Classic Remarks: Graphic Novel Adaptations

This week Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound are hosting the discussion: What do you think of graphic novel adaptations of classic novels? What makes one successful? Or what makes one not work? Do you have any to recommend?

Normally I don’t like to insert myself into a conversation if I don’t have a strong opinion or any background knowledge. And given the fact that I didn’t know people made graphic novel adaptations of the classics prior to reading the prompt for this discussion, this definitely should be a situation in which I don’t have a strong opinion.

But frankly, my immediate response is pure horror.

Not at a graphic novel. Not AT. ALL. I love graphic novels! They are amazing, and young people seem really connect with them, especially those who think they aren’t strong readers. I really enjoy graphic novels too, though mostly of the YA/MG variety. So I want to repeat, I take no issue with graphic novels.

Nor to I feel horrified when I see graphic novel adaptation of modern favorites. Percy Jackson and Twilight both got the graphic novel treatment, and I’m sure those graphic novels are … fine. But in those cases, the author is alive to give permission to the adaptor, if they aren’t writing the adaptation themselves. That’s a big deal. It means they get to give their stamp of approval to make sure the adaptation has the spirit of the original. I think it’s also pretty easy to recognize that they aren’t the same thing, and you can enjoy either one without necessarily having to have a preference or even have read both. Also, both those books have a little bit of an action/adventure feel to them, which makes WAY more sense for a graphic novel than, say, The Poet X.

Finally, I want to clarify that a graphic novel re-telling is fair game. I love classic re-tellings, and Shakespeare and Austin seem to be particularly re-tellable. In graphic novel format? Why not! In fact, MG graphic novel Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy based on the classic Little Women is supposed to be outstanding.

No. My horror is purely to someone trying to release Jane Eyre in graphic format.

I don’t know that I can say precisely why. For one thing, to me what makes a classic great is the prose. A lot of the things that make a lot of my favorites so amazing just … wouldn’t make it onto the page of a graphic novel. For another, the author isn’t around to participate in the project. Their estate can give permission, I guess, but it just doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s because I don’t like the art style they seem to always use on graphic novel adaptations, and I shudder to think of Darcy looking like a super hero. Could be the same reason I tend to cringe when I find out they’re making a movie adaptation as one of my favorites. They just never seem to hold up, do they?

I mean, there are some movie adaptations of classics I like. The 2005 Pride & Prejudice comes to mind. So perhaps my revulsion is just me being closed-minded. And I suppose some of my favorite classics make more sense as graphic novel adaptations than others. Dracula, perhaps, would work? But for me, an art-style I like is a MUST. So if the team involved with The Prince and the Dressmaker wants to make a Scarlet Pimpernel adaptation, or if Adrian Alphona of Runaways and Ms. Marvel fame wants to illustrate The Count of Monte Cristo, let me know. Otherwise, I remain skeptical that this is a good idea.

So what are YOUR feelings on graphic novel adaptations of the classics?

22 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Graphic Novel Adaptations

      1. Well, it depends. I like the Noah Beery/Lionel Barrymore version of ‘Treasure Island’, but not many others. I don’t know if Dashiell Hammett is considered ‘classic’, but I like the Bogey version of ‘Maltese Falcon. Both of these films were true to the book. I enjoyed ‘Fight Club’. It strayed from the book, but stands on it’s own. I hate, hate, hate and deplore what was done to ‘L.A.Confidential’. Folks that did not read the novels rave about that film, but if you read them, you know it’s an unforgivable travesty. There are two relatively recent versions of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’.The first was made for non-readers, and the second, with Bond dude and Christopher Plummer is true to the book and the superior movie in my opinion.

        Thanks Katie!
        Happy Trails!

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  1. Yeah, I think this raises interesting questions about what people do with your work in general after it’s out of copyright. Movies? Sequels? Graphic novels? People just do what they want. (I mean, the author is probably dead so it can’t really bother them but still.)

    I also do think graphic novels can be complex and a great medium, but there is a level of interpretation and simplifying going on if you adapt a classic. One, you’re cutting out a lot of text and possibly a lot of scenes. You are making decisions about what the “important” parts of the novel are to include and what you can exclude. Two, you are interpreting it through the art. As Krysta was telling me, the reader doesn’t have to figure out what’s going on based on just the text of the novel; it’s shown in the art. Three, I agree about the prose. One of the things about classics is that many have more convoluted and complex sentence structures than are common today. I like this; a lot of people don’t. But obviously most of that is cut in a graphic novel. So I think adaptations can be fun and interesting and even give a unique interpretation, but I would have to say that, yes, they probably are “easier” to read than the original.

