Since then people have asked me, “Did you have to read all those books?” The answer: “Meh.” The fitting question is, “Did you have to reread those books?” At some point I’d read all of them except The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I did do a heck of a skimming job on that one.
While adapting, I had the books in front of me, and I used the authors’ own words when possible, which was actually quite a lot.
I kept a couple of other children’s adaptations handy. Not to plagiarize (!!!), but to reference. It was helpful to know what the other adapters chose to leave in and take out, and how they handled a difficult scene. I quickly learned that no two adaptations were the same, so I mostly played it by ear.
And naturally, I channeled my inner teen and used SparkNotes – a great tool for answering the age old question, “Huh?”
The fun part of writing them was what I uncovered about the authors themselves and their writing styles. Here's what I learned:
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde constantly had his characters throwing themselves on furniture. He flung himself onto the sofa. He threw himself down in a chair. After a while it became comical. But Wilde was a playwright with a flair for the dramatic, so I cut him a break.
Frankenstein – Remember the 1931 movie with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff? The lightning rod? The Tesla currents? Yeah, pretty awesome. But in the original novel, Shelley wrote, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. That sentence is beautiful, but what the heck are the instruments of life? And infuse a spark? I don’t think lightning rod, I think jumper cables. Anyway, kids are too inquisitive to just leave it at that so I got permission from my editor to spark him like they did in the movie.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – This one was easy cause I love that story. Poor Ichabod. What a schmuck. But here’s the thing. Washington Irving was a master storyteller and the king of description. Check this out. A stately squadron of snowy geese were riding in an adjoining pond, convoying whole fleets of ducks; regiments of turkeys were gobbling through the farmyard, and Guinea fowls fretting about it, like ill-tempered housewives, with their peevish, discontented cry. That’s a heck of sentence. Sleepy Hollow is just over 11,000 words. If Irving had dialed down the descriptions, it’d probably be about half that.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – This is in my top five of all-time favorite books. It’s a near perfect novel. Twain has a way of putting you on that raft and making you forget you’re a writer. But here’s the deal. If Huck were a boy in today’s world, he’d be on Ritalin. Truant…fidgety…always running away. Back then: Boys will be boys. Today: Developmental disorder. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for what's best for kids, but can you imagine what a drab story it would’ve been if Huck had complied with the Widow Douglas and hung around the house more? And I was actually surprised at how much of Twain’s text I could use, considering the dialect. (And in case you're wondering, in my adaptation, Jim was never labeled anything other than a slave.)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Here’s the main thing I learned from this novel...it’s tough to adapt an English translation of a French text. Seriously. And I skimmed that thing well. However, I still managed to get caught up in it all. And believe me, Paris in 1482 was not the romantic getaway it is today.
With the exception of Huck Finn, all these novels have one thing in common. Tragic endings. True, some of those guys had it coming - Dorian with this vain and selfish ways. Victor Frankenstein, the ultimate deadbeat dad. But poor Quasimodo. He was so distraught over Esmeralda’s death that he crawled into her tomb and died next to her lifeless body. Hand me a Kleenex.