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Seven Sensational Graphic Novels Based on Classic Literature

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Gris Grimly's Frankenstein portrays an unsettling creature.
Gris Grimly's Frankenstein portrays an unsettling creature.

Often, when classic fiction is translated from one language to another or adapted to another medium, we find ourselves wondering how much has been lost in the transition. In the case of graphic novel adaptations, however, there is a sense that the artist has a rare freedom in the reinterpretation of the original text. Given that the vast majority of us are already at least passingly familiar with the plots of so many literary classics, these adaptations into comics offer a glimpse into how these books look to artists working in another medium.

For those of us who have already read the original books, graphic novel adaptations of classic literature afford a rare opportunity to revisit those texts with fresh eyes, and perhaps to find something entirely new in them by putting the author’s work in conversation with another artist. Executed well, the result is sensational.

At the same time, for those of us who have been guiltily not quite getting around to reading some classic fiction for a while, a well-presented graphic novel adaptation can be a great spur to your motivation.

Wuthering Heights

Like Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights has been almost endlessly adapted, and the continued success of those adaptations speaks to the hunger that fans of the original have for new interpretations of the novel. Given the emphasis on the landscape and the use of the moors in the text, the book is particularly well suited to adaptation to the graphic novel format.

Wuthering Heights is considered by so many to be the apex of gothic romance, and as a result there are those who will find any adaptation to be a poor imitation of a beloved classic. That said, the artwork here is striking, and lends a genuine sense of character to the locale for those of us who find ourselves unable to derive one from Emily Brontë’s prose.

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Gris Grimly's Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a masterpiece of gothic horror, and one that has come to be among the most widely adapted pieces of literature ever. While the original is a masterpiece of early science fiction, the cycle of continuous adaptation has the strange property of emphasising the different features of the original story that appeal to each adaptor individually.

Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein is one of that rare breed of adaptation that preserves the sense of horror and fear around Victor Frankenstein’s project. Given the extent to which Frankenstein has come to be seen as a foundational work of science fiction, it can be easy to think of Frankenstein’s experiments in purely scientific terms. Grimly’s artwork presents its characters and their setting in exaggerated proportions that suit the larger-than-life strangeness of the story itself.

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The Complete Don Quixote

Don Quixote is one of those works of classic literature that people seem either to love or hate. Those who love it will tell you that Don Quixote is a laugh-out-loud riot of a book, one that parodies the romances that came before it by putting its protagonist (and Sancho Panza) in ever more ridiculous situations. Those who hate it tend not to see the humour in it, and find it staid or boring.

For those who just couldn’t see the Don Quixote that others seem to love, Rob Davis’ adaptation somehow boils everything down to its most surreal and wonderful. Where much of the original text can be spent on scene-setting, getting all of that strangeness in at once means that Davis’ take on Don Quixote seems to unfold at a different pace. It’s strange and wonderful.

The Odyssey

Continuing with another epic poem, Homer’s The Odyssey can seem inaccessible to modern readers, not least because of its extensive use of poetic devices that can often feel strangely off-putting (though this varies depending on the translation). Moreover, reading The Odyssey in prose is already effectively putting you in the position of reading an adaptation anyway; after all, serious scholars of the poem would only ever listen to it recited in the original Greek in full.

All of that aside, Hinds’ artwork presents The Odyssey in a series of striking watercolours. The style is beautiful and communicates the beauty of the poem’s setting in a way that’s all too easy to forget while reading the prose translations. It might seem a simple thing, but the repeated images of the sea, ships, and shore work beautifully.

If you enjoy Hinds' work, you'll be pleased to hear that he also has an excellent illustrated adaptation of medieval epic, Beowulf.

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Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

Given the times we’re living in, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 is the one classic book that we’d expect to be all over people’s to-read lists. That said, Bradbury’s prose isn’t for everyone. If you’ve ever tried to read Farenheit 451 and found you just didn't enjoy Bradbury, then you might appreciate a fresh look at the novel through Tim Hamilton’s eyes. Given that this is the “authorised” graphic novel adaptation, there’s also an introduction from Ray Bradbury (a treat for those who do enjoy Bradbury’s prose).

Of course, as you can see from the cover, Hamilton’s art style manages to do justice to the fires that have come to be synonymous with the book itself. Those fires lend the book much of its colour, which often oscillates between predominantly red and blue panels.

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Dante's Divine Comedy

For those of us not used to reading epic poetry, Dante’s The Divine Comedy can feel like an almost insurmountable obstacle. Seymour Chwast’s graphic novel adaptation helps to cast The Divine Comedy in a more accessible light than the original's 14,000 lines of poetry. The art style is friendly and straightforward, and the overall theme is that of a noir detective novel. It might sound like a strange fit, and the change does have an impact on the redemptive arc of the story, but the thematic shift keeps everything feeling fresh. Dante’s journey into the lands of the dead takes the form of an investigation, with Dante as the detective.

The combination of the friendly art and the unexpected interpretation of the original text is what really shines here. Where The Divine Comedy can often seem intimidating, this adaptation immediately draws the reader’s attention.

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The Metamorphosis

Peter Kuper’s adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis manages to maintain the sense of dizzying strangeness and almost paralytic horror of Kafka’s original text. Where Kafka’s transformed version of Gregor Samsa becomes a repulsive creature described only in terms of the insectoid features that separate it from humanity, Kuper’s Samsa maintains just enough humanity for the reader to continue to identify him as a (disfigured) man throughout. This lends his expressions a sense of exasperated relatability that’s hard not to find oddly charming. Where Kafka’s Samsa is easy to think of as grotesque, Kuper’s interpretation offers something more immediately empathetic.

The art itself is a stark black and white, and can help keep the bleakness of the story from swallowing the sense of strange humour that is so often to be found at the core of Kafka’s writing.

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American actress, author, fashion designer, dancer, producer, and singer. Became interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.

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