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    1. That’s a good point, a graphic novel is by nature an interpretation of the work. I have less a concern with someone painting the scene for me, instead of leaving it up to my imagination, and more concern about missing thought-processes and narration. Like in Jane Eyre, her thoughts about her humanity and how she is equal to any man are *so much* of the novel. Or in Wuthering Heights, the descriptions of the landscapes are art in themselves, and replacing them with a comic-style drawing just wouldn’t be the same.

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  2. I’ve never really considered it as I don’t think I ever realized they existed. I don’t hate the idea for a couple reasons: One, I think its a great non-intimidating way for potential new fans to get into these stories that they may have previously avoided, which I can’t help but see as a good thing. And Two, I’m picturing them being done in a style that suits the original story. I definitely agree if they’re turning classics into actual comic book action stories that’s really weird. But beautiful illustrations that match the tone of the original words of the story sounds gorgeous to me.
    Just my two cents.

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    1. Definitely, the style *has* to suit the story. And there are definitely some YA/MG graphic novels coming out by artists I really love. That’s a good point about the story, it might be easier to understand a book like Pride and Prejudice without the old fashioned prose getting in the way. In that way, you’re seeing a graphic novel adaptation for people new to the story, not for long time fans.

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  3. I agree with Angela. I think that graphic novels are less intimidating for readers who may not want or be able to break down the text. “Classics” are often thought of as an elite genre for the highly educated and those with less education don’t read them because they’ve been made to feel like they can’t, or shouldn’t. Graphic novels remove a massive barrier. There have been some that are well done–the adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs” by David Hine and Mark Stafford comes to mind. I think that some adaptations don’t have an art style that matches the original text, but I also think that if people read them and this little niche becomes more viable you will see more talent hop on to make their mark.

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    1. It makes me sad that classic novels are so often seen as elite or difficult. I’m personally of the opinion that anyone can read and enjoy them, but I guess not everyone is. I mean, Dickens and Shakespeare both originally wrote for the masses, so…

      I would be curious to talk to someone who read a graphic novel interpretation of a classic, and see if they felt empowered to go on and read the actual novel. I’m sure there would be lots of variations in the responses.

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  4. I’m torn because I do love graphic novels and I think the idea can maybe bring in some people who wouldn’t normally be interested. But I admit I’ve been going back and forth on a few. I feel like I need to read the actual novel before a graphic novel version of anything first.

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    1. I don’t mind saying this to you because I know you won’t judge me, but several people have said something about bringing in people who wouldn’t normally be interested. And I can’t help but think that, really, they *still* aren’t interested. They’re not … reading classic literature. Just because you’ve consumed the story doesn’t mean you’ve gotten the same experience. *eep* I feel like such an elitist snob. I promise I’m not!

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  5. I feel sympathy with your position. It’s hard to imagine a graphic adaptation of any novel that includes a lot of characters’ thoughts. Anna Karenina? The Brothers K? Any Agatha Christie mystery?

    On the other hand, I will say this. When I was a kid, we had a gazillion of these little books called “Illustrated Classics.” They were ridiculously short summaries of classics, with a picture on every other page, with captions. I tore through those things. A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island, The Time Machine, The Last of the Mohicans, Robin Hood, War of the Worlds, and on and on. You (and, today, I) would probably be horrified now if that was a kid’s only exposure to these classics. But they did some good things for me. They got me interested in the stories, and gave me a general idea what they were about. On the down side, they also gave me the impression that I “had read” a bunch of famous classics that I hadn’t actually read. So, I dunno … of course, at the time, my dad was also reading us classics that were way over our heads, like Treasure Island, The Lord of the Rings, and Out of the Silent Planet. He would have to stop in the middle of reading and explain to us what had just happened.

    OK, back to graphic novel adaptations. All my reservations about those are moot if we are talking about Greco-Roman myths and plays like Oedipus the King. Those stores were MADE for superhero-style graphic adaptations!

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    1. I also have mixed feelings about the illustrated classics. On the one hand, that’s how I fell in love with The Odyssey, and there’s just not really a way to make the “real language” or whatever accessible to nine-year-olds. But now I find that SUPER cringy. On the other hand, I often read abridged versions of the classics even as an adult. I have zero problem with abridged classics for kids IF the original language remains in-tact. That being said, the illustrations in those illustrated classics … aren’t the best.

