Travels back to the past

9th May 1997 at 01:00
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. By Jonathan Swift. Edited by Sabrina Broadbent. A shortened edition with activities on the book and film. English and Media Centre Pounds 6.50

This edition of Gulliver's Travels is a comprehensive exercise in critical pedagogy, literary and social sensitivity, historical insight, values and implications in modern media.

It fulfils national curriculum requirements and goes beyond them. Not least, it illustrates the startling contemporary relevance of a period which is unforgivably neglected - the 18th century.

The book is a tie-in with Channel 4's 1996 film with Ted Danson, made in Britain with the US market in mind. Generally acclaimed, it exhibits the difficulties of adapting a text for a past age to modern sensibilities. The enterprise thus serves two groups - English and media studies.

The text is shortened considerably. Long descriptions are excised: short,informative (though sometimes slightly arch) annotations show why. Once these descriptions satirised contemporary travel literature: now they obfuscate. The heart of Swift's work remains - wit, anger and revulsion and his eye for the absurd which so paradoxically made this ambiguous polemic a children's classic.

Activities take up nearly half the book - pre-reading, pre-watching, then separately for book and screen, comparative reading suggestions and coursework assignments. These in-volve speaking, reading and writing in many registers and kinds, ensuring close critical attention to text and screen and raising searching questions which reach the heart of literary and cinematic form.

The book contains illustrations from editions over many years showing how each age has reinterpreted Swift, while the film-makers speak illuminatingly about their own decisions. On one page, a teacher comments: "the film-makers have taken dreadful liberties ... and ruined the book for me." Here is the central dilemma: does the film's non-textual subplot of Gulliver's presumed madness and placing in Bedlam compromise Swift or is it an effective dramatisation of the original effect of his satire? Is having "odious little vermin" said by a black Brobdingnagian Empress, rather than a white Emperor, a permissible comment? Are the changes needed to turn book 3 into continuous narrative justified? Is allowing an up-beat ending to the Bedlam subplot through the agency of a child a travesty or necessary for a mass audience? Is this simply the "film of the book" or a work of art in its own right?

Resolution of such questions leads to an understanding of how we read and watch, how writers write and directors interpret, how one age communicates to another and ensures our mental health by doing so.

This whole unit of work is something no school, for GCSE or A-level, can afford to ignore.

The Channel 4 film of Gulliver's Travels is being repeated as part of Channel 4's The English Programme, starting on May 15. A video of the film is available from Channel 4 (tel: 01926 433333 for details)

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