Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen. (Last week: Tank Girl)
The Source Material
Judge Dredd was originally a character in the comic book anthology series 2000 AD, developed and published in the UK beginning in 1977. Dredd himself first appeared in the anthology’s second issue and has appeared in almost every issue since, with the most recent series ending in 2015.
The series revolves around the career of Judge Joseph Dredd, a man who serves as judge, jury, and executioner in Mega-City One in the 22nd century. The Judges are the only law enforcement in the dystopian world of 2000 AD, answering only to a system of higher ranking Judges.
Mega-City One is a sprawling metropolis that contains more than twice the population it was built to sustain, forcing architects to continue building skyward. The city is a crime-ridden cesspool, and the Judges struggle to maintain a semblance of order within it. Dredd is infamous among criminals for his strict adherence to the law, and his harsh punishments for breaking it.
Judge Dredd (and his brother Rico Dredd) were cloned from the DNA of the first chief Judge in 2066. The two were forced to fight in the Atomic Wars, and later Joe was forced to arrest Rico and sentence him to exile on Titan. Rico came back to get revenge on Joe, but was too slow because of the change in gravity back on Earth. After Joe kills Rico, he refuses help from a nearby paramedic, ending the story with a line from a Hollies song – “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother!”
Over the years Dredd has interacted with a number of other Judges, including female Judges Hershey and Anderson. Hershey is originally Dredd’s sidekick, though she later becomes Chief Judge, while Anderson is a member of the Judge’s Psi unit, using her psychic powers to help the law.
Judge Dredd made such an imprint on British pop culture that the Royal Mail included the character in a 2012 stamp collection that required approval from the Queen herself.
The first Judge Dredd film adaptation was released in 1995, starring Sylvester Stallone as the eponymous hero. The film received very poor reviews and currently stands at an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. Stallone grunts and yells his way through the movie, and as such his dialogue is often indecipherable. Judge Dredd is a basic mid-90s action movie wrapped in the trappings of the comic book, but it is not a true adaptation by any means. The plot revolves around Rico (Armand Assante) framing Dredd for the murder of a reporter that was critical of him. Judge Hershey (Diane Lane) serves as Dredd’s defense lawyer, but she fails and he is sentenced to life imprisonment.
The film also stars Rob Schneider, Max Von Sydow, and Joanna Miles and was directed by Danny Cannon.
The second film adaptation, simply titled Dredd, did a bit better critically and at the box office and created a cult following. Directed by Alex Garland and released in 2012, Dredd follows the Judge (Karl Urban) on his first mission with rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). They are sent to the towering Peach Trees block, run by the villainous drug kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Ma-Ma ends up locking down the tower and trapping the Judges inside. They must fight their way to the top floor of the building, where Ma-Ma awaits them.
The film was criticized for being overly violent and for lacking the satirical tone of the comic books, but it received praise for special effects, casting, and action sequences.
In an odd bit of coincidence, both films share a runtime of 95 minutes.
The 1995 version of Judge Dredd feels like a cobbled together mishmash of other popular science-fiction action-adventures from the era, including Total Recall, RoboCop, and particularly Stallone’s own Demolition Man. The cast is bizarre, a combination of the capable and the abominable, all forced to share the screen. Lane and Sydow are both pretty good, and some of the side characters are good, but Stallone and Schneider are both awful (to no one’s surprise, really.)
The characters have no real motivation, or their motivations are poorly defined and overly simple. Rico is so arch he’s like a Bond villain on steroids, maniacally laughing his way through the movie because his job is to be the bad guy. For an action movie, Judge Dredd is boring. There are long scenes of unnecessary explanations in dialogue, trying to define the world of Mega-City One without really showing it.
The one thing Judge Dredd has going for it is the production design. The Dredd costume was designed by Versace and is actually pretty cool – the design of Mega-City One and props are also good. (Most of it looks like Total Recall, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing).
Judge Dredd was allegedly plagued with production issues because Stallone and Cannon couldn’t agree on anything. Stallone wanted more funny parts while Cannon wanted to keep the story grim. It was also intended to be a PG-13 film to appease the film’s producers at Disney, but it ultimately earned an R for violence. In addition to bad acting and bad writing, Judge Dredd also features glaring inconsistencies with the comics. A scene in which Judge Hershey kisses Dredd raised the ire of fans, and the fact that Dredd frequently removes his helmet (a taboo in the comics) also negated the character’s credibility.
Dredd, on the other hand, nails the title character. Urban bears the character’s trademark grimace throughout, and never once removes his helmet. He is mysterious and doesn’t talk much, which works for the character and the world. Headey’s Ma-Ma is a much more complex villain than Assante’s Rico; she’s a hardened former prostitute hurt by men and forced to take things into her own hands. The movie also uses some of the best slow-motion in film history when characters take the drug Slo-Mo, which makes everything slow down tremendously while sparkling and shining. The slow motion action sequences are gorgeous to look at, even in their extreme violence.
While Judge Dredd stole from a number of films, Dredd has been accused of stealing from only one: the 2011 Indonesian action thriller The Raid: Redemption. Both films are brutally violent and feature law enforcement fighting their way up the levels of large buildings, but the similarities end there. It is unlikely that this similarity was anything more than coincidence, as Dredd’s screenplay was written in 2008 and production began in 2010.
Dredd is a non-stop action flick that never feels boring. It keeps things simple and explains the world and premise using visuals and quick flashbacks. The special effects are stellar, the acting is great, and the movie itself is just satisfyingly fun. It’s dark and grim but manages to maintain a great pace and deliver loads of action.
Dredd‘s fanbase has been demanding a sequel for years, but it looks unlikely. Fans of the comic should count themselves lucky that they got at least one good adaptation, even if it came 17 years after a less-than-stellar one. There are rumors of a television series with Urban in the role on the horizon, which would be quite a nice cherry on top.