      Actually, in my library I have quite a few ancient Greek myths in graphic form! It works really well! But like my point with the Odyssey, it’s really a re-telling in natural language, and makes no attempt to preserve the “original”. But with a form of storytelling that would have been oral, I can’t bring myself to be upset about it?

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  6. The only graphic novel adaptation I’ve ever read is the NoFear Shakespeare Romeo&Juliet adaptation, which I pretty much enjoyed. I think for someone who has trouble understanding Shakespeare’s language, the series can be a great help. It can’t and shouldn’t replace the original though. Same goes for the Sparknotes ‘translations’-they’re helpful, but they’re no substitutes for the originals.

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    1. I also read the No Fear Shakespeare, and I think it’s extremely helpful, especially for teens expected to read Shakespeare without a full understanding of the language of the time. Which was DIFFERENT. But I appreciate that it has the original text side-by-side, which allows you to go back and forth and hopefully learn to appreciate both. But in general I think we expect ourselves to be able to just sit, read, and understand Shakespeare (or other classics), and that isn’t fair or realistic. I think we need to accept that it is OKAY to stop and decode or analyze something, especially when it is that old.

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  7. While I can definitely imagine personally disliking an adaptation or graphic novel version of a classic I’ve loved if something about the new version just isn’t working for me, in theory I really love the idea of classics being modernized in this way. I think graphic novel versions are a good way to bring great stories to readers who might struggle with older styles of writing or just reading in general. They don’t impact the original classic at all, so long-time fans can still read the stories the way they like, and as an aspiring writer myself I’m of the opinion that many authors probably like that their work is living on past its copyright age and still inspiring new artwork and drawing new fans. The only sort of related things that I’ve read personally are the graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and a book called Mary’s Monster, which looks at Mary Shelley’s life and the creation of Frankenstein. While neither, of course, are exactly the same text as the original books that inspired them, both had artwork that I thought was very effective and improved my experience with the story in some way- some cringey art is probably inevitable, but there will be great art, too. Plus, I think, if a reader really connects with a story after being introduced to it as with a graphic novel, they might just be convinced to pick up the original afterwards and fall in love with a book that might be more challenging for them and/or that they never would have picked up otherwise. (I’m specifically thinking of a teen reader I know who was a preemie and has a lot of difficulty reading and learning in general but she loves stories, so finding ways that she can still be involved and join in the bookish conversation ultimately seems like a positive to me.) But it is of course always acceptable to dislike an art style/category that just doesn’t suit your taste- art is always subjective!

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    1. I think it’s interesting that you brought up Handmaid’s Tale, because it makes me think of yet another reason that classics might not be well-suited to GN adaptation, which is the length. Handmaid’s Tale is what? 150 pages long? My favorite classics tend to be more along the lines of 600 pages. But I think what really makes Handmaid’s Tale well suited to adaptation is that the imagery, world, and plot are largely the “point” of the book, with very little reliance on introspection and descriptive prose. Whereas a book like Wuthering Heights seems to mostly be “about” the other bits. I don’t know if that even makes sense.

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      1. I think the copy of Handmaid’s I read was 300ish pages, but I take your point, and I agree that the world and plot are the book’s strong suit which probably does make it ideal for this kind of adaptation. Our preferences with classics are different though, I think; I’m usually in it more for theme and characterization, which I think would transfer well to a GN format, rather than the long descriptions and old-fashioned prose tbh, so that could explain where we’re differing about effectiveness of adaptations. You’re probably right in that descriptions and beautiful wording and interior reasoning even would probably be replaced to an extent by the imagery; GNs seem mostly to focus on dialogue in their wording and condense what they can, so I understand missing the grandeur of the prose if that’s what draws you to classics, which is totally fair, of course. But ultimately, I think GN versions of classics are meant for a different audience than those who love classics as they are. No adaptation can ever be an exact copy, but I think that’s the point; for some readers the changes are a good thing- visual art might for some readers bring a story to life just as much or moreso as the beautifully-worded descriptions and introspection do for you and other fans of the long originals. Color and spacing and facial expressions/body language apparent in visual imagery are also a sort of language with their own power to convey what a lot of the descriptions and introspection can in prose, I think.

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        1. Yeah, I think adaptations in general tend to sit better with a different audience than the originals. Like I know a lot of people who love the P&P movie but not the book. Hardcore fans almost never enjoy a movie adaptation, and they tend to draw in more lukewarm fans or even people who have never read the book at all. I suppose the same is likely going to be true of an adaptation in any format.

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