Timeless Classics Told Through Anime

by Rebecca Silverman,

By this point we're all familiar with the way anime and manga loves Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but as some of you may know, that's hardly the only western children's classic to be adapted for Japanese audiences. Anime and manga have mined the pages of kiddy lit from all over the world for stories to both retell and reimagine, and while the two most recent examples may both come from Studio Ghibli (When Marnie Was There and Ronja the Robber's Daughter), they're not alone in finding inspiration from another culture's books. It's part of what makes anime so universally appealing, and many of the adaptations bring something new to the stories that can make them fresh again, even if it's been years since you last enjoyed Treasure Island or somehow never got around to reading Anne of Green Gables. So let's explore some of the most interesting ways that children's classics have made their way into anime and manga, from Ghibli to otome games, because there's a lot of interesting takes on your childhood classics out there.

If you've ever studied children's literature academically, you may have read that many of the older classics are at risk of being taken away from children by adult scholars – that is, they're being read by college students and not ten-year-olds. There's definitely an argument to be made for that statement, and it's also one that is taken into consideration in some of the anime versions of the books. For example, the 2014 Studio Ghibli TV series of Astrid Lindgren's 1981 novel Ronja the Robber's Daughter puts much more of a focus on Mattis, Ronja's father, than Lindgren's original. What's particularly impressive about this is that it still manages to be incredibly faithful to Lindgren's original text – much of the English dub is taken directly from Patricia Crompton's 1983 translation. Ronja (also written “Ronia”) is the single most faithful adaptation of a book to a film medium that I've ever seen, so how does it manage to make Mattis a bigger player without sacrificing authenticity? Largely it does that by slowing down the pacing of the novel so that 170 pages of book becomes twenty-six half-hour episodes of anime. This not only allows the show to elaborate on Ronja's adventures (the scene where she's stuck in the snow is a good example of this), but it also lets the anime embroider pieces of Lindgren's original narration to make the adult characters, particularly Mattis, play a larger role. Book Mattis is more of a man-child than anime Mattis, who is emotional but not nearly as immature, making him a more appealing character in general. He's really the only adult to get this treatment, with Ronja's mother Lovis remaining the source of stability in the background and Noddle-Pete and Lille-Klippen retaining their larger roles as players in Ronja's life. The show also somehow manages to make the gray dwarves and harpies even more terrifying than they are in the novel, which is an accomplishment, because those harpies gave me nightmares when I was eight. In its adaptation of the text, the anime manages to retain both the nightmare fuel and the wonder of the original while still taking into consideration minor changes that make it a true family show, making sure that this children's property, at least, remains in the hands of those it was originally written for.

Another adaptation that sticks very close to the source is the 1979 Anne of Green Gables TV series. This is actually a bit unusual, in that director Isao Takahata's previous two western novel series took some liberties, but whatever the reason, this fifty-episode show hits all of the highlights of L.M. Montgomery's classic Canadian book, from Anne breaking her slate over Gilbert's head to her putting flowers on her hat to go to church to the whole raspberry cordial fiasco. Although the art doesn't hold up as well as it might have, this series again retains the idea that this is a book for children, and unlike Ronja, Anne doesn't play with its characters' roles. What's more interesting to note is that both Lindgren's and Montgomery's novels are about strong girls making their way in the world, a theme that has undergone a lot more scrutiny as we've gotten farther away from when they were written. Although Anne's story dates to 1908 Canada while Ronja's is from 1981 Sweden (although set in the Medieval period), both tales share heroines who aren't going to take any garbage from anyone and who in some ways outstrip their time periods in terms of attitude. This may play a large part in why these two particular tales received such faithful television versions – almost nothing about them has to be updated for a modern audience's sensibilities. They're still just as appealing now as they were when they were written.

