The Quandary of Illustrating Anne Frank

A graphic adaptation of the teenage Holocaust victim’s diary calls into question which avenues are best for retelling painful, complicated histories.

A cutout from the cover of Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation (David Polonsky / Pantheon / The Atlantic)

After living for a year and a half trapped indoors in her father’s office building, the 14-year-old Anne Frank wrote of her longing to be a regular teenager who could go outside and “look at the world.” She expressed her envy of the people who enter the building “with the wind in their clothes and the cold on their cheeks.” Beyond the walls of the hiding place she shared with seven others in the heart of Amsterdam, the Netherlands and much of Europe were under Nazi control while World War II raged and Adolf Hitler’s regime sought to exterminate Jews and others it considered less than human.

Frank’s diary became one of the most famous narratives of the Holocaust, and because it’s written from the perspective of a normal adolescent living under the most abnormal circumstances, it humanized war and genocide. Although hers is not the only such chronicle of war, or even this war in particular, it has proven its lasting impact and extraordinary reach with more than 25 million copies sold and translations into more than 70 languages in about as many years. As the events that shaped Frank’s short life slip further into the past, it’s heartening that her account continues to captivate new generations.

So it was both thrilling and disappointing to read Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, illustrated by David Polonsky and adapted by Ari Folman. The book’s carefully crafted images interpret elements of Frank’s story with beauty and humor. But passages like the one that reads, “We still love life, we haven’t yet forgotten the voice of nature, and we keep hoping,” are missing, and the girl who breathed dimension into an unfathomable history is flattened, her power diluted. Folman and Polonsky surely didn’t intend to replace the diary, but the shortcomings of the adaptation are illuminating in their way, and underscore what makes the original so potent.

A panel from Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation (Anne Frank Fonds Basel)

Anne Frank and her diary are special in seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand, she was a uniquely gifted writer and a remarkably astute observer of people and the world, capable and discerning beyond her years. Folman seems acutely aware of the risks of translating Frank’s words into images, writing in his adapter’s note at the end of the book that “as the diary progresses, Anne’s talents as a writer grow ever more impressive … It seemed intolerable to forgo these later entries in favor of illustrations, and so we chose to reproduce long passages in their entirety, unillustrated.” But the adaptation’s selective, late shift to the text obscures the very development Folman describes and gives readers a limited view of Frank’s skills.

On the other hand, Frank is also deeply relatable, especially for young readers. Masterful as her writing is, her musings make you feel like you’re in her head and she’s in yours. She’s you, or someone you know. Her early entries from home describe a familiar kind of daily life: friends, boys, school, family. As her situation becomes more extreme—and her writings weave back and forth between devastating world events and the typical but adeptly expressed introspections of a teenager—you follow along and begin to grasp how a real, whole person experienced inexplicable events. History no longer feels remote, and you start to understand not only how people faced the war, but how you might’ve faced the war while growing up.

In her 2009 book, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, Francine Prose looked closely at the diary as a literary work, marveling at the young writer’s adroit handling of character, detail, dialogue, monologue, and pacing. Likewise, John Berryman pointed to Frank’s “exceptional self-awareness and exceptional candor and exceptional powers of expression” in his 1967 essay, “The Development of Anne Frank,” in which he also called the diary “the most remarkable account of normal human adolescent maturation I had ever read.”

While the graphic adaptation captures some of Frank’s personality, energy, pain, and creative ability, it’s so abridged that readers are shortchanged on her inner monologue, on the beautifully articulated and nuanced view of the world, and on the three-dimensional narration that brings you with Frank into the annex. And with only a fraction of the material included, the 25 months Frank spent in hiding pass by much more quickly.

On one of the Franks’ first nights in the annex, the family went downstairs to listen to a broadcast from England. The graphic adaptation shows a group of four gathered around the radio, but it leaves out Frank’s admission: “I was so scared someone might hear it that I literally begged Father to take me back upstairs.” The book contains some of the surprise and novelty of Frank’s first days in hiding, but none of the uneasiness and worry that occurred at that moment and that would come to characterize the next two years, undermining the complexity that makes the story and its protagonist feel so real.

More than a year later, Frank writes in her diary about losing her appetite. The graphic adaptation depicts her strapped to a chair with machines on either side trying to spoon-feed her cod-liver oil and brewer’s yeast (in reality, Frank’s fellow residents administered these remedies, not an industrial apparatus). Further, the book’s whimsical frame eschews the dread of Sundays in the annex, of which Frank writes, “The atmosphere is stifling, sluggish, leaden. Outside, you don’t hear a single bird, and a deathly, oppressive silence hangs over the house and clings to me as if it were going to drag me into the deepest regions of the underworld.” In the illustrated book, there’s no mention of her wandering restlessly from room to room, feeling “like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage.” Nor does it explain that she opts to sleep because it “makes the silence and the terrible fear go by more quickly, helps pass the time, since it’s impossible to kill it.”

