Are Graphic Novel Adaptations of Classics Any Good?

Classic Remarks


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.


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What do you think of graphic novel adaptations of classic novels? What makes one successful? Or what makes one not work? Do you have any to recommend?

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This week’s Classic Remarks prompt is really interesting to me because I think my answer would have been very different a couple years ago. Historically, a good deal of graphic novel adaptations of classic novels were, to be blunt, not very good. I suspect this is because creators and readers often saw these adaptations, not as unique works of art to be celebrated in and of themselves, but as tools for literacy. A number of graphic novels were clearly meant to lure in reluctant readers who could not or would not read the books they were based on. They were not considered “real” books, but rather bridges that could help a reader understand the main plot of a book that might otherwise seem too dense or intimidating.

Consequently, when one picked up one of these graphic novels, the experience was rather unpleasant. Illustrations were not always works of art. They might simply be static images meant to illustrate the plot so readers who “didn’t get it” could finally follow along. Additionally, text and dialogue might be changed in an attempt to “appeal to the youth.” Cringe-worthy modernizations might occur, or sometimes what appeared like a condescending “dumbing down” where beautiful prose or nuanced sentences might be shortened and flattened so kids could understand. These textual adaptations might illustrate the general idea of what was happening in the plot, but the more subtle connotations of the original work would be lost.

A lot has changed in the world of graphic novels, however. In the past years, there has been a real renaissance in the art form. And readers and teachers and librarians have responded. Educators used to argue that, “Comics aren’t really reading” (and, yes, some still do) and people might look down on others who read them. Now, however, graphic novels routinely appear on school reading lists, libraries love to promote them, and more and more readers and discovering–and enjoying the form.

I have to admit that, due to my earlier unpleasant experiences with graphic novel adaptations of classic works, I have only read one newer attempt–the recently released graphic novel adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I suspect, however, that this volume illustrates the new interest in joyfully adapting classics for young readers, not because those readers need an aid to understanding the original book, but because the creators truly love both graphic novels and the works they are adapting. With all the brilliant original graphic novels being released today, I believe that one can longer try successfully to release a sub-par adaptation just for the hope of getting some desperate teachers to buy it for the students who are struggling. Readers want good graphic novels–and they know now what to expect. I believe that the current market would have responded to that.

So, while I cannot adequately comment on the current state of graphic novel adaptations of classics, there are good reasons for me to believe that things have changed. I might just have to pick up a few to find out. I do not think I will be disappointed.

24 thoughts on “Are Graphic Novel Adaptations of Classics Any Good?

    • Krysta says:

      I definitely think how good the adaptation is depends on the specific adaptation! As I said in my post, I think things have changed a lot from, say, 15 years ago, and adaptations are a lot better these days.

      Thanks for participating this week!


  1. alisoninbookland says:

    I think they’re great for 1) getting struggling readers to read and 2) supplementing readers who struggle with classics.

    I almost want to think of them as the modern day equivalent of CliffsNotes. If a reader gets through the GN of a classic, they’ll know the basics of the story & if they enjoyed it, they’re much more likely to pick up the real deal now the know the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think they can be helpful for that!

      I had to teach The Canterbury Tales in grad school (in Middle English), and I ended up practically begging my students to go at least read the Wikipedia summary, so they would at least have some idea of what was supposed to be happening in the text! That can definitely make reading something “complex” much easier.


  2. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I have read the Shakespeare graphic novels, which is basically Shakespeare’s text with words and I found that helpful in illustrating what should be happening – but I think that is due, at least in part, to the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were originally visual (being acted out) and so graphic novels are a sort of return to that.


  3. Never Not Reading says:

    Hm, I hadn’t considered graphic novel adaptations of classic children’s literature. I am more on board with this, for some reason, maybe because the whimsy of my favorite kids lit classics is easier to capture in graphic form. I bet Anne of Green Gables or The Secret Garden would actually work quite well as a graphic novel. Or maybe A Little Princess.


  4. Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

    I was really on the fence about this one, too, until I read a graphic novel adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. There were definitely downsides to the graphic novel format vs. the original (especially when it pertains to certain things being left on the cutting room floor). However, if I had to choose between the two? I would pick the graphic novel every time. It was so much easier to absorb the plot and content with the graphic novel and actually retain what was happening, and the artwork was stunning!

    I’d be really interested in seeing more classics turned into graphic novels in this way. I feel like classics are important for so many reasons, but having moved from one state in the north, where education was highly valued, to where I currently live, which is actually somewhere in the bottom few education-wise, I’ve realized how important it is to meet kids where they are and try to bolster them, rather than throwing books at them that are above their ability and then lambasting them for not understanding its importance. I really would love to see more people embrace graphic novels!


  5. ahaana @ Windows to Worlds says:

    this is such a great discussion post!! i always love reading the original, because however long they might be, it’s an experience like no other, and very elaborate!! reading an original classic is always magical for me, but i understand why some readers might prefer shorter versions!! i loved reading this post!! it was so interesting!! 💖


  6. Leon Stevens says:

    Is a great story great in whatever form it takes? I think that graphic novels-like T.V. and movies- can tell a story efficiently. You can read The Lord of the Rings in a month, or watch it in less than several hours. Will you benefit from the authors craft in the way they develop the characters and the setting? No, that is now in the hands of the person adapting the work. We see Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s vision.

