Friday, March 3, 2017

Should Classics be adapted for Young Readers?

The question is this week's topic from Pages Unbound, in their Classic Remarks meme. I'd never considered it much before, but I can see some wisdom in adapting classics. Some people might prefer to enjoy the stories of Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare without getting bogged down in ancient Chaucerian or Shakespearean English. We no longer live in Medieval or Elizabethan times, yet their tales are certainly entertaining enough to be retold in language twenty-first century readers can understand. When you look at it this way, it's not all that different from translating stories from foreign languages. 

A friend of mine remarked on the difference between abridged and adapted classics. In the first case, the book is simply shortened, and in the second, the story could be changed to the extent that it takes place in a different time or place which is easier for the reader to relate to, although the plots points are still adhered to (sometimes loosely). 

Yet it all involves making amendments to what the author originally planned, and I have reservations in endorsing either abridged versions or adaptations at all times, just to make the reading experience easier. Before saying, 'Yeah, anyone should just go for it,' I'd want to be sure the following conditions are considered. Here are five times when maybe classics shouldn't be altered to suit young people. 

1) Not at the expense of not having the original volume available at all. 
Journalist Rebecca Mead was researching the life of George Eliot, who wrote her favourite classic, Middlemarch. During a visit to the book stores of Coventry, where Eliot spent a great part of her life, Mead could not find a single, unabridged copy of Middlemarch in the whole city! There were several different shortened versions, but not the masterpiece Eliot wrote. Rebecca Mead sadly guessed that in our fast-moving modern times, readers simply won't sit down to a book the size of Middlemarch. Shops don't supply it, because there's no market for it.

 Since Middlemarch is sometimes considered the greatest British novel of all times, I think it a shame that twenty-first century readers just can't be bothered with it. Sure, let's offer abridged versions, but don't take opportunities away from anyone who wants to get exactly what the author intended, no more, no less.

That anecdote, and many others, are in this book which I reviewed here.

2) Not if you don't make it clear that this is what you're doing.
Perhaps I should've been more alert after the first couple of times this happened to me, but I've sometimes finished reading a classic from cover to cover and thought, 'I didn't realise it would be this simple and short.' Only then do I notice some fine print in an obscure corner of a front or back page, saying, 'This is an abridged version, adapted by So-and-So.' That's incredibly annoying, when I pick up a book in good faith expecting the complete, original story. Publishers, if you're going to do this, please make it clear with decent sized print in a noticeable place that this is a shortened or adapted version.

3) Not if someone goes too wild with the pruning shears. 
I sometimes wonder whether adaptors get too heavy-handed and cull parts which the author might have considered most meaningful. Since the stories have been around for long enough to be considered classics, in many cases the writers have passed away, and we can no longer run questions past them. But you'd expect that anything in the original was put there for a good reason. Trimming bits away, or changing them, to provide a shorter, easier read should be a delicate operation. Editing lengthy descriptions or excessive background dumps is one thing, but at times I've asked young readers, 'What did you think of the part where the main character did such-and-such?' and they reply, 'He didn't do that in my version. Wow, that's wild!' Or, 'In the book I had, they wrote it this way instead.' I've come across too many adaptors who behave more like wrecking balls than precision surgeons. These people should be kept well away from great old stories.

4) Not if they're really not designed to be read by a younger audience.
Maybe some classics are just not the sorts of material children need to be getting their heads around. I'm not saying this in a condescending way at all, since I believe kids' minds are as retentive and intelligent as adults'. It's just that there's a stage of life when innocence and simplicity should be treasured, and minds needn't be bogged down with themes like cruelty, misogyny, horror, terrorism and the like. These will certainly be brought to their attention down the track, so we don't necessarily need to rush the process by introducing certain books in ways younger folk can easier grasp, just because they're classics.

5) Not if readers are likely to say, 'Now I know the story, I don't need to read the longer version.'
Publishers may have good intentions of offering these changed versions to whet young readers' appetites for the real thing, but there's no plot spoiler quite like an abridged story. I hate this sort of comment as much as I hate hearing, 'Now that I've seen the movie, I don't need to read the book.' No, no, no, you think you can discuss all the features of this book, but you've no idea! You haven't necessarily experienced the beauty of the original author's prose, or delved into the characters' psyches, or seen the extra atmosphere the setting may add. The sad thing is, you truly think you have.

So even though I can see the benefits of abridged or adapted classics sometimes, and I'm not totally opposed to them, I think I've just convinced myself that in many cases, I'm not really a great fan. Maybe that's why we don't have all that many on our bookshelves, and also why I haven't encouraged my kids to read abridged classics. In general, when I love a classic, I tend to wait until I consider the kids old enough to get the most out of the original versions, and then recommend them with all my might.        


