Of Pages and Panels
When it comes to adapting Austen, there are always many dangers along the way, and dozens of questions that begin to assault one's mind with very little mercy: Is my adaptation too literal? Am I moving too far from the source material? Am I capturing the essence of the characters? Am I being true to the message of the story? Am I choosing the right passages when editing? Can I get away with leaving this part out? Would dearest Jane be turning in her grave?
In this blog entry I would love to share with you a little bit about my process of writing the script for the graphic novel, which has been quite the adventure.
It is an interpretation
I am the type of person that has learned to enjoy an adaptation for what it is: an interpretation of a source material reimagined by someone else. I have always found people who say "the book is much better" to be very tiresome. Some people tend to forget that an adaption does not have the purpose of erasing the original, which lives forever for you to enjoy over and over again. No, an adaptation seeks to translate the work into a different medium, with its own rules, language, and audience.
I am one who thinks that the "best" adaptation is the one that succeeds at making the work accessible for the generation it is designed for. People who were young in the 90s might feel more connected to Douglas McGrath's peacefully warm Highbury than to Autumn De Wilde's Instagram-ready Regency pastel world, and that is totally fine. Generations change, and with them change the language, the aesthetics, the social needs, and the relevance of a topic. Austen's works are so masterfully written that we can get away with stretching them, modifying them, reimagining them, and retranslating them to different media through the ages, and they will always manage to deliver, despite the "liberties". Despite the "newness". At the end of the day what matters is that we are keeping her works alive, and constantly rekindling the interest in learning more about her, and the world of her beloved novels.
Thinking in panels
Graphic novels are very a visual medium. Just like in the movies, the story is told through a collection of images, frames, and "camera angles", represented in panels that drive the plot similar to a storyboard, and support it with the use of text in the form of speech balloons, captions, and other types of lettering. This is why I normally write my scripts at the same time I speculate the pages' layout. They go hand in hand.
There are so many things to consider when planning a graphic novel for publication. For example, page numbers play a very important role, since per press request, page counts must be divisible by four. This is mainly because in the perfect binding process, pages are printed on large parent sheets, trimmed, and folded to create the finished product. Each set of four pages is actually made up of one big folded piece of paper.
Because of this, it is crucial to write a script that would fit a sensible number of pages to make the printing process affordable, which brings us to the big question: how much Austen is enough? Emma is not precisely a short novel, and as a Janeite I do struggle when I have to choose what to keep, what to trim, and what to let go. However, as mentioned before, my adaptation is not trying to rewrite the classic, and I have to make peace with the fact that adaptations are, in a way, a much simpler summarized version of the masterpiece. This of course presents a huge challenge: the graphic novel must be able to tell Emma's story panel after panel with enough dialogue to keep as much Austen as possible, but without forgetting that the medium calls for special emphasis on visual storytelling. I will talk about panel and page composition in detail in a future post, but I wanted to mention how important panel layout is to move the plot forward.
When writing a page, I tend to draft in my mind (or quickly on my tablet) an approximate of what each page is intended to cover in terms of paneling, text, and illustrations, and I break the dialogue in the script to roughly compose the page, even if it needs a few tweaks and changes in the future. For example, below is a screenshot of two pages of the script, in which I have already planned the page's layout. I describe what each panel illustrates, and I try to sort out the dialogue (which will be enclosed in speech balloons and captions) in between panels, trying my best not to clutter the page, but offering enough material to move the story forward.
As you can see, page three is focusing on how Emma and Mr. Woodhouse are coping with Miss Taylor's departure from Hartfield, with enough dialogue to make the situation clear, and without "copy-pasting" every single word written in the novel. We love Mr. Woodhouse's concern for James having to get the carriage ready every day to drive them to Randalls, but we do not really need it to move the plot forward. Page four, on the other hand, has no text at all. A full-page panel is being used to introduce one of the most important characters in the story. We can all agree that Mr. Knightley deserves a full size page to enter this graphic novel. No words are needed. He is gallant, handsome, and elegant as he crosses fields and bridges, so by the time we turn the page and see him entering Hartfield, we have visually established that his home at Donwell Abbey is within walking distance, and he enjoys a bit of exercise when paying calls to the Woodhouses. The combination of dialogue-driven pages with wordless full-size illustrations surely makes for more dynamic visual storytelling, and that is precisely what we want in a graphic novel.
There are so many big decisions to make in terms of adaptation. There is so much going on with the people of Highbury that one must be careful to give everyone their chance to shine. Harriet and Robert, Frank and Jane, Miss Bates and her mother, the Eltons; everyone is an important piece of Austen's gorgeous and intricate puzzle, and we want to do them justice.
There is much more to designing a page and adapting a huge novel into a shorter medium than what I am sharing here, but I hope this post gives you enough details on how everything must walk hand in hand in order to glue it all together. As I move forward with the process, I will be delighted to share more about panel layouts, thumbnailing, lettering, character design, color palettes, and all the devilish details that are making this project come together, but for now, I sincerely thank you for passing by, and as always, I am much obliged to you for the love and support.