That's not something we can say about all novels, no matter how “classic” they are or how much we love them. Take Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel Treasure Island, for example: this 1883 tale that popularized most of our misconceptions about pirates isn't on a lot of kids' reading lists any more due to its dark themes and outdated language. (Because of the myth that boys don't read, this tends to be a larger issue with “boy” books than “girl” books.) But it's also one of the most frequently adapted stories for film, and anime is no exception – there are three anime versions dating to 1965, 1971 and 1978. Both of the earlier ones take some pretty substantial liberties with Stevenson's original, with both 1965's New Treasure Island and 1971's Animal Treasure Island being more free with the source material, as you might guess from the names. In New Treasure Island, the story is condensed but mostly intact, only Jim is a rabbit and Long John is a wolf. Both the shorter runtime (only a little over an hour) and the animal characters make this much more child-friendly than the novel, which makes an statement about why some of the old children's classics are taken away from kids. We see this happen again in Animal Treasure Island; this version gives Jim a mouse friend named Gran, adds in a female character Kathy, the granddaughter of Captain Flint, and takes a lighter, almost steampunk approach to the pirate story. (It also got a manga version by Hayao Miyazaki.) Meanwhile in 1978 Osamu Dezaki presented a more faithful but still kid-friendly variation. This one does follow the original novel more closely and keeps Stevenson's important subplot about Jim's relationship with Long John Silver as a father figure/betrayer intact. While Dezaki's version does have its scary moments (and the artistry of this series is really something), it's much less grim than Stevenson's novel, and forms a good introduction to the tale if you've never read it. Although less faithful than Anne of Green Gables or Ronja the Robber's Daughter, it's still an interesting example of an eastern view of a western tale, and in its case it seems fair to say that its update fits better with more contemporary sensibilities about what's appropriate for kids.

That's also true of the two anime versions of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel – while both play with Alcott's semi-autobiographical tale of the four March sisters, they still stick close enough to the original to be recognizable. Perhaps the biggest departure is the 1981 TV series' decision to give Jo blond hair – in Alcott's novel, it is made very clear that Amy, the youngest child, is the blond, pretty one, and that while Jo's hair is a crowning glory, it's also definitely dark. The anime's change seems to be based in the idea that foreigners should, for some reason, be blonds, and presumably was intended to make it clear that Jo is the sister we're supposed to follow the most closely. The 1987 Tales of Little Women takes more liberties with the order of the story, but some of its more interesting changes seem both random and pointed by turns. For whatever reason, Mr. and Mrs. March are renamed, as are a couple of minor characters, but the more striking difference is that the March family maid is rewritten as a woman of color rather than Irish. There are theories that this was intended to help Japanese viewers understand the issues of racism that helped to fuel the American Civil War, and today it perhaps feels like a less significant difference than it would have in the late 1980s. But for novel purists (who probably shouldn't watch either of these!), it's a big change, and one that would have felt more at home in Alcott's Hospital Sketches than Little Women. In any event, like the Treasure Island remakes, the two Little Women series pick and choose what to keep and what to change so as to make the 19th century original palatable for a mid-to-late 20th century audience – and on that note, it's worth mentioning that the short 1980 Little Women OAV is careful to stop before Beth dies, making her storyline feel much more hopeful than it actually is.

Of course, not all adaptations are going to cherry-pick so carefully with the goal of retaining the basic plot or feel of the original. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been adapted into anime an astounding five times (six if you include MAR), beginning in 1982, and it has run the gamut of “faithful” to “kind of bizarre.” Part of the problem, of course, is that many more people are familiar with the 1939 film with Judy Garland than the original 1900 novel, and there's a further complication that the novel contains numerous political references that are largely lost today, similarly to how we don't understand most of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland's pop culture jokes. So when the 1982 film came out, Dorothy's slippers were red instead of the novel's silver even though the plot follows the book decently enough. 1983's fifteen-minute OAV, on the other hand, takes some definite liberties, putting the wizard in a castle in the forest and inexplicably making Dorothy's slippers pink. It also features the creepiest version of Scarecrow that I've ever seen, but that's neither here nor there. 1986 brought yet another Wizard version, this time a fifty-two episode TV series that actually covered four of Baum's novels - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, and The Emerald City of Oz. While the first part remains faithful, the story starts to wander when it hits its second storyline, which in the original novel didn't include Dorothy. Although you can't really blame the show's writers for putting her in, it is a departure, and one that signifies even greater liberties taken with the third and fourth story arcs. Most notable is that in the end Dorothy returns to Kansas without Uncle Henry and Auntie Em ever coming to Oz, but there are numerous other details altered, from names to basic world-building facts. That latter is an issue given the political origins of the tales, but by 1986 that part of Baum's story had largely been lost in a strange reversal of the process that takes children's literature away from children – by leaving out those elements, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was more firmly put in the hands of kids.

