Monday, 24 June 2013

Classic Confusions Adaptations of Classics for Children

Part 3: Looking for the Answers

Work in Progress
Peter Hunt

The degree to which we value books, language, and classics is not a matter of cold logic.  We can start with the novelist, Carnegie Medal (and many other awards) winner and educator, Aidan Chambers:

Chambers, one might say, would say that, because of all modern authors, he is the one who most preserves the idea of the book in the book – his characters are voracious readers – almost his books are made of books. For example, from 2012:

Chambers is an exception as a writer, but it is the general, if residual, belief in the greatness of great books – the classics – that at least partly drives the sense of loss, for some, when they are adapted.

But it’s a complicated business. Texts are not changed simply because the language they contain has become unfamiliar, or because the modern child (that vast generalisation) is no longer capable of handling it. Cathy Butler (of the University of the West of England) reminds me that  in The Secret Garden,  Martha's speech – ‘“I’ve nothin’ against th’ blacks. When you read about ‘em in tracts they’re always very religious. You always read as a black’s a man an’ a brother”’ - became, in the BBC 1975 version, “I learned about India in Sunday School, and I know that Indian people are very religious, and that they are our brothers and sisters.”’

Is that gratuitous PC, or is it a sensible modification of language in a still-racist society, or do we lose some essence of the period? We certainly lose a direct allusion to the motto of the anti-slavery movement:


One very striking example of the complexity of the changes is the famous case of the re-writing of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) for the 1987 Ladybird edition.

It is not difficult to see the argument that Beatrix Potter’s watercolours might not chime with modern tastes – compare


But why one would want to re-write the text might not be immediately clear.

One reason is that the modern adaptors (publisher, editors, writer) wish childhood to be a protected space – even if it manifestly is not – and it may seem surprising that they feel that today’s children have to be protected from death jokes.

The original reads

Now. my dears,’ said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, ‘you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go in to Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.

The new version reads

One day they were allowed to play outside. ‘Stay near home,’ said their. ‘Please don’t go to Mr McGregor’s garden.’
‘Why not?,’ asked Peter.
‘Because he doesn’t like rabbits,’ answered Mrs Rabbit. ‘He will try to catch you.’

There’s a lot going on here. These are now high-rise bunnies – ‘allowed to play outside’ – and the family dynamics have changed: Peter has a voice.

The new version also makes assumptions about what children know (a lot less than their forebears – or, at least, their forbears knew about different things). Also – and this is perhaps the most regressive element – things now have to be much more explicit and much more moralising than they were 100 years ago. And so,

There were lots of vegetables in Mr McGregor’s garden. Peter Rabbit loved vegetables. He began to eat them. First he tried the lettuces. Next he tried the beans. Then he ate some radishes.


Peter ate too much, because he was greedy. He began to feel sick. ‘I must find some parsley to nibble’ he said to himself. ‘That will make me feel better.’

Does this show a lack of faith in the text, or the readers? Potter’s is a much more ‘open’ or ‘writerly text, requiring a lot of input from the reader. The new version is ‘closed’ or ‘readerly’, which might, for some critics, condemn it. But, equally, it might be argued (see Part 2 of this blog) that the revised, reduced, compressed versions of texts by Burnett or Stevenson are the ultimate in ‘writerly’ texts (if you discount the pictures): the reader has to do almost all the work.

We are, to say the least, in interesting waters here, balancing practicalities of language learning and perception against past and present  use of language. Children’s inter-textual reference has changed, from being related to other books, to being related to other media. Once it was quite normal for a character in a book to be reading a book; now it is quite normal for a character in a book to be reading a computer screen. What difference this makes to language and literacy may emerge as this project progresses.

But perhaps we might end this phase of the investigation with another statement of faith from someone with immense faith in the value of the Book:

‘Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not [reading] among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards ... the Almighty will turn to Peter and say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’


I have used many of these examples before, and part of my research is to find more, perhaps more revealing and apposite ones. Any contributions would be very welcome.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Classic Confusions Adaptations of Classics for Children

Work in Progress
Peter Hunt

Times change; books change. But should they? What happens when they do, and why?

