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Sean Michael Wilson:

Turning Classics Into Comics

In the following interview, Paul Gravett talks with Sean Michael Wilson and explores the process of creating a comic book adaptation of classic works of literature. Sean’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol with artist Mike Collins was recently published by Classical Comics in the UK, and he is currently working on three further adaptations for Classical Comics - The Canterville Ghost with artist Steve Bryant, Wuthering Heights with artist John M. Burns, and Sweeney Todd with artist Declan Shalvey.


Sean Michael Wilson (R) with artist Mike Collins.

Paul Gravett:
What is the first question to answer when adapting classics into comics?

Sean Michael Wilson:
The first question is what is the AIM of the adaptation.  It could be to make a children’s version; an comedy version; a version that brings out one aspects of the story, such as the historical aspects; or you could use the original merely as a springboard for making something quite new. Tim Burton talked about making a ‘re-imagining’ of the Plant of the Apes film. Sounds kind of ‘pouncy’ to some but I think its an accurate description of the process - you are using your imagination to visualise and feel your new version. Based on the original, yes… but its in the ‘re-imaging’ of it that your own version starts. For the comic book version of Paul Auster’s City Of Glass it appears as if the creators, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, very much made their own stylised version. However, for the publisher Classical Comics that I have adapted four books for so far, the aim is authenticity… or perhaps authenticity and accessibility, those could be seen as the two polls you have to aim for.

So with that in mind the key thing, on the wide plot level, is to stick close to the original text, to consider its ‘essence’ as a story and to convey the key plot points in your own version. So obviously to do that you need to read the original at some point! But not only that, it may be a good idea to research it in other ways: to find out about the time it was written, read an analysis of the book, a biography of the writer, etc. Especially for books like the ones that Classical Comics (CC) do which are normally from different historical period, so you will need to know about clothes and manners and ideas of the time.


A Christmas Carol

Does it help to watch films based on the book?

You could POSSIBLY also watch film versions. I say possibly because I think its not always a good idea. In the Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights adaptation I made for CC, I watched the 1939 film version, with Laurence Olivier. I learned two things from that: firstly, not to cut off the novel half way and reduce it JUST to a doomed romance. Secondly, I decided to use one particular way of doing something in one scene that was not emphasised in the book. Otherwise the film didn’t influence me much. But for the Sweeney Todd adaptation I made for them I decided NOT to watch the recent film until AFTER I had read the whole book, because I felt the film would influence me too much… I didn’t want it in my head when I was imagining how to do my own version. I was afraid that a modern musical version with two such well known and defined actors in the main roles might not help me achieve the goal of authenticity to the original. In the end I never watched it at all.

So, while going through the original the key things you are doing, it seems to me, are Selecting, Eliminating and Summarising. This is because your version rarely has the same amount of room, in page count, that the original has. Sometimes you have MORE room, as with the adaptation I made of Oscar Wilde’s A Canterville Ghost, but mostly you have less room, sometimes A LOT less room. (With A Canterville Ghost the issue was the opposite, the original is less than 40 pages long, a novella. The comic book script came in at about 100 pages. Now the issue becomes how to tell that story at 2.5 times the length without it being just ‘filler’. More on that later when we get to the script writing stage).

Can you give me examples of the Selecting and Eliminating process?

Well, Wuthering Heights had to go down from the 330 pages of the original to 140 comic book pages. So the first thing you are thinking is: surely its going to be IMPOSSIBLE to scrap almost 200 pages and yet keep the key plots points in! Well, its not, though it IS difficult. It very much depends on the nature of the book as to HOW difficult its going to be and then as to the WAY your going to do it (more on that later). Wuthering Heights has many characters in it, takes places over a long time period, plus the unfolding of the drama and relationships are so well integrated as to make it very challenging to reduce anything at all. By contrast Sweeney Todd has several scenes in that can be taken out completely without harming the overall story. These is because it seems to have been written by several people who added bits in without making to much effort to consider the whole package. With Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol the page length of the original and the comic were roughly similar, so not much had to be eliminated. But as a rule when I am reading through the original novel I am thinking ‘this bit is very important’, or ‘that’s not needed so much’ and I make notes on the book in my own shorthand, marking down VI for Very Important, or S for Skip This? Then, of course, at this first reading I will already have visuals or feelings jump into my head for how something might be done. But the main thing I’m thinking at this early stage is of what to select and what to eliminate.

After I have read through for the first time I go back and consider the contents of each chapter as I now understand them, then make a rough guess of how many comic book pages these chapter Im reading can be told in. I mark 3 pages or 7 pages or whatever it is at the beginning of each chapter. Then add up all the chapters page estimates together to see how many comic book pages I think the story needs in total. This is partly an intuitive thing that you pick up after you have done such adaptation work before. It also comes from being a long term comic book reader I think, you start to have a feeling for how something can be paced. Once I start to write the script I have that page breakdown as a guide to how many pages this particular scene should be. I find that I manage to keep to the guide quite well. For the four books I have done for CC so far, the rough estimate I made for total page breakdown turned out to be almost exactly right, just a couple of pages out.


