a picture book by Judith Viorst
Elsewhere on lunch.com I have reviewed the complete original text of Rudyard Kipling's 1897 novel CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS. Today I am reviewing a 2002 abridged, altered, added to, but not badly distorted illustrated text published in 2002. The latter is styled CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS - Rudyard Kipling - Great Illustrated Classics - Library Edition - adapted by Malvina B. Vogel - Illustrated by Ken Landgraf - ABDO publishing Company.
There is a huge market for other than the original versions of classic writings such as HAMLET, IVANHOE, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Busy or lazy students reach for their Cliffs Notes or even for Classic Comics. Mothers teach their toddlers to read books with two short sentences on the left page and one big cartoon on the right.
Seventy years or more ago when I was growing up in San Antonio and then in Shreveport, I throve on what I called "fat books," but what the publishers called "Big Little Books." They are probably collectors' items in late 2011. Some of them (texts on left, pictures on right) even allowed you to fan the right side with your thumb and watch a mini-motion picture unfold.
There are many ways to "adapt" a text. Kipling's father John and Rudyard himself, for example, illustrated the texts of KIM, JUST SO STORIES and others. Kipling, like other writers, amended his manuscripts and even wrote different endings for American and British editions, e.g., for THE LIGHT THAT FAILED. I am not sure how convincing a rational basis I have for disliking a few elements in the Great Illustrated Classics Library Edition of Kipling's CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS. Please feel free to help me clarify my thoughts!
There have been at least three filmed motion picture or television versions of CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS. I have watched them all: 1937 (Spencer Tracy won his first academy award as Manuel, the Portuguese fisherman who pulled spoiled rich kid Harvey Cheyne -- played by Freddie Bartholomew -- out of the cold North Atlantic); 1977 with Karl Malden as fishing schooner Captain Disko Troop and Ricardo Montalban as Manuel); and 1996 with Robert Urich as Captain Troop. Each took tremendous liberties with Kipling's text. Each made major changes from Kipling's original version. Thus, in 1937 Manuel was killed off. In 1977 young Harvey was motherless. In 1996 Harvey was a double orphan, to name only the most pointless of the changes. Harvey was also notably younger in the filmed versions than in Kipling's pages: 12 versus 15.
We know that the 2002 Great Illustrated Classics version was adapted for and aimed to satisfy children ten to 13 years old. We also know that there is a lot of technical seafaring and codfishing jargon in Kipling's original text. So much so that the Oxford World's Classics critical edition of CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS has 25 pages of explanatory notes. So we are right to expect celebrated text adapter Malvina B. Vogel to avoid jargon as much as possible (especially, since the Library Edition does not include a glossary or maps). The black and white pen and ink drawings of illustrator Ken Landgraf adorn fully 1/2 of the pages that also include Ms Vogel's greatly compressed text: a Landgraf sketch faces every single Vogel page of text. That must appeal to youngsters, although the drawings are less then memorable for adults.
Ms Vogel's way of retelling Kipling's simple story reminds me of how I retell a joke that I might have heard or read. First off, I adapt to my audience as I did yesterday evening with table mates during a church supper. I had read that morning a half dozen or more emailed jokes about church doings from a sister in law. I told two of them from a fresh but not very attentive memory. In one a mother chides her son for being unwilling to get out of bed on Sunday and go to church. The son says, "They all hate me; and I hate them. Why should I go?" The mother's punch line: "You are 59 years old and you are the pastor." When I reread the emailed jokes last night I realized that I had unconsciously substituted wife for mother. No little difference for suspense and humor! And next time I retell and adapt, it will be mother, not wife.