The reader of the graphic adaptation learns that Frank’s “greatest wish is to be a journalist and, later on, a famous writer.” But is that the same as knowing that she can’t imagine living like “all the women who go about their work and are then forgotten,” and wishes, through her writing, “to go on living even after my death”?

The discarded details and entries (dozens by my count, when compared with the definitive edition published in English in 1995 and updated with new entries discovered in 1998) add up to piles of unheard thoughts. And though adaptations are expected to condense original texts, the losses are tangible. Multiple break-ins and scares, as well as anxieties and bad dreams, are compressed into fewer, more superficially recounted incidents. Long, complicated arcs—like Frank’s relationship with Peter van Pels, the slightly older boy in the annex who later becomes her friend and love interest (and her first real kiss)—come off as flimsy. Frank, along with the rest of the people in the annex, becomes less nuanced, while much of her inner monologue—about herself, the fate of Jews in Europe, their heroic helpers, and more—is chopped up into sound bites or excluded entirely.

On August 1, 1944, Frank wrote a plaintive letter lamenting that she could show the world only her “exuberant cheerfulness,” and never her “purer, deeper, and finer” side. Her anguish seeps off the page, in stark contrast to one of her most optimistic entries about the war that came immediately before it. But what happens next is even more jarring. In both the adaptation and the diary, Frank’s voice is replaced by that of an impersonal narrator, recounting in the third person the arrest, deportation, and ultimate deaths of Frank and all the members of the annex family, save for her father.

The difference between the two versions, however, is that by this point in the diary, you’ve been in her head for so long that her extinguished voice and sudden disappearance crush you with the weight of the world. You can imagine heavy boots on the stairs, pounding on the bookcase, and cruel orders spewed at the shocked residents. This scene isn’t described in detail in either version. In fact, the afterwords are virtually identical. But the diary itself sets the reader up to fill in the horrifying blanks in a way the adaptation does not. They weren’t coming for an unknowable character in hiding. They were coming for Frank.

It’s not that Folman and Polonsky haven’t added a valuable interpretation. They have. The volume contains some stunning and poetic drawings, such as a two-page spread that visualizes a passage in which the diarist describes “the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds” and “in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other.” But those images are poignant complements to Frank’s words, not sufficient replacements. To this point, Folman wrote in the adapter’s note that he had “grave reservations” editing “while still being faithful to the entire work.” On the whole, the story becomes shorter, neater, and more naive. That might make sense if the adaptation were a primer geared toward children who aren’t ready to tackle the diary yet, but the inclusion of entries on sex and Frank’s lesson on the female anatomy indicates otherwise.

The point is also not that illustrations or graphic novels are less suited to tell stories of the Holocaust. Those mediums and so many others, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality, offer opportunities to experiment with new ways to share narratives that humanize and resonate—all the more crucial as we get further from the history and those who lived it. But the format should be tailored to the story, and in the case of a story that’s power lies squarely in the quality of the writing and the vividness of a teenager’s thoughts, the diary provides depth that is hard to replicate in other versions.

At a time when American students, adults, and government officials have shown staggering gaps in knowledge about the Holocaust, when anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. have risen steeply, and when Americans are reeling from the news that a gunman entered a Pittsburgh synagogue on a quiet, rainy Saturday morning and murdered 11 people—telling police he “wanted all Jews to die”—Frank should feel as real as possible.

The movies, plays, and graphic adaptations that Frank’s diary inspired are entry points, thought provokers, or conversation starters, not substitutes. The most promising way to keep her story in the forefront of our mind is to keep reading her diary, but also to continue allowing the original source to spark a broad range of retellings and interpretive works of art that might highlight different aspects and reach new audiences. All together, they foster discussion and remind readers of the smart, vivacious, and complicated girl who went into hiding at 13 and died at 15.

The graphic adaptation does contain long sections of Frank’s last entries—the ones that make it so distressing to see her account end as abruptly as it does. But the omissions leading up to them soften the blow. More than any particular fact or event, the graphic version is missing the sense of familiarity that slowly builds, more strongly and deeply than you realize, until the moment that this friend, this stand-in for you, confronts the thing she’d feared for so long: the moment that stole her fantasies of her life “after the war” out from under her. The last pages of the adaptation feel like the end of a story, not the end of a life.

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