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Novels into Graphic Novels -- Threat or Menace?*

*This post title is ironic. I am afraid that I feel the need to point this out.

I enjoy reading the Guardian Unlimited Book Blog, and not just because of the amusing discussions about these things called "Americans" that so many of the commenters cannot wrap their heads around. While American newspapers are cutting back on their book sections, a major British newspaper has what seems to be a thriving book section with several bloggers posting short articles about literary topics.

One topic blogger Ned Beauman addresses this week is the adaptation of novels into graphic novels. He finds fault with such endeavors that are nothing more than faithful adaptations of their source material. "The best comics are nearly always the ones that tell a story that could not have been adequately told in any other medium," he writes, and I agree, but I find this topic curious.

I can't understand my own slight disapproval of the adaptation of novels into graphic novels. After all, I have no objection of movies being made of books. (How in the world are they going to make Love in the Time of Cholera into a movie, though?) It's as if the format alone -- cover and pages -- makes the adaptation redundant, even though I understand perfectly that they are two different mediums. When I saw that Remembrance of Things Past was being made into a series of graphic novels -- or, excuse, a bandes desinnées -- by Stephane Heuet. I was doubtful. I still am. I am hesitant to read the adaptation because I am afraid of the artist's interpretation interfering with my own mental picture that Proust's prose inspired. But I see movies based on books without worry often. Like I said, curious. And completely illogical.

I also find it curious that Beauman thinks that graphic novel adaptations ought to change something about the source material. Is this an opinion widely held? It certainly is different from the standard criterion for judging movie adaptations of novels, which is the movies' faithfulness to their sources. I was appalled by the added bit of "Mrs. Darcy" nonsense at the end of the American cut of the new Pride and Prejudice, for example, and disappointed they left out the scene in which Mr. Darcy tells Miss Bingley, speaking of Elizabeth Bennet, "it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance." On the other hand, I heartily approved of the non-adaptation adaptation of The Life of Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It is impossible to make a faithful movie adaptation of that book, but the movie retained the book's spirit.

So perhaps that is the criteria, then? If the book can be faithfully adapted, we expect that. If it cannot, we expect that there will be something unique to the form into which it is adapted that adds nuance. What nuances can the graphic novel medium add? Is it merely that it adds the opportunity for, as Beauman writes, "lingering on significant glances, pauses and hesitations in a way that can add new layers of emotional meaning without altering the original dialogue too much"? Or should we eschew adding new layers of emotional meaning that the author may not have intended?

What comics often are good at, to my mind, is distillation. The portions of the prose in which characters or an intrusive narrator ruminate cannot be fully reproduced or portrayed. Too many text boxes often seem ungainly, breaking that more-or-less rule of "show don't tell" that prose writers as well as comic writers should keep in mind. Therefore, emotions and, more difficult, thoughts have to be conveyed in expression, in dialogue, in interaction, often in just a few panels. The exposition that often takes place in between action in novels might have to be lost, as they so often are in movies.

We know what must be taken away to adapt novels into different mediums. The question is, what, then, is added? "Visuals" are the obvious answer, but is there something more that might be?
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