My father wasn’t much of a recreational reader. I’m not sure he ever read a piece of fiction willingly in his entire life. Unless, of course, it came in handy comic book form. So it was that, when one of his teachers assigned the class a book report, my dad decided to go about the task in the most efficient way possible, with this:
I’m sure he filled the minimum amount of page space required, then ran happily off to play, assuring my grandmother that he was, indeed done with his homework.** Unfortunately, however, Dad’s teacher had been around awhile. She knew exactly what he had done, and he was forced to redo the assignment, this time with (ulp!) the actual book. For his sake, I hope it was abridged.
I’m sure my dad always wondered exactly how his teacher knew. I suspect he might have written something about the pictures. However, it’s also possible that she knew because he based his report on an adaptation, rather than Twain’s actual book, and an adaptation necessarily means that something from the original source has been altered. When I first began this blog, I was firm in my decision not to review graphic novels. Not because I don’t like them, but because I know nothing about art and, more particularly, graphic novel and comics artists. A true graphic novel aficionado would receive no useful information from me. However, when I was asked to read a pre-release copy of Martin Powell and Jamie Chase’s graphic novel adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, I decided I might as well try, and I am so glad I did. First, because they’ve done a fantastic job. And second, because it gave me a chance to really think about the art of adaptation.***
First, however, just a brief background and synopsis of The Hound of the Baskervilles (spoiler free!) just in case any of you have not yet read it.
You know how the car breaks down, the pipes freeze, your furnace quits, the dryer burns through a belt and the kids get the stomach flu all on the same day and you wonder if your family’s cursed? Well, the Baskervilles of Devonshire don’t have to wonder. Ever since Sir Hugo Baskerville (noted libertine and generally horrible person) kidnapped a girl and then essentially ran her to death while pursuing her with dogs, then was himself killed by a satanic black hound, the men of that family have lived in the shadow of violent, possibly supernatural, death. Just before the story begins, actually, Sir Charles Baskerville, a kindhearted man whose goal it was to restore the family home and use its fortune to bring prosperity to the area, dies of heart failure in…well, never mind, they were natural causes.
Or were they? Dr. Mortimer, country physician and phrenology enthusiast, can’t make up his mind. Because, as he tells Holmes and Watson, while Sir Charles had a weak heart and was under a great deal of emotional stress due to his fear of the family curse, not far from his body were…well, they were footprints. Hound footprints.†
So now Dr. Mortimer has a dilemma. Besides being Sir Charles’ friend and physician, he is also the executor of his estate, and now that the new (and only) Baskerville heir is arriving in England from Canada, he needs to know if he should let the man take possession of Baskerville Hall, or warn him to take the money and run? Science and the supernatural are at odds, and he chooses Sherlock Holmes to make the final call.
Holmes and Watson are men of science; neither of them give much credence to the whole spectral hound story, but there’s something strange about Sir Charles’ death, and once they meet with the new heir, the danger surrounding him becomes more obvious. There is, after all, the anonymous letter, the case of the missing boots and the fact that a bearded…detective…appears to be shadowing them. There’s no fairy tale here, but “an ugly, dangerous business.”†† It’s only reasonable that Holmes sends Watson to investigate while he pursues a blackmailing case in London.
So now we have Watson, in a desolate manor, on a more desolate moor, doing his level best to investigate matters and sending detailed (even poetic) reports back to his colleague. There’s so much to cover: forbidding staff, a wailing woman, a litigious neighbor, dangerous mire pits, even a deranged murderer, escaped from a nearby prison. Then there’s that eccentric lepidopterist and his sister; despite Holmes’ strict instructions that he not leave Sir Henry alone, Watson’s having a devil of a time keeping the young man from slipping out on his own to woo the lovely Beryl. Who is the butler signalling with that candle? Could it be the mysterious man on the Tor?
Was that…a howl?
Conan Doyle was excited about writing HOUN; “It will be a real creeper,” he told his mother. Inspired by journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson’s tales of Devonshire folklore, The Hound of the Baskervilles was initially supposed to be a collaboration between the two men, but eventually (possibly helped along by Sir Arthur’s correspondence with Strand editor Herbert Greenhough Smith, Robinson’s packed schedule and, let’s be honest, the promise of a nice payday) a stand alone ghost story evolved into a new novel featuring The Great Detective, his first outing (besides the Gillette play) since his creator tossed him over the Falls. Conan Doyle does not give a year in HOUN, although it has to be post 1884, given the date on Dr. Mortimer’s walking stick , so readers could assume it took place pre-Reichenbach. However, its reception opened the door to “The Empty House.” We owe the world to Mr. Robinson and his scary stories.††
Now you’ve got the background….let’s get to the point, shall we?
