On Writing Adaptations: An Interview with Graphic Novel Writer/Publisher Chris Ryall

In 2008, I was halfway through the Stonecoast MFA program, which meant it was time to tackle the research project. My research paper was focused on the art of adapting story between different story forms and identifying the general principles of adaptation. As part of my research, I interviewed several writers to discuss their experiences as well as the practical and artistic aspects of adapting story between forms. One of those writers was the talented and personable Chris Ryall, publisher and editor-in-chief of IDW Publishing.

Ryall has tackled some amazing adaptations, turning prose stories and film scripts into wonderfully written graphic novels, including  Shaun of the Dead, George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead, Beowulf, a 12-part series for The Great and Secret Show, and several short stories for Doomed Magazine.

I recently contacted Ryall and received his permission to publish our 2008 phone interview in written form on UNDERWORDS. The original interview with Ryall was conducted by phone on April 4, 2008. I transcribed the conversation, making some edits for clarity, grammar and other slight changes – all of which were reviewed by Ryall and approved on December 27, 2010. The interview is printed below in it’s entirely minus the salutations and good-byes. I hope you find it as enlightening and useful as I did.


Erin: What is it that attracts to adapting stories into graphic novels? What is it about telling stories in this medium that draws you to it?

Chris: Part of it is that I’ve grown up with them. I’m so used to seeing the blending of words and pictures to tell a story that I’ve grown used to reading that way. I like reading things that can tell a story visually. You don’t want to just have the pictures showing what’s going on and the words. You’re not telling two stories. You’re using two different sides of the medium to tell one more complete story. I think sometimes you can even do more with comics than with novels or prose.

Erin: When you’re going through a story that has already been written in another medium, what is the biggest obstacle in creating an adaptation that works as a graphic novel?

Chris: I can certainly speak to that because it is the biggest challenge – being true to the material and knowing that you’re going to have to adapt it not only from a prose story to a comic book story, but you also have to make decisions on certain parts of the story that you deem irrelevant to telling it in this medium. You really have to be able to figure out what parts of the story work well and then translate it from a prose story to a comic book. And the biggest challenge with that is the sheer presumptuousness of it.

I was adapting Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show from novel to comics, and it’s an 800 page novel. He is very descriptive with some of the situations within the fantastic worlds he creates. He’s descriptive, but he also leaves it a bit vague. He leaves it to the reader to sort of puzzle out what he’s talking about. So we’re taking these fantastic ideas that were not always that clearly defined, and we’re defining them to present to the readers, saying, “Look this is what you’re seeing. This is the way it goes. This is what Clive meant by that.”

Not every reader, especially readers who have read the book multiple times, are not going to see things the same way. The biggest challenge, since you are now creating the definitive version of this material in people’s heads, is to try not to disappoint them. Plus, you try not to take out, condense, or change bits of the novel to a point where it’s going to offend or otherwise bother the creator of the material. I didn’t want to let down the readers or Clive.

Erin: What do you think a reader could realistically expect when picking up an adaptation? Imagine someone just read Clive’s novel, what kind of expectations should he bring with him, if any, when reading the graphic novel?

Chris: I like when people have a familiarity with the source material because then they are curious as to how it’s going to translate from the book to the way they saw it in their head to the actual comic book. There can be people who have such strong ideas of what the material should look like that, if it doesn’t match what’s in their heads, and there is no way it could, you run the risk of losing them or offending them somehow.

It’s especially challenging on a novel like Great and Secret Show because it came out almost 20 years ago. Like Clive was saying, for a lot of his audience that was really the first book that they read. There they are beginning to question the world, to question the stuff that their parents taught them, and to see that there is a bigger world. Then they read this huge book that delves into the imagination and into the subconscious. And, you know anything you read when you’re a teenager or at an early age really stays with you. Bands that you liked when you were 15 or 16, even if they weren’t all that good, you just have a fond feeling for them. Well, this book means that to a lot of people. It’s this book that people reread multiple times over the last 20 years. So, they have strong ideas about the way it’s supposed to look that you run the risk of letting them down, if your vision doesn’t match up with their vision.

Erin: How did you deal with that when working on with something like Beowulf, which has been around for over a thousand years? I know that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery dealt with the bulk of the adaptation because they were the original team who adapted the story/poem for the film. So, when you did the graphic novel adaptation, did you look at the poem or did you just get the script or both?

Chris: It was just the film script. So, I could sort of dismiss what had come before, you know, any of the past movies, the ancient poem, the version that I studied in school, and even past comic books that were adapted from the old poem. I didn’t really have to worry about any of that and wasn’t beholden to it. I really just had to make sure that the comic was essentially taking the movie and putting it on paper. So, that one was a bit easier.

