Adaptation is an art form as valid as any other. While it might at first appear easy, there are more than a few complications that make it deceptively complex. Mediums such as film and books have entirely different languages that don’t easily translate to each other. There is a reason that people will often say “the book was better” after watching a cinematic adaptation. But despite complaints about changes to the source material, the most important thing an adaptation can do is capture the spirit of the work it’s adapting. In that regard, there are few adaptations better than Boom! Studios’ Slaughterhouse-Five graphic novel.
Based on Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel of the same, Slaughterhouse-Five has been reimagined in graphic novel form by acclaimed writer Ryan North and artist Albert Monteys. The story is about the life of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran whose mind randomly jumps forward and backward in time. In his strange life, Billy becomes a prisoner of war, experiences one of World War II’s worst firebombings, is abducted by plunger shaped aliens, becomes the sole survivor of a plane crash, and experiences his entire life out of order. While the story’s science fiction elements are the most attention-grabbing, they all really symbolize one thing; Billy’s trauma. Though North and Montey’s don’t change the plot itself, what they do change proves significant.
As a graphic novel, a majority of the adaptation is told not just through dialogue, but through visuals. One of the quirks of Billy being unstuck in time is that he sometimes travels to after he died, but because only his mind travels, he sees this time as nothing but purple shapes In this graphic novel adaptation, North and Monteys give these abstractions short panels in between scenes. For a story so focused on death, this detail highlights how the iea of death itself incessantly haunts Billy.
The story is filled with dozens of little details like that, showing that North has a clear grasp on the source mterial’s themes. North really is the perfect choice to adapt a novel like this. While the upbeat humor of North’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl might seem at odds with Vonnegut’s black comedy, his writing has a humanism that is perfectly in line with Vonnegut without sacrificing any of the comedy.
Of course, North’s writing is only half the story. One of the things that makes Slaughterhouse-Five so difficult to adapt is its balance of cartoonish humor and real-world tragedy. This duality is essential in capturing Billy’s survivor’s guilt. Luckily for readers, Monteys threads the needle with ease. There is an exaggerated nature to the expressions that lends itself to over the top moments. What’s amazing is that this goofiness never detracts from the horrors that Billy experiences. The devastation of Dresden after it’s destroyed is a masterful two-page spread that really conveys the senselessness of the city’s destruction.
Hearing that a classic novel has been adapted into a graphic novel might instantly conjure images of a dry text devoid of any humor or excitement, but with Slaughterhouse-Five North and Monteys show that an adaptation can be just as striking as the original.
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