TOWARDS the end of the remarkable new graphic novel based on The Diary of Anne Frank, there is a picture of Anne as she might have been but never was. She’s sitting in her office, relaxed, confident and successful. In front of her is her typewriter and notebook; behind her on the wall are examples of some of her work, for The New York Times, Le Figaro and Life magazine. It is an image of what the young Anne Frank, the diarist and aspiring journalist, could have achieved had she been allowed to grow up and become a woman. In a heart-breaking book, it is by far the most heart-breaking image.

Sadly, we know what happened to Anne Frank in reality. For more than two years during the Second World War, she, her sister Margot, her parents, and four others went into hiding in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, where they stayed until they were betrayed and arrested in August 1944. Famously, the teenaged Anne – who later died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, aged 15 – kept a diary in the attic that became a huge posthumous success, an icon of literature, and a critical text in the history of the Holocaust.

The new graphic novel – which has been created by the Israeli team of screenwriter Ari Folman and illustrator David Polonsky – is the latest version of that diary, as well as the most daring. Folman and Polonsky have taken brief moments from the words of the imaginative Anne and turned them into vivid, surreal visions – at one point, the inhabitants of the attic are transformed into animals; another time, Anne becomes the figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, surrounded by the questions of adults. There are also dark, disturbing glimpses of the concentration camps as well as another extraordinary flight of surrealism showing the many faces of Anne – a picture that every ex-teenager will recognise.


I’m meeting Folman and Polonsky to talk about the book ahead of its publication in the UK, and they are keen to talk about the intense, and occasionally, troubling process of creating it. At one point, over coffee in Paris where they are promoting the French version of the book, we flick through the graphic novel to talk about some of the most arresting images and I stop at that picture of Anne as a grown woman and a successful writer.

“You chose my favourite picture,” says Polonsky. “I wasn’t emotional about any of the images except this one. It just breaks your heart. After 130 pages of being inside her life and thinking about everything, and experiencing her writing skills, which are amazing, she says ‘I hope all of this will become a book’ and when I tried to imagine how she would look as a grown woman, I thought she would be awesome. I thought she’d be an amazing writer because the talent is there.”

Ari Folman takes a similar view of Anne’s potential – “I think she would’ve been like a female Norman Mailer,” he says – but he and Polonsky also had some concerns about whether they could do her story justice and indeed whether they should do the project at all. In fact, both of them said no at first, partly because they were worried about whether two middle-aged men could get into the head of a teenage girl, but partly too because they feared it had all been done before.

“It smells of the Holocaust industry,” says Polonsky. “It’s a pop icon, it’s a pre-packaged deal.” Folman feels the same: “My first reaction was no, it was too iconic. I had no issue with making a graphic novel, it was just the phrase ‘Anne Frank’. You think: everything has been done, everything has been told. It’s done. And we live in a country, don’t forget, where because of the use of the holocaust in general for other things, you don’t want to touch it.”

However, the flip side of that was that, because of their own Jewish heritage and history, neither Polonsky nor Folman was afraid of the subject or any potential taboos or offence. “It’s not that taboo that you can’t touch,” says Folman. “In Israel, you see a lot of Holocaust jokes. You can do it now.”

Folman remembers this happening in his own family. “My parents were Polish,” he says, “they met in a ghetto, they got married at 19, and 12 hours after they got married, the ghetto was evacuated so they were taken at Auschwit – on the same day as Anne Frank. They were separated, they lost both families there, parents, sisters. They survived, and they met a year later. But there was humour – we don’t look at it as the cliché you look at it. There is a lot of humour involved when you come from the inside.”

However, in the end, it was the book itself that made Folman and Polonsky take on the project. They both read it again and realised what a remarkable document it is and what an intense and interesting person Anne was. They were also moved by all the potential in her – potential she could sense herself. At one point in her diary she says “The sun is shining, the sky is deep blue, there is a lovely breeze and I’m longing – so longing – for everything … I believe that it’s spring within me, I feel that spring is awakening.”


Folman connected strongly with these emotions as he re-read the diary. “I love her,” says Folman, putting his hand to his heart. “There’s something so real in here – she’s not pretending to be what she’s not.” Folman also realised that a graphic novel was an entirely appropriate genre for a girl like Anne. If she was alive now, he says, she’d be on social media, she'd be on Justin Bieber’s site. “No,” says Folman, re-thinking it. “Maybe she’d have better taste – Justin Timberlake maybe.”

It is this light-hearted approach that both Folman and Polonsky wanted to be part of the book because it was part of Anne’s life, even in the attic, along with the angst and the anger. Polonsky asks me to imagine what it must have been like to be an average teenage girl and suddenly you’re locked up with your mother for two years and sharing a room with a middle-aged man. We know that Anne took some comfort from the chestnut tree she could see from her high window (“nature sets all fear at rest” she wrote) but we know also that she had to take anti-depressants for some of the time she was in the attic. It is this intense, strange, frustrating experience, mixed with the dreams, aspirations and desires of a teenager, that the two men wanted to capture in words and pictures.

However, they want to achieve something else as well with their new version of the diary – they want to encourage more young people, especially young people who may be more familiar with a computer screen than the pages of a book, to read the story.

“They live in a virtual world all day,” says Folman. “They wake up, they connect to this one, connect to that one. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not clever. This is how they live now - it’s different. And don’t forget they can consume so easily, if they want, information about anything that they want to know.”

Folman and Polonsky would like to ensure that the story of Anne Frank, in its modern or traditional form, is part of that information even when the last first-person witness has died. Because he’s a film-maker, Folman imagines the process of losing these witnesses as a crane shot, with the past getting smaller and smaller all the time as the camera moves further and further back. He says you can’t bring it into close-up again, but you can make it feel relevant by bringing out the human story. And you also point – subtly, because it's fairly obvious when you think about it – to the modern connections between the present and the past that Anne Frank lived in. “The girl in Mosul that you see on the news?” says Folman. “It is another story but it’s the same girl.”

The Diary of Anne Frank by Ari Folman and David Polonsky is published by Penguin on October 2.