Classic Remarks: Should We Adapt Classics for Children?

Classic Remarks

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:

Briana

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19 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Should We Adapt Classics for Children?

  1. liliananbookish says:

    Nice topic brought up here, Briana!
    I literally have zero knowledge about how literature classes are held in US schools, but I can tell about how Russians deal with that at school, and I actually already wrote a post about it here – https://liliananbookish.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/do-the-talking-russian-classics/ – you can for sure check it out!
    I don’t have full perspective on how Vietnamese deal with that, but I’ve seen our study books, and observed teaching style, and what critically disappoints me is that Vietnamese barely read classics in full, moreover, it’s not even mandatory! All needed fragments for analysis and essays are already extracted from actual books to student books, so students have zero need in reading the whole thing. And even extended essay topics never go further than those fragments given in student books. Thus it result in low level of actual book lovers and booknerds.
    I mentioned in my blog post about Russian literature that Russian usually use the method of short retellings, which also in no way can replace reading actual classics books, but in my personal experience, my literature teacher could tell right away whether her student did or did not read the full book to work at class. So I think this is merely narrowing down to how you TEACH children classics. For Russians, reading full books were mandatory, so we had no other choice but to read. You can simplify whichever way possible, but if you still can’t encourage children to voluntarily pick up a classics book and read, then all those methods are of no use.

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    • Briana says:

      This is so interesting! I remember having to read a combination of full novels and just excerpts from novels in school, and the whole process was frustrating and mysterious to me I didn’t understand then what the point of reading just, say, 20 pages of a novel was, and I certainly don’t understand it now. I know that schools worry they won’t have time to read several novels, but reading just part of one isn’t achieving anything. It also teaches people that you can interpret 20 pages of the book without considering the context of the rest of the novel, which I disagree with. What happens on page 110 might influence how I interpret a scene on page 30. Hacking the book apart isn’t useful, and I don’t personally know anyone who was inspired to go read the whole novel on their own after reading just a piece of it in class.

      Liked by 1 person

      • liliananbookish says:

        That’s an unfortunate truth. From my experience, I did commit a sin of skipping the whole book for a short retelling, but in a exchange, I frequently got into situations when retelling were basically not enough for me to prepare the essay, so I had to go for a whole book.

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  2. The Reading Bug says:

    I don’t normally comment to just agree with the post, but I am happy to make an exception here because I think you have nailed what is a tricky subject. Rather than just fudging the issue and saying sometimes watering down the classics for children can be justified, you make it completely clear why this is the wrong approach.

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    • Briana says:

      So far everyone’s agreed! I’d actually love to see the perspective of someone who really enjoyed children’s classics or who got into reading classics because of them. I’d feel a little better about the whole thing if they seemed to be doing some good in the world, but so far no one is a fan.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        I know someone who argues that children’s classics make children want to read the originals later. I think she grew up with the Lambs’ Shakepeare stories. But I never liked adaptations when I was a child–I wanted the full and original text–so I can’t say I found her argument very convincing. I think that you can access Shakespeare later when you’re ready for the complexity of the themes and words, and the maturity of the content.

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  3. Paula Vince says:

    I’m so glad you brought up this topic, and agree with your points. Basically, some editor is taking it upon him or herself to make decisions about how a book which has stood the test of time should be presented for a different audience than the one the author intended. I thought carefully about it all week, and what I’ve come up with isn’t that far off what you’ve said here. My post is here

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    • Briana says:

      Yes! I get that texts generally have some sort of editorial intervention, but I think most editors try to be unobtrusive. Children’s classics are weirdly one area where people get to blithely cut out large swaths of the story and perhaps change the prose to, as you said, fit an audience the book wasn’t written for in the first place. It’s very odd.

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  4. Lee says:

    Also let’s not forget, if a parent is a reader and wants to expose their children to the classics, there’s nothing that says they can’t read it TO them, and explain the parts the kids need explained. Like maybe no Shakespeare, but things like Jane Austen or some Brontë works. There’s literally no reason the parent couldn’t read the un-adapted version to a child and explain it as they go so the kid can enjoy the story even if they are too young to comprehend everything when reading it alone.

    Also there are some classics that could be considered for kids to begin with, but their status as “classics” makes people think they are too high brow or something.

    (I think I’m going to add this stuff to my own Classic Remarks post as an addendum because I didn’t think of it until I was reading yours.)