Adapting movies, as long as you have visual references is a bit easier than adapting novels because you’re just, you’re just sort of moving the existing pieces around and then the real challenge is making sure that the story flows from page to page and finding good breaking points to leave cliff hangers for each issue, but not forcing that or contriving stuff with the material.

Erin: Graphic novels use a combination of images, text, colors, panels, and other visual storytelling elements. How did these features inform the way you adapt a film script like Beowulf into a graphic novel?

Chris: That’s actually one of the things that I like about this medium. You can use all of these different conventions that comics offer that other forms don’t. The movie was really tough to adapt to four issues because there is so much story and some of it is so visual that you could have two minutes of film that really needs to be four or five pages on paper. It’s even hard to fit a 90-minute movie into what we had; we did that in four issues.

We had 88 pages of story. Sometimes even a minute or two of film needs to be four, five, or six pages to really properly communicate what they’re telling. So, then you use things like a caption to transition from one scene to the next, or if you can’t necessarily show a scene with the characters are talking, you can have their dialog captions appear over the next panel that’s transitioning into another scene. It functions in the same was as a voice over in a film, and you can condense and move things around and still tell all of the story you need to tell without necessarily having to show every bit of everything. That way, you save some of the bigger panels and some of the bigger splash pages for the more impressive action sequences.

Erin: When you are looking at a couple minutes of film and you need to condense that to a couple of panels, how do you go about deciding which story elements need to be kept, left behind or filled in more?

Chris: That is the challenge, especially on something like Beowulf where we didn’t actually see the film until after the comic was long since out. So, then it’s like, “Oh, ok we got that part right. Ah hah, it wouldn’t have hurt to know that kind of thing.” Basically, the process is to read through the entire script just to get what the story is. Then you read through it again.

It’s really a scientific thing at the start. You see the screenplay is 110 pages, and you have 88 pages of comics. So, you divide 110 by 4 (issues) and you figure that’s roughly 26-27 pages of script needed to equate to a full issue. As you’re going through the script, you start looking closer to see if there is a good breaking point on page 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, or somewhere around that area, something that you think could be a good cliffhanger or a good way to end the first issue and not have the feeling of an abrupt ending. Then you go through and tighten it up a bit more – like, “This scene deserves a bit more paper and more pages than the scenes in the screenplay. Now, I have to condense this scene or cut that scene out and combine or condense some of the dialog.”

Again, it’s certainly not as challenging as a novel, but you do have to deal with that whole thing of “well, it seems a bit presumptuous of me to think the scenes that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery wrote are not important any longer or that they’re only important in the movie, but not necessarily in the comic.”

Erin: Did you get much direction or interaction with either Clive or Neil Gaiman or Roger Avery when working on either of those projects?

Chris: In the case of Beowulf, I didn’t actually get to Roger or Neil until after the whole process was done. Luckily, when I met them and was talking about it, they both said they loved what we were doing. So, that was nice because it could have been awkward if they didn’t.

With Clive I didn’t get much guidance, but I did get a ton of interaction with him. The only reason that I didn’t get guidance is because he said he was much more interested in seeing my version of his novel, seeing they way I adapted it, and the way I thought it should be read rather than him spelling it out for me. Again, he doesn’t like to do that for his readers. He wants you to either puzzle things out for yourself or to visualize it for yourself without him spelling it out for you. He thought it was more interesting from his perspective to see what I did with it. At the end of it all, he said, “This isn’t necessarily the way that I told the story, but it’s become its own thing and it’s lovely.”

He was so amazingly complementary the entire time. He was involved with every script, every page that was being drawn, and just really, really supportive and just loved what we were doing. So, at that point, it was like, “So, if I’m not disappointing Clive, then hopefully the fans are going to feel the same way.” Luckily, I never really heard from anyone who said that hated it or that it wasn’t what he thought it should be.

Erin: When going through a novel like Clive Barker’s and you have so many pages to manage, how do you break that down? Is it the same type of process?

Chris: Yeah. I read his 800-page book 6 different times over the course of doing this project. It was a 12 issue book so I figured out the rough page count that each chapter would be and sort of capped off what I thought were good breaking points. When I began scripting it, it didn’t make any sense to still break things at the same point. So, it moved, but at least it was a good starting point to shoot for. Once you condense some of the scenes or cut out some of the scenes, it shifts where it makes sense to break. As you get into the actual script of the comic book, it helps you a bit more knowing what would be the next good breaking point or scene or how you want the next issue to end.

