Reworking classic novels -- New version of books like "Little Women" and "Frankenstein" are geared towards moveigoers

By A.J. Jacobs
January 27, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

So you and the kids want to settle down with a good book? How about Little Women, that classic coming-of-age story by Laurie Lawlor? Welcome to the strangest thing to hit bookstores since Franz Kafka took up the pen: novels based on movies that are based on novels. For years publishers have converted Hollywood creations like Star Wars and E.T. to the page. But a new book based on Winona Ryder’s $34 million-grossing movie — which is based on the classic 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel-has some observers scratching their heads.

”It’s a bit of a flip-flop-flop,” admits Lawlor, an Illinois-based children’s-book writer. It’s also good business. Her novelization of the movie script for Little Women has sold nearly 300,000 copies. ”We’re thrilled,” says Stacy Sparrow, publicist for Minstrel Books, a division of Pocket Books. Readers have also lapped up novelizations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen and James V. Hart and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Leonore Fleischer.

Designed to hook popcorn munchers unaccustomed to thick Victorian tomes — or to reading, perhaps — the new versions have wiped away confusing literary devices, such as diary entries. The updated books also sometimes offer scenes that weren’t in the originals, such as the goop-filled creation sequence from Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein. And the new Little Women, aimed at kids, is free of intricate subplots and dusty language. Compare Jo’s haircut in the original: ”…a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again” with the update: ”I rather like my hair this way.” When told of the trend, Princeton professor and Alcott scholar Elaine Showalter gasped, ”Oh my ( God! That’s unnecessary!” Still, she says, it’s not a new phenomenon. ”Publishers dumbed down the novel even in Alcott’s day.” In the 1880 edition, says Showalter, much of the original’s vernacular was deleted. Plus ça change…