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Classic Remarks: Adapting Classics for Younger Readers


Classic Remarks is a weekly meme hosted by Briana and Krysta @ Pages Unbound. Every Friday, a new question about classic literature is posed each week. Participants and their readers engage in discussions “about canon formation, the ‘timelessness’ of literature, and modes of interpretation.” From what I see, the classics canon includes modern classics, like the Harry Potter series.


What do you think of adapting classics for younger readers?

I loved reading adapted classics in elementary school. My mom used to buy the boxed sets of classics illustrated for young readers, and I loved them. I distinctly remember reading Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the BaskervillesOliver Twist, and Anne of Green Gables in abridged formats for young readers. I loved them! Some of them were small enough for my tiny hands to hold. I am for adapting classics for younger readers, but adapting or abridging classics for young readers needs to be done with care.

img_20161219_155316.jpgAlong with improving literacy in younger readers, I believe another mission is to make reading fun. Many traditional classics can be very dull or time-consuming for the modern adult reader, which I would multiply tenfold for a younger reader. Reading should be fun when you are young. Whether or not the classic is required reading, I think you should be honest about it being adapted or abridged.

When nothing on the book says that it has been abridged or otherwise indicates that it has been altered, I feel that I have been lied to. This lie by omission should be avoided in adapted classics. This smacks of my problem with many adaptations of classics for adult readers and some Disney movies. I watch Twitches (2005) several times a year, yet I have never seen it state in the credits or anywhere else in the movie that is based on H.B. Gilmour and Randi Reisfeld’s series. If it was written somewhere, I did not see it. Another example: I have seen The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, say unabridged on a copy that is about 600 pages long and the same on a copy that is over 1,000 pages. The latter copy is more complete. The former copy has been shortened because Dumas was paid by the word, which means that some believe that the real story is in the shorter version. Ignoring the problem of translation, how exactly could both be unabridged?

Like book-to-movie adaptations, the most important thing in adapting a classic book for young readers is to do the original text justice. The story, characters and themes need to be maintained. Ideally it should have a similar power of affecting the reader, but that is my opinion. cozy-classics-war-and-peaceIt’s possible to create a bad adaptation. An example of a classic adaptation that went too far and did not do the novel justice is the Cozy Classics: War and Peace, by Jack and Holman Wang. The first three pages say: “Soldier,” “Friends,” and “Girl.” I didn’t think it was possible to cut down a novel like War and Peace to so few words, and it still fails to explain what happens.

Graphic novel adaptations are a mystery to me because I have not read them, but I believe they can do a lot of good. Many graphic novels and comic books are targeted at younger readers. They give similar visual, like a movie. As long as they do the original work justice, I think adapting the classic into this medium works well. It makes the story palatable.

Classic books should be adapted for younger readers when they aren’t already targeted at younger readers, and they should be adapted right. What do you think of adapting classics for young readers?

14 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Adapting Classics for Younger Readers

  1. I don’t mind classics being adapted for younger readers, though sometimes I find the choices baffling. It’s one thing to make a story simpler and more streamlined for younger readers. Maybe once they’re older they’ll remember the book fondly and want to read the full story.

    However, when books with adult content are adapted and that content must be excised, I am confused. Apparently this book is NOT appropriate for younger readers so why try to clean it up? What if they go looking for the full book and realize that it’s full of adult content?

    I also used to get really upset when I was younger and I realized that not all abridged books are marked as such. I wanted to read the original, full story and I felt cheated and slightly betrayed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the hope for abridging or adapting a book is to encourage younger readers to read the full book when they’re older. It doesn’t always play out that way, but I think it’s a good goal.

      Which books have been adapted that had to excise adult content? I can’t think of an example where it would happen. If it is inappropriate for children, then it probably shouldn’t be adapted. But who decides what is adult content? Many books that are challenged for “adult content” actually have content that children can handle and understand well. To me that starts breaching banned-book ground.


      1. There are plenty of classics that have been adapted for younger readers that seem like odd choices. Great Illustrated Classics includes titles like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Three Musketeers. I haven’t read their versions but I assume all the sex has been cut. Probably much of the violence as well. Charles and Mary Lamb adapted Shakespeare plays into moralizing prose tales. I just skimmed The Tempest. Again, it seems mentions of adult content such as Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda and Prospero’s admonishments to Ferdinand to be chaste have been cut. (Caliban is also transformed into a slave because his bad inherited nature makes him incapable of doing anything “good or useful.” And so we see the perils of trying to adapt a complex tale for children. According to the Lambs’ version of this story, slavery can be justified for those whose nature makes them fit for it!)

        The Lambs also include plays like Macbeth and Timon of Athens. I can only imagine the moralizing they did with all the bloody violence of the first and all the misanthropy of the second.

        There are even picture book versions of Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights. Again, no mention of sex. Or, actually, plot. The first teaches counting and the second teaches weather.

