Over the weekend I saw an excellent stage adaptation of Treasure Island, adapted and directed by B.H. Barry. Barry, of course, is a world-renowned fight choreographer, but this was his directing debut. Thanks to some lukewarm reviews I wasn’t expecting much beyond some excellent swordfighting (fine with me!), but I absolutely loved it.1
In addition to solid performances, the show was beautifully staged–dynamic and exciting, with the same elegant grace Barry brings to all of his fights. Versatile set pieces and lighting left enough up to the imagination, while the costumes sent most of us attending into fits of jealousy. (Those coats!) But really, the best part was the songs–sea shanties that made the transitions something to look forward to. I found myself ever-so-slightly disappointed every time the scene had to begin again. (Thankfully my new thirst for sea shanties has been fed by the inimitable Megan Messinger, sea shanty-monger extraordinaire.)
Two things struck me while watching this, though. The first is that I desperately want to replay both Sid Meier’s Pirates!, one of my favorite addictive games, and The Secret of Monkey Island, less addictive if far more clever. The second is how much young adult fiction2 has changed. Treasure Island is very much about earning the respect of adults–about being accepted and admitted into their world. For Jim Hawkins, it also means rejecting the kinds of corrupting influences that can ruin adults (rum, deceit, disloyalty), and embodying the best kind of person: moral, independent, and confident. Jim’s great accomplishment is not rescuing the Hispanola or even “capturing” Long John Silver–it’s commanding equally the admiration of Dr. Livesey and Long John Silver. He does so with integrity and courage. But even before he proves it in action, all of the adults (Trelawney, Livesey, Smollett, Long John Silver) think well of Jim from the start and treat him on more or less equal footing. It’s Dr. Livesey who suggests that Jim join them on the voyage, not Jim himself. And later, when Jim disagrees with them (about escaping from Silver or lying), they respect the decision he’s made.
(Very) broadly speaking, I think we’ve shifted away from that kind of supportive adult community in our children’s/YA fiction.3 Today there’s a greater emphasis on personal independence, usually against clueless or downright hostile adults. There’s a kids versus grown-ups dynamic, and the kids often have to completely cut themselves off from the “adult” or normal world to accomplish their goals. The adults, meanwhile, are none so willing as Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, Captain Smollett, or Long John Silver in bestowing their good favor in the first place. But that seems all right, because the protagonists don’t seek the approval, respect, or acceptance of said community, and when offered an invitation into it, they often reject it entirely. I’m thinking of children’s books like anything by Roald Dahl or Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events, and young adult books like Little Brother, The Outsiders, The Golden Compass, Ender’s Game, or even Harry Potter. Even when there are “good” adults they’re either incompetent or keep secrets, trying to “protect” the protagonists from the harsh realities of their adult world.
It’s interesting to me to look back and see how much less we value inclusion into the established adult framework, and how villainous grown-ups have become. (This isn’t a judgment, just an observation. I love all of the above examples, save Harry Potter.) Culturally we’re nowhere near the kind of rigidity of social role from Stevenson’s time (no one must join that community anymore; the popularity of the Seth Rogen movie should be proof enough that permanent adolescence is possible), and yet it must be more than that. Growing up means we all wind up adults at some point–so why are they all such jerks in fiction?
My favorite exception to this is Miyazaki’s movies. When Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbor Totoro tell their father a forest spirit is around, he encourages them to seek the spirit out and try and get to know it. Kiki, in Kiki’s Delivery Service, is prepared for her adventure by her mother, also a witch, who took the same journey herself at that age. They are not antagonists, they are allies, and they’re the community that these characters will join when their journey is over.
All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that if you’re in the New York area in the next week, you should definitely try and check out Treasure Island. And also that I need some good YA fiction to read.
1 I’ll admit that my love may partially be due to the fact I read Treasure Island about a month ago for the first time.
2 There was no YA as we know it in Stevenson’s time, of course, so I mean this generically to refer to fiction aimed at children and young adults.
3 This is based on my experience with YA fiction, which is admittedly limited. I am very interested in reading some counterexamples. The only one I could think of myself was The Green Glass Sea.