THE story of “300” — the popular comic book mini-series and, soon, a film from Warner Brothers — began when Frank Miller, the series’s creator, was 6. The year was 1963, and “The 300 Spartans” was in theaters. In this telling of the battle of Thermopylae, Richard Egan played the Greek king Leonidas, who in 480 B.C. led 300 warriors in a doomed battle against the much larger Persian army, and David Farrar, regal in robes of purple and green, was the Persian king Xerxes. The film’s dialogue and staging may seem a bit quaint now. But the young Mr. Miller was stunned as he watched its climax, in which the few remaining Spartans are slaughtered in a hail of arrows.
“It was a shocker, because the heroes died,” Mr. Miller said in a recent telephone interview. “I was used to seeing Superman punch out planets. It was an epiphany to realize that the hero wasn’t necessarily the guy who won.”
As a young comic book artist and writer, Mr. Miller would return again and again to the concept of heroic, often seppuku-like sacrifice. In “The Dark Knight Returns,” which many credit with reinvigorating the Batman franchise, an aging Bruce Wayne goes out in a blaze of glory in an outmatched battle against his old pal Superman. In “Sin City” one hero shoots himself in the mouth to protect a loved one; another is executed by a corrupt system after ridding the world of not one but two cannibals.
“I tend to be drawn to characters who might die disgraced to the world, who technically lose whatever combat they’re in but win the moral victory,” Mr. Miller said.
Over the years the story of the famous confrontation at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. stuck in his mind. In the mid-’90s, Mr. Miller started work on what was to become “300.” He researched the battle, spoke with scholars and traveled to Greece, to the site of Leonidas’ last stand. He studied the armor and philosophies and fighting methods of the Spartans, and finally, working with the colorist Lynn Varley, created a series that in 1999 won three Eisners and two Harveys, awards considered among the comics industry’s most prestigious.
In delivering “300” to the screen in March, Warner Brothers will face the challenge of realizing Mr. Miller’s distinctive vision of the bloody battle while avoiding any sense that it is simply extending a series of Greek-theme epics that began with Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” and Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” both released in 2004.
Zack Snyder, the 40-year-old director who is now completing postproduction work on “300,” is only too aware of the danger that some viewers might find it hard to distinguish his movie from its more star-driven predecessors, neither of which had a spectacular run at the box office. “I could see Hollywood not wanting to do it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do it.”
Sitting in his office in an editing facility in Burbank, Mr. Snyder was surrounded by Spartan helmets, a shield peppered with puncture holes and, as a reminder of the precedents, swords from “Alexander” and “Troy.” “We got them from the Warner Brothers prop department,” he said, grabbing one, feeling its heft. “The ones from ‘Troy’ were better.”
To judge from excerpts Mr. Snyder screened this day, he and his co-writers, Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, have managed to evoke anything but a classic battle epic. The film’s high-flying acrobatics and over-the-top combat scenes remind one of Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers”; its fantastical computer-generated beasts evoke the “Lord of the Rings” series or “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.” As for the Persians, no tired robes and goofy hats here. These warriors sport chrome Kabuki-style masks and gold rings in their brows, noses and nipples. And then there are the pitched battles, with spears ramming through eye sockets and innards, all played out against a perpetually overcast sky.
All of this is perhaps truer to Mr. Miller’s work than to history. Mr. Miller says that while he strove for historical accuracy whenever possible, art won out in certain areas. The real Spartans, for instance, wore heavy body armor, clunky stuff that weighed about half as much as they did: handy in a pitched battle, but hardly sexy or eye-grabbing, certainly not for an action comic.
“My first versions of the soldiers looked like beetles,” he said. “They looked like they couldn’t move faster than two miles an hour.”
So Mr. Miller ditched the armor in favor of a more natural look. In his series, Leonidas and his warriors wear red capes and little else; when in battle, they cover their privates in what appear to be leather Speedos. “When you look at the ancient Greek vase paintings, you’ll see that soldiers are drawn nude, for the same reason I did,” Mr. Miller said.
For his part, Mr. Snyder, an admirer of Mr. Miller’s work, went to great lengths to reproduce the look and texture of the comic books. He photocopied the series, cut out all the frames, then glued favorites into notebooks, one per page. He would then sketch what he thought might happen before each frame, and what might happen immediately after. Voilà: instant storyboard. He pulled out a notebook to show how it was done. “So this frame is the shot,” he said, revealing a picture of the Spartans pushing an army of Persians off the edge of a cliff. “So now I have to figure out, how do I get there? And what happens next?”
Mr. Snyder began his push to make “300” after releasing his remake of the cult horror film “Dawn of the Dead” in 2004. The next year he created a test shot for the proposed film. It was three minutes long, he said, with “lots of killing.”