The controversial Belgian comic book "XIII" by Jean Van Hamme and William Vance is coming to American television in February, courtesy of Prodigy Pictures and Cipango. The four-hour television miniseries starring Stephen Dorff as the amnesiac assassin code named XIII will be broadcast on NBC February 8 and 15. Val Kilmer also appears as the Mongoose, an agent of a secret organization staging a coup from within the American government. CBR News spoke with Executive Producer Jay Firestone of Prodigy Pictures about bringing the renowned comic book to TV.
"It's a bit 'Bourne Identity,' it's a bit 'Manchurian Candidate,'" Firestone told CBR. The television miniseries begins with the assassination of Sally Sheridan, the first female president of the United States. A man tattooed with the roman numeral XIII appears to have pulled the trigger, but he has no memory of this event or anything else about his life. On the run from both the U.S. government and those behind the conspiracy of which he may or may not be a part, XIII must uncover the truth about his own identity to save America from a much greater threat.
Firestone became interested in bringing "XIII" to television when he encountered the comic book while doing business in France. "It's a very international story, we joked that it was the James Bond of France," he said. "The character XIII is so well known in France. But what happened was, it seemed to be known by everyone, everywhere. It was a very recognizable title, very cool storyline."
The most recent English-language edition of "XIII" was published by Marvel/Dabel Bros. in 2007, a trade paperback collecting material first seen in the first three French albums.
The television version of "XIII" is co-produced by Firestone's Prodigy Pictures, which is based in Canada, and Cipango, a French company. The series premiered in France late last year. "The French love American stories," Firestone said. "There's actually a trend more and more toward American stories being more successful in Europe. There were a few years there where countries wanted domestic programming, and were doing very domestic shows, but were not getting the audiences that top American shows did. In this case, we had a combination of the two: we had a well-known Belgian story but with an American storyline.
"We brought in some writers and producers who had worked on a lot of American shows, 'CSI,' and '24,' and sort of knew the genre, and they all got inspired by it, as well. We spent a couple years developing a great script, and once we had that we had everybody excited."
As with any adaptation from one medium to another, Firestone and his team found themselves changing some aspects of the original comic book story to fit the four-hour miniseries format. One notable change, though, was casting the American president, whose assassination kicks off the story. In the comics, the President was a man. In the "XIII" TV miniseries, the President is a woman. With the recent inauguration of America's first African-American president, it may be easy to forget that very recently it would have seemed more likely that the country would instead be marking the election of its first female commander-in-chief. But Firestone said that while many aspects of "XIII" do reflect the current political culture, the inclusion of a female president was merely a matter of "updating the concept." "We just thought it was a fun idea," the Exec said.
Firestone did note, though, that "XIII" fits very well with the current international attention on the American political stage, and with a lot of perceptions about the country's standing in the world. "It's incredibly timely. A lot of people actually believe that things that are significant elements of our story are actually going on. We're not speculating on whether they're true or not," he laughed. "But a lot of people believe it."
Other changes were made to portray as much as possible from the comic book but making the story work for television audiences. "We added some elements, and it is a very big challenge to turn a comic book into film or television and be true to the audience," Firestone explained. "We had to condense it, really. We had to condense the first thirteen comic books into four hours. So we had to take major leaps. Based on the airing in France, which received record levels, everybody feels we were very true to the comic book."
Firestone was not concerned about potential controversy the show might generate, even given its exploration of such things as political assassination and government-sanctioned torture. "Remember, the comic was written way before these things were an issue in America," he said. "It's a fantasy series, really. It happens to relate to what's going on right now."
Beyond the initial miniseries, Firestone said that an ongoing "XIII" television series is in development. "We're going to see what happens with the miniseries, but it could air next fall or next winter," he said. "We're also going to be developing a feature on the Mongoose character, which is sort of like everybody's favorite bad guy. We're actually developing the feature right now." Asked whether Val Kilmer would reprise his role as the Mongoose in the eventual film, the Executive Producer said it's too early to tell. "We don't have a script yet, so we'll see. I'd love to have Val do it."
"XIII" begins in the U.S. February 8 on NBC.