Robot 6

‘Fahrenheit’ review gets folks hot under the collar

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

Writing for Slate, Sarah Boxer (who, it should be noted, is a cartoonist in her own right) penned a review of Tim Hamilton’s adaptation of the Ray Bradbury classic Fahrenheit 451 that — initially at least — seems flummoxed by the whole “graphic novel boom” thing:

It’s hard to know what on earth Bradbury was thinking. Did he just give in to the enemy? And what was the artist, Hamilton, thinking, when he illustrated the fire chief’s rant with his own tableau of degraded books: Hamlet for Dimwits, Time magazine, and, yes, two Classic Comics editions, Moby Dick and Treasure Island. (Hamilton himself illustrated a comic-book version of Treasure Island before taking on Fahrenheit 451.) It’s as if author and artist were vigorously waving a white flag and shouting, “We couldn’t beat ‘em, so we joined ‘em!”

Later on she adds:

Graphic novels may win some new readers, but the text is almost always shortened to make way for pictures, and what survives of it is radically different: It’s mostly dialogue, like a screenplay. In the graphic-novel version of Fahrenheit 451, almost all of the words are spoken. Even the pictures confirm that the novel has become a script.

By the end of the review,  however,  she turns around and suggests that Hamilton’s adaptation was more in keeping with Bradbury’s own interests in the medium and the book’s larger themes. It’s all very confusing.

Still, who reads all the way through an article these days? The damage was done and the review was muddled and grumpy enough to incite a firestorm in the comments section:

I’m not going to try to quote every noteworthy comment here — life’s too short. Suffice it to say most of them can be grouped in the following ways: a) Bradbury loves comics and has been adapted in comics since the ’50s with EC, so nyeah; 2) Boxer should read Watchman! Or Maus! No, Persepolis! Sandman! c) Graphic novels should be solely reviewed by people who like graphic novels; and d) FU Sarah Boxer! Stop being a hater!

What interests/concerns me is not so much Boxer’s take on the Fahrenheit adaptation or even her vague disdain for the medium as her seeming insistence, as shown in that second quote, that words paired with pictures inevitably results in an inferior product compared to a novel.

It’s balderdash of course. While bad comic adaptations of classic books are a dime a dozen, there are enough good ones (like City of Glass) to put Boxer’s lie to rest. The key is in letting the art tell the story.

It’s a point that NPR’s Glen Weldon puts more eloquently than I really could:

Let me try to put it more concretely: In the best graphic novels/comics/sequential art/whatever, the art doesn’t just sit there. It doesn’t simply illustrate what the words are describing, because comics are more than just books with pictures.

No, the art takes over a share of the heavy lifting. It does its own, independent narrative work: it characterizes, sets the tone, advances the plot, etc.

The art, in other words, gets off its damn butt.

Go and read the rest of Weldon’s essay. It’s not just a perfect encapsulation of what makes a good adaptation, but also a primer on how to write for comics in general.

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“While bad comic adaptations of classic books are a dime a dozen, there are enough good ones (like City of Glass) to put Boxer’s lie to rest.”

Hmm. CITY OF GLASS I’ll give you, but otherwise I’m drawing a big blank here.

This is an interesting post overall, though.

“CITY OF GLASS I’ll give you, but otherwise I’m drawing a big blank here.”

Cooke’s “The Hunter”, Shanower and Young’s “Wonderful Wizard of OZ”, Edgington and Culbard’s “Hound of the Baskervilles”. Bo Hampton did a pretty great “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. I’m sure there are others.

I guess it depends on what is meant by “good.” I can see why someone would consider those examples successful as decent comics, but none of them, in my opinion (except for CITY OF GLASS), approach the richness and complexity of their source material.

This is not to say that comics aren’t capable of being as rich and complex as novels, but only that really great prose-to-comics adaptations don’t seem especially common. Or at least that something is inevitably lost in adaptation (which I would think should be an uncontroversial point), and that a great adaptation needs to be extremely well thought out.

I did ponder the irony of a book that pretty much says that comics are for the illiterate becoming a comic. But yes, Bradbury is a comics fan, and would probably say that today’s comics are nothing like the kiddie oriented comics of the 50s.

