A classic mess
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE-DAME. By Victor Hugo. Abridged by Jimmy Symonds. Illustrated by Tony Smith. BLACK BEAUTY. By Anna Sewell. Abridged by Caryn Jenner. Illustrated by Victor Ambrus. ROBIN HOOD. Retold by Neil Philip from the medieval ballads. Illustrated by Nick Harris. Dorling Kindersley. Pounds 9.99 each
Publishers are wooing readers with design-led treatments of well-known stories. But Philip Pullman argues that the end product underestimates the child and sacrifices the text in vain
Why abridge the classics? asks the publicity booklet for this new series from Dorling Kindersley. And being Dorling Kindersley, it supplies the answer at once: because "children expect everything to happen in the time it takes to watch a TV programme or play a video game". Well, if they do, they're wrong. Part of an adult's job is to show them that some things have to take longer, and can be more pleasurable for doing so. The real problem with this gnat-sized attention span is not that children have it, but that some adults do, and it's usually the ones who are in charge of providing information for children.
Of course, it's very tempting to arrange information in discrete little packages: it avoids the problem of integrating it into a continuous narrative. This principle lies behind the success of Dorling Kindersley's non-fiction, even though the brilliance of the double-page spreads sometimes covers shallowness rather than adding to real substance.
Even the academics are at it now: Norman Davies's recent and highly-praised Europe: A History is aimed at adults but varies its flow with mini-essays, which he calls capsules, and which are hived off from the text in boxes. But when it comes to stories, this formula isn't so useful. The sidebars and information spreads and feature boxes must serve the story, or the story will end up serving them. With Dorling Kindersley's series of Eyewitness Classics, the method seems to be an end in itself: the text has to tiptoe self-effacingly through the spaces between the lavish illustrations.
And then there's the problem of abridgement. At least Viking's Whole Story series (of which this seems like a fairly blatant imitation) does what it says and provides the entire text, so that although the reader may wonder about the relevance of this or that laboriously researched picture, the story is still there intact to return to (review, TES2, January 31).
But The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 50 pages, with at least half of each of those pages being occupied by pictures? This may be spectacular to look at, but it really isn't an experience of the classics. "The original story in its true historical splendour," says the cover. Bunkum. It's the old Classics Illustrated comic brought up to date. So I have deep reservations about the method.
What about the results? The most successful of these four is Neil Philip's Robin Hood, partly because there was never a single text to begin with, and partly because of Philip's genuine know-ledge of and affection for the tales. His version is clear and vivid, and (this is the real test) would work just as well if heard aloud, without a picture in sight.
Nick Harris's illustrations are vigorous (he can draw, which helps) and the information boxes seem to be less of an interruption because the text itself is episodic.
The finest illustrations in this series are Victor Ambrus's splendid horses in Black Beauty. The huntsmen, the dog-carts, the London cabmen and their growlers, the Charge of the Light Brigade - they are all rendered in his inimitable flickering line and luminous wash, and all are worth gazing at.
The title that will be most popular, initially, is Dracula. Unfortunately it's the least successful: Tudor Humphries's illustrations are atmospheric enough - all swirling mists and pointy teeth - but the fact-files and feature boxes demonstrate the feebleness of the overall conception all too plainly.
"Vampires are said to have the ability to change the weather, to create storms, and also to control many animals including the creatures of the night," says one side-bar; and beside it we have, in the well-known Dorling Kindersley photo-on-white-space style, helpful pictures of a moth, an owl, and a fox, each usefully labelled in case we don't know what a moth looks like. Why? To occupy the space, of course. This isn't proper illustration: it's visual Polyfilla.
There's plenty of it. On page 20, for example, we see a Greek vase painting of a harpy, and on page 61, the very same picture turns up again, only this time it's reversed, so that in each case the creature looks into the page rather than out of it. In other words, the designer has learned a first-year trick (don't lead the reader's eye out of the page) and applied it mechanically without the slightest concern for truth, or meaning, or relevance.
That wouldn't matter quite so much if, as I say, the whole text were there. In the Viking Whole Story Tom Sawyer, for example, the passage where Tom and Joe learn to smoke is given in full: "Every pore inside the boys' cheeks became a spouting fountain; they could scarcely bail out the cellars under their tongues fast enough to prevent an inundation; little overflowings down their throats occurred in spite of all they could do, and sudden retching followed every time. Both boys were looking very pale and miserable now."
That is all too good to lose, and it isn't lost. But I dread to think what Dorling Kindersley would have done with it - or rather, done instead of it.
Stick to the text, is my advice; let the story lead the pictures; and when in doubt, leave the space white.