Into this quagmire bravely wade Ari Folman and David Polonsky, the creators of “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation,” a stunning, haunting work of art that is unfortunately marred by some questionable interpretive choices. As Folman acknowledges in an adapter’s note, the text, preserved in its entirety, would have resulted in a graphic novel of 3,500 pages. At times he reproduces whole entries verbatim, but more often he diverges freely from the original, collapsing multiple entries onto a single page and replacing Anne’s droll commentary with more accessible (and often more dramatic) language. Polonsky’s illustrations, richly detailed and sensitively rendered, work marvelously to fill in the gaps, allowing an image or a facial expression to stand in for the missing text and also providing context about Anne’s historical circumstances that is, for obvious reasons, absent from the original. The tightly packed panels that result, in which a line or two adapted from the “Diary” might be juxtaposed with a bit of invented dialogue between the Annex inhabitants or a dream vision of Anne’s, do wonders at fitting complex emotions and ideas into a tiny space — a metaphor for the Secret Annex itself.
The comedy of the “Diary” — one of the book’s most charming and often overlooked aspects — shines in this form. The tension between the Franks and the van Daans, the family with whom they go into hiding (a dentist, Alfred Dussel, joins later), is a rich vein of material for Anne, who sees Mrs. van Daan as obnoxious and vain; she cares only about her own family’s survival and is harshly critical of Anne’s manners and attitude. Here, she is often depicted wearing her trademark fur coat; when her husband threatens to sell it, Polonsky draws its collar with live rabbits, one of which speaks up in her defense. Anne also aims her satire at the limited food options in the Annex, offering sardonic menus and diet tips. In the graphic novel, one spread depicts the families at dinner, each character represented by an animal. Anne’s sister Margot, whose saintly composure she often envied, is drawn as a bird, gazing at an empty plate: “I feel full just by looking at the others,” the thought bubble above her head reads. Meanwhile, Mr. van Daan is an enormous bear, shoveling cabbage into his mouth with both paws even as he demands more.
[ Meyer Levin on Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” a book too tenderly intimate to be frozen with the label “classic” ]
There are so many wonderful juxtapositions of text and imagery that it feels cruel to focus on only a few, but another consistent standout is the way the graphic novel conveys Anne’s fantasies and emotions — so crucial to the “Diary.” In a line taken almost verbatim from the book, Folman’s Anne wonders, “How can we, whose every possession, from my panties to Father’s shaving brush, is so old and worn, ever hope to regain the position we had before the war?” Polonsky’s accompanying illustration depicts the Franks as beggars huddled on the side of an elegant street lined with cafes and restaurants, while passers-by in fancy clothes — including the van Daans — ignore them. In a page illustrating Anne’s most tumultuous inner thoughts, Polonsky draws her as the figure in Munch’s “The Scream”; for a calmer moment, she’s Adele Bloch-Bauer in Klimt’s “Portrait.” When 16-year-old Peter van Daan and Anne first begin to fall in love, Polonsky depicts their faces reflected in each other’s pupils, as if to indicate the depth of their feelings.
This graphic adaptation is so engaging and effective that it’s easy to imagine it replacing the “Diary” in classrooms and among younger readers. For that reason especially, it seems a mistake not to have included more in the way of critical apparatus to explain the ways the creators diverged from the historical record, especially when they touch most directly on the Holocaust. There is, for example, a naïve, stylized rendering of a concentration camp scene, which makes sense as a representation of Anne’s fantasies — she didn’t know the barbaric specifics of what was going on around her — but risks confusing students, who might not know that Auschwitz wasn’t in fact a big green square surrounded by pleasant-looking buildings with huge canisters reading “GAS” plugged into them.
Folman and Polonsky’s greatest missed opportunity, however, is their representation of Anne. As readers have been aware since the Definitive Edition appeared more than 20 years ago, the “Diary” as we know it, despite its misleading title, isn’t a literal diary. In spring 1944, the inhabitants of the Annex heard a radio broadcast in which a Dutch cabinet minister called for citizens to preserve their diaries and letters as a record of the war years — a moment depicted in the graphic adaptation. Afterward, Anne began to revise what she had written for eventual publication as an autobiographical novel, working at the furious rate of up to a dozen pages a day. She rewrote and standardized early entries and also created new ones to fill in gaps in her story, such as the history of her family. What we have come to think of as Anne’s diary, as Francine Prose and others have written, would be more accurately described as a memoir in the form of diary entries. But myths die slow deaths, and most readers still aren’t aware of the complexities behind the book’s creation.