Legend has it that E. Nesbit, who has been credited with founding the modern children’s book, used to wait eagerly at Christmas for her annual ‘Waverley’ novel. One wonders what she would have thought of the situation a hundred years later, when her own children’s books are thought to be too difficult for the modern child.

Take the example of  Five Children and It. In the original 1902 version, the children, much given to asking the immortal Psammead for flawed wishes, are able to fly:

The Sand-fairy blew himself out, and next moment each child felt a funny feeling, half heaviness and half lightness on its shoulders. The Psammead put its head on one side and turned its snail’s eyes from one to the other...

            The wings were very big, and more beautiful than you can imagine - for they were soft and smooth, and every feather lay neatly in its place. And the feathers were of the most lovely mixed changing colours, like the rainbow, or iridescent glass, or the beautiful scum that sometimes floats on water that is not at all nice to drink.
            ‘Oh - but can we fly?’ Jane said, standing anxiously first on one foot and then on the other.
            ‘Look out!’ said Cyril; ‘you’re treading on my wing.’
            ‘Does it hurt?’ asked Anthea with interest; but no one answered, for Robert had spread his wings and jumped up, and now he was slowly rising in the air.  He looked very awkward in his knickerbocker suit - his boots in particular hung helplessly, and seemed much larger than when he was standing in them.  But the others cared but little how he looked - or how they looked, for that matter. For now they all spread out their wings and rose in the air. Of course you all know what flying feels like, because everyone has dreamed about flying, and it seems so beautifully easy - only, you can never remember how you did it; and as a rule you have to do it without wings, in your dreams, which is more clever and uncommon, but not so easy to remember the rule for.  Now the four children rose flapping from the ground, and you can’t think how good the air felt running against their faces. Their wings were tremendously wide when they were spread out, and they had to fly quite a long way apart so as not to get in each other’s way.  But little things like this are easily learned.
            All the words in the English Dictionary, and in the Greek Lexicon as well, are, I find, of no use at all to tell you exactly what it feels like to be flying, so I will not try. But I will say that to look down on the fields and woods, instead of along at them is something like looking at a beautiful live map, where, instead of silly colours on paper, you have real moving sunny woods and green fields laid out one after the other.

And now let us move on to 2004, to the book of the film, copyright (not entirely irrelevantly) by Sandfairy Merchandising. Here is the same scene:

Jane squealed. When Anthea and Cyril turned to look, they couldn’t believe their eyes – Jane had sprouted a pair of wings!
            Anthea was next to scream, as she too sprouted wings from her back, and then Cyril did the same.
            ‘Robert!’ growled Cyril. ‘He must have made a wish!’
            There was a beating noise at the window. It was Robert – and he was flying!
            Cyril opened the window.
            ‘You’ve done it again!’ he yelled. ‘What were you thinking?’
            Robert hovered just outside the window.

Now, before traditionalists amongst us (and possibly Mr Gove) commit hara-kiri, we might point out that the second version is supported by copious illustrations (as well as, presumably, memories of the film), and so the words are not so important as they were in the original. We now don’t need the contact with the narrative voice, or the details or the evocation of emotions or atmosphere. And we wouldn’t expect our readers (and by implication our fictional characters) to accept the Greek Lexicon as a natural reference point for vocabulary.  But, it might be argued, this is surely simply a matter of progression – children of the 21st century are used to multimedia and the relegation of written language to a subsidiary role.

But does the language that is left have to be quite so clich├ęd, quite so functional?

Or was Ludwig wrong when he suggested that ‘Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt.’  Or should we re-interpret our concepts of language?

The question is, how important was the stuff that was left out? Take another classic, Treasure Island, and a classic scene.  Jim, the narrator, has been pursued up the mast of the Hispaniola by the murderous coxswain, Israel Hands.

Now that I had a moment to myself, I lost no time in changing the priming of my pistol, and then, having one ready for service, and to make assurance doubly sure, I proceeded to draw the load of the other and recharge it afresh from the beginning.

