Scene from the movie of Dead Man WalkingSince Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking was published in 1993, it has been transformed into an Academy Award-winning film, a play, and a hugely popular opera. What were our reasons for adding to this list of adaptations?

The following excerpt from the book proposal we submitted to Random House in 2019 gives our reasoning.

Why a graphic version?

Although Dead Man Walking and the movie that it inspired were instrumental in moving the death penalty from the shadows into the public square in the 1990s, a new generation is almost entirely unaware of both the book and the film. This, even though capital punishment is still practiced in the USA, and while the story told by Sister Helen remains starkly relevant. Twenty-nine states currently have the death penalty on their statute books, 23 people were executed in the past 12 months, and 2,673 people are on death row awaiting execution.

[These stats were correct at the time we submitted our book proposal. As of January 1, 2024, there are 2,331 people on death row and the number of states with the death penalty is 27.]

Graphic novels have a special ability to:

  • reach people across a wide range of literacy levels;
  • encourage a love of reading;
  • foster a different kind of classroom engagement where the interplay of text and images demands a creative, exploratory approach.

Because of these factors, Graphic Dead Man Walking will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of young (and not-so-young) readers.

Graphic novels have a compelling history of telling stories of justice and social change. Spiegelman’s Maus, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Congressman John Lewis’s March trilogy, for example, have all shown the power of this art form to foster deep reflection about social issues.

We believe Dead Man Walking is ripe for a similar graphic transformation. When Sister Helen Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking, she set out not only to bring people close to the reality of the death penalty, but also to educate the public on the practice of capital punishment in the USA. Her account is replete with details about the criminal justice system, public policy, and the experiences of poor people at the hands of a system that is anything but a level playing field.

We believe the immediacy of integrated text and visuals in a graphic version of the book will convey this information to new readers in a truly compelling fashion.

Adaptations of Dead Man Walking to date include:

  • The Oscar-winning movie, directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
  • The play, written by Tim Robbins, performed in schools and colleges throughout the USA.
  • The opera, with libretto by Terrence McNally and music by Jake Heggie. Heggie’s Dead Man Walking is the most frequently performed 21st Century opera in the USA, with its most recent performance by the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Have you read/viewed/heard any of these adaptations? What was the impact? How did it compare to reading the book?