Vt. cartoonist James Sturm shares process of adapting 'Watership Down'
A new adaptation of the classic novel Watership Down hit bookstores this week. Richard Adams’ debut novel was first published in 1972, and follows a band of rabbits led by Hazel and his soothsayer brother Fiver in search of their new warren as they avoid peril from humans, dogs and rabbits alike. It’s an allegory that, among many other things, explores the struggle between freedom and tyranny.
The book has been adapted a handful of times over the years. The latest iteration: Watership Down: The Graphic Novel, adapted by James Sturm and illustrated by Joe Sutphin. Sturm's name may sound familiar — he co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction and is the winner of a prestigious Eisner Award. His work has been featured in the Paris Review, the Onion and on the cover of the New Yorker, to name just a few places.
Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki recently spoke to Strum about the process of adapting Watership Down. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Jenn began by asking how James came to adapt Watership Down into a graphic novel.
James Sturm: I got a call from my agent, so the opportunity came from her. She said that the estate and a publisher were looking for a cartoonist — or a cartoonist team — to do the graphic novel adaptation of the book. And this was a project that sounded very interesting to me.
I moved to Vermont in around 2001, and I read the book when I first got here, and loved it, and subsequently read it to each of my daughters out loud, and then taught it at the Center for Cartoon Studies. So, I had read it already four times, and it was one of my favorite books. And I thought it would make a great graphic novel. And I said, "Yeah, let me throw my hat into the ring." I put together a proposal that would then be shared with the publisher and the estate. And it took a little while to move through that process, but eventually, they said, "Yes, James, we'd love for you to work on this adaptation with us."
Jenn Jarecki: Did they mention, James, what it was about your proposal that was so appealing?
Well, in my proposal, I said that I'm going to be faithful to the book. As a cartoonist, I'm not some great stylist who is gonna bring the book into my orbit. I really wanted to serve the book and use it as a guide in every way that I could.
Can you tell us more about the process of adapting this book into a graphic novel? I mean, is work like this made hand in hand with the illustrator? Or is that work done somewhat separately?
I was responsible for adapting the book, which means reading the text, deciding what gets depicted and what gets shown instead of written about. And I make a storyboard, and then I hand it over to the illustrator.
When I first was awarded the gig to do the adaptation, I thought to myself, "Well, listen, I live in rural Vermont, and Joe lives in rural Ohio. And it's a story of rabbits basically going a mile and a half or so, you know, through the woods and all these dangers. And here I am in Vermont, and couldn't I just take pictures of culverts in the woods, and almost set it here? And it could relatively be the same story." And this was maybe the dumbest question I could ever ask the estate. And they were very polite about it, but I'm sure they were horrified because, within a couple of days, they said, "Hey, how about you and Joe come out to England and see the English countryside, because it's actually really important to us that, you know, Watership Down is set in England."
So, we met with this illustrator, Aldo Galli, who did an illustrated edition of Watership Down, and he worked with Richard Adams. And they went through the English countryside, and Richard showed him all the different places — places that he knew as a child — and they mapped it all out. So, the daughters — Richard's daughters — the estate, and Aldo, kind of walked Joe and I through the English countryside. And we took, hundreds — if not 1,000 photos — oftentimes, like, crawling on our bellies trying to get kind of a rabbit's eye view. And when we went to draw the piece, we had a lot of photo references. And we could show all these things Richard would spend pages describing — we could set the scene and a couple of panels as well.
And here I am in Vermont, and couldn't I just take pictures of culverts in the woods, and almost set it here? And it could relatively be the same story. And this was maybe the dumbest question I could ever ask the estate.James Sturm
The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction — which you co-founded, James — is known for being socially engaged, and for using comics to explore complicated issues. How do you think this adaptation of Watership Down fits into that legacy?
I don't know with Watership Down if we're breaking any new ground. There have been great adaptations and great storytelling, but I think the book squarely does what comics do so well. Which is — it carves out the space for people to inhabit a physical space and emotional space that people can access and engage with. And in the case of Watership Down, it's just such a wonderful, wonderful story. So, I think what this graphic novel adaptation can do is it can introduce this book to some young readers who might be intimidated by the book. You know, they see this book, Watership Down: The Graphic Novel — and it is a big book. I mean, it is like 300, 370 pages or something of comics — and yet, you could probably read it over the course of a week or even a weekend. There's something very satisfying. It gives maybe young readers like this confidence, like, "Oh, wow, I just read this huge book." It's like, an adult feeling. Like, "I just read War and Peace," you know? My hope is that it kind of leads people back to the original text.
After our initial interview, James reached out to clarify his position on the political nature of Watership Down, particularly in light of recent geopolitical events. We sat down a few days later, and here’s how James responded when I asked him what echoes resound today in this World War II veteran’s story of social division, hierarchical structures and the meaning of freedom.
Yeah, that is a great question. And it's something I've been thinking about a lot. Throughout the Watership Down book, the rabbits share the stories of El-Ahrairah, and he's this immortal trickster rabbit. And over and over again, the Sandleford rabbits are inspired and sustained through their darkest moments by his tales of cunning and bravery.
And I feel like Watership Down as a whole provides the same gift to its readers. So like right now, as we're probably all aware, things are quite terrifying in the world. And the brutality on display is really soul-crushing. At its core, I feel like Watership Down is a story about trying to create a society that rejects bullying and tyranny, and doubles down on humanistic values — things like kindness, empathy and forgiveness.
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