The human imagination can be an extraordinary coping device in times of trouble, a tiny window providing mental escape from whatever cell fate has consigned us to.
Diarist and aspiring professional writer Anne Frank, who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the age of 15, chafed at her now-universally-known confinement in the Secret Annex. She chafed at her mother’s authority and the seemingly effortless saintliness of her older sister. Documenting her daily physical and emotional reality offered temporary respite from it.
The liberating power of the creative mind is one of the aspects writer Ari Folman and illustrator David Polonsky sought to tease out when adapting Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl as a graphic novel.
The graphic novel format decreed that entire passages would be cut or condensed. Polonsky can use a single panel to show logistics it took Anne paragraphs to describe. The interpersonal conflicts she dwelt on are now conveyed by facial expressions and body language.
As with Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón’s 2010 Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography, the diary’s small stage is expanded to give readers, particularly those unacquainted with the original text, a historical context for understanding the wider social implications of Anne’s tragedy.
But this graphic retelling is unique in that it traffics in magic realist visuals that should play well with 21st-century youth, who cut their teeth on CGI, fast-paced edits, and streaming teen-focused entertainments wherein characters are apt to break the fourth wall or break into song.
These are the readers to whom the project is most intentionally pitched. As Folman told Teen Vogue’s Emma Sarran Webster:
I truly believe that in a few years, when the very last survivors will have died, the angle that will be taken from the story will be that with every year, we are 10 years further away from the original. [...] There is a severe threat that the things we have to learn from it will not be taught and learned if we don’t find a new language for them. So any new language in my opinion is blessed, as long as it stays within the framework and reaches young audiences by means of their tools, which are now very visual.
Ergo, Kitty, Anne’s nickname for her diary, has been personified, emerging from the little plaid book’s pages like Peter Pan’s shadow, ear attentively cocked toward the secrets Anne whispers into it.
The melodramatic Mrs. van Daan’s prized fur coat has an anthropomorphized rabbit head collar, capable of joining in the dialogue.
Polonsky pays homage to artists Edvard Munch, whose “degenerative” work Hitler had removed from German museums, and Gustav Klimt, who painted many works that were confiscated from their Jewish owners by Nazi decree.
Young readers' modern sensibilities also guided Folman’s approach to the text. The spirit of the original is preserved, but certain phrasings have been given a 21st century update.
The snarky Secret Annex menus and diet tips he allows his heroine harken to the direct address of various meta teen comedies, as well as the blistering parody of the Sarajevo Survival Guide, a purported travel guide written during the Siege.
Noble goal of engaging the next generation aside, there are no doubt some purists who will view these innovations as imposition. Rest assured that Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation is sanctioned by Anne Frank Fonds, the charitable foundation established by Anne’s father, Otto.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her in NYC on Monday, November 4 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Louise Jordan Miln’s “Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (1900). Follow her @AyunHalliday.