The problem is you spend a lot of time up front, building the world and establishing things. So, by the time you get to issue 11, you only have 2 more issues to go, and that’s it. You’re like, “Oh, shit. I’ve only got so much space left and I’ve got 200 more pages to cover.” Then you really start to have to scramble to figure out what’s really important, what’s not, and what can be condensed. Again, the biggest thing is that I didn’t want to let Clive down and have him think, “My beautiful novel has just been butchered by this guy!”

Erin: When you’re creating the adaptation, you’re maintaining the essence of the original and you’re including the story elements that are critical to your vision of the story. At some point, does it take on a life of its own? If it does, how much do you let it go and when do you reel it in?

Chris: It changed as I went through it. That first issue or two was so faithful to what he’d done and it just didn’t want to vary from the script at all. Then as I started to get into it, it made more sense to me that this is a completely different medium, a completely different way of telling this story. So, like when Clive takes his books and turns them into a movie, things obviously have to be condensed to fit into a 2-hour movie. This was that same sort of thing. We’re telling the same story, but we’re telling it differently and we’re telling it visually. Let’s play with it a bit more and make it more of something that’s intended for comics, not just a regurgitation of his words onto comic book paper. Luckily, he was very accepting and supportive of that, which was also what freed us to make it a bit of its own thing.

Erin: A large number of films are adapted from books and then many of those movies are adapted into graphic novels or video games. Why do you think there are so many adaptations? Why are people so hungry for multiple story forms of the same story?

Chris: Well, I think the reason that books are done as movies is the same reason that books are done as comics. In both instances, it’s hard to attract an audience with something that’s unfamiliar. Or at least, it’s easier to attract an audiences to material that they are familiar with. So, if you do The Davinci Code as a movie, (it sold to umpteen millions of people who bought the book), they figure that a lot of the audience is going to follow and is going to want to see what it looks like as a movie.

In the studio’s mind, they got the presold audience rather than having to develop a brand new movie based on characters and situations that people aren’t familiar with. It’s less risky because you’ve got people that want to see how they treated the book as a movie. By that same regard, there are millions of Clive Barker fans. You then want to see how the book translated into comics. So, where it starts is the sheer economics behind whether it makes sense.

When there is a story that people love, they like to see that world continue. With Lord of the Rings, those fans love seeing the movies because they’ve been reading the books for many years. With video games, you know these characters. You’ve read about them in the situations and worlds that you really like, and now you’re able to play the part of those characters. You can enter that world to some degree. I think that people like to stay with these characters and the worlds that they really love.

I think that also translates worldwide when there is somebody like Clive Barker or something like The Da Vinci Code or the Harry Potter books. Video games can translate into any language very easily. The same thing is true with comics because it’s a more visual medium you don’t have to do as much work to sell a foreign audience. So, you can tap into a bigger audience than you might get with an original project.

Erin: You’ve worked on a lot of adaptations that came from short stories, novels, and scripts. Do you see any kind of consistency in how you go about that adaptation process among the different media? For example, are there a few basic rules or best practices that you can share to help guide them along their way?

Chris: Well, screenplays I know are a bit different. That’s relatively easy as far as breaking that down because all of your scenes and dialogue are really concise and easy to translate from one medium to another, but books – I think that the easiest thing to do is to not assume that you are going to read the book once and be able to work with it from there. It’s the kind of thing you really need to live with and read multiple times. The first time you read it, you’re getting a sense of the story. The second time, you start to think more visually and more sequentially and even serially, like where’s a good breaking point for this if it’s going to be multiple issues? And then you get a sense of what the writer intended, or at least what you think they intended, and then try to see what makes the most sense for a comic.

I think it’s a bad idea to just take the material exactly as it’s written and try to make it exactly as the same in a comic book. I think the biggest thing is just to loosen up a bit and realize that the writer probably understands that the material needs to be adapted a bit to fit into this format. Most guys that I’ve dealt with haven’t felt the need to have their stuff faithfully adapted if you’re doing a comic. They understand that there are different needs that comics have that books don’t offer.

And then, like Richard Matheson, when I adapted some of his stuff, he writes so much that is off panel. He doesn’t really describe a lot of the horror. It’s more horrific because you can’t see it. So, when you’re adapting his stuff to comics, where the whole point is to show what’s going on, that’s a different challenge in itself. Then you really need to be comfortable with what the material is, how it’s being presented, and what they want to show.

