The Little Prince – a worthy comic adaptation of a children’s classic.
Graphic Novel adaptation by Joann Sfar from the book by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry
I remember reading The Little Prince as a child and being somewhat unimpressed by it, not really grasping the complex parables of friendship and love that De Saint-Exupéry littered his prose with. And I’ve never returned to it until now, with this Walker Books graphic novel adaptation by French artist Joann Sfar.
First impressions – it’s a beautifully put together book, in a pleasingly tactile hardcover form, exactly the sort of book that many children will find under the Christmas tree this year from parents and grandparents who fondly recall the book from their own childhoods.
The story of The Little Prince is a simple one; a pilot finds himself stranded in the desert after landing his stricken plane. He is alone and knows he’s going to die of thirst unless he can fix his plane. He is joined in the desert by The Little Prince, a traveller from a tiny planet many miles away. The Little Prince tells the pilot his story, of the tiny planet he lived on, with it’s three volcanoes and a single, solitary flower that he looked after until she upset him with her demands and troublesome nature. Disappointed, he left her behind and set off on his travels, stopping at six tiny asteroids, each inhabited by a strange adult. Each new encounter teaches him something about life and the nature of adult foolishness until he lands on Earth where he discovers that the thing he most wants is to return home, to rediscover his simple life and rediscover his love.
(Both The Little Prince and his love, a delightful femme-fatale of a Rose, prepare for his departure. From The Little Prince, adapted by Sfar, published by Walker Books.)
That’s the plot, but the actual read is far more than the sum of these small moments. It’s an exploration of human nature, a discovery, through childish eyes, of the ridiculousness of the adult world and a realisation that love and friendship are perhaps the most important things in life. Depending on your point of view it’s either a beautiful expression of simple philosophy through parables or a trite philosophy by numbers tale. Personally, although I can see why it has it’s detractors I found it lovely, and something I can’t wait to share with my own child.
Sfar’s graphic novel adaptation takes all that the prose book is (and it’s a beloved, hugely successful book, one of the best selling books of all time) and expands upon it, adding layers of symbolism and hallucinatory visuals to the basic story. It’s a brilliant adaptation of the work, keeping everything that is loved with the prose work but adding to it with a sensitivity and charm.
The Little Prince’s space tour of six tiny asteroids is a tour of adult foolishness, beautifully rendered by Sfar, with each character a parable of a facet of human nature, or more exactly, the nature of adults seen through childish eyes. The King, The Conceited Man, the Accountant, the Drunk, the Lamplighter and the Geographer all point out one tiny facet of life to The Little Prince, but none of them grasps the reality of their existence and the ridiculous of their circumstance, and every one is expertly rendered by Sfar, revelling in their silliness:
(The Little Prince meets The King, who rules in isolation, deluding himself that it’s his will that controls the stars, as he commands them to continue to do what they are doing. From The Little Prince, adapted by Sfar, published by Walker Books.)
But what really impressed me with Sfar’s adaptation was how much he emphasised the bizarre aspects of the story. He very much stamps his own interpretation on the work. And it was in the first couple of pages, with the pilot having a convesation with a snake that dissipates into smoke, that I realised how good this adaptation was going to be:
(The pilot talks to the snake and the snake, with a casual remark reveals himself to be a figment of the imagination. From The Little Prince, adapted by Sfar, published by Walker Books.)
Sfar’s visuals, wild colours and deliberately dream-like flights of fancy, together with moments of realisation like the smoking in a children’s book comment above, tend to emphasise the “it’s all merely a wild hallucination of the dying pilot” reading of The Little Prince.
It does rather constrain the book, and forced my thinking down the hallucinating pilot reading of the story. Others will no doubt see it differently and that’s long been the appeal of The Little Prince, it’s very much open to interpretation. But no matter, Sfar may constrain the work in my mind, but he certainly does it in a very attractive manner. The Little Prince himself is deliberately drawn with exaggerated, slightly alien features, and his flights of fancy are wonderfully inventive.
Sfar’s adaptation of The Little Prince really is a gorgeous thing, and I finished it feeling very moved by the whole thing. I’d started it impressed by Sfar’s visuals and the deliberate weirdness he emphasised, but as the story worked it’s magic on me I found I was taken in by the profound sadness that permeates the book, as The Little Prince discovers much about humanity that he doesn’t necessarily like and realises that he desperately wants to return home and has to sacrifice so much to get there. It becomes a story of mortality, of appreciating what we have and how important our loved ones are.
Some may find it cloyingly sentimental and simplicstic, but I’m a sucker for this sort of sentimentality. The ending left me questioning, and filled with sadness and hope. The Little Prince is a sublime adaptation of a genuine classic of children’s literature as far as I’m concerned, although like all great children’s literature I feel it has much to say to adults and children alike.
The Little Prince is published, in a gorgeous hardback, perfect for Christmas, on 4th October.