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:


To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North

Shakespeare 2

To Be or Not To BeInformation

Goodreads: To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: July 16, 2013


A choose-your-own-adventure story based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Choose to be either Hamlet, Ophelia, or the ghost and then see how the play ends!


To Be or Not To Be is—well, it’s the question—but it is also a supremely clever book, a success both in the choose-your-own-adventure genre and in the Shakespeare adaptation genre. Author Ryan North first gives readers (interactors? Actors?) three character choices, and they’re the good ones: Hamlet, Ophelia, and the ghost. North covers the main character, the female character, and the supernatural character, all tempting options. Sure, someone will always have wanted to be Horatio or Claudius, but the book can’t be 1000 pages long. As things stand, the choices are pretty awesome, and from there things only get better.

To Be or Not To Be is not one of those sad choose-your-own-adventures where you frustratingly die no matter what you do, or where your story ends after two minutes. Dying is still a possibility, but so are awesome things like becoming the monarch, having a happy life, or having a mediocre life. Some storylines offer sweet surprises, like momentarily getting to be a different character, and most of the storylines are a satisfying length. The options are also good ones. There is no making simple decisions about whether you are going to walk left or right when you go to take a stroll about the palace; instead, most of the options make you feel as if you can actually put some thought into what you’re going to do and have some real agency over where your story goes.

There is some “leading.” The author has a particular brand of humor (and it imbues enough of the book that I can imagine readers who dislike this brand of humor will quickly become frustrated with the book), and he occasionally offers commentary on whether he thinks you are going to make a silly decision or whether he thinks Shakespeare’s characters made silly decisions. This is an author who has a lot to say if you play Ophelia as a meek young woman submitting to her father and brother’s commands. However, the commentary does not feel overly pushy. I can’t imagine someone not picking an option just because the author poked fun at it a bit. In fact, it might inspire some people to pick that option anyway.

In addition to providing pervasive commentary on whether North thinks Shakespeare’s characters are logical or progressive or whatever, North also throws some attention to the original Hamlet by marking with a little skull the actions that Shakespeare’s characters would have taken. So readers can interact with the play how it generally unfolds in Shakespeare’s world, or they can “rewrite” the play by taking new actions. North also gives a clever nod to the play-within-the-play by including a book-within-his-book. This is a mini choose-your-own-adventure, though as far as I can tell there aren’t too many paths to take in order to get to it.

Overall, To Be or Not To Be is both entertaining and education. I imagine someone would have to already be familiar with Hamlet to really “get” it—to enjoy the allusions, in-jokes, etc., but it functions well enough as a choose-your-own-adventure and gives enough clues as to what happens in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that familiarity doesn’t seem strictly necessary. Recommended for both Shakespeare fans and people who are sick of dying in choose-your-own-adventures.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Guest Post)

Charlotte Bronte Banner
We are continuing this week’s Charlotte Brontë feature with a guest post by our friend Denise.  Denise is a librarian and an avid reader.  She has contributed a number of guests posts to Pages Unbound, including reflections on Robin Hood and Tolkien and reviews of The Doomsday Code and The World Above, among others.  See all her contributions here.

Cover of The Eyre AffairInformation

Goodreads: The Eyre Affair
Series: Thursday Next #1
Published: January 1, 2001


Set in an alternative Great Britain, where time travel is a completely normal occurrence and forging great literary works is a punishable crime, this book features Thursday Next, a literary detective whose job is to protect literature from theft, fraud, and sabotage. And the works of sabotage can get pretty ugly, as Thursday finds herself in a battle to save Jane Eyre (both the character and the story) from being destroyed by an adversary with fantastic abilities and a penchant for committing crimes for the sake of committing crimes.


Adaptations can be a tricky thing. Usually, they are loved for being clever and on-point with the spirit of the original, or they are vehemently despised for totally missing that point or being little more than imitation. I’m not sure Fforde’s Eyre Affair fits totally with any of these opinions. I found the story as a whole enjoyably clever, though I can understand arguments that Fforde’s treatment of Jane Eyre misses some key points. Regardless, I became hooked on this series the first time I read The Eyre Affair. But then, it was difficult not to, with the world Fforde has created – where serious discussions of literature are both commonplace and heated; where the lines between fiction and reality are constantly being blurred to the point where fiction as a whole begins to have a life of its own, not to mention the puns! And Fforde’s world just gets better and better as the series goes on.

But we’re celebrating Brontë this week, so on with an examination of Jane Eyre’s place in The Eyre Affair

Despite the fact that the title of the work is The Eyre Affair, Jane Eyre is not dragged into the story (literally) until about halfway through. Fforde’s is a world that loves Jane Eyre, but is unhappy with its ending – a much different one than we are familiar with, where Jane does not go back to Rochester but elects to go with St. John Rivers, though she still refuses to marry him. In a way, The Eyre Affair is also the story of how Jane Eyre got its mostly happily-ever-after ending, with the implication being that some of the things that happen in the novel happen, not because Brontë wrote them that way but because other things entered the manuscript and affected its outcome behind the scenes. “What was Brontë thinking?” is a common sentiment expressed among the characters in the novel. At the same time that some might see something taken from Brontë’s genius with this set-up, I think Fforde is highlighting it. We know the “original ending” is what is really fake, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that no one likes it in the book. I’m sure there are many who wouldn’t like it in our real world either. Ultimately, it’s an interesting thought experiment, like so much else in Fforde’s world. And the changes are still “pure Brontë” as far as this world is concerned; she may as well have originally wrote it herself by the time all is said and done. I do struggle to suspend my disbelief with that claim though, since it is a bit unclear how the structure/understanding of Fforde’s world supports it. It wasn’t the ending in Brontë’s “original manuscript,” after all, and she isn’t shown rewriting her own story. (Though that is, perhaps, a possibility, with all else that is possible in Fforde’s world – the time travel, jumping in and out of book worlds, etc.)

What’s also important to understand about this book is that it is clearly meant to be funny; it is very rare that this world of Fforde’s actually takes itself seriously. I mean – the main character’s name is “Thursday Next”… and the pets everyone just has to have are cloned dodo birds. Even the charming premise that destroying great works of literature is a punishable offense can seem as ridiculous as it is charming within the realms of this text. Just about the only things that are treated with any amount of levity are themes, specifically death – death in the war going on in Thursday’s world, the possibility of losing literary characters, of losing whole stories – and fiction, specifically the ability of story to truly live: an interesting juxtaposition of topics that is brought to the forefront amid the humorous situations and the puns, and all the more so because everything else is funny. Some elements of Jane Eyre’s story are inserted into Thursday’s own story in a comical way, especially pertaining to her love life, but overall Fforde seems to be less interested in the story that Brontë tells for itself. What’s important to The Eyre Affair is Brontë’s impact, which, in turn, provokes several interesting questions. What would happen if we lost Jane Eyre, or any of the great works? If one of our favorite characters ceased to exist, or never existed? And why isn’t literature taken as seriously as it is in this book by the public at large today? Does it deserve to be? Fforde’s world, humor, and passion for literature may have been why I fell in love with these books – but it’s the exploration of these questions, and questions like these in subsequent books, that keep me coming back to the series for more. I highly recommend it to all grammarians, librarians, bibliophiles, science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, amateur detectives, creative writers, Bronte fans (of course) and everyone else in between.