the size of a bush and wooden floorboard sprout new branches it also turn people into monsters. In the comic it was being doused with the formula and his burning immersion in the swamp that changed Alec Holland into a vegetation based creature, but in this movie apparently just drinking the formula will turn you into a monster. Arcane gives a taste of the formula to his lumbering henchman Bruno (Nicholas Worth) and quickly the once giant brute turns into a rodent faced dwarf.  It is only later that Arcane learns from Holland why this is the case, “What Bruno took was what changed me; it only amplifies your essence. It simply makes you more of what you already are.” So Bruno being a bit of a simpleton his outer appearance changed to match his inner self.

Bruno looking like an outcast from The Island of Doctor Moreau.

What makes little to no sense is that Arcane than deduces that with his evil genius intellect the formula will make him into a creature even more powerful than Holland and so he drinks some of the formula himself. This guys was supposed to be a genius?  What an idiot, has he never heard of control tests? He has no idea if Holland’s “amplify your essence” theory is right, and far as anyone knows the swamp water that incubated Holland may have been a key ingredient thus Arcane’s decision to immediately try it on himself moves him out of the evil genius category into one composed of complete morons.

Now let’s go with the best case scenario and the formula somehow turns you into a big and powerful creature and not a rodent dwarf, you’re still a monster and not one who is going to be invited to many fancy dress parties.  In the comic book Arcane was in a frail dying body and his plan involved moving into Swamp Thing’s body, a powerful figure that he realized could use to great effect in taking over the world, or at least the Balkans, and not just some role of the dice formula that could turn him into a boar…literally.

Is this better than looking like Louis Jourdan?

As plot points go not only is this out of character for a supposedly intelligent person but it also goes against his original motives of stealing the plant formula to become even richer. Sure a character can see new opportunities and change his goals but I can’t see being turned into a slavering beast being anyone’s endgame. Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing is not a terrible movie, and has certainly garnered some nice cult status over the years, but as an adaptation of the Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson comic book it falls drastically short. What would the end product have been if Craven had a bigger budget and full script control? We may never know what that version of the the film would have been like but though flawed the one we got is still worth checking if you are fans of either the genre or Wes Craven.

Note: A few years later director Jim Wynorski gave us The Return of the Swamp Thing and though it had a better suit for Swamp Thing it was a decidedly campier outing

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.