Friday, January 25, 2008


I first read Persepolis freshman year of college in my comparative politics class. Besides a few articles, Persepolis was our only text with which to study the Iranian revolution. I remember asking my professor what the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims were, and she said she didn’t know. I left the class with an understanding of the historical context of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel that was as grey as the illustrations themselves.

Although Persepolis is a firsthand account—or even a “primary document”, I am always wary of art being used to teach history. I can recall a slew on instances through my education when teachers relied on works of literature and film to teach history (All Quiet on the Western Front to study WWI and Glory to study the civil war are the two that immediately come to mind). While I was always grateful for the breaks in routine, I have since arrived at the position that accurate, historical representation should not be a burden placed on art.

By revisiting Persepolis in the theater rather than in the classroom, I was able to give more attention to the illustrations and the story, rather than the context. Although the Iranian revolution and subsequent war is perhaps the most significant cause of change in Marjane’s life, it remains a backdrop for herself discovery and coming of age. Reading Persepolis in a way that foregrounds the story as a history lesson necessarily overlooks the novel’s heart.
Interestingly, combining both Satrapi’s novels, Persepolis and Persepolis II, lent itself to a familiar cinematic narrative ark: the film begins in the present, flashes back to the past, and works its way back to the present again. For the most part, the transition from graphic novel to film was smooth and natural.

As a self proclaimed cinephile, I love talking about the things that film can do that no other art form can. The combination of sound, movement, and image is a special elixir that has unparalleled effects on the heart, eyes, ears, and mind. However, graphic novels have a one magical trick that films cannot perform: simultaneity. A page of a graphic novel almost always shows multiple frames per page. The reader first looks at the entire page, and has an impression of the images as a set. Then, he or she proceeds to read each individual frame sequentially. In film, however, the images must always come after one another. Even if the screen we split up into several images like the pages of Satrapi’s novel, it would not be able to achieve this simultaneous effect unless it sacrificed movement. Movement is the essential, defining factor of motion pictures, (or in this case, animation) and therefore cannot be sacrificed. Below is an image from the graphic novel, which features frames of different sizes--another setback for cinema, which must maintain the same aspect ratio for all frames.

In the inevitable contest called: “The book was better”, I’d say score one for the book. Add the voices of Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux—score one for the film. And thus the magicians battle it out, book v. movie, matching trick for trick. I suppose the point isn’t who wins, but the spectacles that are produced along the way.


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