Letters

Was "Abridged Too Far" a cheap shot against Disney? Should the abridgers and bowdlerizers be allowed to defend themselves? Readers nitpick and niggle like Ratty and Mr. Toad.


Salon Staff
April 2, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read "Abridged Too Far," by Hilary Flower.]

I know it's eye-catching to add Goofy to the illustration from "The Wind in the Willows" that was featured on your front page, and to include in the sub-headline the words "Disney-esque conspiracy," but the only parties who should be held responsible for the poor adaptation the article references are its publisher, Great Illustrated Classics, and the person who adapted the book.

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Cheap shot, folks.

-- Megan Graham

Hilary Flower's distractingly self-serving article, ostensibly on the ills of the "Disneyfication" of classic children's literature, spends far less time (a few words on the third of the article's three pages) addressing the actual problems and causes of the literary influence of the world's various Michael Eisners, than it does simply detailing the specific differences between the original and "edited" version of "The Wind in the Willows." We know the what; doesn't Flower have some other W's on hand?

More ridiculously, she surreptitiously engages in the most dreaded of literary endeavors: biography. Rather than the kind of discourse one hopes to find under a section entitled "Books," Flower informs us (whom she must assume to be her gossip-starved fans) that she has a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son; that she obnoxiously refers to her children's father repeatedly as her "partner"; that she had different bedding in grad school than she does now -- oh, and that she really hates it when classic children's books are changed.

Had Flower actually written about her alleged subject, this could have been an interesting article. But, sadly, this seems to be one instance where the writing hasn't been abridged nearly enough.

-- Jason Sheridan

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The abomination outlined in Hilary Flower's essay on "The Wind in the Willows" points up the need for librarians, in this case children's librarians, to know what they are buying and adding to their collections. I fear that libraries, for want of funds and learning, simply purchase packages of books, ready for shelving, unread and unexamined, and ready to enter into the library databases. It is the children's, young adult and often adult librarians who are at fault. For years children's librarians would not allow their shelves to be filled up with Nancy Drew. Have those works now become classics in comparison to today's acquisitions? No self-respecting professional would allow meager acquisition funds to be dispensed on materials such as those which Flower has described.

One can always imagine a better past, but as an adolescent, I read Poe, Twain, Conan Doyle and Dumas, which needed no dumbing down. Louisa May Alcott was read by girls, and some boys, for over 100 years and needed no bowdlerizing of the tragic elements. David Garrick famously rewrote Shakespeare for the audience of his day, but even our film industry retains the original text of those plays, as well as that can be determined, eccentric casting aside. The point is, the public must hold librarians responsible for their collections. If budgetary nitpicking has cut down on the quality of this last vestige of public learning, woe unto us all.

-- Roy Ortopan
[The writer is a retired catalog librarian at the University of California.]

That was an absolutely beautiful essay, as much for the ode to Toad as the dissection of the abridgment. The best children's books, like the best grown-up books, all have certain elements of truth conveyed in beautiful ways -- almost more so in children's literature, I think. Great authors let themselves say what they really mean to say when writing for children, without worrying so much about how much sense it all makes. That's the beauty of them, and it's incredibly irritating that children's books are treated as trifles because they have animals in them that can be animated cutely. "The Wind in the Willows" has always been one of my favorites for its kindheartedness and melancholy, and it was wonderful to read such a heartfelt, respectful tribute to it. If only everyone took children and their books that seriously.

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-- Kristin Nelson

Just one thing irritated me in the writing of this otherwise delicious article. I find this irritation a pity as it creates just a small dark cloud on an otherwise pleasant landscape (albeit a landscape that is threatened on many sides, as the writer points out).

Hilary Flower writes that the adapted "Wind in the Willows" is "as vacant as a third-rate comic book." Ouch! There it is again.

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Why couldn't she have just said "as vacant as a third-rate book, novel, pot-boiler, bestseller, poetry collection, whatever"? Why, why, why, whenever we are talking about "cheap" literature is it always the comic book that is the comparative?

I speak as one who was a precocious and indiscriminate reader and one who devoured books like "The Wind in the Willows" from an early age on. And who has regularly revisited them since for my own selfish and personal pleasure and to share with my children (and, I fear soon, with my grandchildren, but that is another matter, and it is personal and has nothing to do with the issue at hand and I have no idea why I am waffling like this -- perhaps it is some nervous tic). No, the point of mentioning my own reading habits was just to indicate that my sympathies go very much in the direction of the writer. However, my parents -- and I never understood why -- drew a clear dividing line between books and comics. The latter were systematically confiscated and destroyed (forcing me into all sorts of subterfuges in order to satisfy my immoderate tastes, but that is also another digression that should be barred from this missive).

