Writing on the fly a bit today as my wife and I get ready for a trip to Paris tomorrow. We’ve never been and, no, neither of us speak a lick of French. So some of this past week has been spent struggling through Rosetta Stone software and iPhone apps intended to bolster up the idea that we’re at least trying to understand the language.
In looking for a subject for this week’s blog post about comix, Michael suggested something on the process I use for adapting Joyce’s novel into the comic; what do I look for when reading the text and so forth. Well, given all this French homework I’m doing just now, that’s a pretty easy thing to talk about.
Adaptation, the transmission of a work of art made in one medium into a faithful representation in another medium, is about translation, after all. But just like in learning a language, the accuracy and faithfulness of the translation only gets you so far. You can please yourself by showing others what you understand, but eventually you have to be able to say something meaningful in the new language that couldn’t be said any other way.
Too stretched a metaphor? Could be. How about this;
A SET OF GUIDELINES FOR ADAPTING A NOVEL INTO COMIX
1) –Love the real material of the novel you’re working with. Not just the story, stories translate themselves. When someone tells a friend about a movie they just saw, they tell the story. That’s easy and it won’t sustain your desire as an artist to look deeper than just an explanation of story. What makes an adaptation is someone loving the nuance beyond the story itself.
2) –Believe the intent behind the material of the novel. You don’t have to love where the author is going and, frankly, you don’t have to be correct about his or her intentions for the novel. But you do have to hold a credible sense, in your own head at least, of why things happen as they do. If your not interested in the intent behind the original material itself, then you’re not adapting. You’re using spoof, lampoon, pastiche, or, more importantly, you’re overlooking the first point I made about loving the real material of the novel you’re working with.
3) –Recognize the idioms of the novel as uniquely their own. Novels, particularly those great enough to be considered timeless, do not exist out of time. They have conventions, or they break conventions, that are wholly about their presence in the world of fiction. What you do with them as a comic does not have those same conventions. These are not just the trappings of history (“How can I do an E. M. Forster novel when Anthony Hopkins is busy doing another Hannibal Lecter picture?”) but also the trappings of style (“Can Daniel Day-Lewis make LAST OF THE MOHICANS sexy for a generation of film-goers who’ve never read Fenimore Cooper?”). *note to Joyceans -I’m using the Joseph Campbell book here as good example of adapting theory to suit audience. There are many other such examples out there to be sure.
4) –Understand that the language, actions and descriptive passages are idioms of the novel’s context. This is a trickier one. Sometimes good adaptations are not faithful to the idioms of the original material but, instead, concentrate how those idioms are adjusted for a new audience ( CRUEL INTENTIONS did way better at the box office and on video than both DANGEROUS LIAISONS and VALMONT combined). Think very hard about what belongs to the novel and how adapting it into comix might put all these things in a brand new light. At left here is one of my high-lighted pages from the ’22 edition. In beginning the work of adapting, I try to diagram all of the text as if it were a stage play separating actions and descriptions from speeches both audible and internal. While this gives me some guidance as to what to draw it doesn’t really answer the question of how to draw it as a comic.
5) –Love the language of the original material. If you’ve followed all the earlier points on this list, then it’s time to come back around to why, as a comic artist, you’d want to adapt a novel in the first place. Language, the connective power of words and how they create images in our heads, is what draws us to novels as a source for our own expressions. Love the language as it’s presented in the original material. That will lead you through the process of adaptation. Here in the thumbnail drawings for page 37 of the comic I think you can see how I let the language of Joyce’s text do the real singing and try to just chart the visual progression it brings into my own mind as I try to understand the novel. Over complicating any of these single panels as illustrations would slow the readers’ eye and detract from the beauty and flow of the language.
So, that’ll get you started, make you feel at home with the thing your translating. But will it help you make it into something new? If adaptation is the transmission from one artistic idiom to the other, well, that seems to just be about understanding the source material. How do you turn that into a unique artistic statement rather than just a book report told in graphic novel form?
Yeah, well, that’s the hard part, isn’t it?
I’ve got some thoughts on this, and some more guidelines, but they’ll have to wait for the next post. I’ve got packing to do and French to study. My wife doesn’t know this yet, but I’m really just hoping to learn enough to read TINTIN in the original language and I’ve already got the local Paris comicshop’s address set in my iPhone.
A working vacation, to be sure.