Most of us are familiar with the inevitable anxiety that comes with seeing a beloved book turned into a movie, but some stories can actually benefit from a little cross-media reinterpretation. Amid the medium’s own rapid ascension toward highbrow acceptance, the graphic novel has proved a flexible format for literary adaptation, transforming texts into improved visual narratives without eliminating the reading process.
Now, with a spate of recently published and upcoming graphic adaptations making headlines — including Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (which we previously reviewed here) and the sure-to-be-divisive Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Graphic Novel — we recommend ten classic works that have been effectively translated into comic books.
The first novella in Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, City of Glass is a philosophical whodunit that blends dark mystery with existential inquiry. The story is a page-turner in its own right, but the atmospheric tone and well-paced momentum lends itself to an added visual dimension. Using a stark black and white palette and minimalist lines, illustrators Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli achieve a noirish effect that enhances the story’s cryptic tone.
Boris Karloff may have immortalized the image of a bumbling monster on the silver screen, but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is far more than a B-movie punch line. Adapted by Jason Cobley and illustrated by a team of five artists, this graphic variation captures the novel’s moral subtext and satirical underpinnings with detailed, color rich images that emphasize its haunting realism more so than its pop culture touchstones.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment captures psychological isolation and torment in a way that few other stories — in any genre or medium — have ever achieved. To avoid competing with (and inevitably losing to) Dostoevsky himself, writer David Zane Mairowitz and illustrator Alain Korkos distinguish their adaptation by transposing the plot to a modern setting. With a symbolically gray palette and careful use of both space and setting, this stark retelling emphasizes the deadening moral, mental, and physical landscape at the heart of the story
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend might not seem like an uplifting read — a story about the last man on Earth is hardly an optimistic premise, after all — but it offers a disquieting moral that none of its numerous Hollywood adaptations has successfully captured since. Writer/artist collaborators Steve Niles and Elman Brown, however, manage to convey Legend‘s literal and figurative disorientation in scratchy, woodcut-like illustrations that guard the story’s surprising conclusion in a way that most movies have failed to do.
There’s something unsettling about reading a book about the destruction of books, but it becomes another thing altogether when the reader’s imagination is offset with images of the unimaginable. Approved by author Ray Bradbury — and featuring an encouraging introduction by him — Tim Hamilton’s Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation turns the dystopic classic into a disturbing reality with his gritty, unblinking illustrations. The pale color palette highlights the culturally muted social landscape upon which the story is set.
Oscar Wilde’s biting humor has never needed much help being translated beyond the page, but perhaps it’s such accessibility that makes successful alterations all the more entertaining. Graphic Classics’ Oscar Wilde compendium features various authors and artists’ adaptations of selections from the Irish writer’s oeuvre. The effectiveness varies from story to story, but Alex Burrows and Lisa K. Weber’s pitch-perfect version of The Picture of Dorian Gray oozes with decadent irony.
Dense language and tightly wound symbolism aside, Shakespeare’s Macbeth has all the makings of an action horror classic — murder, madness, ghosts, witches, riddles, and revenge. Though it’s hard to ignore the story’s inherent literary mastery, John McDonald’s adaptation gets to the pulpy heart of the blood-saturated tragedy. Artists Jon Howard, Gary Erskine, and Nigel Dobbyn employ a cartoonish aesthetic that accentuates the story’s mainstream appeal, while relieving readers of any academic anxiety left over from high school English class.
A classic of French erotica, Story of O is Pauline Reage’s salacious study of submission and dominance through the title character’s immersion and willing enslavement within the s&m underground. Though Reage’s award-winning prose is stunning, Guido Crepax’s adaptation emphasizes the novel’s message about the objectification of women through hyper-sexualized images that are at once alluring and appalling.
Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a satirical game of limbo in which the central character is arrested for a crime that didn’t happen and put up for a trial that never takes place. For this adaptation, Chantal Montellier represents the bleak absurdism and sardonic humor through black and white illustrations that emphasize empty darkness, nightmarish details, and permeable panel borders that appear variously escapable or imprisoning.