Lost in adaptation

Jaz Hayward considers whether we should regret the adaptation of classic children’s literature beyond the book

Many of us can say we came to properly discover books as a child originally through another medium. Perhaps you watched Danny Devito’s 1996 film adaptation of Matilda and just had to know more about the wretched Wormwoods, or maybe you saw a theatrical production of Peter Pan and had the desperate desire to become a lost boy; either way, your love for those cherished childhood stories didn’t necessarily start at the source. When done well, adaptations of children’s books can drive their target audience to read, providing them with a thirst to know more. Not only this but they also provide a good medium for those children that struggle with reading.

It’s not surprising then that there has been an influx of adaptations of children’s books recently, from the new live action version of The Jungle Book to a Sky 1 television series of Fungus the Bogeyman, and the trend doesn’t appear to be waning. Nonetheless, Holly Williams recently wrote in The Independent that many of the adaptations of Roald Dahl’s unconventional novels diluted the “pure imagination” found in his works. It begs the question whether the same could be said of others.

Franchising is certainly a drawback that often comes with adaptation. On the one hand it allows a real life connection to our favourite stories. What child doesn’t enjoy dressing up as their literary alter ego? The more merchandising, though, the further away we get from that enclosed world of the book. You can always have too much of what you love and with popular adaptations often comes a bombardment of franchise where the series arguably loses its original charm. That story we loved as children ultimately becomes more about that Mattel action figure than anything else.

Many adaptations do not even show a sign of connection to the original. Take Frozen, for example; very few could tell you that it was originally inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Other books suffer because the adaptation seems to give all that the book ever could, too. This perception doesn’t encourage the hordes of young readers that adaptations potentially could which seems a missed opportunity in a world where literary reading is still sparse. We could even argue that adaptations do little for children’s books. There are still many Artemis Fowl fans despite the lack of film franchise.

Many who take on the challenging step of adapting children’s literature do so in their own unique style. Though some often put a fresh spin on our old favourites – Wes Anderson’s version of The Fantastic Mr Fox for example – others lose the pivotal themes of the original. The various failed attempts at adapting Dr Seuss works are essentially down to focusing too much on the humour than anything else. With children’s books being especially moralistic, this is a shame.

When done right, adaptations are able to appease all generations but this can be dangerous territory, as adapters often try to cater for a more mature audience than the books intended. Very few who have seen Peter Jackson’s often violent The Hobbit trilogy would agree that that was entirely what J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind when he created the original bedtime story. Moreover, the ease of adaptation encourages a form of lazy parenting where adults no longer have to necessarily read to their children.

It seems then, that although we love literary adaptations, we should be careful with our favourite children’s books. Just as we are sick and tired of the Hollywood remakes that degrade our beloved classics, we should extend this cynicism to works for children too. Either we do things with care and consideration, or we let the child pick up the book.

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