ADAPT THIS: “Underground” by Jeff Parker & Steve Lieber
Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber's adaptation-friendly comic proves that you don't need creepy monsters to make a scary-as-hell story about cave explorers.
With Hollywood turning more of its attention to the world of graphic novels for inspiration, I’ll cast the spotlight on a new comic book each week that has the potential to pack a theater or keep you glued to your television screens. At the end of some “Adapt This” columns, you’ll also find thoughts from the industry’s top comic creators about the books they’d like to see make the jump from page to screen.
This Week’s Book: Underground by Jeff Parker (w) and Steve Lieber (a)
The Premise: When two rangers investigating a local cave get caught up in a violent dispute over the land, they’re forced to flee into the depths of the mountain to evade their pursuers. As they venture further into the cavern, the rangers must use all of the tools at their disposal to get out alive and avoid the criminals chasing them.
The Pitch: Imagine all the claustrophobic terror of “The Descent” without the creepy monsters, and you’ll understand the appeal of Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber’s five-issue miniseries.
Originally published in 2010, Underground is a tense, frightening story about subterranean survival that also captures all the best aspects of a classic chase film, with its main characters on the run from thugs who outnumber, outgun, and outmuscle them — but can’t outwit them.
Both “The Descent” and “Buried” received heaps of praise for tapping into the scare factor of dark, confined spaces, and Underground succeeds in not only making that environment the centerpiece of the story, but also making the cave a character of sorts. Throughout the story, each twist and turn presents both the rangers and their pursuers with a new challenge, whether it’s submerged lakes, narrow passageways, deep caverns, or darkness-dwelling animals of one sort or another.
There have been one or two films set in caves over the years, but like “The Descent” most of them resort to blending the natural fears that accompany spelunking with some sort of supernatural or science-fiction element. Underground, on the other hand, has its human characters facing a very human threat — though the danger comes as much from the gun-wielding criminals pursuing them as it does from the inner workings of the mountain.
Given the right amount of imagination, a talented filmmaker could find some creative camera angles and set pieces to capture the scope of the cast’s predicament, giving audiences more than a few reasons to squirm as the film’s characters find themselves moving ever deeper into the darkness. This, combined with the relationship of the two rangers — who we know to be more than just professional colleagues — could likely make for some interesting juxtapositions of tight squeezes and two people deciding whether they’re getting too close for comfort.
Finally, while Parker and Lieber did a great of developing their principle characters in five issues, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the two rangers, as well as the criminals on their trail. Developing Underground into a feature-length film leaves ample room for a writer to shape the characters and give them more depth, which is always a nice way to flex creative muscles and put your stamp on a story.
The Closing Argument: In many ways, Underground combines the tense, dramatic narrative of an Alfred Hitchcock film with the natural terror of being trapped in a dark, uncertain place. The fact that the “place” is a massive cavern only opens the door to a long list of additional, environmental sources of fear, whether it’s bats, pits that appear to be bottomless, or watery tunnels that may or may not be your only escape route.
In the right hands, an “Underground” movie could be the scariest thing to hit the screen in a long time, and finally bridge the gap between celebrated scare-fests and critical darlings.
Adapt This, Jeff Parker, Steve Lieber, Underground