Re-imagining A Classic – Jan Baetens

Relatively little known in France but widely read in England, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was one of the most popular authors of the second half of the 19th century. His style is simple but subtle, his plots well-constructed and his themes always grounded in reality, (often focussing on the issue of money). In short he is the archetypal author in the realist vein. His writing is direct but considered. You never find with him the melodrama of Dickens or the sensationalism of Wilkie Collins, two of his great contemporaries. This understated approach is offset by a strong sense of irony. Trollope’s style is said to be so straightforward as to be almost without style in the eyes of some critics. The English reading public however loved him and he continues to be read to this day. This is perhaps all the more astonishing when you consider in spire of Trollope’s prolific output (he wrote 47 novels, more than three times as many as DIckens), he was not a full time professional author but an employee of the British Post Office. It is down to him that we have the famous red pillar boxes that can be seen everywhere in the UK.

What is less well-known, one might add, is that the postal system often plays a significant role in his works.

The choice of one of Trollope’s novels for publication as a graphic novel is not an obvious one. Certainly, the first editions of his novels were lavishly illustrated as befits prestigious publications of the Victorian era. Often the engravings were the work of the best artists of the time, for example, John Everett Millais, equally well-known for their paintings. However, the descriptive style of Trollope and his realistic descriptions of locations and characters only served to encourage the producers of the graphic novel to attempt to recreate his work in the new format. But against these factors must be considered the sheer length of the novels (the book on which this adaption is based, John Caldigate, was first published in serial form and in modern editions runs to over 500 pages), and then there is the deeper psychology of the author’s later style to consider, which in John Caldigate may be said to be similar to the style of Henry James. Like in The Turn of The Screw, the ambiguities in the storyline are a key factor in John Caldigate and one of the main attractions of this novel to the modern reader.

The transition to graphic novel is therefore a major undertaking for which the term “adaptation” is inadequate. Running Two Hares is in effect a brand new creation, which can stand alone independent of the original Trollope novel. In his work, Simon Grennan, best known hitherto for his graphic novel publications, worked in collaboration with American artist Christopher Sperandio, had two main objectives. On the one hand it is a faithful representation of Trollope’s text. The work offers a modern take on the older text, finding visual analogies for the specific style of the story – its realism, Trollope’s unique narrative tone and rhythm. Grennan does not want to lose the sense of the time and place in which the story was set when making this re-working. On the other hand, Grennan wants to create a resolutely contemporary product. Not only because this allows him to address certain issues (Running Two Hares portrays something of the lives of the aborigines whose existence is not even mentioned in the orginal), but also, primarily, because the visual aspects of the adaptation require the invention of a new visual language appropriate to the needs of the story.

In collaboration with Trollope expert David Skilton (of the University of Cardiff), Simon Grennan turned away from historic sources, which a less skillful author might have been content merely to copy more or less wholesale.  He ignored the traditional representations of Trollope, which can be found in the numerous illustrations of his works, and turned instead to other sources of inspiration, specifically French sources. Firstly, he cannot hide the debt he owes to the painter Daumier, whose freedom of expression and lively style informed the treatment here of the people and the backgrounds, at once accurate yet reflecting the psychological motivation of the characters. The locations, here, are almost characters in themselves, often speaking for the protagonists. Secondly, Grennan has acknowledged the debt he owes to graphic novelist Blutch, whom he studied, and from whom he takes the ability to focus on small yet significant details and the importance of the use of colour in his work. Like in Blutch, Grennan’s pages lead the reader’s eye to take in the whole import of a scene. At one and the same time the images function perfectly as a whole or individually to give the sense of place created solely out of lines and colours. Running Two Hares is a work that succeeds on two levels: as an adaptation it helps us to read more into the original classic text; and also it offers a superb lesson in how to produce a graphic novel.

(Translated from an original article in the French language edition of Simon Grennan’s graphic novel Courir Deux Lievres by Mark Green)

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