Last year, Marvel published an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, one of history's most celebrated works of fiction, and the sales exceeded expectations, reaching out to a new audience of Jane Austen fans and young readers.
Beginning this May, the publisher has tapped author Nancy Butler to come back and do it again, this time with one of Jane Austen's other revered novels, Sense and Sensibility.
The five-issue comic, with Sonny Liew on art, will tell the timeless story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two sisters whose differing temperaments present their own unique problems in love. The novel, which was made into an award-winning movie by Emma Thompson in 1995, was Jane Austen's first published work and is often cited as her second most popular after Pride and Prejudice.
And that popularity isn't insignificant. There are websites and blogs dedicated to Jane Austen, as well as spin-off stories and various modern interpretations of her books. Butler herself makes her living from Austen-mania as a writer of novels set in the Regency time period.
And the classics have gotten another boost lately among modern readers because of Bella Swan, the main character in the Twilight novels, who is an avid Jane Austen reader and notices the similarly between the names of "Edward" in Sense and Sensibility and her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen.
As Marvel returns to the works of Jane Austen, Newsarama talked to Butler about the appeal of Sense and Sensibility and why this book in particular is such a challenge to translate into graphic novel format.
Newsarama: Nancy, was Pride and Prejudice that much of a success? It must have been if you're back for more.
Nancy Butler: Oh yeah! It did very well. It was on the New York Times Graphic Novel Bestseller list for 13 weeks. So that kind of cemented Marvel's idea of doing a follow up book. They figured Jane Austen was good because there were lots of other books we could do if this one worked out. But they were tentative at first. But they just told me the Pride and Prejudice hardcover is outselling some of the Ultimate books, and those are some of their bestsellers. They didn't expect that kind of follow through.
Nrama: Is it just me, or does Pride and Prejudice have an even larger fan base than ever?
Butler: You know, the week of Valentine's Day, I saw two polls that were taken, and one of them was, what is the most romantic book? And Pride and Prejudice was No. 1. And there was another poll I saw that was, what is the most popular book in the English language? And Pride and Prejudice was No. 1 on that list also.
Nrama: Do you think you'll get the same kind of interest with Sense and Sensibility?
Butler: Like I said to [editor] Ralph [Macchio], we've already plowed the field. We've already created the groundswell for the one book, and I think a lot of people have written to me, or have posted on some of the many Jane Austen fan sites, that they're already looking forward to the next book.
And you know, for some people, Sense and Sensibility is their favorite. Everyone has read Pride and Prejudice, but some fans pick Sense and Sensibility as their favorite.
Nrama: The first time we spoke about translating Pride and Prejudice to graphic novel format, you said the most difficult part of writing was having to condense so many of the scenes. Is that also a problem with Sense and Sensibility, or does it present different problems?
Butler: I've actually started getting the hang of condensing things, but like you said, Sense and Sensibility has presented its own problems. You know, it was Jane Austen's first book. Even though it wasn't the first book she wrote, it was the first book she got published. And to me, it has a lot of first book issues.
One of the things I'm running into is that it doesn't show things. It's what a lot of writers call "show-don't-tell," which means to let the story evolve in the dialogue and in the action.
Have you read Sense and Sensibility?
Nrama: More than once. And I know what you're going to say. Elinor starts falling for Edward without us actually experiencing it.
Butler: Yes! Austen tells you that Elinor falls in love with Edward without you reading any of their dialogue until, like, page 300. So she tells you that Mrs. Dashwood observes Elinor and feels that she has formed an attraction to him.
So, since I'm doing this as a comic book, I can't use prose to tell what's going on. I can't just have a comic filled with artwork and captions telling you how the characters are feeling. So I've had to invent – especially in this first issue – I've had to invent scenes that I thought were in keeping with the flow of the story, but do not occur in the book except as an author's description.
Nrama: The recent movie did the same thing. There were several scenes in the beginning that were made up.
Butler: I know, and I'm not going by Emma Thompson's script. I did buy it, but then I thought, you know what? I better not look at this, because she really truncated a lot of the story. She eliminated certain characters. She took pretty large parts out of the story. For example, there's a scene in the book where Marianne goes with Willoughby to visit his aunt's home while the invalid aunt is there, without a proper chaperone. That wasn't in the movie, and that's a pretty significant thing, that she went off with him. I thought that was a very telling thing, because Marianne is so quick to criticize people because she thinks they're low-bred or they speak out of turn, and yet she's doing these low-bred things and speaking out of turn often-times.
