Much has already been written of the breathtaking, brilliant and slightly bonkers Olympics opening ceremony, but there is one more thing to say on a literary note.
Just after we were treated to hundreds of dancing doctors and nurses, once the children were all settled down for the night, tucked in under their snazzy illuminated duvets, the camera snuck under one of the duvets to show a little girl, reading a book by torchlight.
Reading under the covers was a wonderful part of my childhood, as I’m sure it was for many other book-lovers and the quotation from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, read aloud by J.K. Rowling, was an apt choice for this moment. For a start, Barrie left all the royalties for Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital, which helped to link up those otherwise disparate bits of the performance – doctors and children’s literature. Moreover, Barrie’s idea of ‘the Neverland’, a place which exists in the imagination of every child – each one varying according to the quirks of that child – ties in perfectly with that magical feeling of reading under the covers. This is just the moment that children go to their own Neverlands. Here is the paragraph that was read out:
‘Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact; not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed. When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real.’
Except that they changed the end of it. J.K. Rowling said, ‘in the two minutes before you go to sleep it is real’ not ‘it becomes very nearly real’. Perhaps this was just to heighten the terror of the following nightmarish scene, when dark monsters danced around threateningly, scaring the children, heralding the famous villains of children’s literature that were soon to appear.
Personally, I always think that changing the text of a quotation is a mistake. If the quotation doesn’t say exactly what you want to say then either choose a different one, or change what you want to say. Once you start to alter the quotation, you begin to unpick its integrity. And your audience – at least the sticklers in the audience – begins to question what’s coming next.
In this instance, next up was the parade of terrifying baddies from children’s literature. There was the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Alice in Wonderland‘s Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Voldemort from Harry Potter and Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians. All terrifying villains; and all could seem terrifyingly real to a child, in those moments before sleep. What a relief when Mary Poppins came to save the day!
But something was nagging at me about this line up of villains. Like the quotation from Peter Pan, I had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I felt a little uneasy that all these villains appear in famous films, when supposedly it is the books that are being celebrated. And it was this that led me to what I can only assume was a mistake, which perhaps you’ve spotted too.
The Child Catcher isn’t in Ian Fleming’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he only appears in the film adaptation. Admittedly, he really is very scary in the film, luring the children away with his sinister promise of treacle tart and ice cream, and I’m sure he has terrified many children and many parents too. But I don’t think I’m being too much of a pedant in pointing out that this part of the ceremony was supposed to be specifically about children’s books rather than films – they get their own little homage later on.
Of course Danny Boyle, creator of this sumptuous ceremony, is a film director rather than a literature buff. So I suppose the fact that all these villains have appeared in films might just explain why he chose them. But it prompts the question whether Danny Boyle has ever actually read any of the books which he is supposedly celebrating, or whether he’s just seen the films.
The more generous spirited among you will say that it doesn’t matter. We’re celebrating great British stories, so who cares about the medium in which they’re told?
Well let me remind you that the little girl was reading a book under the covers, not streaming a film on an iPad. This is about the importance and the magic of reading, of making your very own Neverland, visualised just by you based on a writer’s words, rather than passively accepting a version imagined by someone else in a film.
Technology is abundant and omnipresent – a fact which the opening ceremony certainly highlighted. With so much technology around, it can be very hard to explain to children the importance of putting in the time and effort to read a book, rather than choosing the much easier option of watching a film on a dazzling assortment of child-friendly devices. What a shame that nobody reminded Danny Boyle to do his reading too, so he could have made sure that in this celebration of children’s literature, he only included the villains who reach out and terrify us from the pages of our books.Tags: children's book, Cinema, Danny Boyle, Fiction, J.K. Rowling, Olympics