Kids-book-to-movie adaptations and multiple textual traditions

This post is dedicated to anyone who has ever watched a film adaptation of a book and has said, “That’s not what happens in the book!” Take a deep breath. Textual multiplicity often precipitates violence, but it doesn’t have to!

Our family watches a fair amount of television and movies. My son, Cædmon, and my daughter, Esther, enjoy watching shows like Daniel Tiger and Thomas the Train, and, when I can persuade them, they’ll join me in watching an NPR Tiny Desk Concert or a short film on Vimeo.

I worry, though, that their little imaginations are being overrun by the powerful images of the screen. So, for example, Cædmon doesn’t just pretend that he is a robot; he pretends that he is Wall-E. An undersea adventure can’t happen without Nemo making an appearance, and a song can’t be sung that doesn’t reference (if only obliquely) the musical world of Daniel Tiger or Mary Poppins.

But perhaps I am just idealizing childhood as a fragile time of uninhibited artistry, and perhaps I am idealizing the artist as a singular romantic individual who creates masterpieces ex nihilo. An artist’s work is always a reaction to the work of those who have gone before him, and I suppose that Cædmon making up a story in the style of Thomas the Train is no exception.

So it is with great interest that I am observing a new occurrence: We are reading to Cædmon and Esther the original books of Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne at the same time as we are exposing them to the Disney reinterpretation. Now, you could argue that, as in the case of Mary Poppins, Disney’s Winnie the Pooh is a corporate plunder of someone else’s source material, a garish repackaging of kids’ literature for mass production and consumption. While this is definitely true of later Disney iterations of Pooh, I actually think the original film is wonderful. Still, since it is a film, its very medium overpowers the understated prose of Milne and the sparse illustrations of E. H. Shepard. The Pooh in Esther and Cædmon’s mind will be uncontrollably the image of the Disney Pooh. And yet, there is this minority text, the original stories, which will form in their minds an alternate reading of the Pooh story. My hope is that this alternate reading of the Pooh world will stick in their mind and prepare them for other times in their lives when they have to arbitrate between multiple textual traditions. It may even be that the force required to pry between two textual traditions is a force that can help them to better navigate a pluralist world.

And maybe this awareness of and navigation between conflicting textual traditions can itself actually help produce great art. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s deliberate counterpoint of multiple historical traditions (written and oral) in his historical plays, as in Richard II or Henry V. Something of a similar sort is essential for our exegesis of the Old Testament, as in the canonical disparity between Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.

So I will continue to watch movies with my kids, even as I hope that their little imaginations can crawl out from underneath the authoritarian narration of moving pictures. But the books will always be there, too, a quiet witness to a necessary plurality.



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