Jerome K. Jerome’s novel Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is an occasionally awkward yet much beloved comedy classic. Sadly, this graphic adaptation inverts that ratio, serving up more awkwardness than affection-inspiring amusement.
Originally intended as a travel guide about the wealth of leisure opportunities and historic sites along England’s River Thames, Jerome’s tale of the misadventures of three friends (and a fox terrier) on a float trip is best remembered for its humorous commentary as the narrator goes off on one personal/historical tangent or another before coming back to the silly story at hand.
Campfire’s adaptation retains that digression-riddled structure, but often fails to include enough substance to support the chosen anecdotes or sufficient transitions between them (unless you count turning a page and then flipping back to see if you’ve missed one as a transition), resulting in some disjointed narrative jumps and a good many half-formed jokes.
For example, take an episode where Harris fails to meet Jerome and George back at the dock one night after the latter two go ashore. There’s little drama beyond the rain and late hour and, when they finally hear Montmorency (the dog) bark out on the water and succeed in getting Harris’s attention, there’s no explanation for Harris’s absence. Instead, the next panel shows him asleep while the other two eat a soppy meal in apparent relief. However, in the novel, their search for the boat is extensive and their growing anxiety understandable. When Harris finally brings the boat around he manically regales them with a tale of how he was attacked by, and successfully fought off, an inconsistently ridiculous number of murderous swans. He then collapses into a deep sleep and his relieved yet bewildered companions cannot find the whiskey they are quite certain they packed in the hamper. Without the swans and the conspicuously absent whiskey, there’s no joke, let alone a point to its telling.
Cramped layouts and thinly-bordered panels sandwiched tightly together do not aid in the readability department. The interior art is cute and detailed, with its gangly-legged, mustachioed gentlemen and perpetually-in-motion canine, but also a little boring and cluttered. There’s not enough variation in Jerome’s and George’s character designs, making it difficult to tell them apart other than by their chins and Jerome’s hair which alternates between shades of red, brown, and blond. The cover art is more appealing and dynamic, but makes it appear the fellows are out adventuring on open water rather than a domesticated river, which might confuse readers new to the title.
Those readers familiar with the original may wonder at a few of the adaptor’s choices regarding which bits to keep and which to leave out. Obviously, much must be sacrificed (thankfully, this includes a lot of purple prose and the quartet’s discovery of a corpse), but there are certain iconic passages a fan would hope to find. War with the inaccessible pineapple tin and getting lost in Hampton Court Palace’s maze are happily present and accounted for; but where is the splendid tale of the odiferous cheeses? Or the aforementioned swans?
It’s hard to tell who this adaptation is for. The cartoonish art and the small handful of editor’s notes providing Thames trivia and explaining what river locks and skiffs are suggest the book is for younger readers; but the many unexplained British-isms (linguistic and cultural, with most of the text lifted straight from a novel originally written for adults) and the prevalence of pipe smoking and references to alcohol (including a youngster wandering around with his own corked beer bottle on a string) would be more appropriate for older audiences. The juvenile appearance will be a turn-off for older readers, and the content may be too much of an obstacle for younger readers without more context.
Despite this book’s problems, Jerome’s fun, cynical wit still peeks through and provides a good measure of entertainment. But chopped up and hollowed as it is here, what was once a pleasant meander now feels less than inspired and leaves the reader feeling they’ve missed something. I suggest a nicely edited edition of the novel instead.
Three Men in a Boat
Original novel by Jerome K. Jerome
Adapted by Nidhi Verma
Illustrated by K. L. Jones
Colored by Prince Varghese, Vikash Gurung, Debu Payen
Lettered by Bhavnath Chaudhry
Cover illustrated by Amit Tayal, colored by Pradeep Sherawat