The story line of the 1897 Kipling novel is briefly told. One day in late May around 1895, spoiled rotten Harvey Cheyne, age 15, falls off an ocean liner taking him and his mother to Europe for Harvey to finish his studies. He is rescued in the fog by a fisherman of the 70-ton sailing schooner We're Here with home port Gloucester, Massachusetts near Boston. Harvey, despite his loudly expressed and rather imperious demands to be sailed forthwith to a nearby port and returned to his rich family, ends up working until late August as the lowest member ("second boy") of Captain Disko Troop's crew of eight. From Gloucester he then telegraphs his railroad tycoon father in San Diego. The latter and Harvey's mother race for three days in their private train to Boston. Reunited with their son, they find him a young adult, reformed, malleable and ready to work for his father, who insists, however, that he first attend the new Leland Stanford, Jr. University. The novel ends by jumping ahead a few years with Harvey now in charge of his father's tea clippers sailing from San Francisco to Yokohama.
CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS has considerable depths -- none plumbed by the Vogel-Landgraf adaptation. Harvey's transformation from brat to man evokes the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. The We're Here is a floating monastery of (temporarily) celibate males who take novice Harvey to heart and literally "teach him the ropes" of the schooner while making him into a man. Author Kipling also criticizes the greed and selfishness of America's Gilded Age, contrasting two Captains Courageous: the soon to be obsolete fishing captain and the self-made captain of industry -- as well as America's M.B.A. economic future personified by young Harvey and Harvey's coming tycoon heirs.
Adapter Malvina Vogel is far, far truer to Kipling's original text than are any of the three films mentioned above. Hurrah! When she recasts a sentence in her more pedestrian words rather than Kipling's I wince. Who, after all, is she to change the words of the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1907)? What really makes me mad, however, is when she makes a character utter words that he never did nor never would have in Kipling's original. Ms Vogel, I fear, succumbs to the same temptation of all three moviemakers: they want to make Harvey initially brattier and even more repulsive than Kipling made him out to be. There is latent good in Harvey, perceived and defended by at least one of the businessmen who appear in the smoking room of the ocean liner.
Thus at the beginning of both novel and Vogel's far shorter version, young Harvey, cigarette dangling form his lips, wanders into the liner's smoking room where four or five adult males are discussing him and his mother -- warts and all. Mr Martin of New York tells Harvey to shut the door, stop letting the fog in and to stay outside himself. He is not wanted inside. In slightly different words in both Kipling and Vogel versions, Harvey reminds his critic that Mr Martin is not paying Harvey's passage and that Harvey has every right to enter the smoking room. Enter he does and lingers long enough to get sick on his first cigar. Apparently, he also closed the door behind him. But text adapter MalvinaVogel gratuitously makes Harvey say, "And if you want the door shut, shut it yourself!"
Harvey, for all his faults, is at least superficially polite to adults, whom he calls sir, gentlemen or Mister Martin. The adapter, Malvina Vogel, has, for no defensible reason, added words that slightly distort Harvey's character to make a point. Similarly, the three movie makers all made young Harvey closer to 12 than 16 years old. It is hard to turn an immature, uncertain, self-centered 12 year old into a young, responsible man in three months working hard on a fishing schooner. Kipling did the more credible job of transformation.
I am no expert on how to write books for children, though for decades I have made up stories for our two sons and eight grandchildren. I have learned that you have to eschew big words and bring the young auditors actively into the yarn. But if I happen to tell them verifiable history that they have a right to believe to be true, I do not feel justified, for instance, in telling them that George Washington had a wooden leg or that Joan of Arc was a sissy.
To bring this meditation to an end: I salute adapter Malvina Vogel for hewing more closely to Kipling's text by far than do any of the three motion pictures of CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS. She accurately conveys Kipling's belief that a man becomes what he is meant to be through hard work and that all work has dignity. Ms Vogel and illustrator Ken Landgraf offer young readers a fleeting non-alcoholic sip of Kipling's rum. If that first watered down taste proves pleasant, the readers may later reach for the original Kipling text. And perhaps that is as much as we dare ask of the Great Illustrated Classics Library Edition illustrated version of Rudyard Kipling's CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS.
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