Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Last Unicorn Come to Life

The Last UnicornPeter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn is one of the great works of fantasy literature.  It is a beautiful, haunting story of loneliness, and love, and finding one's place in the world.  Like Neil Gaiman's Stardust, it is a fairy tale for both children and adults, and it is a story that is as magical today as when it was first publishd over 40 years ago.

So when I learned that it had been adapted as a graphic novel, I immediately found a copy and read it.

It was beautiful.  Astonishingly beautiful.

Adapted by Peter B. Gillis, with art by Renae De Liz and inks and colors by Ray Dillon, the graphic novel version of The Last Unicorn perfectly illustrates the magic and wonder of the unicorn.  Throughout the work, a faint glow surrounds the unicorn, both highlighting her and setting her apart from the world that she inhabits.  The rich purple and violet tones used to set the stage--even in the blank pages lining the front and back cover--convey a sense of nobility that gives an immediate sense of the unicorn's relationship with the rest of the world.

But what the graphic novel does best, I think, is convey the unicorn's loneliness.  Numerous pages show the unicorn by herself, or framed in such a way as to make her appear small and almost lost in her surroundings.  The first few pages do a particularly good job of capturing this feeling--with a color palate filled with blues, greens, and purples, the initial scenes in the unicorn's woods establish a sense of darkness and loss that linger throughout the rest of the novel.  While I have always known the unicorn's loss to be a profound one, the novel represented it in such a way that it became an almost tangible ache.

The page that captures this most perfectly for me is the title page for chapter one.  (You can view this image at Amazon by searching inside the book.)  In the top half of the picture, the unicorn is walking from the woods into snowy mountains, her head bent.  The bottom half of the picture is positioned so that it is a reflection of the top half, but instead of showing the unicorn amidst the colors of nature, it is a picture of King Haggard's castle in shades of gray.  Certainly, this image establishes the unicorn and King Haggard as opposites--she is all that is good, while he is evil.  And yet, they are still linked.  And they are both alone.

The one aspect of The Last Unicorn that was missing for me in the graphic novel was the original novel's metafictional qualities.  Time and again, it called attention to itself as a fairy tale, subtly making the reader think about the nature of stories, fiction, and reality.  While fantastic throughout the novel, Beagle's use of language in this regard was particularly impressive, as it made such themes noticeable to the careful reader, but not so obvious that they became irritating or lost their magic.  Although the graphic novel retains much of the beauty of Beagle's original prose, some parts had to be cut--such is the nature of the graphic novel.

One example of this occurs in Chapter 7, right after Drinn tries to bribe Schmendrick to kill Prince Lir.  Molly comments that the people of Hagsgate deserve their curse for leaving a child out in the snow.  Schmendrick replies, "Well, if they hadn't, he couldn't have grown up to be  a prince.  Haven't you ever been in a fairy tale before?"  He then talks about the roles of heroes and villians in fairy tales, and even goes so far as to identify the prince as the "leading man."  The way that Schmendrick talks about fairy tales--as something that he is a part of right now, rather than just things that happened once upon a time--is magical in and of itself in the way it makes the reader think about larger functions of stories and storytelling.

But this scene is vastly shortened in the graphic novel.  Schmendrick instead says, "Well, if they hadn't, then he woudln't have grown up to be the hero of all this.  That's the way these things go."  Yes, it's a subtle change, and doesn't do much to affect the plot, but for me, some of the more delicate magic of Beagle's original novel is lost without these larger connections to fairy tales and stories.

Of course, this speaks as much to the strengths of each respective medium as it does to the specific adaptation of The Last Unicorn.  It would be rare to find a graphic novel that could match the linguistic subtlety and precise language of the original novel; likewise, it would be unreasonable to expect a novel to provide illustrations as stunning and evocative as those found in the graphic novel adaptation.

And in this case, the haunting imagery of Gillis and De Liz's artwork travels back with me as I reread Beagle's original novel yet again--an experience that now contains the magic of both word and image, language and color, sound and shadow.

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