THE GOOD EARTH BY PEARL S. BUCK AND NICK BERTOZZI
Art
Plot
Characterization
Summary
THE GOOD EARTH weaves universal themes of hard work and family into a tale about people just like anyone else. Even if they might be from a distant land, they're still the same through and through.
83 %
A beautiful tragedy

If it’s not broken, why fix it? Often this is the mindset people have when it comes to adaptations of beloved books. Personally, I’m all for adaptations of novels. While reading may appear universal, it’s still limiting the audience to those comfortable with the written word. For works that address important topics, like classism and gender roles, it’s vital that they’re accessible to as many people as possible. THE GOOD EARTH by Pearl S. Buck, adapted by Nick Bertozzi, carries the message of empathy that somehow still needs repeating. And, because of its visual format, Buck’s novel is now made available to a larger audience than ever before.

The “Everyman” Truly Everywhere

The plot of THE GOOD EARTH is fairly straightforward. Wang Lung marries a slave girl named O-Lan and the two work very hard together on the farm. They’re initially quite fortunate with their crop yield, and Wang Lung has the forethought to hold onto grains during the winter to sell throughout the new year. Unfortunately, a famine strikes. One of their own children even suffers from a developmental handicap due to malnutrition. Eventually, a food riot erupts at a rich man’s house. The money O-Lan manages to steal from this riot is invested in their own land. As time wears on, the family grows their wealth, yet they too eventually grow beyond their means.

Wang Lung is a sympathetic character. The author makes it perfectly clear he worked for everything in his possession. While the value he places on family and especially land don’t quite parallel today’s concerns, they definitely mirror those of the 1930s. The Great Depression needed characters like Wang Lung. In a way, he’s the Chinese counterpart to Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath — just an ordinary farmer trying to make due in a cruel world.

READ: For a comic that explores cultural differences, check out ANIMOSITY.

When Pearl S. Buck wrote this tale in 1931, there was little sympathy for societies outside of western influence. Many of those living in the so-called “civilized world” failed to recognize that other cultures weren’t inferior — they were just different. These different cultures shared the same concerns of wanting to accumulate wealth and surpass their station in life as westerners. Without Buck’s humanizing novel, Americans might have never gained the appreciation for Chinese culture that they later did.

Past Stories Reappearing In the Future

So why would this story matter today? Surely a book written for the 1930s American audience holds little relevance for today’s society. We’re no longer completely defined by our nations. Broken barriers and increasing immigration make it harder and harder to simply categorize people as it once was. However, our rapidly expanding world can birth new anxieties about seemingly irreconcilable differences between different groups of people. It’s understandable why these anxieties exist. Differences can sometimes be scary because they represent a kind of unknown.

THE GOOD EARTH
Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

While I don’t know what it’s like to till the soil Wang Lung spends the majority of his existence doing, I do know what it’s like to have the expectation to perform a certain way put upon me. I understand what it’s like to want to surpass the generation before me and to desire wealth and prosperity for my family. These desires are nearly universal across cultures. I think that’s why THE GOOD EARTH had the impact it did in its time. People realized we had a lot more in common with those that we perceive as different than we may have originally thought.

READ: We don’t just need empathy for people of different races and cultures. Read our coverage of SURVIVORS’ CLUB

Accessibility and Media

It’s no secret I struggle quite a bit with reading. While it’s a skill I’ve managed to obtain, I know many others who lack the fortune I do. These people still deserve to know the story and lesson of THE GOOD EARTH, even if they can’t grasp the words of the original book.

THE GOOD EARTH
Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Making THE GOOD EARTH into a graphic novel makes the story accessible to a wider audience. For those who struggle with reading, graphic novels can be a lot less intimidating to pick up than text-laden novels. Images accompanying the text help the reader paint a picture of the scene. In this adaptation, the lack of panels between images helps ease the flow of the comic and make it feel more like a regular book.

Nick Bertozzi’s images appear as sketches, yet the line work is superb. He portrays so much emotion and detail in such a small amount of space. Bertozzi performs an artistic feat by transforming the dense book into a flowing graphic novel. With each section, you really get a sense of the characters’ struggles. There’s a certain weight to the characters’ movements as if each decision they make determines whether they live or die. While I never read the original story, I imagine that Bertozzi has correctly captured the emotional weight of Buck’s novel.

One And The Same

It’s funny how history always seems to repeat itself. Once again Americans seem unable to recognize the humanity in others and it appears that it’s up to fiction to rectify this. Learning from the past, modern day readers of THE GOOD EARTH might recognize the humanity in those different from themselves. This ability to realize that we all face a similar set of struggles is vital towards creating a more empathetic culture. Hopefully, Wang Lung’s tale does that once more in the 21st century through Nick Bertozzi’s adaptation.

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