Over 200 years ago, the City of Ember was created by the Builders, and now the citizens exist in a perpetual darkness only broken by the electric lights in their homes and lining the streets. But the lights keep going out, and the city’s power source, an ancient generator that no one understands, is constantly failing. Twelve-year-old Doon is determined to find the solution and save the city, but keeps hitting dead ends until his friend Lina finds a strange paper inside a lock box. Thanks to her baby sister, the words—written with the strange, typed script of the Builders—are only half-legible, but she can make out one: Instructions. Certain these are instructions for an exit, Lina and Doon set to deciphering the words so they can follow the directions out of Ember. But with everyone so certain that there is no escape, they find more resistance than they bargained for.
Released in 2003, Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember gave us a teen dystopian novel before The Hunger Games was even a thing. There have since been three sequels and a 2008 movie adaptation, but it wasn’t until September, 2012 that Random House published a graphic novel adaptation. Adapted by Dallas Middaugh and illustrated by Niklas Asker, the comic takes DuPrau’s deeply shadowed world and attempts to bring it to life.
The City of Ember has an immediately interesting premise: two children in a city with perpetually depleting supplies who together find a way to save their people. The characters don’t know why they are there, and they don’t even know why it is always so dark (though readers will probably make their own accurate guess about that). The characters are also much more layered than expected. Doon wants to figure out the answer and save everyone, but it’s partly because he wants the glory of being Ember’s hero so his father, a kind man, can be proud of him. He’s also plagued with a volatile temper that often hinders him. Lina has fewer of these problems—too busy taking care of her sister, a toddler, and her ill grandmother. But she is sometimes overcome with desires—the best job, a pack of colored pencils (rare), a can of pineapple (rarer)—that she momentarily loses sight of important things, like Doon’s concern or her sister. These all add up to make Doon and Lina more sympathetic, as we see pieces of ourselves in them, and even increase our anxiety and investment, as we see how they’ve gotten in their own way before they even realize.
The big problem I had with the novel was the pacing. While the opening gets us right into the story with the choosing of jobs and Doon’s concern over the power and food supply, it’s mostly a slow buildup of information until about a third of the way through the book, when Lina finally finds the Instructions. And after that things move slowly as Lina struggles over each word and tries to get others to help her, like the mayor or her flighty friend Lizzie, who obviously don’t care about her discovery. Things do pick up once Doon gets involved and they start to solve the puzzle. Also, the anxiety does build up at the end as we see how Doon and Lina messed up in their decision to wait on revealing their discovery, and find themselves on the run.
Asker did a decent job portraying the darkness of this world in the graphic novel, even filling the gutters with black, and his detailed sketchings of rooms and buildings display the drabness of everything: the cluttered rooms, and clothing and items drained of color from their multiple uses. Asker also understands the importance of silence as he draws out moments like Doon’s exploration of the Pipeworks, and seems to know that narration is entirely unnecessary if his art and panel order are clear, such as when Lina discovers her grandmother has died in the darkness of night.
Dallas Middaugh must have noticed similar issues with the pacing when he adapted the story. Very quickly we see that he cut things out to keep the story from coming too much to a pause, like Lina’s friend Clary (whose important actions are performed by Mrs. Murdo) and even Lina’s failed attempts to show the Instructions to people other than Doon. Trimming the plot helps the pace of the story, but it also alters the emotional effect many of the novel’s scenes had. One big example, which seems very small, is when Lina goes to buy colored pencils from the shop. First, because we missed the prior scene of her aching to just go look at them, we don’t get Lina’s experience of coveting something that others don’t have, which becomes important when Lizzie and then the mayor are discovered to be hoarding rare food. This also diminishes our perception of Lina’s guilt when she loses her sister, Poppy, because she’s too busy debating on whether or not to buy the pencils. So while Asker does an excellent job of showing us a stricken Lina as she watches Poppy sleep later that night, we don’t have as clear of a sense that this is her fear combining with her own extreme guilt.
Jeanne DuPrau’s original novel has a fascinating premise that is riddled with anxiety from the first pages. Its slow trek towards the point keeps it from being as immediately exciting as something like The Hunger Games, but DuPrau starts to make up for this in the faster-paced climax. Middaugh and Asker’s adaptation moves the plot along more quickly and manages to convey enough background information through invented dialogue. But certain things are lost—Lina’s guilt, Doon’s temper, and the panic of other citizens that causes some to run out into the the darkness in hope of finding light—that diminish the characters, flatten them, and turn them into people we’re just not quite that invested in. So while The City of Ember graphic novel effectively gets the story across, it just doesn’t have enough feeling to put it on par with the novel.