Classic Remarks: Favorite Picture Book – Saint George and the Dragon

What is your favorite classic picture book? Or you can tell us about a picture book you think will or should become a classic.

I have written of this once before, but one of the most magical books from my childhood was Saint George and the Dragon, retold from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene by Margaret Hodges, and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.

Please permit me the indulgence of quoting from my old post on the subject (linked above), as that post was answering essentially the same question as this.


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This is the knightly quest told in its purest form…

…the true attraction is really the art by Trina Schart Hyman…The weather is present in her images, whether wind or blue sky, clouds or boiling dragon-smoke. Her Fair Folk are wispy, like they might blow away at any moment, her Red Cross Knight (George) exudes strength and pure-heartedness, and her Princess Una is a vision of loveliness, quiet strength, and deep feeling.

…The battle of the dragon and knight is exciting and well-paced. You really feel the energy that both of them exert, and when after the first day of fighting the Red Cross Knight falls exhausted and wounded to sleep by “an ancient spring of silvery water,” and Una comes up to cover him with a cloak, in the picture you can hear the brook bubbling and the crickets singing as cool nighttime descends.

…It’s a fairy tale given the breath of life.


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Classic Remarks: Should “Lolita” be assigned in schools?

Should we be assigning Lolita in schools or is it taking up valuable syllabus space another book should have?

This is another case where I have not read the subject book, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I have never been required to read it, nor have I desired to. However, I am familiar with it in summary and reputation. Based on this, I would most definitely keep it out of school syllabi, except possibly for a college course in which the novel’s subject matter of pedophilia and psychiatry would be deemed relevant. I would be interested to hear from someone who has read or studied the book.

The story follows a man calling himself Humbert Humbert who obsessively lusts after young girls, especially a flirtatious and manipulative 12 year-old called Lolita with whom he has a perverse and torrid affair for several years. Humbert narrates his ugly, evil actions in beautiful, sophisticated prose designed to win the reader’s sympathy. There’s a deliberate contrast between the way he writes and the way he acts. Yet even though he labors to prove he is not insane and to justify his life and actions, his story still ends in violence and loneliness.

As I understand it, Nabokov fully intends for us to despise Humbert and his sins. He also seems to scorn psychiatrists (especially those in the Freudian tradition) who seek simplistic ways to understand human behavior. One may do terrible, despicable things and yet still be a complex human being. Likewise, one may be a complex human being and yet still be justly condemned for choosing to do (and to enjoy) terrible, despicable things.

Do students, even up to the high school level, need to explore the crime of pedophilia in detail? And from the viewpoint of a charismatic predator? I don’t think so. Warn kids against strangers and teach them how to stay safe, by all means! But I see no reason why high school students (or younger) should be required to read a book that dramatizes such a traumatizing perversion from the viewpoint of the predator. From what I can tell, any important lesson in the book could also be gained from other powerful books that don’t dramatize pedophilia so graphically.

Looking at my own high school self, I guess that if I had read Lolita then, I would have been disgusted and disturbed, with those affects lasting, and would not have received much of any redeeming value in return. As opposed to something like Night by Elie Wiesel, which was disturbing in a way that was important and eye-opening. Night causes the reader to challenge prejudice and oppression by forcing us to confront the humanity of the victims and the injustice they have suffered, whereas Lolita gives us only the viewpoint of an unrepentant sexual predator.

Classic Remarks: A Classic Book that Translates Well to Film

One classic in particular has always seemed to be particularly suited to adaptations…

Recommend a classic book that you think translated particularly well to screen (even if the adaptation was not entirely faithful).

Happily there are many films that count as successful adaptations of their source books. Some changed a lot in order to make a unique and successful film, such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, and most adaptations of The Three Musketeers. Others managed to be remarkably faithful to the book’s plot, tone, and themes. One classic in particular has always seemed to be particularly suited to adaptations.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson may be one of the most easily-adapted of classic books. It has over fifty adaptations for film and television, and most of the ones I’ve seen have been pretty faithful. The book’s plot is clear, efficient, and colorful. It doesn’t need elaboration, condensation, or drastic changes. It contains no extraneous subplots, which would either distract in a film or be first for the cutting floor. The action itself develops the characters and plot so well that an adaptation needs only to follow Stevenson’s layout to get an exciting feature length movie that doesn’t leave much out. Even the looser adaptations, such as the anarchic Muppet Treasure Island, still feature scenes and dialogue lifted directly from Stevenson. Why mess with what works?

My favorite adaptations are the 1934 and 1950 versions, starring Wallace Beery and Robert Newton as Long John Silver, respectively. These actors exude so much slimy charisma and chew their lines with such mischievous relish that it’s a delight to watch them. And each also brings out the desperate menace and corrupted dignity of Stevenson’s iconic character.Honorable mentions go to many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Romeo and Juliet, which has been faithfully adapted in many surprising ways, and Richard Lester’s two-film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, which is shockingly and successfully faithful to a book whose many adaptations rarely resemble its actual plot.

Classic Remarks: Favorite Musketeer

All for one, and the one is…

Which of Dumas’ Musketeers is your favorite, and why?

For the musketeers of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling stories, we have D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. They are the most interesting and effective when all together, which makes it a bit difficult to single one out as a favorite. Additionally, it is worth considering their various portrayals in adaptations, since the characters of The Three Musketeers are probably better known in adaptation than in their original novel.

