A “literary” graphic novel?

By Jan Baetens

David SalaSala1

Le Joueur d’échecs (d’après Stefan Zweig)

Paris : Casterman, 2017, 129 p.

ISBN : 978-2-203-09347-8


Although graphic novels are now considered part of literature, only very few are literary adaptations in the traditional sense of the word. What makes the graphic novel a work of literature is not its literary sources (preferably high-literary ones, bearing some traces of the original material supposed to add prestige and cultural value), but the fact that it has a single author who, on top of that, also has a recognizable style and voice. Hence, inevitably, the success of autobiography and semi-autobiographical fiction in the field: to tell one’s own story is the easiest way to proclaim one’s difference as well as one’s distinction, and the unique features of the story told are the best possible guarantee that the author’s style will also be acknowledged as personal and unique.

In spite of a powerful cliché, to adapt a literary work is not an easy task; that is,  it is not easy to cash in on the reputation of the adapted work. To adapt is, instead, a minefield. The possible dangers are countless, and they are even bigger in the case of the adaptation of a well-known and much-loved work. For, even readers who have never read the original will have a certain idea of what it is and thus of what they expect the adaptation to be. When the author of the adaptation takes the supplementary risk of remaining faithful to the original –for, in spite of another devastating cliché, it is much more difficult to produce a convincing faithful adaptation than to reshape the original in order to cater to the tastes of either the maker or the public–, the dangers are even bigger.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that the graphic novel field does not present many examples of literary adaptations, the work of Kafka being a noticeable exception (but there the dangers are somewhat reduced by the sheer number of existing adaptations in all possible genres and media, which reduce the anxiety of influence). Zweig’s “The Royal Game” or “Chess Story” (1941), the last novella published by Stefan Zweig before his suicide, has been adapted to the screen and to the stage, but as far as I know, never in graphic novel format. Sala’s adaptation is a great accomplishment, which can be read at three levels: first,  as an independent creation; second, in comparison with the original novella; third, in relationship with current tendencies in the graphic novel, which is forced to supersede its autobiographical bias and post-underground stylistic tropisms. In all these cases, Sala’s work is amazing, and one can only hope that it will soon become a textbook example of how to make a literary adaptation in “bande dessinée” (that wonderful word that helps us question the comics vs graphic novel divide in new ways).