Deborah Yaffe

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Big eyes, bigger emotions

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 26 2016 02:00PM

By now, it’s hardly news that Jane Austen’s stories have inspired adaptations in every conceivable genre and medium: zombie mashup, radio play, cinematic modernization, young-adult romance novel – you name it.


So perhaps it’s not surprising that Janeite comic book fans have more than one choice of adaptation: both Marvel Comics and UDON Entertainment, publisher of the Manga Classics line, have released versions of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, and Marvel has also produced a Northanger Abbey. (I’m unaware of graphic novel versions of Mansfield Park and Persuasion, but if you know differently, please let me know.)


I’m always intrigued by the choices adapters make as they transform Austen’s work for new media and audiences. And so I read with interest an interview, published earlier this month in Sequential Tart, a feminist-inspired webzine about the comics industry, with Stacy King, the author of the Manga Classics adaptations of P&P and S&S.


King notes that manga, the Japanese comic book style characterized by black-and-white drawings of characters with big eyes and bigger emotions, isn’t an obvious fit for Austen’s restrained aesthetic.


“Finding a balance between the expressive, often over-the-top tone of manga storytelling with the highly reserved style of Austen's drawing-room drama is probably the biggest challenge,” she says. “Manga characters are usually not very reserved: they communicate with big gestures and facial expressions. If you completely eliminate that aspect and make every character restrained and seemingly unemotional, then you're veering away from the manga aspect of the books. At the same time, if every scene is bombastic, then we aren't being accurate to the original novel.”


I’ve never read the Manga Classics Austens, so I can’t say how successful they are in walking this line. But it seems to me that the issues King raises are common to many Austen adapters. Where is the proper balance between romance and satire, plot and character, visual impact and linguistic elegance? Is it better to be faithful to the original, or playfully unfaithful, or both at the same time? In other words: How much Austen does an Austen adaptation need?


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