The Little Prince
written by Joann Sfar
I was never a fan of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, probably because I read it as a child, but it is really a book for adults. The philosophical meanderings just struck me as dumb and the character of the little prince as overly precious.
Now I have corrected my fault by growing up, and Joann Sfar has corrected Saint-Exupery's by turning the book into a graphic novel, which actually is the perfect medium for this story. The key to the transformation is that he brings the narrator, Saint-Exupery himself, into the story as a visual presence. This makes the relationship between him and the little prince more concrete and believable than the arms-length relationship in the novel. The reader now sees it rather than experiencing it secondhand.
Sfar hasn't added to the text of the story, but he takes some little liberties with it. In the opening sequence, we find Saint-Exupery musing about grownups and boa constrictors while trying to repair his downed airplane (in real life, he based the story on his experiences while stranded in the Sahara desert after his plane crashed there). The aviator really comes to life in these scenes, hammering away at his plane and then getting bored and trying to balance his tools on his nose, only to have them come crashing down, as he thinks about how boring grownups are. Sfar has kept Saint-Exupery's text but accompanied it with a classic comic-book sequence.
The most jarring thing about this book, and it may be a turn-off for some readers, is the appearance of the little prince himself. Sfar has abandoned Saint-Exupery's delicate, curly haired prince and replaced him with a rougher, more animated, and yet still ethereal little boy. He's not as pretty as the original, but he is less distant. When he says, "Draw me a sheep," there is an urgency to it. That comes partly from one simple substitution: Saint-Exupery's prince has blank circles for eyes, while Sfar's has huge, very expressive manga eyes. My initial reaction was that his eyes were too big and made him look like a space alien—but then, I realized, that's what he is.
Although the book is ostensibly a children's book, children may find the philosophical meanderings on the ways of grownups and the circularity of existence rather tiresome. Teens and young adults are more likely to find food for thought here, or at least, fodder for undergrad bull sessions.
In the book, the prince has an encounter with a coquettish flower and visits six planets, each inhabited by a single absurd occupant. Sfar turns these little pseudo-fables into rich, dreamlike sequences, using the originals as starting points but adding more detail and distortion. His flower is an Aubrey Bearsdley confection, and his night skies are alive with planets, shooting stars, and all kinds of activity, which is very appropriate given the theme of the book.
It should be said, for those who aren't familiar with the story, that the Little Prince allows himself to be bitten by a poisonous snake at the end, in order to return to his planet. It struck me as a rather romanticized version of suicide, although it is presented simply as the way for the prince to return home, in a literal, not a metaphorical sense. The book ends with the author's certainty that the prince is back on his home planet, and the hope that he will someday return to earth.
Sfar's adaptation may be jarring to fans of the original novel, but it also makes the book more accessible, and interesting, to those of us who were left cold by the prose version.