For a long time, I thought that to bowdlerise something was to make it a bit smutty, which is ironic really. Looking back, I probably thought it was linked to ‘bawdy’; it was quite a surprise when I found out what it really meant. It would be tempting to think of Thomas Bowdler as a typical censorious Victorian, but in realty his main work occurred before Victoria ascended the throne. It’s always tricky to be sure about the motivations of someone who lived two hundred years ago, especially when that person’s legacy is divisive. There are those who would say that Bowdler ripped the guts out of Shakespeare, whereas apparently he saw himself as serving the family by providing a version of the plays that could be read to children.
Hold that thought.
I was going to say that I’ve yet to come across a version of ‘the 39 Steps’ that I haven’t enjoyed. This was based off the back of having listened to a radio version on the iPlayer the other day. The Hitchcock film with Robert Donat is of course a thing of beauty and a joy for ever; and if you get a chance to see the stage play based on this version, then you are in for a comedic treat. The Kenneth More version is not great cinematography, but hey, it’s Kenneth More. The Robert Powell version has a lot of the energy of the book: more, in some respects, than the other versions. The version that I really didn’t like was the 2008 Rupert Penry-Jones one. The thing that all four film versions have is that they add a romance element to the story that isn’t part of the book.
Hold that thought.
Robert Anson Heinlein is usually described as one of the Big Three, with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. All three wrote a lot of stuff across their careers, some brilliant, some less so. One novel that has been on my mind a lot recently is The Door Into Summer. I think at least in part because I’m sure I have a copy somewhere, but seem to have lost it. In the end, I was able to discover the original magazine version, where this novel was published in three parts, online. I can’t remember what prompted the desire to reread this story, but it is actually quite a good yarn in many respects. The main character does a bit of hopping through time, missing out most of the 70s, 80s and 90s twice over via “the long sleep”, a cryo-hibernation easy time-travel, and jumping back once using an energy intensive piece of unreliable and almost unbelievable tech. The story has lots of standard Heinlein tropes, which I’m not going to go into too much detail about here. The one that is most problematic is that the main character ends up marrying a former friend’s step-daughter, who starts the story about 20 years younger than the MC, but catches up a bit thanks to all the time-travelling malarky. This bit leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, as it feels like a fudge to get round what should really be a verboten relationship. John W. Campbell is supposed to have said of Heinlein:
“Bob can write a better story, with one hand tied behind him, than most people in the field can do with both hands. But Jesus, I wish that son of a gun would take that other hand out of his pocket.”
That’s probably a fair description.
Hold that thought.
Three very different writers – so what’s the connection? Possibly none, but I started to wonder about what Bowlder was trying to achieve and what the effect is of changing text/stories, and the effect of an agenda: are the changes that were made 200 years ago still relevant today? Is it possible to do some sort of reverse Bowlderism?
For example, if we look at Shakespeare, because we’re mainly talking about stage plays, the interpretation of certain directions, the staging, the actors’ take on characters, inflection, all these things can change the intent significantly. A character who is borderline sympathetic can be made more or less personable by the acting, at least within the confines of the script.
Whilst a lot of Shakespear’s writing is deeply poetical, he has a repuation for being direct, blunt even, in his work. Further, there is context to consider, all the little bits of current gossip that were built in for the audience of the time. Words change meaning. On the whole then, watching Shakespear can be much like watching traditional opera. There’s a good chance you are not going to understand everything that is going on, unless you brush-up beforehand. On that basis, tidying up the script, updating the language, making it a bit friendlier to a younger audience – surely that’s not a bad thing?
On the otherhand are there stories that should be revised to make them better? Better for whom, you may say. One of Shakespear’s most important plays has a relationship between a girld and a boy of different ages. An arguement that comes up from time to time is that it was different then. Yes, it was, but that’s no reason not to take a good hard look and say, do you know what, it wasn’t OK then and it’s not OK now. Let’s take that Heinlein story. Ignoring the fact that it is slightly dated (it’s future is almost 20 years in our past!), it wouldn’t take a lot to tweak it to remove the objectionable bit – in the right hands you could probably change a very few references and one scene, perhaps a thousand or so words all told, and actually make a stronger story as a result.
I’m not sure how much the editor and the publisher really tried to change Heinlein’s work. There were a few things that Heinlein got a bit over-excited about, but his work sold. I suspect he would have just walked if people started getting too heavy-handed with the red pen.
And then, on the gripping hand, there are the stories like The 39 Steps: All four film versions are very different to the book, with added characters being the least of the issues. Screenwriters sometimes seem to feel obliged to mess with the story, but at what point does it become too much?
In the modern world much is made of EDI: Equality , Diversity and Inclusion. We need to make much of it, because we are not very good at it, but I saw an article recently that said that Monty Python wouldn’t be commisioned today, because, well, “six white Oxbridge men”. Oh dear.
The 39 Steps is about a man on the run: does he really have to have a love interest? An EDI argument would be that there needs to be a woman in there. What’s interesting is that if you looker at the earlier adaptations, the romantic foil is not just a pretty face, but generally holds their own in the story. It’s the 2008 version where the woman needs to be seen to be independent of the man.
What do you think? Are there stories that need to be rescued from some objectionable feature? Are we in danger of homogenising our literature and screenplays by devising roll-calls of characters that need to be present in every story?
© David Jesson, 2018