Although 1989 saw a single episode retelling of the story, 1986 largely marked the “weirdness” line for Dorothy and her pals in terms of adaptations, and in 1992, The Wonderful Galaxy of Oz decided to set Baum's tale in space, where Oz is a galaxy rather than an alternate world, and Dorothy has to get around by space ship. Although there are basic elements of the original text remaining, a lot of changes are made besides the setting – most notably that Dr. Oz (yes, really) is now more of an unambiguous good guy, which would probably make Baum roll in his grave. This is one of the campier and more fun versions of the story, what with the planet New Kansas and a science fiction sensibility that's decidedly unscientific. It's also the last full adaptation of the story until 2016 brought Captive Hearts Of Oz, a manga series by Mamenosuke Fujimaru that turns the novel into a reverse harem story. As of this writing, only one volume has been released, but the basic premise is that Dorothy finds herself in the magical land of Oz where the three companions she meets in the first novel are hot young guys, who of course have some sort of dastardly secret. Not only is that about par for the course for reverse harems, it's also the law of the land for Oz otome game adaptations, the best known of which is OZMAFIA!!. This game – which also received a series of anime shorts in 2016 – isn't a strict retelling like Captive Hearts Of Oz. Instead it combines Baum's novels with mob fiction, so that the Cowardly Lion is a don and the Scarecrow is a consigliere. It also throws in the literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the folklore of The Brothers Grimm, so its ties to the original are pretty tenuous. Slightly more aligned with the books (and there's an emphasis on “slightly”) is the cellphone game Oz+ Shall We Date, where for Dorothy's seventeenth birthday the Wizard turns Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion human to bring her to Oz for a party. Dating options include gender-swapped good and wicked witches and Oz himself…though thankfully not Toto.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz doesn't have the market on otome game adaptations, though. Many people are familiar with QuinRose's Alice in the Country of______ series, but they've also created Okashi na Shima no Peter Pan ~Sweet Neverland~, a similar game based on J.M. Barrie's boy who wouldn't grow up. Obviously there's an issue here, given that Peter Pan would have to grow up in order to make the game not creepy, so in this version Neverland holds a baking competition every year, and they need three people from another world to judge it. Peter goes to find the judges and falls for Wendy, whom he brings back along with her non-blood-related brothers, who don't like cake. Somehow all of this leads to Wendy being able to fall for a variety of characters, including Captain Hook, both of her brothers, Peter, and of course a male version of Tinker Bell, Tink Bell. (QuinRose also produced a game where you can romance gender-swapped versions of famous fairy tale princesses.) As far as more faithful adaptations go, Peter Pan may be the loser of that particular lottery – in 1989 it received a forty-one episode TV series as part of the World Masterpiece Theatre collection, titled Adventures of Peter Pan. While it does keep some of the original elements, it also plays up the romance between Peter and Wendy while adding in new characters and storylines as the series goes on. Possibly the most interest aspect of the show is the visual depiction of the generally troubling Princess Tiger Lily: her “Native American” clothes appear to be based on a sailor uniform.

These are only a few of the western children's novels to be adapted by the anime, manga, and game industries, and as you can see, the late 1970s-1990s were a prime time for this particular source of inspiration, at least in terms of anime. In large part this is because of the popularity of the World Masterpiece Theatre series – Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Peter Pan, and Little Women were all part of it, along with several of the novels of Swiss author Joanna Spyri and works by authors now largely forgotten, such as Thornton W. Burgess (1973's Rocky Chuck the Mountain Rat) and Eleanor H. Porter (1986's The Story of Pollyanna), and the original vaguely creepy romance between a girl and her older male benefactor, Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs (My Daddy-Long-Legs, 1990). These aren't the series that typically get picked up by companies like Funimation or even Crunchyroll, and for a lot of us they sort of fly under the radar. But there's something particularly fun about revisiting a favorite book as seen through a completely different set of eyes, be that a mostly faithful animated adaptation or a totally off-the-rails dating game. Come by the forums and let us know your favorites.

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