Radio France International interviewed Penelope Bagieu, a cartoonist who’s adapting the late UK-Norwegian writer Roald Dahl’s 1984 book The Witches into a graphic novel:
When she was approached to make a graphic novel out of Roahld Dahl’s The Witches, Penelope Bagieu was pleased to get the chance to adapt one of her favourite childhood books. But she wanted to make some modifications, in particular, addressing the underlying misogyny of a story about witches.
Taking on The Witches was an interesting choice for Bagieu, a self-avowed feminist, who won the 2019 Eisner award (like the Oscars for comics) for the US edition of her book Culottées (translated as Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World), a series of biographies of 30 women from around the world.
Critics have pointed to the sexist undertones in The Witches, with Dahl’s witches, who hate children, appearing as normal women, hiding their true identity. “All witches are women,” he writes.
I vaguely remember reading that book decades ago, and yes, there’s valid arguments to make that it was demeaning to women, although one can only wonder if today’s anti-heterosexual feminists would have a problem with the anti-child belief ascribed to the villainesses of Dahl’s story? That’s got to be the big irony here, and not a question easily answered. Dahl was known for being a very antisemitic racist, and also very sexist. One of the worst things he did prior to his death was attacking Salman Rushdie after Iranian ayatollah Khomeini put a fatwa on Rushdie for publishing the Satanic Verses, which was seen as a slight to Islam. Based on his politics, it’s not all that surprising such sentiments were worked into his books over time. But here, we have somebody in France who’s taking a project and, for better or worse, making alterations as she thinks appropriate:
Q: You took the story of The Witches, but you wrote your own dialogue, and you even changed some characters. How much liberty can you take with a classic of children’s literature like this?
Penelope Bagieu: That was the big question! All the changes were welcomed, as long as they made sense. I had conversations with Luke Kelly, Roald Dahl’s grandson, who’s the ‘keeper of the temple’, if you will. Every time I wanted to change or adapt something to make it suit my story, as long as there was a reason, it was fine.
I’ll be honest here. Based on what a scumbag Dahl sadly was, that’s why I really can’t care if she wanted to modify anything for her graphic novel. But better yet, why bother adapting the book at all? I don’t see much point, considering how tasteless it was viewed under a microscope, not unlike most of Dahl’s other writings, with their crude sense of humor, something Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was also guilty of.
Q: What do you make of this piece of English literature being given to a French person to adapt?
PB: When I heard from my French publisher that they had an offer to adapt The Witches as comics, my first reaction was, ‘Wow, they asked their French editor to do this?’ That means we really nailed comics! We are the country of comics.
I think we have a very helpful environment in France for creating comics. It’s valued as a form of literature.
We don’t have superhero series [like the Marvel comics], where you write stories for a character that already exists, in a like a legacy. You create your own stories, your own characters.
And it’s not very hard to be published in France. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to sell your books, or that you’re going to make money. But if you want to write your stories, you can pretty much always find a publisher who’s willing to publish you.
So once you pass the barrier of language once were translated, then there’s no reason that you can’t find an audience outside the borders of France.
I think it’d be wise to take a bit of issue here. What if there’s publishers there not willing to associate with something like Rushdie’s aforementioned Satanic Verses? What if you wanted to write up a comic drawing from the same themes Rushdie did, and it were decided to blacklist the very manuscript and author? Let’s be realists here, please. This is after all a country that’s been consumed by the horrors of Islamofascism, right down to its misogynist beliefs. That aside, the lady’s making an interesting point about the differences between European and USA comics, but, unfortunately, without a clear distinction between corporate-owned products and independently-owned ones. Besides, shared universe or not, Marvel could be owned by an independent source too, if somebody outside of the shoddy conglomerates wanted to make a bid and buy them (and DC), and let’s just say that, while there would surely be some limits imposed on how far you could go, I think everything would be handled in a way far more satisfying and responsible than what we’ve seen occurring under corporate ownership. Corporatism’s proven the ruin of famous franchises, if you look under a magnifying glass.
This interview also has hints that the adaptation of Dahl’s might not follow the kind of political correctness that’s become rampant in the English-speaking world:
Q: Roald Dahl is British, and The Witches is set in the UK. Is there a French touch to your version?
PB: Roald Dahl’s books are really part of a lot of French children’s libraries. As for the French touch, well, the grandmother in the book is really my grandmother. So she’s definitely French.
What also changed in my version is that there can be misogynist echo to the idea of women in disguise, hating children. I wanted it to be very clear in my book that the witches—these creatures—they are not women; they just take the appearance of women.
The women in my book are good, and strong, and brave, and funny. And I wanted the part in the story, at the beginning, where the grandmother explains what hunting witches used to be.
You can’t talk about witches to children in 2020 without having a word about misogyny.
You probably can in Japan, if only because there, “witch” does not carry the same negative meaning it has in the west. I vaguely remember the book by Dahl might’ve implied the witches of the tale were demons in disguise, but not necessarily male creatures disguised as women. Either way, if Bagieu is implying she made the creatures more like male demons taking a female guise, I’m betting that won’t fly with the SJW crowd in the English-speaking world, if anywhere, recalling the backlash J.K. Rowling received after she dared make the villain of one of her new novels a cross-dresser. Interestingly enough, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis comes up in discussion here:
Q: Persepolis, the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, was published in 2000. What impact did it have on your work?
PB: A lot. It was really unusual: it was in black in white, a long story, and the autobiography of a girl. She was talking about her makeup and her boy issues. But the historical background [of the story taking place during the Iranian Revolution] was so intense. I thought, ‘Wow, so you can also talk about this in comics?’
And the immense commercial success of this book opened the door to so many, not just women, but artists, who were then able to tell their own stories. Suddenly, it was possible.
I would guess she does agree with Persepolis’ viewpoint, which was condemned by Iran for being “Islamophobic”, along with an animated film adapted from it, since it was pretty much opposed to the sharia-led regime the ayatollah tragically established in 1979, after his so-called “revolution”.