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Making the Classics Available to Students

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As soon as the latest film version of Little Women became a box-office hit, a publisher issued an authorized "novelization" of the screenplay, complete with shots from the movie. Academic critics quickly dismissed this illustrated verbal condensation of Louisa May Alcott's original as a desecration. "Banal" the novelist and Cornell University professor Alison Lurie called it, a dumbing down. Meanwhile, sales of the new book rocketed into the thousands.

Laurie Lawlor, the creator of the paperback knockoff, argued that, like the movie, it would lead young readers to Alcott's classic text and encourage reading in general. Ms. Lawlor is an experienced writer of original, academically approved children's works now shelved in school and public libraries.

After a lifetime teaching college literature, I agree with Ms. Lawlor. The evidence for her position is abundant and was quick to come forward. A few days after a Washington Post editorial questioned the Lawlor adaptation, a mother wrote to the paper to protest that her daughter "used her carefully hoarded Christmas money to buy the [Lawlor] book, came home and started right in to read. She finished it, took it to school, and started trading it with her friends. The feeling of accomplishment ... led her to read at least 10 more books."

Most of us appreciate an abridgement or a simplification of a difficult classic, an edition in which spelling is modernized, or a version in another genre, without demeaning or rejecting the original. Before I ever read a Shakespeare text, I enjoyed Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare, synopses specifically written for younger persons, which I later realized had pretty much eliminated subtleties. Children have seen Oliver Twist in one form or another preparatory to reading the novel. Many children have gone from Classics Illustrated comic books to the classic originals.

Indeed, comparisons between the classics and modern adaptations often serve as the basis for insightful class analysis. One student closely contrasted details in "My Fair Lady" to those in "Pygmalion," its source, to point out how Alan Jay Lerner watered down George Bernard Shaw's militant feminism. Others have elaborately examined movie versions of "Hamlet" to emphasize how variously the original may be read.

Professor Lurie, in her exemplary essay on Alcott's work in The New York Review of Books, elegantly compared the various film versions of Little Women with each other and with Alcott's book, sensitively reporting her experience with students.

I think all teachers should encourage their students to read books whose movie, stage, or television versions the students have liked. Many students find it productive fun to compare versions, not always in favor of the written text. Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" has inspired delightful stage productions, including one musical ("Kiss Me Kate," with splendid Cole Porter songs), but reading Shakespeare's original may be tough going for some students, though they're still likely to learn a good deal from this sort of exercise.

Many of the world's classics happen to spring from simpler or earlier works. John Milton's major poems derived from the Bible, "Paradise Lost," "Paradise Regained," and "Samson Agonistes," became common supplements and occasional substitutes for Scripture in 19th-century British and American homes. Chaucer and Shakespeare openly adapted earlier works.

Parents concerned about their children's welfare fear that processed books are as bad for them as processed foods. They want their children to digest unadulterated originals. But we cultivate a taste for art as for gourmet cuisine with experience, through trial and satisfaction, as we mature. We start on pablum and work up to caviar. We go from children's tales to classics. And some classics enchant us from childhood through maturity, like Gulliver's Travels and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Remembering my own wayward reading as a child, I felt that any reading my children did would be good for them. My son, an editor today, reminded me that I never set goals or limits for his reading. After Tom Swift and the Rover Boys, he quickly went on to Huckleberry Finn and before long to Jane Austen, Dickens, and Trollope.

I do think Ms. Lawlor underestimates the capacity of the young to accept a text when, in her adaptation of Little Women, she dropped references to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. She may have thought the 17th-century details might be hard for young persons to understand. But I've seen freshmen, just out of high school, be charmed by Bunyan's naive solemnity, his quaint vocabulary, the work's narrative pull, and the characters with descriptive names like "Mr. Money-Love" or the giant "Despair" and his wife "Diffidence." And we should always remember that the young can absorb much more problematical materials than we give them credit for, like the Grimm brothers' dark fairy tales, as the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim observed.

Dehydrated, compressed, distorted transformations of classics, of course, are pernicious. I've had students surreptitiously seek out tasteless, inaccurate summaries of Dickens, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald that were nearly as long as the originals, imprecise, and far more forgettable. This sort of underground activity has always seemed to me as self-defeating as plagiarism. You miss all the fun and sharpness of Shaw's "Pygmalion" or Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" when you read only the deadpan, witless summaries of them.

I cannot imagine anyone being prompted to read originals seriously on the basis of those mealy mass-produced outlines or unimaginatively staged perversions of them. Many young persons, though, have been drawn and will continue to be to Alcott's Little Women through its movie versions and by Ms. Lawlor's work, as they have been by adaptations of Moby Dick, or Shakespeare, Dickens, George Eliot, and lately to the novels of Sir Walter Scott. How can that ever be anything but good?

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