Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Doing well...

I've been considering literary adaptations. I don't mean adapting a book into a comic or a comic into a film or a film into a book or any of the other possible combinations of media. Nor do I mean translations from one language into another, though that, as with the other possibilities would also be an interesting area of discussion.
No, I mean adapting a book into another book in the same language – perhaps for a younger readership. In essence I'm talking about taking a published work and just rewriting it. Exactly the same story in new words.
You are puzzled. You are (unless you are John whose area of expertise it is) thinking, "what about copyright?" Well copyrights expire. Trust me, there are adapted versions of books out there.
Specifically I have been thinking about a recent addition to my Alice In Wonderland collection. I saw it in the bookshop. Recognised from the cover that it was a version I didn't own, skimmed through to check the illustrations and found that they were also not in my collection and handed over the paltry sum required to purchase it. What I didn't do, until I got home, was look at the text. Why should I? I can recite great chunks of it from memory. I've read the book hundreds of times.
So, there I was at home, book in hand, open at the first page and what did I see?
Well I didn't see this.

"Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'
So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her."

Instead, I saw this.

"Oh what a hot day it was. And what a most curious day it would turn out to be for young Alice. She and her sister had just finished a picnic by the pond in the meadow. They were sitting in the shade of a great oak tree.
Alice suddenly felt very sleepy. She yawned and wondered what to do next. She looked over to a grassy bank by the hedge. It was covered in daisies.
'I wonder,' she thought, lazily, "if the pleasure of making a daisy chain is worth all the effort of getting up and picking the daisies.'"

It was clear that this was an adaptation. A look at the cover revealed it to be "Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: a new adaptation by Archie Oliver." Illustrations were by Andrew Hopgood.

I'd like to just consider these two opening paragraphs, though the whole book is similarly adapted. Additionally I'll add two more opening versions from my extensive collection. The first is Carroll's own adaptation for young readers – The Nursery Alice.

"Once upon a time there was a little girl called Alice: and she had a very curious dream. Would you like to hear what she dreamed about?
Well, this was the first thing that happened. A White Rabbit came running by in a great hurry; and just as it passed Alice, it stopped, and took its watch out of its pocket."

The other one is a curiosity. It's from a book called Starshine Favourite Tales which is illustrated by Carlos Busquets but which credits neither the author who has adapted it nor Lewis Carroll anywhere in the volume.

"One beautiful, summer's day, Alice and her older sister, Anna, were spending the afternoon in the country. Anna was reading a book but Alice was beginning to feel bored when she suddenly saw a White Rabbit go racing by. He was a very strange sight, with his top hat and tails and his little briefcase."

What I find most curious about these versions, the Nursery Alice excluded, is not what they have left out in the adaptation but what they have added. The Archie Oliver version, for example, has added a tree (presumably by comparison with Disney rather than Carroll), added the fact that it's an oak, introduced a meadow and a picnic and specifically named the water as a pond when the original refers only to 'sitting on the bank'.

The unnamed one has, perhaps a little ironically, given a name to Alice's sister who is now 'Anna' and dressed the rabbit in a top hat and tails with a briefcase.

Now I can see from the language used that all of these alternate versions are meant for younger readers. The most complex of them, the Archie Oliver, still uses sentences that are shorter than the original and with a simpler structure. Clearly that's the purpose of the adaptation – to provide a book more accessible to younger readers. But 'The Nursery Alice' does the same thing without introducing any new elements, just by removing some of the existing ones. (It's also designed to be read out with lots of asides from the adult reader to the young child, but that's a different kind of adaptation.)

I can see the point of adapting. Really, I can. What I can't see the point of is adding all this extra detail. The original Alice is an acknowledged classic and, while there are certain elements of it that would be incomprehensible to a modern child, can be enjoyed still in its unamended form. The Archie Oliver one is tolerably well written with decent if unexceptional illustrations but what, actually, was the point? Why did it need to be rewritten? Should a version for younger/more modern readers be abridged? Perhaps. Should archaic references be removed or explained? Again, perhaps. Should the book be rewritten as from memory by someone who once saw the Disney version twenty years ago? Well, there's no reason why not, but also nothing, as far as I can see to be gained from the exercise, except perhaps the feeling by the adaptor that he has done something to earn his fee and perhaps a feeling that he has somehow stamped his own mark on it.

The Starlight version is more curious than I have lead you to believe. The opening paragraph is a model of sane abridgement compared to what follows. It introduces pirates and parrots (and parrots dressed as pirates). The tea party doesn't have a hatter and a hare and a dormouse, it has 'a strange group of characters' including an elephant (and, in the illustrations if not the text, a fox, a tortoise and a teddy bear). Alice is arrested for hitting the queen with a flamingo and sentenced to be thrown into a dungeon. And so on. Nothing at all to do with the book really. This isn't so much an adaptation as a random variation. And why? Certainly not for the fame as my researches have been unable to identify any author's name.

Anyway. My verdict on these versions is that they are strictly for collectors. That they are well done isn't in question but someone once said "there is nothing so useless as doing well something that should not be done at all" and that sums them up perfectly.
If you like the illustrations, by all means get the books but if you want a story to read to your kids, I'd go with the original or with Carroll's own Nursery Edition. They are classics for a reason.


johna.moffat said...

thanks for the name check :)

Bob Hale said...

Just making sure that someone is paying attention.