And I see that this attitude (not necessarily accompanied by the regrettable consequences) continues even today -- it even got through the copyeditor at Salon. Which is strange, as this is an online journal with a comics section, and I would have thought that Salon would understand that comics are a means of expression (and somewhat threatened as such at times) and just like "writing" and most other forms of artistic endeavor span the gamut from excellent (insert title here) to third-rate (insert ditto) while passing through the well-done, the reasonable and the mediocre.

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-- Jonathan Munn

Deep sigh to start. There seems to be a corporate opinion -- no doubt fueled by the MBAs on their content committees -- that dumbing down is the way to go. A country full of people raised sitting in front of a television set instead of going off somewhere with a book and their own imagination is a fertile field for this kind of thing. When you read books like "The Wind in the Willows," "Stuart Little" or "Peter Pan," not only do you get a great story, but the use language in these works also adds depth to the readers' grasp and use of language. Dare we say "expanded horizons"?

The mass-market versions of books like "Stuart Little" are a shame on the owners of the rights. I remember Stuart and the Littles as having a great deal of dignity. I was appalled at the way that "Stuart" was ripped apart and stitched back together as cute. But hold on, there's worse: I refer to the rape of "Notre-dame de Paris," aka "The Hunchback of Notre-dame."

How a story full of such darkness, evil and erotic themes suddenly got turned into cute is beyond me! Leave it to Disney to go for tasteless. Then there is the appropriation of the Romanov assassination for another cutesy story, but don't get me started on that one.

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Anybody remember the "suppressed" drawing of the castle from a past Disney epic? One of the towers bore an uncanny resemblance to an erect phallus. It took the Disney studio's people an amazing amount of time to catch on, at which time they yanked it. You can still find some around at used CD stores. I wish one copy of it could be sent to every one of these "abridgers" and "adapters."

-- Nancy-Cassandra Kenfield

"Abridged Too Far" is a fine article. I too am worried about the dumbing down of classics. But as Flower's article goes beyond a literary critique, I think it lacks something -- a defense from the accused. The story would have been much better if we could have heard from Disney or from Malvina the Bowdlerizer.

-- Elvis Paxon

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It was with eager anticipation that I presented "The House at Pooh Corner" to my 4-year-old grandson. This book, the A.A. Milne original, had been my very favorite when I was his age. I was completely unprepared for his reaction to the illustration on the first page. His face first fell, then screwed up in anticipation of a good bawl. "What's the matter?" I asked. "Pooh's naked," was the tearful reply. It turned out that Pooh couldn't really be Pooh unless he was wearing the T-shirt (sans trousers) that the Disney Pooh wears. So this classic was discarded in favor of the Disney interpretation.

-- Steve McIlree

Hilary Flower still has the freedom of choice to read her child the genuine version of the classics -- just as my parents did when I was a kid. Bastardized versions of well-loved books are hardly anything new. Plus Disney has taken most of them and changed them beyond recognition on the TV and movie screens. While it's annoying, it's a very old practice, and Ms. Flower behaves as if it has only just started to corrupt her child's imagination.

Also -- Toad is bipolar? Would that make the Wizard of Oz schizophrenic with paranoid delusions? Does Mole have problems with passive aggression?

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What's equally as noxious as the Disneyfication of the classics is giving them a pop psychology analysis.

-- Elizabeth Bristol

Many thanks to Salon and Hilary Flower. The (literal) desecration of "The Wind in the Willows" has been bothering me for years. And unfortunately it's not the only classic of children's literature to go under the knife; Hugh Lofting's classic "The Story of Doctor Dolittle" has been tampered with since the 1970s. Two years ago I searched Harvard Square's upscale Curious George Goes to Wordsworth for a copy, only to find five different bowdlerized versions -- most of which did not indicate that they had been substantially altered from the original text -- and no copy of the original work. A postscript in one edition by Lofting's son, justifying the alterations on the basis of a misguided sort of political correctness (shades of "Huckleberry Finn") only added insult to injury.

Even lesser works such as the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Three Investigators series have been rewritten for the modern child, with vocabulary grossly simplified and plots painfully streamlined. No wonder children are less and less interested in reading these days!

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-- Peter Maranci

Interesting subject but a poor article. Something that resembled journalism would have helped. The author strongly suggests that the original text of "The Wind in the Willows" is no longer available, that it has somehow been supplanted for all time by this tripe. That's complete nonsense, of course. Even a cursory description of the regular editions that are in print would have been an interesting element.

Then there is, of course, the lack of any sources. What does the publisher of this edition have to say? The editor? And what about the publishers of the regular editions? Or the teachers who use these books in their classrooms? No doubt they would have a few choice comments and insights, but we won't get them from Salon.

Finally, of course, there's the very lazy conflation of Disney's outright ownership of the Winnie the Pooh stories with the situation of "The Wind in the Willows." Disney doesn't own Grahame's stories and is not at all involved in this project. But it's a fat target and an easy entity to blame for all manner of childhood cultural illnesses.