    That being said, will more students learn about the stories of the classics with graphic novel adaptations? Sure. Will some of them go on to read the original, when they wouldn’t have attempted it before? I think so.

    The bottom line: Fostering the enjoyment of reading in any way benefits everyone.


  7. Michael J. Miller says:

    I appreciate your thoughts here because I just can’t bring myself to try reading these. On the surface, that seems crazy. I adore comic books. I love many classics. AND Ryan North – who gave me Dinosaur Comics and Squirrel Girl – recently did a graphic novel adaptation of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ and Kurt Vonnegut is one of my all-time favorite authors. I should’ve been there waiting to buy it the day it came out! But I just can’t bring myself to want to read it and I think it’s because of what you’ve said above. My early experience with graphic novel adaptations of classic was so dreadful I automatically write them off now.


    • Krysta says:

      I feel kind of bad about how my early experience has affected my attitudes towards graphic novels. I know it can come across as elitist, especially for those who have grown up in this wonderful renaissance of juvenile graphic novels. Maybe those early attempts are something you really need to have read to understand just how bad they were!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        I also find it funny because my early positive experience affects (limits?) me, too! For all the superhero comics I love – even and especially the ones filled with social commentary and deeper meanings – I find myself rarely checking out non-superhero comics. I read the ‘Doctor Who’ comic and I’ve read the ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ comics. I’ve tried some ‘Star Wars’ ones, too. But I go to those because of my preexisting love of the universes and my desire to spend “more time” with those characters. It’s VERY RARE that I’ll pick up a graphic novel – even an original work, not even just an adaptation – that isn’t at least superhero-adjacent, no matter how much good I’ve heard about it.

        On the one hand, I struggle with that because it’s limiting. On the other, there’s only so much time to read! It’s hard to figure out how to drop something new (even if it’s something I’m intrigued by) in amongst the superhero comics, novels, nonfiction texts, blog posts, and other online sources I already read. I’d like to incorporate more in the comic medium, and I have dabbled here and there (with something like Chelsea Cain’s brilliant ‘Man-Eaters’ or Joe Hill’s ‘Locke & Key’) but it’s hard to find more permanent places for things like that in my reading rotation.


        • Krysta says:

          I find the non-superhero graphic novels a little more accessible. I don’t have to worry so much about whether I’m picking up a volume that’s actually a good starting place, or that I’m not going to understand what’s going on because apparently there’s a multiverse and I should recognize all these characters from other comics. A standalone comic, well, it stands alone!

          And they don’t feel like such a commitment. It’s not like I try to start with this character and now suddenly I need to read 12 volumes!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            Hahaha, YEP, that makes sense! Reading your comment though made me think how usual not knowing “the whole story” was for me as a kid. When I was really little, I got comics from the spinny racks at grocery stores or gas stations. So if li’l me wasn’t at Lowblaws or Giant Eagle when the next issue of Spider-Man came out, I never read it and had to pick up the story wherever I found it next, two or three issues later. I’ve always associated that experience with reading comics, even if it’s been years since I couldn’t easily find – between trade paperbacks, back issues, and digital options – the parts I need to read.

            I wonder, and I have NO IDEA if this is true as the idea is literally just forming now, if this is part of why I don’t gravitate as often to standalone, non-superhero graphic novels. Is it possible they feel “too complete” to me? Like buried somewhere in my brain is this idea that books start and end but comics are always just a narrative snapshot in a character’s life? Maybe that makes the standalone ones feel foreign? I don’t know but the idea intrigues me.


  8. Eileen says:

    I think graphic novels are great, however using the graphic novel version of a classic is pointless depending on your purpose. If you want kids to be familiar with the plot line of a classic just for the sake of being familiar with the plot line for reference—that is ok, even though I don’t see the point. If you are reading it INSTEAD of the actual classic, then you are losing everything that makes it valuable. . For example, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird is known for the author’s use of phenomenal word choice and for dialogue and descriptions that come to life. The graphic novel would be a watered down version, without the same word choice, etc. Why call it To Kill a Mockingbird when it is just someone’s summary? It seems that instead the student should read something original that holds their interest level and attention until they are ready to read the actual novel and appreciate the author’s unique craft.


    • Krysta says:

      I do agree that one has to consider what the purpose of the adaptation is and what one hopes to get out of it. I think adaptations in general are interested AS adaptations–what parts of the story are emphasized or changed and why? What does that tell us about the historical moment or the author’s concerns?

      But when teachers assign graphic novels in lieu of the actual book, it does feel like they’re just asking students to get a summary of the plot, in which case…why not just assign an easier book that students can engage with meaningfully? Is there some higher purpose to being able to repeat the plot summary of a classic book that one hasn’t read? Because, for me, the beauty of a book is often the small things–the word choices, the prose, the atmosphere–stuff that gets lost in the adaptation if the focus is just to make sure students know the plot.


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