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.

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