It's been an interesting process, because unlike Pride and Prejudice, which unfolds very visually, in Sense and Sensibility, there's a lot of exposition and not a lot of scenes. It's a lot of the author telling you what the characters are. She calls John Middleton's wife coldly insipid, but she doesn't really give you any examples of that. So I have to take more liberties with this book. I'm forced to by the very nature of graphic novels. I'm not happy about that, because I feel like it gives people a chance to say, "Well, this wasn't in the book." But the thing is, it's in there, it just isn't visual and isn't fleshed out. It's told, not shown. And because it's a graphic novel, I have to create scenes.
But it gets better in Issue #2. There's hardly any dialogue in the first sections of the book. It's laying the groundwork for what comes later. So I'll be able to follow the book more as we go along.
Nrama: You mentioned that Pride and Prejudice is seen as a favorite "romantic" book, although there's really nothing "romance-heavy" about it, if you really look at it. But do you think Sense and Sensibility is more or less centered on romance?
Butler: No, you're right that they're really not romantic that way. But I've been talking with Sonny Liew, the artist on Sense and Sensibility, about this. I consider Sense and Sensibility to be a relationship book, not a romance book. Pride and Prejudice does have two romances at its core, but the story is about how these people work their way through their problems, whether they're emotional problems or financial problems or whatever. And in Sense and Sensibility, there are two romances, or three if you count Marianne's two romances separately. Technically, there are two women and three romances.
But Sense and Sensibility, at its core, is about the relationship between Marianne and Elinor. It's about two sisters: One who is uptight and one who is a free soul. They love each other in spite of these great differences in their characters. They're critical, but never harshly critical of the sister who is so different from them. Throughout the story, they remain supportive of each other. To me, that is what Austen, who herself was a beloved sister, is trying to say in this story. I would not call this a romance. Of course they make the movie, and the movie's very romantic. But it's a story about romances built around these two sisters who are very different, but maintain this concern and care for each other.
That's really what the artist and I are trying to evoke, that it's a relationship book, not a romance book.
Nrama: How has it been working with Sonny?
Butler: Oh, he's wonderful. He's really got the Regency feel down. The artist on Pride and Prejudice was more of a traditional comic book artist, with strapping men and bold-featured women. But Sonny has a much softer approach, which I think is going to please the Jane Austen fans.
I go on a lot of different websites and blogs, and they've seen Sonny's artwork for the new book, and a lot of people love the way it looks. They're just raving. They're so happy. I think Jane Austen fans will be even more receptive [to a comic adaptation] now that Sonny is doing the art. He just has the right feel for the characters.
He's also got a pretty big fan base. He just won several awards in Europe for different comics that he's written. I don't know if you've seen his work on My Faith in Frankie, but he's a very bright guy and does a lot of great work. I think he will bring in some fans.
Nrama: Has the reaction to Marvel releasing a second Jane Austen novel been positive on the fan sites?
Butler: It is now that they've seen Pride and Prejudice. At first, when they heard about the first one, they were like, "What??? A comic book???" But I went on a lot of the sties, and your article was reprinted on a lot of them, and they came to understand what we were doing. And obviously, they responded by going out and buying the book. So now that we've already created a readership for Pride and Prejudice, and we've gotten past the surprise reaction to Marvel doing Jane Austen novels, the audience reception has been terrific. And I've gotten emails from teachers and librarians who just love these books.
Nrama: So do you think young readers are picking up these books? I know that was Marvel's hope.
Butler: Oh definitely. And I think that, from the point of view of reaching young readers, anything that gets kids to read is terrific. And anything that introduces kids to what they would consider the "stuffy classics," that opens them up to exposing themselves to the classics, is a positive thing.
Nrama: Then to finish up, Nancy, is there anything else you want to tell people about Sense and Sensibility?
Butler: I just hope that people are aware enough to know that these things are not going to be exact replicas of the book, because we have space limitations and art limitations. You can't flesh out every single scene. Once again, I'm trying to pinpoint the key exchanges and dialogue. So if people have a favorite scene, it's probably going to be in there. No one has yet accused me of leaving their favorite part of Pride and Prejudice behind. So hopefully I can do that again. My hope is to include everyone's favorite parts of the book so we can tell the story in a way that captures the essence of Sense and Sensibility and introduces it to a whole new audience.