The Dark Knight (Dennis O'Neil)
Released in 2008, the middle film in director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy stunned audiences around the world. From Heath Ledger's iconic Joker to a plot fraught with tension and expertly paced, this movie was the summer blockbuster at its finest. As such, longtime Batman writer Dennis O'Neil has his hands full with this adaptation, as he must capture many of the legendary elements of the film while fitting in enough back story and deleted scenes to make the experience worthwhile even to those who have seen the film a dozen times. Is this offering up for the challenge?
The first sign that this book may not be up to the high standards of its source material is the extremely long recap at the beginning of the book. We are filled in on the events of Batman Begins, the principal characters, and so on for about the first twenty pages of the book. The bank heist that kick starts the movie doesn't even appear until page 25, an utter pacing failure that gives us a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the book.
From there, it's mostly just a play-by-play re-telling of the film. There are few vignettes that go deeper into the stories of some of the most minor characters, but otherwise you'd get close to the same experience simply reading the screenplay. The story is still a fantastic one, and nothing is missing, so the book gets a few bonus points for simply being associated with such a taut summer blockbuster, but it doesn't define those scenes in any interesting ways. It uses the same perspectives and the same descriptions that we saw on film, and for that reason it is a quick, unsatisfying read.
The rapid fire events that conclude the movie are another major failing for this book. Here things get condensed so that some of the best and most memorable scenes, Joker at the hospital, the ferries, Harvey kidnapping Gordon's family, etc all take place within about fifty pages. It feels completely rushed and manages to totally miss the emotional heft of these critical scenes. It also makes the filler at the beginning of the book look even worse because there was no reason to pad the book at the start when it was in such dire need of a proper ending that does justice to the phenomenal scenes that close out the story.
If there's one tiny compliment that can be attributed to experiencing this story in prose format, it's that the events of the story are much easier to follow. While the film moves at a rapid pace and explains things so quickly that a second or third viewing is necessary, the book, mostly due to its medium and not any particularly skill of the author, doesn't have this problem. It's a great way to get the events of the story in one setting, but for all the entertainment value you may as well just read the summary on Wikipedia.
One of the great things about novelizations is that they can take you into the minds of the characters as the action unfolds. This is not the best example of that however, as this literally never happens in The Dark Knight. Instead, about all we get are biographical details, even for characters who barely have a presence in this book. The Scarecrow is a prime example of this. Immediately after the opening heist concludes, we are treated to about 15 pages of background information on a character that appears in one scene in the entire film. Filler much? We don't get nearly as much insight on the Joker (this is probably for the better, but still,) Rachel Dawes, Alfred, Gordon, or Batman. Harvey Dent is the character who most benefits from his appearance in this novel. We are treated to quite a bit about his history, and learn about the fates of his parents, a tragic end that is compared and contrasted to the demise of Bruce Wayne's own mother and father. It isn't essential, especially when it isn't even the driving force behind his villainous actions later in the story, but does help us to better understand Dent's motivations to get where he is in life, and it's the kind of thing this book needed much more of. Lucius Fox is the only other major character to be fleshed out beyond what we saw in the film, and once again the focus is more on his history than on his actual character and his internal status during the events of the film. More than anything else, this is the most disappointing aspect of The Dark Knight's novelization. There are so many great characters here, and while it's understandable that someone like the Joker may be off limits, there are still plenty of deserving characters who are utterly mistreated by this superficial re-telling of the film.
The prose itself is another huge letdown, most notably where dialogue is concerned. Capturing Heath Ledger's Joker would be a near herculean task for anyone, there are just so many layers to the character. Instead of making an effort, we are treated to nothing more than the same lines he said in the film with some quotation marks and maybe a bland adjective or two. There's no attempt made to capture the righteous insanity, the depravity, of this Joker, which effectively mutes the Oscar-worthy performance that went into performing those lines on the silver screen. The same can be said of all the characters; it's the most basic translation of their lines imaginable, and one that is totally flavorless. If you want to get anything out of the dialogue, you'd be better off playing the film as you read the book and simply skipping over the listless attempt at capturing the dialogue made in this book.
There's really nothing about the prose that is particularly praise worthy, it doesn't try to translate any of the bigger ideas that the film talked about, the tone is barely established, and the descriptions of Gotham compare in no way to the cinematography of the film. This is not the epic Revenge of the Sith novelization, with its poetic waxing about the end of the age of heroes, or anything so ambitious, but a bland re-telling in every way imaginable that is not worthy of one of Batman's most influential creators in the 1970s.
The Dark Knight may be one of the greatest superhero films ever, but the novelization leaves much to be desired. A hollow Joker, near total lack of additional content, and lifeless writing make this something that even fans of the movie will be able to pass on.