In the early nineties, my sister and I invariably introduced ourselves as Fern and Wilbur. Charlotte’s Web was so much a part of our lives that nothing separated us from the world of the Arable’s farm. While our hardcover copy of the E.B. White classic was torn and threadbare, the animated film version was equally important to our fantasy. The voice-over narration faithfully recited the lines we knew so well, while the animations embellished the original illustrations, leaving us free to adapt them to our own reality.
When I saw the 2003 live-action version of Charlotte’s Web, I had to wonder whether the computer graphics would have sparked our imaginations in quite the same way. The special effects defined Fern’s pastoral world as unquestionably distinct from my own. I was clearly an outsider looking in; the realism created a parallel world so fully self-sufficient that there was no room in it for me. My imaginary adaptations would have felt worthless compared to the Paramount creation, which was too rigid to accommodate my own games and illustrations on Klutz make-your-own-book templates.
Most of the films I loved as a child were narratives closely adapted from my favourite books. Even when they could not reproduce the book verbatim, movies could enrich my reading experience. The lush scenery in the film version of The Secret Garden compensated for any lacking literary elements, and made the book all the more significant.
Sandra Chang, a PhD candidate at McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education, explained that Quebec’s latest curriculum reform “expanded the notion of text to include not only print texts, but also visual and aural modes of communication,” so ‘reading’ at elementary school now involves equal doses of print, visual, and aural media. Chang suggests that this significant change in the language arts program “may not be as extreme as it seems. Children usually start out as polysemic interpreters of books anyway – through picture books, in which the story’s narrative is directed through the channels of both print and image.” Thinking back, it was the combined visual and literary experience of Harriet the Spy that enabled my sisters and I to consolidate the spy techniques that kept us occupied for days.
Chang believes that the typical film vs. book comparison is a “pretty short-sighted approach of pitting one mode of literacy against another,” without considering the possibility of “multiple literacies.” She emphasized that “adaptation has to do with how stories travel across different forms of media and with the transformation of signifiers from one medium (i.e.., print/verbal) to another (i.e.., images and sounds)”.
Indeed, different versions of a story can effectively complement each other without being mutually exclusive. Thirteen-year-old Emma McDonald acclaimed the film version of The Golden Compass as a visual masterpiece, yet “felt that something was missing,” due to the lack of anti-Christian imagery central to the original plot. Emma felt that The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, managed to remain true to the book, while “adding something to it” by reinforcing emotions that may not be clear in the wordy original version.
Recent adaptations like The Lord of the Rings have unified special effects and plotlines in a style unique to the digital age. Audiences seem to have outgrown my childhood desire for a film to mimic the book, valuing instead the innovative displays of computer technologies. When I saw the recent adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I wondered how I could possibly have been oblivious to the book’s explicitly Christian imagery as a child. Nonetheless, the book was incredibly important in my life. The creation of a virtual reality may conceal or enrich the original message of a book, thus altering a child’s understanding of the story. Perhaps this is why U.S. premieres of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who have sparked fanatical anti-abortion rallies this past week. The increased presence of visual culture in children’s education has drawn unprecedented attention to the messages it conveys, exemplifying the potential influence of the stories we know and love.