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, uh, 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: Fight Club)
The Source Material
Long before he created the Gorillaz, British writer and artist Jamie Hewlett worked on a fanzine called Atomtan with his friend, Alan Martin. As a joke, the duo liked adding the word “girl” to everything, mocking superheroes like Supergirl and adding their own punk aesthetic to it. Tank Girl was created almost entirely by accident but went on to have a huge cultural following in the UK and around the world.
In 1988, the first Tank Girl comic strip was published in Deadline magazine, a British publication by two of the creators of 2000 AD, best known for its comic Judge Dredd. The strip was well-received, and Tank Girl began to achieve a cult following. Since 1988, Tank Girl strips and stories have been collected into twenty graphic novels, with the most recent one set for release in May of this year. The artists and writers have rotated throughout the years, though most of the books have at least on of the Martin/Hewlett duo on board.
Tank Girl is a bit different from most comics in that it is constantly evolving. With regular shifts in art style and storytelling, the comic can be black and white for one story and full color for the next, or can even be written in a completely non-linear fashion, taking up a whole page with a single panel. Strips drawn by Hewlett are packed to the brim with tiny Easter eggs and in-jokes, from Pixies lyrics to Apocalypse Now references.
Tank Girl is violent, chock-full of nudity and occasional kangaroo sex, and contains lots of swearing. Like its comic book cousin Judge Dredd, Tank Girl is clearly intended for adult audiences only.
So what is Tank Girl about? The comic shares the adventures of Rebecca Buck, a tank-driving, beer guzzling ex-military mercenary who goes by the name “Tank Girl”. Tank and her merry gang of misfits, including boyfriend Booga the mutant kangaroo, Jet Girl, Sub Girl, Barney, and Camp Koala, live in the Australian outback in the “future” of the 1990s. Throughout the course of the comics, Tank has won a bet with the Devil, tried to save the world from apocalypse, gone on a Homeric quest, and given birth to a tiny tank baby while living on Mars. She is a true anti-hero, concerned more with getting a good beer than saving the universe, and she’s got enough spunk and charm to make it work.
Booga’s relationship with Tank is one of the driving forces of the comic, as Booga forces Tank to occasionally behave. Despite being the literal animal of the two, Booga tends to act in ways that are more socially acceptable. His relationship with Tank also changes and grows as the stories progress, forcing the often one-dimensional Tank Girl character into something more complex. The side characters are fun and unique as well, and its easy to find favorites in the mix, whether it’s the super-gay stuffed plush Camp Koala, quiet-but-deadly Jet Girl, drugged-and-usually-naked Barney, or someone else.
In 1995, MGM tried to capitalize on the riotgrrl movement and released a Tank Girl film starring Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Malcolm McDowell, and rapper Ice-T. The movie takes place in the year 2033 and features Tank trying to stop the evil McDowell character from hoarding all of the world’s water after an 11-year drought. The movie was very poorly received, making only $4 million domestically despite a reported $25 million budget. Critics panned it, fans hated it, Naomi Watts has said she regrets starring in it, and Hewlett and Martin have said the entire experience was terrible. The film developed a cult following, though mostly because of the (decidedly good) soundtrack and an appreciation for how bad the film is.
“The script was lousy – me and Alan Martin kept rewriting it and putting Grange Hill jokes and Benny Hill jokes in, and they obviously weren’t getting it. They forgot to film about ten major scenes so we had to animate them … it was a horrible experience.” – Hewlett in a 2006 interview with Icon magazine
A lot of the elements of the original Tank Girl comic are present in the film, from her hilarious rocket-boobies to a sense of punk rock irreverence for everything, but nothing seems to feel genuine. Lori Petty gives her all as the titular character, but she isn’t quite mean enough or gross enough to bring Tank to life. The film received an R-rating but is nowhere close to as violent or sexual as the comics, with MGM reportedly requiring a number of cuts because they felt certain scenes (including one of Booga and Tank Girl relaxing in bed after sex) were inappropriate.
There are a handful of good things about Tank Girl‘s film adaptation. Despite her regret regarding the movie, Naomi Watts is fantastic as the shy-but-badass Jet Girl. She’s absolutely adorable and provides a good contrast for Petty’s occasionally annoying antics. The look of the film is also as close to what Tank Girl should look like considering the 90s aesthetic, and the animated sequences are great. The soundtrack, featuring Bjork, Joan Jett, Devo, and Portishead, is actually pretty great as well, offering a good selection of mid-90s artists.
Tank Girl is awful because the script is bad, the acting ranges from good to Ice-T being Ice-T in kangaroo makeup, the kangaroo makeup is creepy and awful, and the heavy hand of the studio is so often apparent that the film sometimes feels like a joke. It’s as if someone at MGM said “yeah those kids like that punk stuff, give ’em a punk movie” and then removed all of the punk elements. A large part of Tank Girl’s charm is that she’s chaotic and unfiltered – the movie is so watered down and re-worked that nothing was left of the what made the comic so great.
Part of what makes the Tank Girl movie so frustrating is that it had the potential to be good. Some of the folks working on the movie, including director Rachel Talalay, Petty, Hewlett, and Martin, really cared about the property and wanted to make it right. Talalay reportedly fought MGM on the numerous edits, many of which were required because test audiences didn’t “get it”. There are small moments when the creator’s love of the character shines through, such as Tank Girl’s shower while listening to Portishead’s “Roads”. It’s just not enough to save the movie.
Another critical change to the film is Booga. In the comics, Booga is intelligent. He is a clever young mutant kangaroo who worked as a successful toy designer creating “products Santa would’ve sacrificed a reindeer for” before meeting Tank. In the movie, he’s almost Forrest Gump-level stupid, for what reason no one knows. The other “Rippers” (the movie’s term for the kangaroo mutants) all seem to be as smart as their human counterparts, but Booga is a goofy caricature.
Other characters are missing entirely. Sub Girl was originally in the script but her scenes were cut from the finished film, while Camp Koala, Barney, and Stevie never even made the script.
There is a tiny sliver of hope for Tank Girl comic fans. In 2014, Hewlett and Martin created a Kickstarter campaign to publish a brand-new collection of Tank Girl stories, called 21st Century Tank Girl. The Kickstarter raised three times its goal, with more than 3,000 backers and over $250,000 raised. The comic was then published in single issue format by Titan comics, and has sold well enough that they commissioned a new series from Martin called Two Girls, One Tank, which will debut its first issue on May 18.
A renewed interest in Tank Girl could lead to another movie, this time more closely tied to the original property. The Dredd movie remake based on the Judge Dredd comics did well, much better than the 1995 Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd movie. The timing’s about the same for Tank Girl, so maybe studios will option a hard-R Tank Girl movie in the tradition that the Deadpool movie started. The technology for a CGI Booga is good enough now, the audience is definitely there, now we just need to find a studio with the gonads to take on Tank and do it right.