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Adaptation and Simplification of a Complex Issue - 9/11

jaranda's picture

September 11th was a sad day in American history, so it is not surprising that people wanted answers about what happened and why. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States was supposed to answer these questions, but more than 500 pages in the hardcover edition is a lot of information to digest. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation is supposed to be a simpler version of the information for people who might not want to read the entire original report. In a message from the authors on Amazon, they say that their “desire to adapt The 9/11 Report arose from the desire to render the complex accessible.” (1) Adding a visual to the dense information that makes up the original report might have been a way to get more people interested in learning what happened, but it is not very clear if this graphic adaptation – a word the authors insist on using – was the best medium to make the information more accessible. I don’t really know what other method could have possibly been used instead of using the graphic medium, but was this adaptation completely necessary? Do people really need to have things simplified for them in order to get them to read? Accessibility is important, but I’m not sure everything needs to be reduced such to levels that this particular adaptation was.          

When talking about this graphic adaptation in class, we also talked briefly about the art of comics in general and the ability to read comics. We looked at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which is a comic used to describe comic books and how to read them. Interestingly, when looking at The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation on Amazon’s website, there is the option of ordering both of these books together for a special price. It’s kind of funny that a book that is supposed to make something as dense as the original Commission Report easier to read would be sold with a companion book on how to understand reading in the graphic medium. Condensing a book of more than 500 pages into a graphic narrative of no more than 150 pages seems to imply that a lot of information was left out. Picking and choosing what belongs in an adaptation seems problematic, since there is so much information that readers might want to know about. Of course readers could just go and read the original report, but why would they do that when there’s a simpler version available? In an attempt to make the events of September 11th easier to understand, the authors Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón made executive decisions about what information would be included and what wouldn’t be included. It feels as though readers would not be getting the whole picture of what caused these events and why if they were not given all the information that is available.   

In an NPR interview with the authors of this graphic adaptation, both insist that their work is not intentionally dumbing down the official report. Colón said, “You can’t dumb something down that you’re actually quoting and being respectful to and making available to a wider audience. That’s not dumbing down, at all.” (2) While they might not consider their work over simplifying, it does seem as though there could have been much more included within the graphic and in a much easier way. We discussed the idea that the layout of this graphic adaptation could have been much simpler. Maybe the confusing layout was meant to reflect the confusing nature of the events, but if the goal was to make something everyone could read easily, it does not seem very successful. Trying to figure out what part of the text to read next on each page, shouldn’t take multiple attempts. At the same time, there are certain parts of the report that the authors handled very well in terms of turning it into a graphic representation. The first 25 pages of chapter one, which is a timeline depicting each of the planes involved in the attacks, is very powerful, and the visual element adds something to the report that might not have come through in the original version. The conductor of the NPR interview, Neal Conan felt that this part of the graphic adaptation was much more effective than reading a written description anywhere else. Colón’s response to this comment was that “looking at something graphically, like a timeline, at a glance, gives you all the facts – rather than going, as I said before, to Page 60 and then referring to Page 9 because you can’t remember that particular place or event.” (2) This part of the book showed that a visual representation could be very powerful, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the book is equally as powerful. There are many places where the images are hard to understand, whether it is because they are somewhat abstracted like on page 44 or because the pages are too busy with lots of text and images like page 78.       

There could have been other possible adaptations of the Commission Report instead of a graphic one, but I’m not sure any other way of representing the information compiled in the Report would be any better than the original report, which is widely available for the public to read. According to Colón, there were plans to make the Commission Report into a film. Even a film would have had to cut out a significant chunk of the information provided, both because of time constraints and because it would need to reach a wide audience. Colón and Jacobson wanted to create a graphic adaptation to make the events more easily understood, but aside from their opening timeline, I don’t think they really succeeded. After reading their adaptation of the report, I understand that the events surrounding September 11th were complicated, but I don’t think I came away with a better understanding of what happened than I would have if I had put the time into reading the entire original report. Simplification just for the sake of it doesn’t seem necessary. The authors of this adaptation should probably give readers more credit in being able to read and understand the original report.  Yes, the original report was complex, but the version that Jacobson and Colón produced is complex in its own way. 


Works Cited: 



Jacobson, Sidney, and Ernie Colón. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006. 


Anne Dalke's picture

on rendering the complex accessible

jaranda--this is really a book review, I think, one that points out the complexity of this supposed "simplification" (nice point that it's sold along w/ a book that we'll need to guide us in the reading!) and the inadequacy of the "adaptation": inadequate both because of the reduction and the complexification involved (can you explain more how both are happening??): surely some of these pages are harder to interpret than a page of "straight" prose.

I guess some of the  further questions I have are the ones you already pose in the text of your paper: what other method could have possibly been used instead of using the graphic medium? Was this adaptation completely necessary? Do people really need to have things simplified for them in order to get them to read? Should the authors give readers more credit in being able to read and understand the original? And some are larger questions of my own devising: are you opposed to adaptations generally? If so, on what grounds? What's your take on intertexuality? On the evolution of stories?