My new employment struck Hands all of a heap; he began to see the dice going against him, and after an obvious hesitation, he also hauled himself heavily into the shrouds, and with the dirk in his teeth, began slowly and painfully to mount. It cost him no end of time and groans to haul his wounded leg behind him, and I had quietly finished my arrangements before he was much more than a third of the way up. Then, with a pistol in either hand, I addressed him.

“One more step, Mr. Hands,” said I, “and I’ll blow your brains out! Dead men don’t bite, you know,” I added with a chuckle.

He stopped instantly. I could see by the working of his face that he was trying to think, and the process was so slow and laborious that, in my new-found security, I laughed aloud. At last, with a swallow or two, he spoke, his face still wearing the same expression of extreme perplexity. In order to speak he had to take the dagger from his mouth, but in all else he remained unmoved.

“Jim,” says he, “I reckon we’re fouled, you and me, and we’ll have to sign articles. I’d have had you but for that there lurch, but I don’t have no luck, not I; and I reckon I’ll have to strike, which comes hard, you see, for a master mariner to a ship’s younker like you, Jim.”

I was drinking in his words and smiling away, as conceited as a cock upon a wall, when, all in a breath, back went his right hand over his shoulder. Something sang like an arrow through the air; I felt a blow and then a sharp pang, and there I was pinned by the shoulder to the mast. In the horrid pain and surprise of the moment - I scarce can say it was by my own volition, and I am sure it was without a conscious aim - both my pistols went off, and both escaped out of my hands. They did not fall alone; with a choked cry, the coxswain loosed his grasp upon the shrouds and plunged head first into the water.

That was taken from Oxford University Press’s World’s Classics:  but Oxford publish another version (1988):

and in that, the same scene reads

I scrambled up the rigging, but Hands followed me.

He threw his knife and pinned me to the mast. I fired my pistols, and he fell into the water. 

Gone are Jim’s devious character, the tension of the conversation, the virtuoso narrative blindness (‘In order to speak he had to take the dagger from his mouth…’), Jim’s denial of responsibility (‘I scarce can say it was by my own volition’) and much more. This may seem to be terrible loss – but only to certain readers – those who have faith in a certain form of language, and a certain attitude to narrative, and a certain way of conjuring images into the reader’s brain.  To them, not only is the second version sacrilege, but it is also positively damaging to its readers.

The alternative view might be that it is better for readers to read this than nothing at all – and it might lead them to the ‘real thing’; and if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter – the world is full of good stories; and in any case, that kind of reading isn’t really very useful to anyone in 2013.

So… are we dealing with an article of faith, rather than a matter of linguistic concern?

(See this blog strand, Part 3!)

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Classic Confusions Adaptations of Classics for Children

Part 1: The Problem    

Work in Progress

Peter Hunt

In Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post – the first book to win the Carnegie Medal, in 1936 – the children ponder the fate of their Uncle’s pet armadillo – probably drowned on the voyage from South America.

‘Oh, well, if he’s dead he’s probably been dead ages, and been sunk to the bottom of the sea.’
‘Wrapped in a Union Jack,’ said Dorothea.
‘Suffered a sea change,’ murmured Titty, ‘rich and rare… probably coral…’

Nobody, least of all the author, bothers to explain this. His readers, like his characters, are expected to recognise the classics – both the fictional characters and the real readers are well read in the classics.  But could we make that assumption today?

On 1st April, 2011 there was a headline in the London Evening Standard :

Michael Gove: Literature is dying out in schools

Classic literature is at risk of dying out in schools, the Education Secretary warned today.
Michael Gove said fewer than one in 100 teenagers who sat one exam board's English literature GCSE last year had studied novels published before the 20th century.
He claimed only 1,236 out of 300,000 students read Pride and Prejudice, 285 read Far From The Madding Crowd and 187 studied Wuthering Heights as part of the test.
More than 90% of exam papers were based on three books alone - Of Mice And Men, Lord Of The Flies, and To Kill A Mockingbird - all of which were published after 1930.
He added: "We're not picking up enough new books, not getting through the classics, not widening our horizons. In short, we're just not reading enough."

