Rob Davis asks himself how and why he turned Cervantes' Don Quixote into a graphic novel
Are you mad?
When I told people I was adapting Don Quixote they looked at me in much the same way the characters in the book look at the crazy knight of La Mancha himself: "You must be mad!"
Turning a 1,000-page novel written 400 years ago into a graphic novel may seem mad, but I knew from the off that it was the right choice. It's such a key book in Western literature and can lay claim to being the first true novel, yet so few people have read it. That's in my favour to begin with. I get the chance to introduce these incredible characters to people who have heard of them but never met them.
Is it faithful?
The word 'faithful' gets tacked onto adaptations as an official stamp of approval. However being true to the spirit of the original and faithfully sticking to the text are not necessarily the same thing.
Don Quixote was not intended for academic study - it was never meant to be so daunting to the contemporary reader: it was a book that made everyone howl with laughter and struck a chord with anyone regardless of education. It would be read aloud to those who couldn’t read. It was a popular book, and has remained so through the centuries.
I wanted to make a book that was totally faithful to the spirit of the original, and one that anyone could pick up and get into.
Why two volumes?
Before I even started drawing a pitch or writing scenes I had a few basic ideas that would define my adaptation. One was that we should split the book back into its original two volumes for publication. There's no reason why the two volumes can't be collected into a single volume in the future.
The originals were published 10 years apart (it's worth noting that the end of Volume One was the end of the story and not a cliffhanger or unfinished work, so there is a natural break). The gap between the two original books is part of the life of the novel - it’s a big part of the story in Volume Two. People Quixote meets in Volume Two have read Volume One.
Don Quixote lives as a book and I really didn't want to create an adaptation that treats it like a revered monument. I want to demonstrate that it still lives.
Why a graphic novel?
A graphic novel can get inside the text, the very ideas underpinning it all, and give them an immediacy.
The other two choices I made from the off are all about that process of turning text into graphic novel. The first concerns the role of the author. Here the author, Cervantes, addresses the reader directly, and yet denies that he wrote the story, instead claiming it was written by an Arab historian and that he, Cervantes, is just the adapter... where does that leave me?!
To be 'faithful' to the original I dispensed with narrative captions (small boxes of text familiar to comic readers) wherever possible and instead had the author’s voice coming from a cell window. Cervantes was imprisoned several times and it was rumoured that the idea for Quixote came to him in prison. So here he appears as a voice trapped inside the book. Or maybe he’s looking into the book from outside.
He is a character in the book regardless of where his voice emanates. It is a device that is easy for the reader to grasp in graphic form and yet reflects the complex state of unreliable narrator that Cervantes invents for himself.
Why do they speak like that?
Then comes another element crucial for comics - the dialogue. There is a problem for many modern readers that is less the fault of translation and more to do with the 400-year gap since the book was written.
Don Quixote is meant to sound like a man from another age, a voice from dusty old books on chivalry, whereas Sancho Panza and other characters are supposed to sound far more down to earth and familiar. It's hard for many modern readers to pick the stark difference between the characters if everyone has the same lengthy and at times arcane speech.
Plenty of us get full enjoyment from the dialogue as it stands in the book, and it is brilliant, but I wanted something more immediate and more likely to draw the laughs intended by Cervantes. To achieve this I left much of Don Quixote’s speech in its wordy, lofty, arcane original form and then modernised everyone else’s into my own hybrid of 20th-century slang and surreal colloquialism.
Is Cervantes spinning in his grave?
You can set aside the metafiction, the underlying themes and various interpretations of this classic because the most important thing here is that Cervantes created the best double act in literature and one of the funniest books ever written.
If people come away from my adaptation having laughed out loud at those adventures and fallen in love with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza I think Cervantes will forgive me.
Don Quixote by Cervantes/Rob Davis is published by SelfMadeHero.