We watched Persepolis as part of an evening class studying the unusual process of adapting a graphic novel (in four volumes). We watched the French version with English subtitles on a digital print. The subtitles were yellow and I found them difficult to read against the black and white graphic images.
I enjoyed the film, but I confess that I spent much of it trying to think about how the animation worked in relation to the graphic novel, what was left out from the novel and what might have been changed. Looking over the novel again after the screening, I realised that many of the sub-plots and several characters had been left out. But this didn’t affect our enjoyment of the film. Most of the class had read the book as well as seeing the film and there was general agreement that both versions were enjoyable and worthwhile.
We looked in detail tonight at two sequences in the film, the romance between Marjane and Markus and the ‘music video sequence’ based on ‘Eye of the Tiger’. We argued that the romance was an intensely ‘cinematic’ sequence in which Marjane Satrapi (who was filming her own story) and Vincent Parronaud, the co-directors, had compressed the romance into a single montage sequence of a couple of minutes, whereas in the novel it takes several pages. They then applied several techniques borrowed from ‘classical cinema’ of the 1920s-40s (in an interview they referred to ‘Italian comedies’ and German Expressionist films). We noted a wonderful circular wipe, ‘irising’ as per silent cinema, fantastic vertical wipes, the ‘micky mousing’ of musical notation for characters running and lots of other cinematic tricks.
The ‘Eye of the Tiger’ sequence, by contrast, is expanded from the page. What in the novel is a double page spread (the novel has 347 pages of frames) becomes a sequence lasting over a minute. It’s a very enjoyable sequence to watch, which unlike some music sequences in contemporary films doesn’t stop the narrative, but tells us important things about how the character has changed. It also acts as a perfect example of ‘global popular culture’. The song, which appeared in Rocky III, was a worldwide hit and it represents the ways in which responding to American culture (including doing aerobics a la Ms Fonda) would be a form of self-assertion by a young woman in Iran (although it does seem slightly anachronistic, being set in 1992 ten years after the song was first released).
Eventually, I concluded that the film simplifies the graphic novel. By this I don’t mean that it reduces the impact or the import of the novel. Rather it streamlines the story and uses the power of cinema to create strong identification with Marjane’s personal story. Cinematic techniques are used effectively to make the film accessible. The novel is richer in detail and more ambitious in scope, but arguably won’t be seen by as many people and will be enjoyed in different ways. I was pleased that the comparison worked to ‘prove’ the premise of our evening class – that adaptations are simply different versions of the same material in distinct formats. Neither is ‘better’, simply ‘different’.
For a different view see the excellent review by Rahul Hamid in Cineaste. I think this reviewer argues a good case for the superiority of the books in terms of the presentation of the political and cultural complexities of the stories – but I’d still argue that what remains in the filmic version is worthwhile and deserves to find a wide audience. Hamid raises the question of how far Marjane Satrapi has gone in embracing French culture and denigrating that of Iran. She claims this was never her intention, but it would be good to hear more Iranian views about how far she has succeeded.