This is not a world that Arthur Ransome and his characters and readers would have recognised. Leaving aside the dateline, and the feeling that we might have been having our legs pulled, the clear implication of Mr Gove’s argument is not that we’re not reading enough – it is easily argued that we’re all reading more than ever – but that there is something in the ‘classics’ that makes them more worth reading.

Well, obviously, or they wouldn’t be classics.

Of course, that statement doesn’t bear much examination, but we should look carefully at another implication - that classics should be read in their original form – their original language. What happens to classics if their language is changed? What does that mean for the readers?

In the real world, children obviously come to ‘classics’ from very impure directions – film, or comics or other media impact first. Mr Gove is still being challenged: Frank Danes, head of English at King’s Ely Senior School, Cambridge, wrote to The Times in May this year:

‘That Mr Gove thinks we should force a 900-page 19th century novel [Middlemarch] on teenagers who barely read at all – the fault of the zeitgeist, not of teachers – is more proof that he has no idea what happens in a classroom.’

So, what happens in the classroom has changed. Titty has read (happily, one assumes) The Tempest – she has also read Keats and Defoe and Macaulay – but if she had read them – as many children now do, in modified, altered, or abridged forms, what difference would that have made?

If children today – inside and outside of books –  read different things from their predecessors,  let us look at some of the ways in which the language of the classics has been changed to suit new generations of children. Then we can ask

- what difference does it make which version we read?
- if the language changes, does the whole nature of the ‘classic’?
- is this a matter of literacy, culture, politics … or something in between?

One of the many definitions of a classic is a work that has entered the public domain -  the public culture - and so it is fair game for constant re-interpretation. After all,
Shakespeare has survived Baz Luhrmann, Franco Zeffirelli and Mel Gibson, productions with every kind of modern dress and undress, twins of different  races, and a female Prospero.

The difference with children’s classics is that the adaptations tend to be reductive in content and form. (Of course, in the case of Shakespeare (and, indeed, most books) there is much that the inexperienced reader wouldn’t understand – much that most readers wouldn’t understand – but where children are concerned, reductiveness rules.)

There is plenty of evidence that with time and patience even young children can take on complex original texts, but it is commonly assumed children prefer narrative, and that they can’t cope with ‘difficult’ language

And the result?

Take a scene from As You Like It, in which  Rosalind’s wicked (or misguided) Uncle banishes her:

Duke Frederick: Mistress, dispatch you with your safest haste
            And get you from our court.
Rosalind:                     Me, uncle?
Duke Frederick:                                  You, cousin:
            Within these ten days if that thou be’st found
            So near our public courts as twenty miles,
            Thou diest for it.
Rosalind: I do beseech your grace
            Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me…
Duke Frederick: Let it suffice thee that I trust thee not…
            Thou art thy father’s daughter; there’s enough.

Edith Nesbit, who held the somewhat paradoxical view that ‘the stories are the least part of Shakespeare’, but that the best way of giving Shakespeare to children was to give them the stories, thought that that scene was all to complex. In 1897 she tried her hand at adapting:

‘You must leave the court at once’ [the Duke] said to Rosalind.
‘Why?’ she asked.
‘Never mind why,’ answered the Duke, ‘you are banished… If within ten days you are found within twenty miles of my court, you die.’

Never mind why, indeed.

But what about books that were originally designed for children? Surely there is no need to change them.

Take Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden – a steady seller for just over a hundred years: surely that does not need adaptation?   How on earth, one might ask,  does this description of Mary Lennox in the first chapter of The Secret Garden in 1911

…by the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.

end up in the Macmillan Readers, ‘Pre-intermediate Level: about 1400 basic words’ version in 2008:

Mary quickly became a very difficult and selfish child.

Changes like this over a hundred years are fascinating, if not disturbing – and in Part 2 of this blog strand, we can look at some more examples.