Why it's difficult to make a movie from a comic book

During the film the now adult Marjane thinks back to how she left Iran as a child for safety.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Marjane Satrapi says she wrote her book "Persepolis" because after she fled Iran following the Islamic Revolution, people kept asking her what had happened.

"I don't remember which Italian writer was it, because I always forget his name, but he said that writing for him was the only way to express himself without being interrupted. And that is probably (why) I did it. It is not so much that I don't like to talk, but I just wanted to say it in one go," she laughs.

Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi says she thought the idea of making a movie out of her graphic novel "Persepolis" was crazy. But she decided to do it anyway, and now the film is winning awards around the world.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

But there was a problem -- Satrapi describes herself as a lousy writer.

However, she can draw. She presented her story as a graphic novel, which much to her surprise became an international bestseller.

"Persepolis" tells the story of Marjane, a young girl growing up in Teheran during the final years of the Shah's reign. Her family, which has suffered at the hands of the Shah's secret police, rejoices when he is deposed. But as religious hardliners take power, the oppression returns. The headstrong Marjane, now a teenager with an interest in punk and heavy metal, keeps getting into trouble.

Her parents make the painful decision to send her to a French-speaking school in Austria for safety. Things do not go so well there either. After graduating high school, feeling isolated and adrift, she returns to Iran. It has become an even harsher place, where people live in constant fear of the religious authorities.

During the film Marjane's family discusses politics as their homeland begins to change when the Shah is deposed.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Eventually as a young adult, Marjane leaves Iran again, possibly for good.

Satrapi says she did not begin writing "Persepolis" until five years after she left.

"So you know, I didn't have all this anger or this revenge feeling or all these things," she says. "I had enough distance with the story because there is nothing worse than to try to talk when you are too angry, because then you start using the same reasoning of what you hate. You start becoming as stupid as the people that you say that they are stupid. You become just as violent as they are."

Satrapi says she initially thought the idea of making a film from her comic book was crazy. However, when she found out she would retain artistic control and the funding was secure, she decided it was worth a try.

She approached her friend and fellow comics artist Vincent Paronnaud about collaborating. He had made animated films in the past, but only a few minutes in total. She likens the idea of making the "Persepolis" movie to jumping into the sea to go 200 miles before actually learning to swim.

Satrapi stresses that a comic book is not a storyboard for a movie.

"When you read a comic book you know, you as a reader are very active because the movement between two frames, you have to do it yourself," Satrapi says. "When I am making a movie, the viewer is absolutely passive. They are here one and a half hours, so you have to think about everything. You cannot lean on your viewer. When you make a comic you can lean actually on the reader to make the work for you."

Vincent Parranaud
Vincent Parronaud worked with Marjane Satrapi to make "Persepolis."
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

So after three years of work Satrapi has what she describes as the paradox of "Persepolis."

"The book and the movie are very similar and at the same time they are extremely different," she says

Different in structure, yes, but the movie is already successful.

The film drew an 20 minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last year where it took the Grand Jury prize.

The film is now on release in the US in a French version, with Catherine Deneuve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, although there will be an English version released in a few months.

Marjane in trouble
In "Persepolis" young Marjane's outspokenness gets her in trouble with some people in Teheran.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Satrapi says she hopes the film will lead to a better understanding in the West of the lives of ordinary Iranians.

"If you understand that a guy who is dying is exactly like you, who likes to go to the movies, and eat ice-cream and make love to his wife and has a mother and children and hopes etcetera, then it becomes much more difficult. So if this movie can participate in that fact and say 'Hey! It's just a matter of human beings, no matter where you come from, all of use we are human, let's think about that.' Maybe that will be the right question."

When asked if she thinks "Persepolis" will ever be shown in Iran she smiles and says "Shown? No. Seen? Yes."

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