        I don’t think not adapting certain works counts as censorship. All the books I have mentioned are still available for purchase and reading. No one’s stopping children from picking them up if they’re ready. I just don’t see why someone would take a play like Romeo and Juliet that’s full of innuendo, crude jokes, and an implied sex scene, and think that’s the story they want to tell children if, in the process, they have to ignore half the content. Same with Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you’re going to cut out the lustful priest and all the deaths and such to make it more age-appropriate, why bother adapting it? You’ve just lost the bulk of the story.

        I am far from advocating banned books. I think asking if Romeo and Juliet is still Romeo and Juliet without any sex is a valid question.


      2. I could place blame on the adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays on a desire to show children good literature in a “safe” context. Some of the problem with Shakespeare is the language barrier since we don’t speak that way anymore.

        The only adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the Disney animation, and the lustful Frollo was there. As I reached adulthood, I realized how sexually attracted Frollo was to Esmerelda. Based solely on my subjective view, does that mean it can be included as adult entertainment because the child doesn’t fully understand what is going on? Every single Disney movie can be combed through for subliminal messages, which usually point out things like how the body is illustrated. With sex scenes, at some point a child will realize that when two characters disappear into a bedroom that it is for sex. It seems that some content can be left there. Is that under an assumption that children either do not understand it well enough anyway or the adapters are not totally conscious of what they are producing?

        If much of a work relies on sexual content or other age-inappropriate content, then the story would lose its integrity if it were removed. I’ve also heard in creative writing classes (favoring literary fiction) that if your story is just sex that you don’t have much of a story. I guess the balance lies in not only keeping things age-appropriate but also maintaining the integrity of the story.


      3. I think Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame shows how difficult is for creators to adapt a very mature book for a young audience. It’s true they left in the lustful priest (and most children won’t really get more than “Frollo loves her” out of this depiction) but they also made more major changes to the story to make it “suitable” for children. For instance, in the book Phoebus is not a good character. He’s only interested in Esmeralda for sex and tries to sleep with her (I can’t remember if it’s more of a rape or more of a seduction.) Frollo stabs Phoebus out of jealousy, Esmeralda is blamed for the stabbing, and then Esmeralda is unjustly hanged. Quasimodo murders Frollo and then he goes to die of suicide/starvation because of grief over Esmeralda.

        The Disney film took out the seduction/potential rape of Esmeralda and changed the ending to make it more moralistic and happy–the bad guy (Frollo) dies by accident, Quasimodo doesn’t murder anyone so he can remain a good character, Esmeralda and Quasimodo both live because they’re good and good must triumph over evil, and Esmeralda and Phoebus are together in a happy romantic relationship. Considering these major changes, is Disney’s film adaptation really transmitting Hugo’s story to audiences? Maybe it’s introducing the story to audiences and making them want to pick up the book, but the themes are totally different. It’s suggesting that French society is balanced and that good wins out. Hugo’s story suggests that French society remains unfair and problematic and that change must be made.

        Adult creators do leave in some suggestive content under the assumption, I believe, that children will miss it, but adults will see it and appreciate it. After all, they need to appeal to both audiences because adults are the ones buying and reading books to children or going to the movie theatre with the children. No adult wants to buy a picture book they’re going to have to read 100 times if they don’t like that picture book.

        But there is a drive to make children’s adaptations moralistic and happy, and that drive can really change the entire story.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have an abridged audiobook of Anne of Green Gables and honestly think it’s the most baffling thing. It’s already a children’s book. I first read the book when I was in fourth grade. I can’t really fathom the point of abridging the book so someone even younger can read it instead of just having them wait another year or tow :p

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read an abridged version of Anne of Green Gables when I was in second or third grade. Then I read the full book when, I think, I was in junior high or high school. I liked both versions.

      I’m a believer in giving someone a book they’re interested in reading while they have the interest. A younger reader might have lost their interest if they waited another year. I think the point of abridging the classic is to make it accessible to readers who aren’t at that reading level yet. You can always try to read at a harder level, but a lot of books can be out of a younger reader’s reach. Rewriting it for a lower reading level would make it accessible to those younger readers who have the interest now and who might lose their interest in it.


      1. That’s true. I tried to read Robinson Crusoe in fifth grade, got frustrated, and just gave up. I haven’t been interested in picking it up since. I might have done better with an abridged version.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That happened to me too. I tried it in sixth, thinking I could read it despite its high A.R. code. It was hard and boring to me, and I still haven’t tried reading it since. I might have liked it in an abridged copy too.


  3. Hi, I love your thoughts in this post, and completely agree with you that when people adapt classics, great care should be taken. It’s one of my pet peeves when publishers don’t make it obvious in a prominent spot that they’ve adapted or abridged the stories. And the strengths and weaknesses of specific movie adaptations is something which could take a whole series of blog posts of its own. I don’t know if you’ve seen the recent Miss Peregrine movie, but they butchered the novel! I guess some say it’s better, and some worse.
    Here is my Classic Remarks Post

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! I haven’t seen the Miss Peregrine movie yet. I’m waiting for it to come to TV. I’ve heard that it was a poor adaptation (but it had beautiful effects), and there had already been concerns about switching some characters’ powers.
      I’ll check out your post!


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