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This is an interesting and worthy subject. But it's a pity your writer was unwilling to leave her house long enough to tell us the real story.

-- John Tynes

In "Abridged Too Far," Hilary Flower makes several good points about the destruction of classic literature, in particular children's literature. I agree that the loss of those classics is indeed something to be concerned about. But instead of blaming Disney and the abridgers (not that they are entirely blameless) perhaps the parents that are using Great Illustrated Classics and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride as a reason not to read to their children need to shoulder a little more of the blame. My sister reads to my young niece daily, and I never hesitate to send her challenging books to read. As a result, she's got "The Giving Tree" on the shelf next to "Barbie's the Nutcracker," and I sent her the unabridged, classically illustrated "Wind in the Willows" for her third birthday. Disney might make changes, but parents are the ones who choose which version their children grow up with.

-- Carrie Byrd

I read with great interest Hilary Flower's story on children's literature. Her tribute to "The Wind in the Willows" is well-written, and her reflections on Toad and her own experience with a bipolar family member prove once again the wonderful way literature can help us understand the real world. But I do have one quibble with the piece, and that is her sudden and undeveloped turn against Disney.

Flower writes: "But the Disneyfication of 'The Wind in the Willows' is more insidious. Because, as Evil Clones are wont to do, Disney's Toad has gone back to wipe out the original, replace it with himself and cover his tracks." But she never fully develops her anti-Disney sentiment. Disney is responsible for some egregious abridging (see virtually all of its animated films based on fairy tales or other texts), but I failed to see her point in including a jab at Disney in a piece focused mainly on the Great Illustrated Classics and "The Wind in the Willows." The illustration accompanying the article, and its subhead, made me feel like this was a cheap poke at Disney and an attempt to lure readers in with some gratuitous Disney villainizing. I am no Disney apologist and am happy to read well-argued critiques of Disney films, but this seemed a little too much like a marketing ploy and not enough like good journalism.

-- Kerry Mockler

I just finished "The Wind in the Willows," having found it too daunting as a child. I love classic children's lit, and if anyone would be in the position to agree with the writer of this Salon piece, it'd be me. It's just that she fails to see the bigger issue, which is that these abridgments are nothing new. Grahame's prose is demanding and is more the kind of thing you would read to a younger child than ask them to read themselves. I am against abridgments, most of the time, but sometimes, if you can get a child reading at all, you can reintroduce the original a year or two later. I remember doing this myself as a kid. I did like her interpretation of Toad as bipolar. Makes sense. Or is he just active alert? Or ADD? And personally, I think Rat has sensory integration disorder.

-- Mimi Pond

Hilary Flower's wonderful essay, "Abridged Too Far," reminded me of the times almost 50 years ago when my father would seat my brother and me on each knee and read to us from the classics of British and American literature. As an adult, when I read some fine writing, I hear Dad's voice in my head, complete with his breathing rhythms (unusual due to chronic hay fever), and his chuckles and guffaws at funny passages. Although we had not yet learned to read, the experience of hearing Dad read left my brother and me with a deep love of the English language and the deep meanings buried in its words and stories. As with Flower's daughter, the complexities of the language opened opportunities to learn about nature, and life, and emotions, and beauty and the inexplicable. Great literature is a spur to intellectual curiosity, and attempts to water it down, either for purposes of accessibility or political correctness, do no one any favors. We should all pledge to read a child one of the real classics.

-- Jeffrey Volberg

I read Hilary Flower's article "Abridged Too Far" with great interest, having read many of the Great Illustrated Classics in third grade (circa the late '80s) for the Book-It reading program. In retrospect, Book-It was mostly a Pizza Hut promotion rewarding America's youth with free personal pan pizzas in exchange for compulsory reading.

I quickly racked up pages toward my goal because every other page was an illustration. I eventually confessed when I realized subtracting the illustrated pages would still make me the most prolific reader in my class.

What I find humorous to this day is the source of those books -- they were being given away at McDonald's. I was a precocious reader, so I demanded my mother frequent Micky D's so I could get all the "classic books" to read. Unlike Flower's dismay over finding the books she was reading for her children were mercilessly abridged, I think my mother would probably appreciate knowing she saved herself from many questions both existential and vocabulary-related.

I'm grateful my love of reading didn't end with the fast-food promotions. I currently work for the Timberland Regional Library in Olympia, Wash., and I look forward to directing patrons away from the butchered texts.

-- Courtney Bennett

These books haven't been abridged. They've been savagely violated by barbarians. The "author," publisher and any adult who would subject a poor child (or themselves) to such an abomination should be horsewhipped. Mole and Ratty are the heart and soul of this book. These violators have no soul.

-- David Jensen


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