Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Comic Book Roots of the First TMNT Movie

The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is one of the most faithful comic book adaptations ever made.

People often forget about the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Released in March of 1990, nine months after Tim Burton’s Batman made the idea of a big-budget comic book adaptation viable again in Hollywood, and three months before Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy took that idea to the heights of Technicolor excess, it’s a comparatively small movie. Think about that for a moment: a comic book adaptation starring talking turtles looks positively restrained compared to its contemporaries (and now, its modern day counterpart). But while Batman and Dick Tracy employed a larger than life cinematic vocabulary to bring comic book style storytelling to the screen, neither hewed as closely to the source material as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Despite the fact that the Turtles’ most visible success was a result of a wildly popular animated series (which had just wrapped the fourth season of a ten season run), the film owes far more to the original black and white comics than it does to the cleaner, more colorful versions that populated toy shelves and cereal boxes at the time. It’s important to remember that the TMNT were initially conceived as a jokey commentary on the increasingly serious, gritty tone of 1980s comics. The early Turtles tales were a pastiche of Frank Miller’s Daredevil work (the ninjas borrowed from there and the ’80s general fascination with them) and the increasingly inescapable X-Men (hence, the mutants). The early Ninja Turtles adventures were moody, violent affairs, with the boys unafraid to use their weapons in decidedly lethal fashion whenever the situation called for it.

The idea of a “faithful comic book adaptation” may not seem like such a big deal in the wake of movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past that take their titles and the occasional bit of iconic imagery from famous comic book storylines of the same name. But the TMNT movie is a nearly direct adaptation of four complete early issues of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book, with situations and story beats borrowed from two others. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, the structure of which is the basis for nearly this entire movie, had a print run of a mere 3,000 when it was first published in 1984.

For starters, it’s amazing just how much of 1984’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 is present on-screen. In fact, the film’s basic structure mirrors that of the first issue almost exactly. Both the comic and the movie open on the Turtles in a quick bit of battle, showcases the origins of the heroes and villains, and ends with the Shredder’s final defeat up on a rooftop. In between, there are elements brought in from future issues of the series, but for the most part, the movie is quite recognizable as the little black and white comic that launched an empire.

Ad – content continues below

The origin of the Turtles and Splinter is portrayed almost exactly as it was laid out in that issue, right down to Splinter telling the boys their history (and that of the Shredder) once they return from battle. The only serious difference here is that the Shredder (Oroku Saki) of the comics is actually seeking revenge for Hamato Yoshi’s defeat/murder of his brother, Oroku Nagi, who, in the interest of expediency, didn’t make it to the film. Thanks to this panel sequence, the movie even gives us a brief glimpse of an adorable rat puppet learning ninjitsu.

Even though the film was primarily influenced by the comics, it still took a number of cues from the animated series and toy line, such as the color-coded Turtle bandanas, elements of Michelangelo’s personality, and their obsession with pizza. But most importantly borrowed from the animated series was the portrayal of April O’Neil. April didn’t make her first appearance until Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2 where she was introduced not as a reporter, but as Baxter Stockman’s lab assistant. However, the expected beats of April’s rescue by the Turtles and subsequent arrival in their lair is something which made its way from the pages of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2 into nearly every future adaptation of the story.

In the film, the Turtles return home to find that Splinter has been abducted by the Foot. This sequence, including Raphael’s impulsive reaction to the tragedy, and the boys turning to April for help before holing up at her apartment, is inspired by the opening pages of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #3. In the comics, however, Splinter was at the mercy of Baxter Stockman’s mouser robots, and ultimately found himself in the clutches of an alien race…who went on to inspire Krang in the TMNT animated series, but that’s a story for another article.

As a bonus, we even get the introduction of Casey Jones, a character who was absent from the earliest animated episodes, and who didn’t make his appearance until TMNT Micro-Series: Raphael #1, which was the fourth published TMNT comic. Raphael’s confrontation with Jones (played by Elias Koteas years before he went on to creepier, pervier pastures in David Cronenberg’s Crash) in Central Park is abbreviated slightly from their comic book tangle, but quite recognizable as the story told in that single issue.

The Turtles took some detours into science fiction, dimension-hopping, crossovers with another famed independent black and white book (Dave Sim’s Cerebus), and even an encounter with Jack Kirby (more or less) over their next few issues before they got back into the “serious” ninja action that defined their earliest stories and which then set the tone for the movie. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #10-11, which detail the return of the Shredder and the Turtles’ subsequent exile from NYC, account for a huge chunk of the movie’s storyline, and once again, it does a fine job with the source material.

Things kick off with a Turtle taking a rooftop beating before getting delivered, unceremoniously, through a skylight to his brothers. The only difference here is that it’s Leonardo who is the unlucky one, while on screen it was Raphael. The switch makes sense in the movie, and it ultimately leads to a surprisingly tender brotherly moment between the two once Raph has healed up from the battle…and it’s a scene which is way better than anything involving guys in turtle suits with animatronic puppet heads has any business being. This, too, is a topic for another time.

Ad – content continues below

Even April’s “Second Time Around” junk shop is a faithful representation of what was first portrayed by Eastman and Laird. The brawl that breaks out here is a highlight of the movie, showcasing just how well the Hong Kong stuntmen in 50 pound Turtle costumes could move, jump, and fight.

The Turtles are then forced to leave New York behind for a farmhouse in Northampton, Massachusetts. Once again, the movie took its inspiration from the books. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #11 is told almost entirely through April’s diary entries, a narrative device that the film also deployed. The above scene was brought to life by Elias Koteas as Casey Jones with Corey Feldman as the voice of Donatello.

Ultimately, though, it all has to come full circle to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, and the final confrontation with the Shredder on a rooftop. In the comics, as in the movie, the Shredder beats the Turtles one at a time before meeting his (not really) final end. Although they let Splinter do the honors on screen, it was the green guys who got the job done here.

We’ve just spanned the first eleven issues or so of TMNT published history. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #11, the final piece of our comic to film puzzle, was published around June of 1987. The first episode of the animated series that would ultimately make the 1990 movie a viable commodity didn’t air until December of 1987. Rather than play it safe (as the unfortunate sequels did), director Steve Barron along with writers Todd Langen and Bobby Herbeck chose to go back to the beginning to capture the real essence of the concept. It worked.

Den of Geek is hosting a screening of the original live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie later this month. Check out the details here.