I was a teenage Dredd head
'Judge Dredd' has reached Hollywood at last. Nicholas Barber, a former contributor, wonders what's been lost in translation
Sunday 16 July 1995
But not all superheroes are the same. The Power Rangers were made for TV. Batman and Superman are American characters who have been interpreted by hundreds if not thousands of writers over the decades. Judge Dredd and Tank Girl, on the other hand, are British, and their comic adventures have been kept lovingly consistent by a few possessive creators. Turn them into American films and you've instantly got problems. Will the studio script armies and executive-associate-supervising-co-ordinators drain their charges of their essence? With Tank Girl, the movie, the answer has been a resounding yes. What of Judge Dredd? The film-makers can get the costume right, they can recreate the weaponry, but can they manage the irony?
Judge Dredd first appeared in issue two of the British weekly science- fiction comic 2000 AD in 1977. A unique success story in British comics, 2000AD has kept its readers ever since with tales that are bizarre, stupid, satirical, violent, usually good, sometimes bad, but never patronising. The movie's release coincides with its 950th issue. Before I ever bought 2000AD as a boy, its presence on the newsagents' shelves promised a world that was cooler and more subversive than anything else offered to children. One cover would have a two-year-old baby waving a gun; on another there would be a green-skinned, fire-breathing, cloven-hooved alien - and he was the good guy. Then there was Judge Dredd, lantern-jawed lawman of the future, whose serialised death-dealing would continue week after week as other, lesser characters came and went. He was the creation of the illustrator Carlos Ezquerra and two writers, Pat Mills and John Wagner. For 15 years, Wagner's writing partner on Judge Dredd has been Alan Grant. "John started it as a science-fiction story for laughs," says Grant, "but it's now a cultural comment on the way things are, and the way things could be if you extrapolate what's happening now into the future. At the heart of Judge Dredd there lies a paradox, which is that Dredd is a hero, but Dredd is also an authoritarian, fascist bastard. The judges don't just uphold the law, the judges make the law. They're not elected. So we were making a sympathetic hero out of someone who had been brainwashed into thinking he was superior to everyone else. He's basically a one-dimensional character, like Wile E Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. The three-dimensionality comes from the craziness of the city."
The city is the economically named Mega-City One. In the 22nd century, the story goes, most of the Earth's surface is uninhabitable radioactive desert (in 1977, post-apocalypic futures were the only kind imagined). The population of the world is crammed into a few Mega-Cities, where tens of thousands of people are housed in skyscraping City Blocks. Unemployment is total, and the unhinged citizens pass the time in ever crazier ways. They have plastic surgery to make themselves ugly; they eat until they weigh half a tonne each; they take up spot-welding as a hobby; they fly around on jet-powered surfboards. Mostly, they shoot each other, or are shot by the judges, the unaccountable, unemotional government / police force.
My own teenage 2000AD writings comprised a dozen Tales of the Unexpected- type one-offs, two of which were set in Mega-City One. One was about a man who lived his whole life without ever stepping outside his Block; another was about a Cadet Judge who had to be lobotomised when he was expelled from the Justice Academy. Not remembered as classics, as far as I'm aware, but I like to think I was obsessive enough a fan to get the Mega-City tone right.
Whether the Judge Dredd film does the same, I'm not so sure. The metropolis is dark and drizzly ( Bladerunner), when it should be bright, sterile and plastic. The Chief Judge makes a speech about standing "for freedom not for repression", which isn't true at all. Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd (who never takes off his helmet in the comic, and almost never puts it on in the film) slurs clanging lines like, "My whole life is a lie," and, "You said I had no feelings, no emotions. Now you know why." Pah! The real Dredd wouldn't waste time with this self- analysis when there were drokking creeps to arrest. Besides, we fans had hoped that Schwarzenegger, not Stallone, would get the part.
David Bishop, editor of the 2000AD spin-off Judge Dredd, The Megazine, is unconcerned by the alterations. "We've come out of it quite well," he says. "Certain things have affected the approach they've taken. Because of the Robocop films, they couldn't use some of the comic's dark humour and satire." (Robocop, an invincible lawman whose upper face was covered by his helmet, and who strafed crime in a future dystopia, is generally agreed to owe more than a little to Judge Dredd.)
Bishop was not consulted by the film-makers, though artists who have worked for him helped to design the film, including Kevin Walker (I'm not one to boast, but he drew two of my stories - always knew he'd go far) and Chris Halls. "We've had a lot of input by association," says Bishop. "If they'd made it more like the comic they would have pleased a few Dredd fans but irritated millions of film viewers. This way I think most of them will come out happy. Some of the writers and artists won't like it, but that's down to their personal, political viewpoints."
This comment could be directed at Alan Grant, whom I spoke to the day after he had seen the film. Strangely, he had a stint writing the Robocop comic - a spin-off of a movie inspired by his comic - and was at the helm of one of the Batman comic titles when the Tim Burton film came out, so he has seen just about every way a comic can transfer to the big screen and back. The Dredd film? "My opinions of it are so low that they are unprintable. It's hard to believe they employed a script writer." One of Grant's objections is the film's political slant: "It's often said, and I'm afraid it's true, that Americans don't have much of a sense of irony. They read all those hundreds of ironic stories we wrote and they thought we were doing it for real. It's my greatest fear realised: a film supporting a political ideology that I find abhorrent. I don't want to be completely negative about it. It is visually stunning, and it's only a movie after all. But it's a movie that kids are going to watch, and its values are very, very suspect."
Grant lays most of the blame at the star- studded door of Sylvester Stallone: "The story was subservient to Stallone, who, I think, takes himself too seriously. I've never met the guy but I've seen interviews with him and his views are a little far to the right for my liking."
Surprisingly, interviews with Film Review magazine suggest that Stallone understood the concept of the character better than his director, 27-year- old, London-born, 2000AD fan Danny Cannon. "I loved the irony of the character," Stallone says. "I felt a real responsibility for maintaining a character that was 25 years in the making. [Eighteen, actually, but who's counting?] ... Dredd? A role model? You've got to be kidding! This guy's a nut!"
Cannon, on the other hand, describes his vision as "Star Wars meets Ben Hur ... I wanted to reintroduce an old-fashioned hero into a very savage society complete with timeless mystique, King Arthur honour and fall-of- the-Roman-empire glamour. It's as much a dazzling passion play as a science- fiction fantasy."
As Dredd himself might say, what the drokk are you on about? Danny Cannon, you have been judged and found guilty ...
! 'Judge Dredd' (15) opens nationwide on Friday.
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