Thursday, 24 December 2009

Book Review: 'Macbeth - the ELT Graphic Novel'

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Macbeth - The ELT Graphic Novel
William Shakespeare
Script by John McDonald / Adapted for ELT by Brigit Viney
Heinle Cengage Learning 2009
ISBN 9781424028702

Publisher's Website
From the blurb: "This full colour graphic novel presents 'The Scottish Play' adapted so that intermediate language learners can enjoy Shakespeare too.
Macbeth is one of the most dramatic of Shakespeare's tragedies and this version will give learners a new and satisfying view of the genius of Shakespeare's story telling."

Discovering Macbeth - The ELT Graphic Novel from Heinle Cengage reminds me of the first time I saw Wallace & Gromit in 'The Wrong Trousers' adapted to English teaching. It was as though the heavens had opened and rays of happiness, joy and nice bits of cheddar and stilton were pouring down on tired English teachers everywhere.

Once again the ELT clouds seem to have parted and I can already imagine cackling curses from wicked witches (in simplified English, of course) echoing around creepy classrooms even as I type.

At least three target readerships immediately spring to mind:

First of all, any foreign language class with a bit of English literature on the syllabus is a no-brainer: they need this book!

Then there's the native speakers who are obliged to tackle the classics but who are finding the Shakespearian idiom less and less accessible. This could be an excellent way to fire up today's youth to appreciating the timeless lessons of life and human folly within the Bard's plays without tears.

I don't see why adult learners shouldn't also find this book both accessible and stimulating. The increasing popularity of the adult-themed graphic novel (as opposed to the more immature-sounding 'comic'), linked to the gravitas of Shakespeare, means that a more mature audience could be within this title's sights.

And to be honest, to the categories above I could quite seriously add 'and everyone else', such is the pleasure to be had in (re)discovering this marvellous classic in such an enjoyable way. I sat on the train and read it right the way through the other day, and am secretly hoping it's going to be a trilogy...

The illustrations are truly sumptuous. Although I'm no expert in the art of the graphic novel (practically considered a true art form where I live in France, by the way), we are talking stunning layout, glossy colours, punchy illustrations, superb printing quality and production. This book is a beauty by any standards, and I'm afraid I have to say that it puts most of the 'for ELT' produced equivalents to shame.

Macbeth - The ELT Graphic Novel is actually an ELT adaptation of a publication from Classical Comics who themselves produced three versions of the play in this richly illustrated form. One of these versions actually squeezes all of Shakespeare's original speech into the bubbles. The next converts it to modern English without shortening the speeches. And the third pares down the modern English version to the absolute minimum while still retaining the full essence of the story. The ELT version goes yet another stage further in the simplification process, but actually manages to still keep the excitement up, as well as adding ELT-appropriate descriptions of plot, character sketches and a useful three page glossary.

Particularly fascinating are the comparisons between the original text and the ELT version with a useful 'Meaning' column which allows even those of us who haven't got a clue what he was on about to nod wisely as we explain to our students the 'deeper meaning' of the text and pretend we knew all along. An example:

Act 1 Scene 5 - Page 20

Shakespeare's Original: 'Yet do I fear thy nature: It is too full o' the milk of human kindness.'

ELT Version: 'But you're too kind to do what you have to do to become king.'

Meaning: Lady Macbeth says this as she reads a letter from her husband. In it, he is telling his wife about how the three witches predicted that he will be king. However, Lady Macbeth believes her husband is too weak, too kind and too gentle to do what he must do to become king: murder Duncan.
Another interesting feature of this edition is a page on 'The Real Macbeth'. As an avowed philistine I enjoyed learning more about the truth behind one of Shakespeare's most famous characters and also the history of the country of my birth - Scotland. Macbeth is often referred to amongst cognoscenti as simply 'The Scottish Play'. Here's a sample:

"Scotland in the eleventh century was a cruel land to live in. It had many wars and mass killings occurred often. Whoever ruled Scotland had to protect family, community and the land from any enemies. However, many of a ruler's enemies were actually the people closest to him. These enemies were usually unhappy and jealous relatives, who wanted to be king themselves."

The 'Real Macbeth' family tree enlightens us as to the true context of the happenings described in the play, and a 'Link Map of Characters in Shakespeare's Macbeth' makes the sometimes opaque relationships clearer to the lay reader.

An audio CD accompanies this title and again manages to avoid the too-common cheesiness of many ELT recordings. Speech is natural and heartfelt, the sound effects are just right (horses braying, clashing of swords during fights).

Most of the characters have gentle Scottish lilts with the witches being slightly more exaggerated, which gives a nice sense of atmosphere, and only the narrator wields an albeit conspiratorial neutral southern English accent. All in all, there's not much to tell you that it's an ELT adaptation of a super-simplified English adaptation of a modernised English version of the original Shakespearian text. Well done to all concerned at Heinle Cengage and the actors too!

As you can see, I couldn't resist including quite a few shots of the book I took myself, before I realised that there were loads of graphics available on the Classical Comics site, if not the actual Heinle site - come on Heinle - don't hide your light under a bushel and get some visuals out there!

There are actually a few other ELT graphic novel adaptations of English classics in the same series, but I'm going to keep mum about them until I get my grubby hands on some review copies of my own.

Which brings me to thinking that I should reintroduce some sort of awards ceremony for titles we've review over the course of the year. I say 'reintroduce' because those of you old enough to remember will remember the legendary TEFL Farm (my first web site for English teachers more than ten years ago and its coveted 'Golden Cowpat'! Bring back the Golden Cowpat, I hear you all cry! I do believe that Wallace & Gromit - The Wrong Trousers was the first official winner too!

I'm thinking of potential categories and I guess Macbeth - The ELT Graphic Novel would fall into the Best ELT Adaptation category (and immediately win it too, I imagine).

Hotch Potch English: 'The English Language Teaching Review Blog" ~ Book Review: 'Macbeth - The ELT Graphic Novel'
Created & written by Sab Will
Copyright 2009 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
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jon haward said...

thanks for the review ,i'm glad you enjoyed the book

Jon Haward

Sab Will said...

Hi Jon, Sure did - absolutely superb art work, no doubt about it!
Thanks for the comment, Sab

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