I will also add that by and large, the book-to-comic trend is not something I care about. I’d rather read the original, and read something else original in a comic book. I know that an adaptation can sometimes transcend the original – we’ve seen this in the movies often, of course – but what I’ve seen so far is at the same level as the Harry Potter films, more a highlight reel than anything else.

Trust you to hold my feet to the fire Tim! Well, scanning my shelves, I came across Robert Crumb’s Introducing Kalfka and his excerpt from Samuel Johnson’s journal, Hunt Emerson’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and John K. Snyder III’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s arguable perhaps whether any of these succeed in the way that City does, but they do allow me to see the original work from a new perspective.

Plus, the more I think about it, I think Glass is kind of a rarity. Very few adaptations, whether you’re talking books, movies or what have you, are able to attain that sort of artistry.

On the “haven’t read it but it’s an adaptation” front, both Jason’s The Iron Wagon and Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond hold up really well on their own. I don’t feel when I’m reading them like I need to consult the source material.

Why would Bradbury treat the comics medium with disdain when he wholeheartedly approved of (and wrote an introduction for) the video game sequel to Fahrenheit 451? (Which I played and liked quite a bit.)

I get the impression from having read Bradbury (though this doesn’t come from an interview or any direct source) that he’s simply a proponent of storytelling. Tell stories. Lots of stories. Re-tell them, the same way and different ways. The more the better.

“…none of them, in my opinion (except for CITY OF GLASS), approach the richness and complexity of their source material”

I see the point, but I’ve rarely found it useful to compare work from one medium with work from another. Saying that a comics (or film or stage) adaptation of a novel doesn’t reach the level of complexity of the source material is missing the point of an adaptation, I think. You experience a comic book or a film or a stage play in a different way than you experience a novel. Novels, by their very nature and format, are more complex and detailed than other media.

It takes hours to read a novel, depending on the length, whereas a comic, or a film or a stage play usually takes somewhere between 1 1/2 – 3 hours to experience. But does that mean that the comic, film or stage play cannot be experienced and appreciated for what it is and judged by what it is, rather than being judged by the same story told in a different format? I don’t personally think so, which is why I rarely, if ever, say that a book is “better” than a film or a play or a comic.

A good example of what I’m talking about is the Lord of the Rings and it’s film adaptation. The book is quite a bit more complex and detailed and takes it’s time to tell the story, with a great many meanderings and side stories that would arrest the narrative drive of the film. The film tells the story differently, but no less effectively, expanding upon some things that were only hinted at in the novel (battle scenes being the most obvious example of this). But you experience the novel on a different (not higher or lower, just different) level than you do the film.

Novels do some things better than films or comics or plays. But films and comics and plays do some things better than novels. The best you can hope for is a complementary experience, but if a film or comic or stage version of a novel fails, I feel it should be judged against other, perhaps similar films, comics or plays, rather than against the source material. It’s one of the reasons I like to experience all kinds of media, because I simply love stories and the varied methods that can be employed to tell them.

Jeez, that got long-winded, didn’t it? Sorry about that.

@Chris — I don’t think Crumb’s Kafka book counts, since those are mostly illustrations, but the Boswell diaries he adapted are indeed great (if still very short!). I haven’t read the Emerson or Snyder, but will have to try them out. I’m sure there are several other examples of fully successful prose-to-comics adaptations, but I still think it’s true that they’re few and far between.

@Matt Halteman — I don’t disagree with you very much. Except that while it may not be “useful” to compare comics to books, I do think it can be fun and enlightening. And also, I totally think it’s possible for a book to be better and more rewarding than its movie incarnation (including, I’m sorry to say, THE LORD OF THE RINGS), or vice versa (JAWS or THE GODFATHER, for examples), and I don’t see any reason not to say so. But mostly I hear you and agree with you.

T. Hoder – It’s funny that you mention JAWS because I meant to point out in my previous post that it was the best example of the exception to my theory, but somehow never got around to it. I felt the movie made the characters much more believable, likable and complex than they were in the book.

I actually didn’t want to punch the movie version of the Matt Hooper character in the throat like I did the book version (of course, the portrayal of said character by the great Richard Dreyfuss probably had a lot to do with that). In the book, Brody is pretty much the only character that I gave a damn about.

It’s probably telling that Peter Benchley wrote both the novel and the screenplay for the movie. I think there was a fair amount of “fixing” things in the movie that didn’t work well in the book.

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