I recently met Oliver Jeffers, author of modern children's classics Lost and Found, The Incredible Book-eating Boy and The Heart in the Bottle. (We were in his hometown of Belfast for the premiere of Good Vibrations, a film which, by the way, you should seek out if you're a sucker for romance of the punk rock kind, and fancy watching it blossom among the dark looming triffids of The Troubles.)
Anyway, Jeffers and I got to talking about the best children's books and I told him JM Barrie's Peter Pan was my absolute favourite, mainly because of the angry, frustrated sense of loss at the heart of it (it begins with regret and bitterness, lashing out at the atrophic process which kicks in as soon as we draw breath; 'You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end'), and that killer last act, when Peter, betrayed by his beloved Wendy's acceptance of puberty, stops visiting her and breaks her heart. (He comes back many years later, unaware of the passage of time as little children are and having long forgotten Tinkerbell and Hook; she notes that 'he still had all his first teeth' but cries out to him, when she is still a moon-lit silhouette, that he should no longer 'waste the fairy dust on me.')
Jeffers confessed he had no idea what I was talking about. He'd only read the Disney-esque abridged version as a boy and, like most abridged versions still do today, it ended quite differently, without the agony of Wendy's hurt or the pathos of Peter's casually transferring affections. Barrie's obsession with the torture of losing connection to one's own past and yet still yearning for it and seeking it, eventually in our own children, was ironically lost to a writer who has drawn on very similar themes with such elegance himself.
When I raved to Jeffers about the power of the book's bittersweet ending, in which Peter sweeps away Wendy's daughter Jane, he told me he'd recently been approached to do his own modern version, which he'd turned down on the grounds of the story holding no surprises anymore. He said he might now read the original and possibly re-consider his rejection.
Peter Pan is a great book which has been particularly badly served by the abridging brigade, but there are many others. The more I consider it, the more malevolent the practise seems. The audiobook world is uncowed by the work some of the old masters have put in, happy to bludgeon entire chapters to oblivion in its efforts to produce digestible reads for people with busy lives and short attention spans. It's a good story, Pride and Prejudice, you imagine Mr Penguin saying at the monthly meeting, but Austen does over-delight us with description sometimes. We could get it down to three hours forty if we got rid of her wittering on about embroidery.
The worst and most common cases of abridging, or 're-telling' as it's often branded now, are in children's literature, in both audiobook and print form. School libraries - as well as kids' departments of book shops of course - are full of these 'easier' versions of classic novels, the argument being that these accounts are warm and welcoming and thus preferable to the stern, intimidating originals. 'Anything that encourages children to read' I keep being told. But as far as I can see, the main achievement of these reductive, often artless adaptations is to ensure their readers never read the originals, as they already know the plot, and think they've been there, done that.
Usborne is one of the abridging publishers beloved of schools. They've done 'retold' print versions of many books and plays, including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and various Shakespeare. I can't see the point of their Balamory-style Macbeth, a 58 page tale full of platitudes and devoid of subtlety or thrill. Its prose swings from a Hart to Hart vibe ('Murder was driving them apart') to a soap-operatic melodramatic banality ('It's your wife. She's killed herself'). They've even cut the famous, child-friendly 'double double toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble'. Most infuriating is the needless extraction of all the poetry, even in the shortest simplest lines. Why change the majestic rhythm and gravity of 'Let it come down' to 'Let it pour?'
It's a vexing exercise in pedestrianisation but, having read it, my nine year old tells me she's 'done Macbeth' now. And it was rubbish. It could take decades before she's persuaded to dip her toe back into one of the most engrossing theatrical bloodbaths ever written. The instincts of childhood are dogged little fighters; I still can't bring myself to go near Thomas Hardy.
Usborne's 'retold' classics are aimed at older children, and thus less diluted. But much as their own writers might respect the skills of Emily Bronte or Robert Louis Stevenson, they don't share them, and so have simply produced more anodyne and sometimes patronisingly simplified versions of their work.
Isn't half the pleasure of Treasure Island being plunged into the odd, time-lost colloquialisms of the sea-farers, the antique nouns and beguilingly moribund mannerisms of their speech? If so, your children might never know it, as 'buccaneers' become 'sea-captains',' sabres' 'swords', and 'grog-shops' 'coves'. 'Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island' Stevenson's Jim Hawkins tells us as his story draws to a close. In Henry Brook's version for Usborne, it's 'wild horses' that wouldn't 'drag back' our fan of impact-free clichés.
What's the point? Why not wait until children are old enough to appreciate the brilliant originals, celebrated for over a hundred years not just for being ripping yarns, but for their writer's unique use of language to spin atmosphere and set tone? These are the very qualities that are lost when malevolent imposters jump in and seize young readers from the jaws of their far more receptive older, deeper selves.
To be fair, adult audiobook publishers do seem to be coming round to the importance of the unabridged. The 27 hour Ulysses recently published by Naxos is a thing of joy, but for wow factor, the commitment to the mot juste shown in their new 153 hour, 21-disc set of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is a masterstroke, as touching as it is bullishly, respectfully righteous. It's in this spirit I think we should save our children from crappy Bronte-lite and let them enjoy the Roald Dahls, Nina Bawdens and Rumer Goddens written for them before they're ready to enter the adult world for real. And Oliver, if you're reading, get thee to a Waterstones.
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