Not so long ago, in the days before stadium seating and 3,000-screen openings, it wasn't unusual for small-town kids to read the comic-book adaptation of big blockbusters like Star Wars or Raiders Of The Lost Ark long before they got to see the movie. Now those kids—all grown up and into art films—can relive their youth via The Fountain, a graphic-novel adaptation of Darren Aronofsky's upcoming hard-fantasy epic. Aronofsky says "adaptation" is the wrong word, since the book is based on a script he's since heavily revised. But those old comics weren't always accurate either. The book version of The Fountain generates the same feeling of peeking behind the curtain before the show starts.

As a piece of graphic fiction, The Fountain has its problems. Kent Williams' half-painted pages are often strikingly beautiful, but they're too much in Vertigo's prestige-project house style, all muted colors and loose lines. And Aronofsky's dialogue looks clunky on paper, without professional actors and a dense sound design to disguise the flaws. But the millennium-spanning story is strong, and richly meaningful. In the 16th century, a Spaniard named Tomas leads an army on an expedition to find the Biblical tree of life. Five hundred years later, a doctor named Tommy races to find a cure for his terminally ill wife; 500 years after that, a space explorer named Tom is haunted by his past while searching for a star on the verge of a supernova. Aronofsky shifts between the three stories, piling up parallels: the sacrifices, the cycles of death and rebirth, the comforts of sex, the recurring images of rings and trees, and the arrogance of men who defy God's will.

It's difficult to read The Fountain without imagining how it's going to look as a movie, or wondering what Aronofsky ultimately changed for the screen. But that's actually part of what's enjoyable about the book. Readers can treat it like an elaborate storyboard and see a movie in their minds. Given Aronofsky's penchant for obscurity, the mind-Fountain may even end up being clearer than the finished version, even though it lacks the director's gift for dynamic cinematic poetry. Still, there's a chance that when the movie opens this fall, those in the know will refer back to the comic, to get the message in a plainer package.