According to Andrew O'Hagan, "There may be a coming generation who will know the literary classics only from television's adaptation of them, but that knowledge is better than no knowledge at all."
This is wrong. It couldn't be more wrong. What good is it to have "knowledge" of books if they go unread? Would O'Hagan say the same thing about, say, music? Better to have "knowledge" of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, even if one never listens to them? A faint memory of the excerpt that used to be played on William Buckley's Firing Line will do?
I'm a novelist, so I'm hardly going to argue against the irreplaceable conditions of prose, the pattern and rhythm and truth of good writing. But literature is also about narrative and morality; if it takes a television show to get some of that over to an audience - and possibly to send them to the original source - then there are small grounds for moaning.
I haven't read any of Andrew O'Hagan's books, but if he really believes this, he can't be much of a novelist. Literature without the words is good enough? If television (or film or "graphic novels") can provide "narrative and morality" as well as fiction, which O'Hagan seems to concede here, why bother with fiction in the first place? The other forms are clearly more popular, so if "getting over" some morality to an audience is what you're after, wouldn't it make more sense to use them instead?
In saying all of this, I am not denigrating these other narrative forms. I would simply maintain that tv is tv, film is film, fiction is fiction. Indeed, I have always found television adaptations of "classic" novels to be among the least interesting uses of this form, and much more likely to frighten viewers away from the "original source" than provoke them into reading. The best film adaptations of novels tend to be of those novels less tied to notions of "literature" in the first place, leaving the filmmakers with much more freedom to alter the source in ways that emphasize the strengths of cinema without leaving the novel's fans feeling outraged. If you prefer the visual to "the irreplaceable conditions of prose," fine. But let's not pretend that tv versions of fiction manage to negotiate some blurry terrain between the two modes. It's still just television.
"My stepsons are fairly good readers," writes O'Hagan, "but, recently, they have begun to say that reading is boring":
I find it hard to imagine what they mean, except that when I see them watching stuff on television I see that their eyes are lively. In this situation, are you going to force them upstairs to read Kidnapped, or are will you guide them towards the BBC's recent adaptation of Kidnapped starring Iain Glen as Alan Breck?
I would do neither. I'd let them watch whatever television program they want to watch. I'd suggest to them that Kidnapped is a pretty good book, but I wouldn't force them to read it. If they're going to grow up to be non-readers, I guess I'd just accept it. Maybe I'd try to teach by example by skipping that night's tv lineup altogether and reading a book instead. But watching Iain Glen rather than reading about Alan Breck isn't going to make anyone a Stevenson fan.