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Jeff Smith's Bone Has The Makings Of An Animated Classic (& Hollywood Needs To Stop Chickening Out)

Hollywood's obsession with adapting comic books goes far beyond Marvel and DC tentpoles at movie theaters. For example, there's "American Born Chinese" on Disney+, which is based off of a 2006 graphic novel. Meanwhile, Netflix will enter the Slaughterverse with its adaptation of "Something Is Killing the Children" coming out in the near future. However, one of the greatest comic books ever remains on the shelf, even though it's ripe for an animated adaptation — Jeff Smith's "Bone."

Independently published, the 55 issues of "Bone" — which came out between 1991 and 2004 — follow a character named Fone Bone and his two cousins, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, after they're run out of Boneville and embark on an epic adventure filled with peril and fantasy. Between a great story and artwork which draws heavily from iconic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, the series won numerous accolades, including 11 Harvey Awards and 10 Eisner Awards. With such acclaim, it's a bit surprising there's no "Bone" series at this point ... although it's not for a lack of trying. 

Nickelodeon acquired the rights to "Bone" in the late 1990s, but as Smith explained to Ain't It Cool News, he and the studio butted heads too much, with one trigger point being Nickelodeon wanting to incorporate music from NSYNC or Britney Spears into the project. In 2008, Warner Bros. acquired the rights, with plans on doing a film franchise, but that also fell through. Most recently, Netflix wanted to do a "Bone" series, but it was canceled after some reorganization took place in its animation department. This isn't just a shame for die-hard Bone-Heads who want to see the comics come to life on-screen, but also for animation fans at large because Hollywood is missing out on a major opportunity.

Bone's tone is much-needed in the fantasy genre

"Fish-out-of-water characters go on an epic quest" sounds like a dime-a-dozen plot. But there really isn't anything else like "Bone" out there. 

Looking at the cover of one of the books, you'd be mistaken for assuming it's a silly jaunt about some cartoons that look like ghosts. And when the series starts, it's certainly in that vein, with wacky comedy to boot. However, as the series goes on, the tone gradually becomes more complex, in addition to the plot. Fone Bone and his cousins may start in the relatively safe Boneville, but they soon enter a land that looks far more like Westeros than Bikini Bottom. On top of being pursued by dangerous rat creatures, violence and darker subtext permeate the story as it goes on. However, even the later books still make full use of the cartoonish nature of their protagonists, with ample gags. 

This might be the reason getting an adaptation off the ground has been so difficult. With the first few issues, it's easy to see why a place like Nickelodeon would want to adapt this story. But as it goes on, it becomes more adult, and a proper adaptation would need to ride that fine line between silliness and grandiosity. Perhaps this is why studios have backed out of pursuing "Bone" as a project over the years. There could be a big worry about how audiences would react to something that initially seems targeted at children but can also be downright scary at times. However, if done correctly, a "Bone" series (either in television or film) could be on the level of something like "Harry Potter," where the kids who watch grow up alongside the franchise and mature into its darker themes as the story evolves.

There's something for everyone in Jeff Smith's Bone

Rather than squeezing the life out of intellectual property audiences have seen before, like "The Lord of the Rings," Jeff Smith's work is waiting there for a studio to turn into the next big fantasy obsession. "Bone" is a true epic, and as the Bone cousins get further and further away from Boneville, the world they occupy gets more colored in. This is especially true for the character of Thorn, who becomes an ally to Fone Bone and comes across as a simple farm girl initially, only for it to be revealed she's more important than the reader realized. 

There really is nothing like "Bone" on the shelves that appeals to kids and adults alike. While there is subject matter in "Bone" some parents may not approve of their kids seeing, like smoking and gambling, it makes for a solid entryway point into the medium of comic books. That's what Andrew D. Arnold of Time wrote in his review of the series in 2004, stating that, "While older readers will tune into such themes as the folly of blind fanaticism and the corrupting nature of power, the younger set will simply thrill to the adventure and delight at the huge cast of characters."

And while "Bone" lends itself to an animated adaptation above all else, that route is more feasible than ever before. In particular, Guillermo del Toro has championed the medium in recent years. An animated "Bone" series that takes the source material seriously would be a win for long-time fans as well as newcomers checking out this story for the first time.

A classic story of good vs. evil may be just what the world needs right now

From reading Jeff Smith's interview with Ain't It Cool News, it's obvious he's precious about the source material. He goes on to talk about how Nickelodeon wanted to change so much, and that didn't sit right with him. That's probably one reason why it's taken so long for "Bone" to get adapted. The world and modern sensibilities continue to change while "Bone" remains in its perfect form from when it ended in 2004. 

And for some, a "Bone" adaptation may be the only way to find this story. The books frequently wind up on Banned Books lists due to the story's violence and political viewpoints. Smith wears the distinctions as a badge of honor, but it may be hard for some kids to find "Bone" at their local library. It would be much easier to take in the story as a streaming series, and honestly, not much needs to be changed. It's a universal story about the battle of good versus evil with ample parts scariness and slapstick. Wherever there are online lists ranking the best comic books of all time, "Bone" is bound to make an appearance. 

If Netflix could adapt "The Sandman," there's no reason "Bone" should languish in development hell. But there's reason for fans to keep hope alive. In 2023, Smith told CBR, "There's always hope. After the announcement, there was immediate interest from other studios, but Netflix owns the rights, so it's in their hands. We'll have to see." 

Adapting "Bone" would be monumental in getting the general public to take animation more seriously, offering a deep, mature story that fully takes advantage of the medium. The right studio just needs to come along that's not afraid to take a chance on one of the wildest adventures ever depicted in a comic book.