Adapting the classics to graphic novel form is an undertaking that is, as they say, “fraught with peril.” I’ve seen excellent examples, such as Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf, and those that have turned out sort of — well, mediocre. (There’s an adaptation of The Ring of the Nibelung out there that could have been terrific, but. . . . well, it’s not). And then there are examples such as Hinds’ King Lear, for which I had high hopes.
The story of King Lear should not need any summaries here. Shakespeare’s play, on which Hinds has based his graphic treatment, is one of the classics of English literature, and deservedly so. (Fun fact: it was also the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s great medieval epic, Ran.) It is, however, not an action-heavy script, relying for its impact on intensity rather than activity. And it’s in the area of intensity that I think this adaptation misses.
Lear is, when all is said and done, an intimate play with a few large-scale set pieces. Its momentum relies on small scenes of great intensity, and although Hinds has given us any number of small-scale vignettes, somehow there is a sense of large space throughout this book that undercuts the intimacy. And Lear is a dark play, almost classically tragic in its inevitable unfolding of disaster following on an old man’s temperament. The bright, spring-like colors that define most of the book don’t really support the text, nor the subtext, for that matter. Even night scenes give more the feel of a romantic tryst than skullduggery being plotted. And where there is action, the portrayal is static: even duels have a stillness to them that doesn’t help support the narrative.
My first impulse was to conclude that perhaps Hinds showed too much reverence toward the original text (something I noticed in that adaptation of The Ring). He very carefully collated Octavo and Folio editions to develop his script for this story, but on looking at it again, I suspect that somehow the concept got skewed. His approach seems a bit too scholarly — this is, after all, a comic, a vernacular form. It just doesn’t jell, and that includes the characterizations, none of which really ring true — there’s a disconnect between the characters as revealed in their dialogue and as portrayed graphically that set up a barrier to understanding these people. The most egregious example is Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester, probably the blackest villain in the story, whose appearance and demeanor are that of a baby-faced fop, which would be a good cover, but it never breaks. Even when he’s dying, he displays nothing beyond a bland prettiness. And there are large stretches that remind me of nothing so much as tapestries of the late medieval period, graceful pastorals of courtiers at play, decorative, static and very remote. That, to me, is not really Lear.
It’s a pretty book, and that, I think, is it’s great failing. Lear is powerful, heartbreaking, and potent, but never pretty. It seems as though Hinds set out to do a Shakespearean period piece — the setting and costuming are sixteenth century — of intrigue in the court. That’s not what Lear is about, and that, I think, is where this adaptation fails. I had hoped for much better, remembering the strength of his drawing and the very intelligent script for Beowulf.
Alas and alack!
(Candlewick Press, 2009)