Literature: adapting for today

Tempting though it might be to lob into the current debate on co-ed vs single sex education, I won’t. There are schools of all complexions and degrees of quality: the fit for your child and the quality of the school are far more important criteria for parental choice than gender mix.

More pressing in my mind is the business of reading and how the great literature of the past is adapted for a modern audience.

But first, to the topical.  A question I tend to ask of Bedales students on their return from holiday is: “Have you read or seen anything interesting?” Quite often they will choose to talk about what they have read – often their reading is different from mine, although,as an avid book review scanner, I tend to be aware of their books’ existence; often my reading is informed by what students are reading; occasionally the conversation dips into my talking about what I have been reading over the holidays.  I am always interested in what was the spur to their reading – a friend or a teacher, usually.  It is worth noting that by reading, I neither (of course) mean fiction nor sitting down with a printed volume – but I do think that students are increasingly aware that there is a qualitative difference between the browsing and article-scanning that internet-based research tends to involve and the in-depth, sustained concentration that reading a conventional book, whether on a kindle or on paper, requires.

I will return in a later blog to some of the choices that students are making in their own reading and to mine, but now to the link  between this and its adaptation for a modern audience.  Dickens, Shakespeare and Tolstoy – there you go, three big names we can scare ourselves with; but they are all pertinent to this debate and its central question: what license has the modern adapter to communicate these authors’ works to today’s audience?

Dickens is dear to my heart for reasons similar to why Orwell is – as an author whose writing had a significant effect in shaping our national consciousness and in reflecting back to us what was fair, decent and humane in the way in which we treat our fellow human beings.  Dickens should be read – or if not read, should be known about, so, although I return to Dickens every Christmas (Our Mutual Friend this one), I am as much interested in how he is brought alive for TV as anything; so it was good finally to see one of the current Dickens soap-opera Dickensian last night. Having been snooty about the idea (that you create a story out of a miscellany of Dickens characters), I thought it was cracking telly and engaged the audience with the delight and quirkiness of his characters.  It must also motivate people to read more of him.

The jury is out on how the views of the immensely talented Emma Rice, the new director of the Globe Theatre, will translate to that wonderful outdoor space, with its central role in advancing our Shakespearean heritage in this the year when we celebrate his  400th birthday.  I am all in favour of re-apportioning roles between the genders – to redress the fact that only 16% of lines in Shakespeare are allocated to women, but less confident that her approach to ironing out some of the difficulties in the language will do much else other than drain the richness out of his words.  Tom Sutcliffe’s piece in The Guardian is strong on this.

Finally, to Tolstoy and the good-looking new adaptation.  As a number of commentators have pointed out, it is trying to play the Downton trick: presenting us with a bewitchingly attractive world from the past that never existed and weaving a story out of it – good, escapist fun, but little to do with England or Russia respectively.  I doubt many people will pick up the mighty tome of War and Peace as a result of it – neither will they be alerted to the radical side of Tolstoy which made him such a controversial figure, as well, incidentally, as a big admirer of Bedales (yes, true..). I suspect that social historians in 30 years’ time will be discussing these shows for what they say about how we see ourselves now.

If that sounds curmudgeonly, let me end on a more upbeat note: the fact that the triple peaks of these three great authors are so much in the public eye is a feature of our national cultural life that most countries sadly lack and that we should be (of course, quietly) proud of.  Schools and teachers have no excuse not to be the beneficiaries.