If you take a Richard Matheson story and take the stuff that he left off panel and try to make shocking, bloody, horrific things just because that’s going to catch people’s attention, then you have completely lost the point of what he wanted to do with his story. So, you need to have an understanding of what the writer’s intent was and the type of story he wanted to tell as well as how to take the material and turn it from prose into comics.

Erin: Do you have a favorite story that you did for Matheson?

Chris: Yeah, we did one called “Blood Son,” which actually got nominated for an Eisner Award for best short story. It’s about this kid, an elementary school kid, who reads the book Dracula and starts to think that he’s actually Dracula’s son. He goes a little bit insane. In the book, there wasn’t a lot of dialog. A lot of it was just descriptions and stuff. Richard was really great about letting us create the dialog and create the characters a bit more.

We took this thing that was a creepy, non-dialog driven story and turned it into a piece that had a bit more black humor to it and delved into the world a bit more. That one, I thought, worked really well. He was really receptive too because that was probably the most different thing that we’d done of his as far as taking the material and changing it quite a bit.

Erin: Did he give you much feedback on that? Or did he give you license to do what you needed to do in order to tell the story?

Chis: He was involved with proofing the art and reading the scripts. When we said, “Hey, we want to tell the story a bit differently than you did and here’s why…,” he was really accepting of that and complementary about the whole process. So, he was involved to more of a degree than I think I would have initially expected, which is what made it more daunting.

Erin: Well, it is Richard Matheson.

Chris: Yeah, I know! It’s the same with Barker. It’s like, “Holy crap! These guys are actually going to read what I’m doing?” You just have to try and put that out of your head so you don’t get swamped with it.

Erin: Do you think there’s anything that I missed, anything that you think would good to know about adapting another medium into comics?

Chris: I think the only other thing is just the way the artists approach the material. That’s probably something that they would have to speak to more than me. With Clive Barker he didn’t really describe what the characters look like. You know what their age is, but that’s really all you know.

So, then it’s up to me and the artist to figure out what the world looks like, what the creatures look like, what the people look like, but I guess a lot of that is driven by me. For example, I gave my artist really detailed character descriptions and some actors who I think look like this character. I guess from that point of view, it’s not anything that would be too germane to your paper. It’s just that I know that the artists have to do the same thing to create the world on their end, but they are following the directions that they are given at the start. All of which means, I think you covered it pretty well.

Erin: When you are going through a story, you’re making notes on what scenes you need to address and what events need to happen and you’re also making a second set of notes for your artist that provide details about who this character is, what he looks like, and things like facial expressions that he shows throughout the story. Is that right?

Chris: Oh, yeah. The scripts on these things are probably as many words or more as Clive’s novels because of how some of the stuff id described in the novel, like a guy walking into the room. You have to describe what the guy looks like, what he’s wearing, which direction he’s facing, and his facial expression. You describe everything that is left to the viewer to fill in for himself while he is reading a book. Here you can’t really leave any of that out. You have to answer every bit of it.

In a lot of ways, writing these things is like a screenplay where you’re directing the action, you’re calling out who is doing what and where, what the angle should be from on high or low, or how do you want the scenes to flow. It’s another reason that I like the comics. In general, with graphic novels you get to handle things from so many different sides. You’re the writer, you’re doing the dialog, and you’re also directing the action. So, it does really let you hit all these different sides at once.


Chris Ryall is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of IDW Publishing. He is responsible for developing content, assigning creative teams, overseeing all editorial, and assisting in production of the entire publishing line, as well as developing press releases, solicitation copy, letters pages and editorial pages for all comic books and graphic novels.
Ryall joined IDW as Editor-in-Chief in July 2004. In his time with the company, he has been involved in the acquisition of major comic book licenses for THE TRANSFORMERS with Hasbro, Shaun of the Dead and Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show for Universal, and other properties currently in development. He took over as the company’s Publisher in October 2005.
In addition to his duties guiding the publishing line, Ryall has also written the comic book adaptations of Shaun of the Dead and George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” for Masters of Horror and has adapted short stories from famous horror writers like Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch for Doomed magazine. He has also finished a 12-part adaptation of Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show. His two-part creator-owned title, Zombies vs. Robots (co-created with artist Ashley Wood) debuted in November 2006. Also in ’06, Ryall was nominated for two awards for his writing: he received a 2006 Eisner Award nomination for Best Short Story for his adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “Blood Son” (also with artist Ashley Wood), and was nominated by Spike-TV for their inaugural 2006 Scream Awards, Best Film-to-Comics (he received two nominations, one for Shaun of the Dead and one for Land of the Dead.

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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