Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid quests for an Immortal Soul
Disney’s mermaid, Ariel, quests for a Prince Charming.
My fourth grade Book Club recently finished reading James and the Giant Peach. Each meeting was spent reading a chapter or two out loud, taking turns being different characters, and talking about what the words made us think or feel. Raoul Dahl’s descriptive language made is easy to imagine both the scenes and the characters: “For suddenly, just behind him, James heard a rustling of leaves, and he turned around and saw an old man in a crazy dark-green suit emerging from the bushes. He was a very small old man, but he had a huge bald head and a face that was covered all over with bristly black whiskers.”
I was reading from an edition with the original illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, while the children’s books were more recent editions, illustrated by Quentin Blake. We used this difference to contrast and compare the illustrator’s interpretation of the story. Everyone noticed that my book’s drawings were eerie and mysterious, while theirs were humorous. This led to a discussion about Dahl’s style, how, indeed, his stories were both strangely frightening and oddly funny.
Each one of us imagines a different world when reading James and the Giant Peach, each envisions a different old man. But what if one sees the movie before reading the book? Whose vision would he see? Viewing a movie first limits the ability to imagine own’s one scenes and characters. It stifles the individual’s ability to conjure an alternate reality-one of the truly enchanting aspects of reading. “As with all great art, the fairy tale’s deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life. The child will extract different meaning from the same fairy tale, depending on his interests and needs of the moment.” Bruno Bettelheim – The Uses of Enchantment
In the 1996 film adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, Aunt Spiker looks like Joanna Lumley, and Miss Spider is a heavily made up French vamp in a beret and high black leather boots. Not that these portrayals aren’t brilliant, but they are not one’s own. Our imaginations are limitless. Imagination, like dreaming, is a uniquely personal experience; movies, a group one. There is also a very good chance that once a child (or an adult) sees the movie version of a book she will lose interest in reading it. This is especially true of children who are struggling with reading, or teenagers who live in such a fast paced electronic whirlwind that they lose patience with the time it takes to read a novel, particularly a classic novel with somewhat arcane language. If the only experience one has with a particular book is through the movie version, he is missing out on a deeper, richer interpretation of the story. When a child reads a book before seeing a movie he understands the source of the story, makes the connection between written words and the images in the movie. The movie is not seen as an isolated experience. Having read the book allows the child to understand the movie in greater depth. There are many great authors (Pamela Travers, author of the Mary Poppins Series) who have been extremely disappointed with how their works were translated to film. Others, such as Raoul Dahl and Theodore Geisel had works sold posthumously to movie producers because the authors just didn’t believe that the experience that they wanted the reader to have could be translated well into film. Neither Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), A.A.Milne (Winnie the Pooh), nor Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) lived long enough to comment on the animated version of their classic works. So we can only wonder…
Letter, written in 1957 from J.D. Salinger regarding movie rights to Catcher in the Rye:
I love good films and would want every child to see the classic 1939 production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But read the book first. Let your child step into Dorothy’s slippers and walk the yellow brick road herself before the charming Judy Garland and the rest of her immensely talented companions, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Ray Bolger, completely capture her imagination. When a child first reads The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, she will discover that L.Frank Baum wrote a series of Oz books – all quite magical and wild, and rarely read by children today. One good book leads to others.
With very young children there may be other reasons to read the book first and wait until they are older before they see the movie. Child experts have noted that separation anxiety is frequently used as an emotional hook in Disney films. And, although children’s imaginings, when reading or being read to, are profound, they do not normally traumatize as many a villain in Disney movies have.
Charming as Disney characters can be, it is important not to lose site of the fact that Disney is a multi-billion dollar industry, thanks to your children. Although there have been recent attempts to break the traditional Princess roles, generally female characters in Disney films give young girls an unrealistic, highly commercialized standard of beauty that reinforces extreme and one dimensional gender role stereotypes. When reading the original fairy tales, there is much more emphasis on the idea that beauty is used as a metaphor for goodness, and not for selling back- packs. There is no question that movies, even those made specifically for children, have become more violent, and more realistic in that violence. This, paired with the easy access to movies in the modern home through internet streaming, cable, etc., is cause for concern. Children today watch far more movies than previous generations. The fast paced editing, garish coloring, casual violence, and loud sound tracks stimulate children who often internalize the conflicting emotions that arise – feelings which, with many children, can cause restlessness, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. Books calm children down, develop their cognitive abilities, and help them feel in control of their emotions. Rather than desensitizing them to violence, books help develop empathy and compassion for others. Often, young children are media illiterate and believe that what they see in the movies is true. They are better able to understand the role that “pretend” plays when reading a book.
In my experience teaching, I am surprised to see how many children don’t realize that their favorite movies began with books, and that some of these stories are over 100 years old – that someone had to first imagine a story and then write it down before a movie could be made. Understanding such simple facts broadens historical perspectives and helps comprehension. I don’t want my young students to think that they know the story of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Winnie the Pooh, or Alice in Wonderland based on the popular animated versions. I want them to be explorers in the world of literature. I want them to realize the art, truth, and beauty of these original stories.
The key to captivating children on the sultry beauty of language is to start early. Make it a family rule that your child reads the book before he sees the movie. If he is too young to read, read to him. I am a great believer in parents continuing to read stories to children long after they can manage the reading themselves. It is a delightful shared practice that tells your child how much you value literature, and how important it is for you to share that appreciation with him. If you pick the right books, especially those that you loved as a child, you will not regret it. It is a wondrous thing to read great stories aloud.
Finally, reading, because it is active rather than passive, helps to develop logic and cognitive skills. It improves concentration, comprehension, vocabulary, and writing skills. Or, put in a more succinct way:
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein