Adapting a classic: graphic novels and sequels

After discussing the book to movie adaptation of The Girl on the Train last week, I’ve been thinking about other forms of book adaptation and what can happen when adapting a classic.

I’ve recently read two different types of adaptation: the modern classic His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is being transformed into a series of graphic novels, and Andrew Motion has written Silver, a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic novel Treasure Island.

adapting a classic graphic novel philip pullman his dark materials

So far, Stéphane Melchior, Clément Oubrerie, Philippe Bruno and Annie Eaton have only adapted the first book in Pullman’s trilogy, Northern Lights. They have split the story across two small graphic novels, and I believe (hope) there are plans to do the rest of the series too. I think these graphic novels are absolutely fantastic, especially as so much of the story is so visual – daemons, rooftops, airships, the Northern Lights – so actually seeing it is really fascinating. What’s more, it’s great to see Oubrerie taking a little artistic license and adding some visual gags; for example, he put in a man wearing a towel running away from a house destroyed by Iorek, which is a lovely touch.

I did come across a few hitches, however. For one thing, Lyra doesn’t look anything like I imagined her (for that matter, neither do any of the characters) and that has to be one of the biggest problems that comes from turning a classic book into a graphic novel. The readers who love this series probably have a pretty clear idea of the characters in their heads, and although this didn’t put me off the graphic adaptation, I did feel a little removed from this Lyra. Another major hurdle for book-to-graphic-novel adaptors has to be that a lot of the text must be cut out, and there have to be some tough decisions about what to keep and what to lose. I think what is lost in the story in this book is made up for by the beautiful illustrations, which add their own level of detail. Ultimately, reading these felt like a totally new way to enjoy a book I already love, but it did make me want to go back and read the original again, for the proper experience.

adapting a classic silver andrew motion david tennant audiobook

Silver is an entirely different kettle of fish, mainly because I’ve never read Treasure Island, so I don’t have any nostalgic feelings for it. In fact, Andrew Motion didn’t read the book as a child either and perhaps this is why he was able to adapt it; the book doesn’t hold some insurmountable nostalgic influence for him. In Silver, Motion has attempted to sidestep the problems faced by the His Dark Materials adaptation by setting his story decades later and following the adventures of Jim Hawkins’ and Long John Silver’s kids, rather than the original characters everybody knows and loves. This is an interesting approach to take when adapting another writer’s work because it can give you a lot more freedom to do your own thing, but you always have to remember your source material and hope that you are not ‘hijacking’ a popular story without doing justice to the original.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by David Tennant, which adds another layer of interest: Motion has adapted Stevenson’s work, and now Tennant is adapting Motion’s words by adding voices, accents and emphasis. At the end of the audiobook was an interview with Andrew Motion in which he talked about the problems of adaptation and the ‘doors’ Stevenson left open in the original story (eg: Long John Silver doesn’t die, there are rumours of a black wife, some of the pirates are left marooned on the island but alive). Perhaps Stevenson intended to write a sequel and Motion is just finishing the job?

I think taking something popular and adapting it is full of all sorts of challenges, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t do it. Taking something, twisting it, making it your own is a tough thing to do, but I think it can lead to some very, very interesting pieces of work.


What do you think about adapting classics? Should we do it or should we leave them alone? Let me know with a comment down below!

Want to read these books? Here’s where you can buy Northern Lights and Silver.

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