When is a classic not a classic?

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I came across a copy of Alice in Wonderland the other day, published by Ladybird.  It is from a range of imprints called, Children’s Classics.  But, it’s not writen by Lewis Carroll, it’s retold by Joan Collins.  ‘Why?’ I wondered, and then, ‘Can this really be necessary?’

I first read the Lewis Carroll story when I was quite young, and loved it.  I don’t remember it as a difficult read. It was funny, in a way I had never come across before.  I was fascinated by the puns, the word games and the ideas.

Looking back, I see this as a moment of revelation.  Here was not realism, it was not adventure, or fairy-tale, it was something unlike any other book I had been offered.  Wonderland really did sum it up.  But that was a few decades ago, and it’s been a while since I last read it.  Perhaps, I thought, the writing does look dated now.

I fetched my dog-eared copy off the shelf.  First published 1865, so it is a little older than I had assumed.   Here is Lewis Carroll’s opening:

‘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 conversations?”

Surely, I thought, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Actually, I would be happy to offer it as an example of a good story opening.  It creates setting, tone and provides an inciting incident and perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I cannot find a superfluous word.

I opened the Joan Collins re-telling:

‘Alice was tired of sitting by her sister on the grassy bank, and having nothing to do. Her sister was reading a book with no pictures or conversations in it. It looked very dull.’

I read on for a couple more pages, but gave up.  This story certainly did look very dull, despite the pictures.  What had happened to the vivid language?  Where were the colourful characters?  Several of them had actually disappeared – no more Dodo, Lory or Eaglet, only ‘a strange collection of birds and animals’.   This was not the charming fantasy that I remembered, it was little more than a series of linked scenes. The whimsical humour of the story had been cut away.  Incidents have been erased or condenced down to a sentence, and carefully constructed jokes reduced to one liners.

I thought about how often I have pre-judged a peice of writing because of the distance since it was written.  Sometimes, when I open that book I am proved right.  Lorna Doone, which I love, is mostly written in a dense style that can make it hard going at times, but the thing is, it’s worth being patient with.  The language is a part of what creates the world of story, and I wouldn’t loose a word of it.

So I answered my original ‘Why?’ with another question, ‘If I had read a re-telling of ‘a classic’, would it have interested me enough so that I would seek out the original?’  Which led me to wonder who this version is aimed at.  Children do not all progress at the same level, or have the same interests, but surely the way to enthuse them about reading is to provide them with good fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to advocate a purist approach to literature.  I have not forgotten Aristotle’s seven plots, and Shakespeare forbid that I should knock any writer taking inspiration from another text.  But this is not another author putting their imagination into an idea, and giving it a new spin.  It’s not a translation or adaptation either.  I’m struggling to see this as anything other than a reduction.

Here’s the question I want to answer, ‘Is this the standard of writing that we want children to learn from, and therefore grow up expecting from fiction?