Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
What do you think of adapting classics for younger readers?
In many ways I’m a literary purist. I often bristle at movie adaptations that aren’t faithful to the original novels, and I’m not afraid to grump about people disrespecting masterpieces with all their silly changes. (Shudder.) As I grow older, however, I’ve come around..a little bit…to the idea that sometimes changes are necessary or good–that maybe something that works in writing doesn’t work as well in film and needs to be tweaked. Or maybe, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter whether the protagonist’s sister’s teacher’s daughter has the correct color hair. However, no matter the medium, I’m still a purist where it comes to the spirit of a text, and my greatest frustration with children’s adaptations is that they often make great literature less in order to make it more accessible for younger readers.
When I say the literature is made “less,” I refer to all manners of changes, but all have the consequence of diluting the story. Sometimes children’s adaptations cut material to make the book shorter. Sometimes they simplify the prose. And sometimes they remove material because it’s not “suitable for children.” The ultimate goal appears to be making the novel “easier to read.” I suppose an idealist would say the goal is to introduce children to great literature, but my complaint is that with these adaptations the reader isn’t really getting Jane Eyre or The Count of Monte Cristo or Hamlet or whatever. The reader is getting an editor’s interpretation of what’s most valuable about the original text. And it’s often less interesting, less complicated or nuanced, than what the author originally wrote. What’s the value in that?
So, yes, I bristle that great literature is being watered down and important pieces are being lost. I also have a practical objection, however: I think that, instead of making readers more interested in classics, these adaptations could make children less likely to read the original. I remember receiving children’s adaptations to read when I was a child. Half the time, I was confused by whether I was reading an adaptation or not, since it often isn’t clear from the way the book presents itself. I thought I was reading the actual text, and it never occurred to me that in five years I should graduate to reading the “real” version. The other half of the time, I considered my job done. I had read some version of Moby Dick or Robinson Crusoe or whatever. I knew how the story went, and I therefore had no interest in reading it all over again in a longer version. These adaptations discouraged me from reading classics because I felt I had already read them.
I’m a firm believer in letting readers read books whenever they feel ready for them, not in altering the books to try to meet the reader halfway. I don’t have an issue with children reading “adult books” (I did it all the time), but the fact remains that the target audience is adults. The issues presented and the way they are handled are not meant for children. Artificially trying to make them resonate with children (or simply comprehensible to younger readers) isn’t a worthwhile goal, particularly if the means of doing this is just hacking away at scenes to make the book shorter. Omitting a sex scene from a novel isn’t automatically going to make a book about love, loss, and divorce speak to a child the same way it would speak to a reader who was older and had actually been in a romantic relationship.
I’m sure there’s someone in the world who enjoys children’s adaptations, but I have never been one of them. I wouldn’t be sad to see this trend disappear. I’d rather see children read full classics when they’re ready and interested in them.
This Week’s Participants: