Thursday, 21 August 2008

Enid Blyton: Modernising the Classic? - Part One

Following the recent poll by Costa which recognised Enid Blyton as Britian's best loved author of all time, we take a look at her writing in a contemporary setting, and ask what makes it a classic, and why is it being modernised?

Nineteen Forty-Two. January 17, the birth of Muhammad Ali, American boxer. June 12: Future essayist Anne Frank receives a diary for her thirteenth birthday. November 19 - WWII: Battle of Stalingrad, turning the tide of the battle in the USSR's favor. Daily war events of significance in the struggle for dominance, in Europe, South Asia, Africa and at sea.


Against this backdrop, a writer in her mid-forties, wrote the first in a world famous fiction series. Now, sixty-six years later, the British Enid Blyton stories, 'the Famous Five' have undergone a revamp. The results, a new series of cartoons, released in May in the UK and new books published by Hodder. Vivienne Endecott of the Enid Blyton Society is quoted as saying she was "wary" about the Disney associated makeover. "Anybody can write about four children and a dog, and my concern is that modern kids ... will think that the Famous Five is all about gadgets and multiculturalism."

If you’ve seen anything of the contemporary Max, Jyoti, Dylan and Allie, not to forget Timmy the dog, and know the original stories, you could be forgiven for agreeing with her. To me, they appear very similar to the cartoon Scooby Doo, but the dog is less cartoonish, the group younger and more ethnically diverse.

Market pull
It is said that Blyton intended to write eight books in the series but, owing to commercial success, she went on to write twenty-one full-length books featuring the characters. By the end of 1953, more than 6 million copies of these books had been printed and sold. Today, more than a million copies of the original books are still sold annually, making them one of the biggest-selling series for children of all time. Why then, consider the need for a modernising makeover? Moreover, why should we as writers, care? Because if the gatekeepers to publishing believe it is important to consider, so should we.

Market demands
Chorion brand development director Jeff Norton says, “Famous Five: On the Case is a great example of how we, as the brand guardian, celebrate the heritage of a property while making it fresh and relevant for new generations of fans."

I personally believe it is simpler: the brand commercial success is too big to do nothing with, but rubberbands and pencils don’t look much on-screen to today’s children. In contemporary western households where Saturday morning television for under-tens is the norm, children expect to see a certain amount of action. It is ironic that one of the most passive activities I can think of (where the one-way ‘push’ of visual information should hold the viewers’ attention) needs to be action-packed to be considered exciting. The original books are absorbing, their impact on me as a reader was anything but passive. I remember being pulled into a physically active world of adventure, where cycling and being in the Great Outdoors was taken for granted. On TV, the finer sensory descriptions, which an author can use to engage a reader’s imagination and makes reading so much more interactive than the small-screen, are missing. The compensation, more visual action.

Market implications on content
In the preview clip I have seen, (The Case Of The Impolite Snarly Thing) the Five will cycle across the moor in search of a mythical beast (sounds like Scooby Doo, right?). Dylan decides that his ‘rumpus’ needs some cycle padding (UK readers read ‘trouser seat’, for US readers ‘pants seat’, but note, this may be rather perplexing for young British viewers, who only see superman wear his on the outside) - I can only presume they chose a made-up word so as to avoid PC conflict. His inflate-a-pants demonstration goes awry - the life raft technology takes on life raft proportions. It is somewhat humorous as Allie, (the Malibu born daughter of the original Anne) lets out the air. It seems the dramatic visual gags are given more weight than the story, which involves unmasking a pirate DVD operation (anyone else think that sounds somewhat contrived and remarkably like brainwashing our children to be ‘anti-piracy’ at a young age, Disney?) Gone too is the old-style language - “gosh!”

Hodder will publish thirteen books for the new Famous Five show. To me, this means they will create a new TV spin-off product, rather than a replacement for the originals. A repositioning of the brand to create increased market share. Yes there may be some cannibalisation to be seen, but I would think it is expected to be minimal. Most people, who would have bought an original, will not be into the new version, which is so different. However, those who may not have bought the classic versions may be tempted to buy the TV-spin off books. The classics are not being revamped, merely cloned with enhancements.

(Enid Blyton: Modernising the Classic? Parts two and three follow)

*image ©Disney 2008

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