  1. Some great points Paula - many years ago I started reading Les Miserables and got about 1/5 of the way through (when the narrative switched from the initial Jean Valjean section to Fantine, from a deeply moving narrative to what seeemed frivolous, & I had no idea why). Since then I've seen the play (marvelous, brought me to tears) and I stumbled across a slim 100 page abridged version at a friend's, So I read the abridged version in a few days (follows the play really) but was amused when the friend's comments indicated she thought that was the book. One day, I will go back and read the real deal - with screeds of passages on the Paris sewer system apparently. Now that I think of it, it could be useful research form my Under the Mountain series 'grin' - and it is a classic story. (And, yes, loved the movie version too :) )

    1. Lol, that makes me laugh, Jenny. Indeed, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Anyone who wants to read the full Les Mis should have their chance, sewer systems and all. European and British authors of the 1800s certainly knew how to pad out their stories.

  2. I agree with so much of this! I wish there was an official rule that you have to stamp "abridged" in bold letters across the cover. I sometimes go out of my way to check whether a book is abridged or not, and often it's hard to tell. (I suppose writing "unabridged" clearly somewhere could also help, so there would be no question.)

    I'd be interested in hearing from the POV of someone who abridges books. Why DO they delete some scenes? I imagine they delete some scenes they think "boring" or "inappropriate" for the audience and then get in a web of having to delete scenes related to those scenes, etc. But I wonder if they also have a word count they're aiming for, and if sometimes something must go just because "well, the book is still too long!"

    I don't like. I'd love to hear from someone who actually was into children's classics and starting reading classics because of them, though.

    1. Hi Briana,
      Yes, it would be interesting to interview a person who abridges classics for a job, to find out how they go about making their selections of which scenes should go. Now you mention it, they possibly do have a word count to stick to, because I've heard of authors who have contracts even with mainstream publishing houses say they've been told to pare it down to X amount of words. Sad to think of all the interesting material which never sees the light of day 😓

  3. I know that proponents of abridged books and adaptations argue their use is to bring readers to the original. But I wonder how often that happens. Adaptations and abridgements can lose some of the complexity or the maturity of the originals and perhaps make them less interesting. How many people really go on from reading sanitized Shakespeare, for instance, to the original plays? I like adaptations that do something interesting with the story, add to it, comment on it, transform it. But if they are just there to make the text "easier" or shorter then I don't really see the point, I'm afraid.

    1. Hi Krysta,
      I'd like to run a poll to find out how many readers actually have been inspired enough to seek the original classic, after reading abridged versions. I believe that in so many cases they are watered down, or sanitised, as you say. And in many cases, they evidently rewrite the whole sentence structure to make it easier, which results in a completely different reading experience.

    2. My friend says she read Charles and Mary Lamb's Shakespeare tales when she was growing up. They introduced her to Shakespeare and she loves him now. I just skimmed through their version of The Tempest and of course they take out Caliban's attempted rape and Prospero's warning to Ferdinand about behaving chastely towards his daughter. They also justify Caliban's slavery because his inherited bad nature just makes him unfit for anything else! The trouble is, the Lambs are taking a story with complex themes and when they try to explain them in ways that they think younger readers will understand, they end up having to justify Prospero's keeping a slave because Prospero is the "good guy" and can't do anything wrong!

      I think it's also worth questioning how far you can change a story and have it remain that story. For instance, Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame has to make Phoebus a good guy instead of a bad guy, and it changes the ending so that only the bad guy (Frollo) dies. In the book, the good characters die, one bad character is murdered by a "good" character, and the other bad guy gets happily away. If Disney had to change the ending to make it relatively happy (romance and only bad guy dies by accident, not murder), and to have a moralistic ending, is it the same story?

    3. Yeah, Disney adapters are good at this sort of thing. Their Ariel had a far different fate than Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, but I guess I can understand that one, even though Andersen himself might have said it totally changed the effect he was going for.

      I think I might have a read of those Shakespeare tales adapted by the Lambs too, years ago. I don't remember much, but it's just as you say, sanitising some parts creates problems in motivations and justifying other bits, and so it goes on. Bible adaptations for kids do the same thing, when prostitutes aren't prostitutes, adulterers aren't adulterers, but they still want to include the stories, so change their backgrounds, which makes the stories come across a bit weird.

  4. Worse than your #5: When a child decides they don't need to read it because they saw the movie/TV version. And I say this as someone who read The Hunchback of Notre Dame because I saw the Disney version (I wanted to see how they differed).
    Lots of great points here, Paula, I'm glad I finally found some time to read it!

    1. Lol, I've come across several of those cases too. 'Based on the book' should be seen as warning to look sharp, and they say it. My daughter gets particularly peeved by people who do this concerning the Harry Potter stories, refusing to read the books now they've seen the movies, and I tell her those actually do make an effort to stick closer than some 😊