Speaking generally, I can say my favorite musketeer is Porthos. He’s the loud, boisterous, fun fellow, always ready to make others laugh, even when being threatened with a duel. Always loyal to his friends, though I suppose that rather characterizes all the Four. He’s fun in the book, but I also admit to my choice being influenced by the 1993 Disney film, where he was played with cheerful wit by Oliver Platt. Behold:

Frank Finlay also played Porthos quite well, if drier, in the excellent 1973 film. Witness his unique solution to uncorking a wine bottle while the musketeers seek a peaceful breakfast and private conversation in the middle of a siege:

Portho’s charisma and enthusiasm for life makes him a natural favorite for many fans, and I suppose I’m not immune to that charm either.

Classic Remarks: A Much-Read Childhood Classic

Which children’s classic couldn’t you read enough of when you were growing up?

Several books could probably be mentioned here, especially given a loose definition of “classic,” but the ones that stand out to me are the Picture Classics graphic novels Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, adaptations of Mark Twain’s famous novels.

As I flip through them now, I’m impressed by how detailed and faithful they are. Twain’s novels deserve to be read unabridged, but their size and age can sometimes be intimidating to younger readers. The Picture Classics adaptations zip from adventure to adventure and an avid young reader can easily finish both in a day—perhaps more than once each!

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Much of the flavor of Twain’s prose is also kept. Characters speak with Twain’s dialects, and the bits of narration in Tom Sawyer reflect Twain’s third-person prose, while Huck Finn preserves the boy’s distinct first-person narration.

In some graphic novels the art doesn’t always make clear what is going on, but in both of these the art is easily readable. It also complements the text well and does a good job of evoking stories’ settings.

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These adaptations were my first introductions to Mark Twain’s famous heroes, and I’m glad of that. While nothing quite compares to reading the full novels, Picture Classics did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the stories. Even though the focus is on action and adventure, Twain’s deeper commentaries still linger in every frame. Characters drive the action on every page, rather than merely reacting. These books thrilled me as a young boy, letting me imagine I was a fellow-adventurer with Tom, Huck, and Jim on deserted islands, creepy caves, cool woods, and the long, storied Mississippi River.

Classic Remarks: My Favorite Jane Austen Adaptation

Which Jane Austen adaptation is your favorite and why?

I am again at a disadvantage. My familiarity with Regency-era literature is so poor that my only Austen novel is Emma. I do have a general understanding of Pride and Prejudice, however, and it happens that the only Austen adaptation I have fully seen is one of that novel. And I must admit I like it a lot.

It’s a very…streamlined production. Lower-budget than most, and far from anything Hollywood would produce. Certainly it fails to capture the breadth and texture of Austen’s work. Nevertheless it wears a charming directness that manages to get to the heart of Pride and Prejudice. Using a clever modern-day framing device, it makes the tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy immediately relevant to young people of our day. With a nicely balanced mixture of gentle humor and disarming sincerity, it manages to entertain while still driving home the story’s moral. Additionally, its severely abridged nature and short length directs the interested viewer to the source book.

Which adaptation is this?

I speak, of course, of the Wishbone adaptation.

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This was one of the best children’s shows produced by PBS in the 1990s. In it Wishbone, an adventure-loving Jack Russell Terrier, accompanies his boy, Joe, through adventures in middle school and literature. Whenever Joe faces a particular situation in his life, Wishbone will find a similar situation in a work of classic literature and relate the story to the audience. The audience gets to see Wishbone’s own imagination of the classic story interspersed with Joe’s modern-day story playing out in parallel. The result was a children’s show that was highly literate, thoughtful, and empathetic to older kids, and just happened to star a cute and energetic dog.

Wishbone DarcyThe episode entitled “Furst Impressions” is no exception! It’s truly the only Austen adaptation I’ve seen all the way through, so I can’t argue that it’s among the best. But this isn’t completely a joke answer. While the half-hour show only has about fifteen minutes to spare for the Austen sections, it boils the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship down to its essentials, and then takes those essentials quite seriously. Despite the ever-present humor of seeing Mr. Darcy being played by a Jack Russell Terrier, Austen’s story itself is never made fun of nor spoofed.

wishbone-dog-ep-1-furst-impressions-youtube-2012-05-15-22-14-23We see Elizabeth and Darcy both make snap judgments about each other and allow themselves to believe false rumors. In time, through humility and honesty, they sort out their prejudices and discover their mutual love, and end up happy and healthy. Parallel to this we get a story of Joe and his friends, Samantha and David, who are agonizing over a school dance. False rumors set Sam and David against each other, and it looks like the chance of a fun, drama-free dance is gone. Feelings are hurt, tempers flare, and Joe finds his two best friends are unable to be near each other without shouting and accusing the other of lying. Finally, honesty and humility bring about forgiveness and understanding, and their friendships are restored. And just as in Austen’s book, the source of the rumors can be traced to an envious socialite who ends up lonely.

Far from the most nuanced or complete adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the Wishbone episode “Furst Impressions” nonetheless entertains with a direct, honest paraphrasing of the book’s most essential relationship. By showing Austen’s story side-by-side with a situation any modern kid can relate to (and adults too), it gives its audience a wise message of forgiveness and honesty, while quite possibly arousing interest in the source novel.

And it also stars a cute, energetic Jack Russell Terrier!

What’s your favorite Jane Austen adaptation? And did you ever watch Wishbone or read the Wishbone book series?

Next up on Classic Remarks: What children’s classic couldn’t you get enough of as a child?