EIBF Chapter 11: Adapting the Unadaptable

My final event of the EIBF this year was in the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre on Monday, where I was delighted and concerned that Chaffies had been attached to the ends of the seat rows. Delighted as Chaffy’s creator Jamie Smart is always saying no-one seems to have any of the toys, so there must be a secret stash somewhere; concerned as a lot of them looked pretty battered. I considered liberating a couple, but thought I might get told off.

I was there for a talk by Rob Davis and Martin Rowson on “New Life for Old Classics”, all about adapting novels into graphic novels.

Among his many other works, including regular editorial cartoons for The Guardian, Rowson has published adaptations of The Waste Land, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Gulliver’s Travels. Davis is less well-known, but has worked on all sorts of stuff including Doctor Who Magazine and The Phoenix, as well as curating the utterly superb Nelson, and recently completed an acclaimed two-volume version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

The chair was Stuart Kelly, fresh from his reading workshop on Batman, for which he had dressed as The Riddler. Back in civvies (shame), he kicked off proceedings by observing that with the books they had chosen: “If you want to be true to them, you have to diverge from them.”
Davis said that “both books are meta-fiction that explore the idea of storytelling”, referring to both the adaptations and the original texts.

Rowson contrasted the other adaptations to his first graphic novel, an adaptation of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was “not an act of love or homage … it was a monumental piss-take” of a poem he hated. “I was looking for a way to really, really, really annoy the Eliot estate … my job is to take the piss, to lower the tone.” However, it was suggested to him that he could try Tristram Shandy and even though, or because, he thought it was the “most completely insane idea” he’d ever heard, he decided to do it. The structure of the novel, he said, lent itself well to the comic form as it allowed him to parallel its style, “a book which is about the impossibility of writing a book”.
For those not familiar with the source book, it’s the most impenetrable and frustrating anti-novel, at which students find themselves screaming “where’s the story?” as endless digressions and lessons interrupt what little narrative there is. I have to admit I hated it when I had to study it many years ago and had been under the impression that Rowson had too, hence his giving it the same treatment as The Waste Land, but apparently not. “One of the things about adapting great authors from the past is it’s not so much adaptation than collaboration,” he said. He had enjoyed giving Eliot a kicking, but Laurence Sterne had been “a joy” to work with.

Davis said he’d gone through a similar discussion about the impossibility of adapting Don Quixote. The day he signed the contract he was at a party with other comics creators and “no-one said, ‘what a good idea,’ they all said, ‘what are you doing?’ It was career suicide.”
Rowson went on to describe how the publisher of the original edition of his Tristram Shandy, Macmillan, were equally baffled, effectively disowning it as Penguin had The Waste Land. Kelly then reminded him of  the original reception of Sterne’s Shandy by quoting Dr Johnson: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” He was wrong, the book has never since been out of print.

On how they first approached the source books, Davis said that he had initially struggled with Quixote, as the Wordsworth translation he had  used was “impenetrable” and “the joy of reading just wasn’t there”.
Rowson described his experience at Cambridge reading English literature as “a meal ticket to never reading fiction ever again”. He encountered Shandy as he “galloped through the canon” with a very difficult tutor who would distractedly “fix the raffia on his chair” while his students would read out their critique. Rowson was appalled by the way what he saw as “a joyous book” was being “tortured to death in a small scarlet room”.

Davis said of adapting Quixote that he decided to write his script as the dialogue of the Quixote and Sancho Panza, to “breathe new life” into the book by making sure he concentrated on the living, breathing relationship between the two and the rest would follow. “It’s always people first.”
Rowson agreed, noting that “Sterne was clearly in love with his characters.” To reflect this, he based Shandy’s father on Moominpappa. His affection for the characters won over Shandeans. Well, most of them. One wrote a review saying it had “insufficient reverence for the text”:  fantastically wrong, and missing the point of both books.