A Christmas Carol

What’s the next stage as you refine the script?

The next thing to consider is ‘What to go where’. I am pacing the story and in pacing I am considering what things shall we SAY and SHOW in this scene, this page, this panel. Now the original book itself will already be paced out, of course, have its own rhythm. But there are at least two reasons why this pacing might not suit the comic book version. Firstly, because I have less pages in which to tell the story, and secondly because we are making a VISUAL version. Of course we are, this is a comic! - but this affects HOW you make the adaptation in particular ways. The original novel has no visuals therefore its paced and told in a way with words in mind - but we are making a ‘story with pictures’ now. So we need to think about how to convey this textual information visually as well as which of the original words to use. This will possibly alter the pacing of the book, and the script writers job in adaptation is create a new pacing, with these things in mind, but one which is still coherent, that ‘reads well’.

Another aspect though is that it depends on how the original book is told - does it have a lot of dialogue or is it mostly physical description for instance? This affects HOW I can adapt it. Either way this is where summarising comes in. If the original takes 4 pages to show how Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights first met, but I have only 2 pages to show it then I have to summarise something. I’ve already decided that this scene can’t be eliminated, its essential. So what can we summarise or tell/show differently to capture it in less pages? Depends on the nature of the book. If it has a lot of physical description then good, a long descriptive paragraph can be shown in one visual panel sometimes (and conversely, in another situation we could take a whole comic book page to show just one sentence). We can SHOW the reader in that one panel what it took the writer several sentences to paint in their mind. Nicely summarised! As I said above with A Canterville Ghost I had lots of room, so then I had the ‘luxury’ of taking many scenes and drawing out their visual potential. Allowing me to pace them nice and slowly where that was good for the mood of the story. Or to emphasize the visual beauty of the situation (a haunted mansion), and give the characters lots of room to play out subtle emotions and facial expressions. Though here again, remember, we are after authenticity to the original book - so great exaggeration of scenes and emotions could take us away from that just as much as showing them too little.

But if, like Wuthering Heights or Sweeney Todd, long chunks are full of vital dialogue then its tougher going. I need to keep the key nature of the exchange but in less words, summarise or reworded in a way that still sounds natural, does not have too many words in any one speech balloon/panel AND pace it well between the panels. These last three are basic factors in ANY comic story telling, but if you are making up the whole story yourself then you can come up with dialogue that fits your pages and pacing in the first place, as you go along. With adaptation, the writer, after the main process of summarising, needs to consider WHAT text is going to go WHERE - which is part of creating your own pacing, as I said above. It’s pacing by visuals and pacing by words. Too much text on one panel may crowd the artist out, leave them little room ‘to breath’. This is one thing that artist Mike Collins noted about my script for A Christmas Carol - that it left him with plenty space to make beautiful visuals while still telling the story. That’s great to hear, though I’m somewhat nervous that John M Burns might say the opposite about the script I made for Wuthering Heights. As there was so much dialogue in that book, that it simply could not be cut out or summarised anymore than I did already without losing the authenticity of the story. On the other hand the second aim, accessibility, is partly achieved via breaking the chunks of text in the original into specific speech balloons, which convey some coherent part of the dialogue in a natural sounding way - always remembering to pace them well. Perhaps including instructions to the letterer as to where on the panel these might go. Though a good letterer will know this already. A Christmas Carol has excellent lettering, by Terry Willey, which smoothly reinforces the reading pace of the text within each panel.


A Christmas Carol

What other questions do you have to consider when adding pictures to a much-loved classic?

One thing to consider, once we get right down to the nitty gritty of the script writing, is that we might SPOIL aspects of the original by visualising it.  I mean that in showing some special scene, that many people know of already, we can end up robbing it of its power by visualising it too ‘narrowly’. Take, for example, when we read that Tiny Tim has died in A Christmas Carol. Many people have their own idea of what that scene looks like, because they have being ‘re-imaging’ it themselves reading the original novel. Now we come along and FIX that to one specific visual, and it’s often disappointing. Of course this is the job of the artist, and we are talking about writing here. But, as many people don’t seem to understand about comics, it’s the writer who first goes through the visualising process and much of what you SEE on the page has been described by them to the artist (this is not to downgrade the role of the artist of course! - just to point out that the comic book writer is also involved in the process of how things are visualised on the page). So it’s first of all the writers responsibility when making an adaptation to avoid spoiling important scenes in the visualisation process. One way to achieve this, its seems to me, is to leave the scenes intentional vague. Not to show too much, to leave room for the reader to still put their own ideas in of how this should look. For that Tiny Tim scene in which the father goes up to the death bed of his beloved child, we made it so that almost nothing of the dead child can be seen. Only the fathers emotions are shown, the rest is left obscure - with ‘room to breath’.

There’s more to say, but this has already become a marathon (internationally known as snickers) essay, so I will stop there.

Thanks a lot, Sean, it’s been fascinating to learn about some of the challenges of adaptation. I’ll look forward to your future Classical Comics volumes next year.

Sean Michael Wilson is a comic book writer from Scotland, now living in Japan.

Posted: October 19, 2008

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