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, that’s a good point. The full classics are readily available. No one is necessarily keeping children from them. And parents will often have a good idea of when their child is ready to approach a work that might have violence or other content they might find disturbing or confusing. Working through such texts together can be very valuable.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dale says:

    I remember being disappointed as a kid when I found out that those Great Ilustrated Classics were not the real thing, but I eventually read the real things and loved them. I tended to read the real things to my kids when they were young. When my oldest was 8 she begged me to read Romeo and Juliet to her. So I read the actual play and we watched several film versions. She did find some abridged children versions of Shakespeare’s plays at the library and read every one. She then sat through the entire 4 hour Kenneth Brannaugh version of Hamlet. At the time, she only understood parts of it, but she’s 21 now and never misses a chance to see a Shakespeare performance. I completely agree that nothing can take the place of the actual work but I think sometimes the story itself can spark an interest.

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    • Briana says:

      Same! My family had some of those, as well, and they were not clearly marked as adaptations or abridgments! I was really disappointed and also frustrated because family members, knowing I liked classics, would buy them for me as gifts because they look like such lovely editions, and then I never wanted to read them because they weren’t the real version.

      That sounds really great! I like the combination of both the full version and an adaptation. I think that’s an awesome way to help children engage with the story in different ways.

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  6. Emma says:

    I haven’t had to look at children’s classics any time recently but if I did I wouldn’t look at adaptations. I do feel the text should be read as intended but also I don’t believe in dumbing down for kids.

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    • Briana says:

      Yes, I believe it’s possible for children themselves to be a little insulted that there’s a special “kids edition” of the book that implies they can’t handle the “real thing.” I think this is especially true because, as a kid, you probably assume most of the editing is coming down to making the book shorter with simpler words. It may not even occur to you that the adaptation has cut out “adult content.” (And I never liked that concept as a child anyway. It was completely baffling to me that my parents would essentially tell me that something was bad or inappropriate for children and then watch it themselves. I always wondered, if it’s so inappropriate, why are YOU looking at it? Surely adults should only watch appropriate things, too!)

      I imagine some kids probably do actually like the concept of a special kids version though. I just wasn’t one of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I definitely agree with you on this! I think movie adaptations can be great, and stuff like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is awesome in my opinion! But adapting a book to make it easier to read for children is kinda stupid, if a child wants to read a book they should just read the original! Children aren’t dumb, they can handle more difficult texts.

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  8. majoringinliterature says:

    This is a really interesting question! I must admit, I didn’t have all that much experience with classics that were adapted for children; I can only think of one classic that I ever read in an adapted form (David Copperfield). I remember crying like crazy because the descriptions of all the horrible things David went through affected me so much. I do wonder whether maybe this means that the themes the original deals with were, after all, a little too difficult to present to children, even though the topic of death is of course a tricky one that kids need to begin getting to grips with. So I’m not really sure where I stand on this issue. I do think there are so many fabulous children’s classics out there, though, that are specifically written with a young audience in mind, and which deal with these tough issues. I guess it depends a lot on which book it is, and whether the parent reads the story with their kids and helps them with their reading, as Lee suggested above.

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    • Briana says:

      That’s a good point. There’s an assumption today that “children’s literature” primarily means “having a child protagonist,” but I think the most important thing is presenting the issues and questions of the novel in a way that is relatable to children. Which is one of my issues with adapting a adult book for children, as I mentioned in the post. The issue isn’t necessarily making them shorter or cutting out the most unsavory scenes, but making sure the story as a whole is approachable for children and presenting the themes in a certain way. It sounds like the David Copperfield adaptation didn’t do that for you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think some books just make odd choices to transmit to children because adults generally feel the need to clean the stories up and to give them happy endings. I suppose it’s more obvious in movies like The Lion King, Gnomeo and Juliet, and Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame–a Hamlet adaptation with a happy ending (Hamlet lives and gets married), a Romeo and Juliet story with a happy ending (no suicides), and a Hunchback of Notre Dame again with a romance and a happy ending (the good characters aren’t unjustly hanged or starve themselves.) At that point, I start to wonder what makes Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet. Is any tale of star-crossed lovers now Romeo and Juliet? Can a story be Romeo and Juliet if the lovers live and marry? Why try to tell Romeo and Juliet to children if we’re afraid they can’t handle it, anyway?

      I don’t think we need to keep content from children, but different children reach different levels of maturity and understanding at different times. My mom would’t let me read Gone with the Wind in fourth grade. I guess she didn’t think I was ready to learn that such a thing as prostitution exists. And that’s a valid concern that I think we often overlook. Guiding children to appropriate stories isn’t censorship, it’s just good parenting/teaching. If a child would be terrified or scarred by a book, it’s not wrong to tell them to wait a while. I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame in seventh grade and I was both perplexed and scarred.

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