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a great story–in fact, the more times you read it, the better it gets. As such, it’s been told and retold in various forms for its 110 years. Martin Powell’s and Jamie Chase’s adaptation is the first graphic novel version I’ve read, and so I was very interested in seeing their approach.
The story begins on the moor, as Sir Charles waits outside the Hall for a nighttime visitor. Unfortunately, his assignation turns out to be rather more deadly than he expected. We then travel immediately (and seamlessly) to Baker Street, where we’re treated to the traditional opening banter between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, this time over a walking stick forgotten there the previous evening by a visitor they managed to miss. I noticed immediately that, while this scene plays out in a very similar manner to the one in the book, the two are not identical. What takes Doyle approximately three pages of dense type (depending on your version), Powell handles in 11 panels and approximately 270 words.‡ Stripping away the description, Watson’s preening at Holmes’ praise, and quite a large number of adjectives and adverbs, we get the essence of the scene and lose none of the information, atmosphere, or emotional impact. Holmes is still confident, Watson is still frustrated; the dialogue and the illustrations work together to create a Baker Street as real on the page as it is in our imaginations.
The abbreviated length of a graphic novel pretty much ensures that some parts of the story will be missing. For example, if you are a fan of the phrenological exchange between Holmes and Dr. Mortimer (or Dr. Mortimer and whomever he encounters), you will be disappointed. Similarly, if your favorite parts of the story involve two missing pairs of boots, dying ponies, booming bitterns, lengthy back story, or the arrival of Inspector Lestrade, you’ll need to look elsewhere.‡‡
Also missing are Watson’s analyses of either his or Holmes’ emotional states–no “hidden fires” here.‡‡‡ This serves to underline both men’s strong and heroic natures, as well as the puzzle and the crime itself. When Powell adds anything (and this is rare), it’s to inject humor, or to say a little more about the character–he does both, for example, when Dr. Mortimer forgets his walking stick…again. The story moves forward quickly, with an appealing emphasis on dramatic action. For this reason, the ending is not at all ambiguous, but it has at least one precedent on film and, let’s face it, only the most merciful among us would think the the novel points to anything else.
Jamie Chase’s illustrations are atmospheric–mostly darker shades, with the occasional dramatic splash of color, as befits a foggy capital and a sere moor as autumn wears on.§ Watson and Holmes look exactly as you would expect them to–Watson is particularly well done–and Sir Henry is the handsome hero described in the book. I was at first a little disappointed in Beryl Stapleton’s expressions, but that was until I re-read the novel; then I realized that her demeanor goes along well with her difficult situation. The larger panels are striking, and the hound is truly creepy-looking. These are just the impressions of someone who knows very little about graphic arts, but I thought that the illustrations and the script worked very well together.
There is a true art to adaptation–knowing how to find the essence of the story you need to tell, and pruning away the bits which get in its way. If you get it right, nothing, paradoxically, will be missing. I think it safe to say that, if this is the first version of HOUN you read, you’ll come away with a very solid understanding of the story, and have a good time with it as well. I would definitely recommend it for those who are put off by denser prose, or for Sherlockians looking for a way to lure…I mean, introduce younger readers to Sherlock Holmes. For seasoned fans such as yourselves, Powell and Chase’s work is just a fun, exciting way to spend an hour, or even to get a quick plot refresher. All in all, I found Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles to be a solid effort by a talented team.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is available via the major online booksellers, and any brick-and-mortar merchant who carries Dark Horse Comics. It is scheduled for release on 13th February, 2013. Martin Powell is a prolific writer whose work you’ll find in several sections of your local bookstore: graphic novels/comics, children’s books, mystery, and science fiction. Sherlockians may have read his stories in anthologies such as Gaslight Grimoire. You can find him at http://martinpowell221bcom.blogspot.com/
Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 “Well worth your time and money.”
* This review is based on a pre-publication electronic file.
**His grandchildren have inherited this trait. It seems to skip a generation.
***Martin Powell has graciously agreed to answer some interview questions for the blog. I’ll post them as soon as they’re available.
†The quote here is just classic. I won’t cheapen it by typing it without the proper lead-ins.
††The Hound of the Baskervilles.
†††You can read all about this period in ACD’s life in Alistair Duncan’s book, An Entirely New Country, which covers his Undershaw years in great (and interesting) detail.
‡ Assuming I counted correctly.
‡‡I know, I also like Lestrade, but if you think about it (SPOILER ALERT!), although Holmes summons him for a good reason, his presence there ends up being moot. And if you like dying ponies, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU??!!
‡‡‡In the original HOUN, Holmes’ extreme relief to find that Sir Henry is, at one point, not dead, leads Watson to observe “These were hidden fires.”
§It was hard to tell, as I used a digital, pre-pub copy with a watermark, but some of the moor illustrations appeared to have used actual photographs of the landscape.