Thursday, January 15, 2009

Oh, Pooh!: Living On Our Cultural Fat

What is arguably the English language's greatest toy-based children's classic is in danger.

Eighty years after A. A. Milne dotted the last line of his magical, melancholy tribute to the memory of childhood and childhood's end ("So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."), The A. A. Milne Estate and Trust (which at this late date does not include Christopher Milne, who spent most of his life trying to move out of the shadow of having been Christopher Robin) has decided that was not the end, and have hired author David Benedictus to pen a new volume, Return To The Hundred Acre Woods, slated for publication this October. To take the curse off and remove any objections, The Estate has dedicated 2/3 of all profits to charity, and have declared as long as some of the money goes to poor kids and people can enjoy new stories, what's the harm?

This is all part of an alarmingly increasing trend of what I call living on our cultural fat. Instead of producing new works, publishers are all too often choosing books with "name brand recognition" (like The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan) and turning them into franchises or re-visionings, dumbing down longer books for modern children who no longer have parents to read to them before bed-time and explain the harder words and passages, or removing any politically incorrect elements from the past (Doctor Dolitttle in his original form is almost completely extinct). The point is that works of genius are bastardized or pastiched to become sellable with little care for the original author's intent or talent, and the millions of dollars projected for this Pooh project is a hefty profit even minus the charity.

It is a slippery slope. L. Frank Baum himself could not match his original quality of the first two Oz books, and when Ruth Plumley Thompson began carrying on the series, first from his notes and then from her own imagination, the nature of Oz changed from unique to increasingly ordinary. These books are little read today save from curiosity or by Oz completists. Christopher Tolkien has only published work actually written by his father JRR (albeit edited), but the concept of a new movie by Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, and Fran Walsh based only on hints of what happened between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings must give us pause, since the most jarring elements of the popular movies have turned out to have all been scripted by the ladies; one can but fear that the original spirit of Tolkien might take backseat.

In the Middle Ages there was produced what could be considered the first literary fantasy, Amadis of Gaul, based not on legends but produced by one anonymous author. It proved so popular that it spawned dozens of continuations of varying quality, until Cervantes in Don Quixote has his fictional people burn them all except the original, which even these skeptics accept as a work of genius. True, the original Pooh books will remain, but they may well become (as I would argue the Tolkien books have become) like a beautifully inspired house in the middle of a slum that has grown up around it, composed of parodies and "takes" on the original architect's idea.

God save Winnie-the-Pooh.

1 comment:

John said...

Poor old Pooh has already been buggered so severely by the Disney folks that his literary corpse-grinding seems but a blow to an already dead thing. It is up to us as parents, uncles, aunts, etc. to hunt down the originals of as much classic literature as possible and ensure that our future generations are first exposed to the real McCoy, and given the means to discern originality from cultural fat drippings. Alas, it is hard to influence children before they are exposed to something as ubiquitous as Pooh cartoons, but even there there are the decent early efforts and then the execrable latest ones where Christopher Robin has been replaced by a girl-power spunky red headed lass. God save Winnie-the-Pooh indeed!