The Nimona movie loses a lot in nerfing the comic’s best relationship

For a old fan from ND Stevenson’s webcomic turned graphic novel, nimona — someone who followed the release of the original comic week-by-week from 2012 to 2014, becoming part of the growing fanbase that hung on to each new cliffhanger and reveal — the release of Netflix’s animated adaptation is a bittersweet moment. It’s exciting that the film has actually been completed and has reached audiences, after Disney took over and sank the project, reportedly (and very credibly, given Disney’s history) from distaste for the story’s central gay couple. And it’s exciting to see that story, and Stevenson’s comics work, find a wider audience.

But there’s still that lingering feeling that fans of a book almost always get when they see it made into a TV or movie. Whether the screen version is well made or not, whether it stands on its own and finds its own audience, there is often still that lonely inner voice that whispers: But you’re not actually telling the story that drew people to this title in the first place.

Stevenson says the movie version preserves the most important thing about his comic: the personality, powers and meaning behind its fiery shape-shifting protagonist Nimona. And he says the movie reflects the backstory he always wanted to put into the comic and couldn’t find a place for, and the changes were necessary. He’s not getting scammed for anything with this heavily modified version of this story. Still, as a fan, I miss one thing in the book more than anything else that was cut for the movie.

Image: ND Stevenson/HarperCollins

Netflix version, directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane (Disguised spies), and written by Robert L. Baird, Lloyd Taylor, and Pamela Ribon, retains many of the book’s broadest parameters. In a high-tech retro future (what Stevenson calls “monk punk”) where knights and royalty rule an easily manipulated peasantry, a knight (Ballister Blackheart in the comic, Ballister Boldheart in the movie) is wronged by the leadership. His search for the truth about what really happened is complicated by Nimona, a girl with enormous and unpredictable powers, a surprisingly cheerful malevolent streak, and a belief that Ballister wants a bloody, chaotic revenge that she can help him achieve.

But the movie version puts the story’s focus entirely on Nimona, minimizing Ballister in the process. He’s a softer, more helpless, more easily confused character in the movie, with all his rough edges worn away. He spends more time getting swept up screaming in her wake than doing anything for himself. And in the movie, his friend – a golden-haired knight hero with the truly ridiculous name of Ambrosius Goldenloin – is determined to uncover the truth behind Ballister’s expulsion from the kingdom, too. Ballister and Ambrosius are an adorable, supportive couple who open the film with a chaste, sweet hug, and experience frustration with each other throughout the film, but always seem to be on each other’s side.

The comic is much more about these two characters, their complicated relationship and the roles they embody for the kingdom, with Ballister as a cunning villain and Ambrosius as the kingdom’s shining hero. Much of the critical analysis and approval for Nimona has focused on the main character as one metaphor for transidentity and a fantasy symbol that explores homophobic bigotry. But Ballister and Ambrosius’s thorny relationship was always the richest part of the comic, and it’s sad to see how much of it was wiped out in the making of this Nimona story in the first place.

Ballister Blackheart, a dark-haired knight with a goatee in gray armor, runs to catch up with his wayward sidekick Nimona, and the golden-haired knight Goldenloin gets in his way in two panels from the Nimona comic.  Dialogue:

Image: ND Stevenson/HarperCollins

The comic has a mean, offbeat sense of humor, part of which is embodied in the odd clash between medieval culture and sci-fi, or between serious fantasy drama and bouncy humor comic. Stevenson began Nimona as an art school project, and both the visual style and storytelling evolved radically over the two-year process of telling the story.

But that early humor never felt like something the comic should belie, any more than the later drama felt undeserved. Ballister and Ambrosius’ early relationship in the comic contains elements of both bitter betrayal and crazy nonsense. Ambrosius clearly sees himself as an epic hero, yelling things like “Untie that science!” when he catches Ballister robbing a top secret laboratory. But he also clearly thinks they’re still friends just like they were when they were kids, despite his own role in ruining Ballister’s life.

The tension between how Ambrose sees their relationship and how Ballister sees it emerges when they interact, and it’s the most nuanced thread in the original story. There are elements of self-deception and self-mythification in Ambrose’s view of the world, and every time reality pierces his self-imaginations is both a sharp emotional moment and a vindication. It is possible to sympathize with him as a fool, hate him as a villain, and wish his redemption at the same time.

The knight Goldenloin, in golden armor and with long golden hair, bursts into a science lab to confront the goat knight Ballister Blackheart and his new maiden sidekick Nimona, in a panel of ND Steveson's Nimona.  Goldenloin: “Halt, villains!  Unleash that science!”

Image: ND Stevenson/HarperCollins

The book version of Ballister, for his part, is a much gnarlier character than he is in the film – more vindictive, more competent and capable, more principled, more informed. And yet, in his own way, he’s just as helpless as his movie counterpart. The fact that he’s a much richer character makes his helplessness in the face of Nimona’s actions even more tragic and suggestive.

Nimona the film goes for some bold emotional beats – including a scene where a character attempts suicide, which may shock parents who assume this is a risqué Disney-style animal adventure. But the book surpasses all the emotions of the movie when it comes to the sequence where Ambrosius has to confront his own illusions and see how much damage he has done by deliberately embracing them. His relationship with Ballister in the film is sweet and normative – something mainstream entertainment could use more of with queer couples. But it’s even more satisfying in the comic, where it’s not only hard-fought, it’s more relatable.

Most people read Nimona will not have been betrayed as Ballister was, and will not have had to fight to clear his name as he does. But there’s something singularly universal about the complicated dynamic between these two men, who see the world in radically different ways and each struggle to get the other to just listen. And there’s a real satisfaction in the work they have to do to reconcile, and especially the work Ambrosius has to do to make his choices right.

Nimona the movie is a fun romp with a tricky, important message about outsiders and monster girls. But Nimona the comic is a true work of art, one that hides a great deal of nuance in what initially appears to be a satirical adventure. It’s possible to appreciate the adaptation while really wishing it retained a little more of the prettiest part of its inspiration.