Rowson said that both Gulliver and Shandy were “enormously graphic” books, lending themselves to illustration. An example is where Sterne illustrates the progression of the story with lines that weave in and out of a straight narrative.

He borrowed this for a sequence in which there is a steeplechase through several volumes. Davis observed that Rowson’s work, unlike many comic artists, wasn’t “filmic” or storyboarded. The reason for this is, Rowson said because he came from a discipline with four-hour deadlines where planning ahead isn’t part of the job. He finds storyboarding “too boring” because he knows what’s going to happen. “I think this is maybe not a professional way to do things,” he added.
Rowson, like many cartoonists, uses the rich history of the medium by alluding to great masters of the art, particularly Hogarth, and he recounted how he included pastiches of scenes such as Gin Lane because it automatically says 18th-century to the reader, as does the tribute to Piranesi on the first page. “It’s something cartoonists do all the time, we quote parts of a common visual language.”

Back on Quixote, Kelly said that between the two volumes of the original there had been so many copycats of the first book that in the second Cervantes had the characters express his anger by commenting on them, saying “that’s what you did in that book, let’s go another way”. In his version, Davis said, he knew there would be a gap between the publication of the first volume and the second, and had hoped he would get some bad or funny reviews to include. Unfortunately, he didn’t get any, but cartoonist and publisher Hunt Emerson said to him: “Me and the missus were in bed and she was laughing her tits off at it.” So he used that.
On his process of drawing the characters he said that at the beginning his designs were ill-defined, as when you read the book they are very vague until Sancho Panza turns up then “ping!” a self-created strangely shaped Quixote – “in the real world he couldn’t stand up” – takes shape in opposition to the simple  two circles of his friend.
When thinking of how to frame the stories within stories of the book, he said he decided to keep them short and self-contained, like single-page Sunday comic strips such as those by Winsor McCay and George Herriman, using different colour schemes to mark them out. These would, however, as the characters found themselves caught up in the stories, bleed into the main narrative, with the distinct colours beginning to bleed also.

On the subject of the term “graphic novels” both agreed that although what these books are are graphic novels, nevertheless they regard them as comics. “We only call them graphic novels so we can wheedle our way into the Edinburgh Book Festival,” Rowson joked. Kelly referred back to Chris Ware’s comments earlier in the festival that it’s important to hold on to the term “comics” as a working-class, liberating form, and Davis agreed: “If you’re a kid, you can’t make a movie, you can’t be in a band, but you can make a comic. You can make a whole story.”
Rowson said that someone had once said to him “they’re not graphic novels, they’re static films” which rang true with him as it was why he could put Bacall and Bogart and anyone else he wanted in The Waste Land.

On books they’d like to adapt, Rowson said that he’s wanted for years to do portmanteau of Dante’s Inferno, giving each circle of hell to a different artist, but it would be prohibitively expensive. Davis said he couldn’t think of anything that would be a logical next step from Quixote. During the audience questions, though, the subject of whether anything could not be adapted for comics came up and Kelly suggested that books with a high level of “interiority” such as the works of Henry James might not work. Davis countered that in comics you can show one thing and tell another, so the form is actually well suited.

To end there was a discussion on how popular perceptions of the adapted books don’t necessarily square with the reality, such as the way Gulliver is about little people tying up Jack Black, and that Quixote is just “tilting at windmills”, which aren’t necessarily wrong, but don’t tell the whole story. Tristram Shandy is probably best known for the bad pun at the end, which gave its name to Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation A Cock & Bull Story (“a very, very good attempt at filming the unfilmable,” according to Rowson), and Rowson went on to detail how for his version he wrapped Pete the Dog in a fur coat to add another layer that it’s a “shaggy dog story” as everyone walks away bored.

This leads nicely on to my next post, in which I write up a quick chat I had with him after the event, as I think he’s just about to do something very similar with his current Guardian cartoon, Silly Season. I highly recommend you go and read it all, and will meet you back here in a while.

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