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Behind the Scenes 1: Adapting Stories

July 24, 2018 by cymaster

Have you ever wondered how graded readers are put together? Who writes them? What is it like to adapt stories? Maybe you've thought of adapting or writing your own reader and are wondering how to start. Today we will take a peek behind the scenes and learn about how our graded readers are born.

In the first part of this series you can read an interview with two adaptors and editors, Frances Mariani and Jennifer Gascoigne, who have worked on several Helbling Readers. They shared their adaptation process, talked about their experiences, and gave us some practical tips you can try with your students.

About the adaptation process

Nora Nagy (NN): What is the first thing you do when you are given a reader to adapt?

Frances Mariani: If I haven’t done so already, I read the original. I also try to read around the story: about the author and any good critical notes I can find.

Jennifer Gascoigne: It depends on the story I have to adapt. Usually I get hold of the original text and start reading. But I sometimes watch film versions of the story to get an idea of the plot and the characters – I did that with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for example.

NN: Describe your typical adaptation process.

Frances: First, I get a clear idea of the language level and age group for which the reader is targeted and the page numbers required. With this in mind, I think which parts of the story might not be suitable for that age group, and do a rough plan of my adaptation, deciding which sub plots and characters to cut completely and how to divide chapters. Then, I download the original story into a huge Word file. At this stage I start writing ‘on top of’ the original story, cutting and rewriting to level, trying, where possible, to keep dialogue close to the original. I add picture indications, reflection boxes and page breaks, as I go. Always keeping track of how many pages I have left and when would be a good point to have a new chapter. I sketch out a page layout plan which I refer to and complete as I write. I then try to write quite intensely, setting myself targets, so as to ‘live’ the story and complete the adaptation within a set amount of time. But constantly going back to re-read and edit my own work.

Jennifer: After I’ve read the original, I think about how I can divide up the story into the number of chapters I want, usually between 8 and 12. Then I make rough notes on the content of each chapter. If the original is long, like Wuthering Heights, then I also have to decide which events I’m going to gloss over or even omit if I don’t think they are really essential to the main plot. After that I begin to make my page plan. This involves deciding on the length of the chapters and where to put the pictures. I adjust the plan a lot as I write, so it’s always a ‘work in progress’! I never worry about having a perfect page plan before I start writing. Then, with the original, next to me, I start writing. I like to get a first draft of the story on paper fairly quickly, then I work on simplifying the vocabulary and structures afterwards. If possible I try to give myself a break of a few days before going back and starting the editing. By creating a distance between you and the text, you can see better where adjustments need to be made. Editing is always the most time-consuming part of the process of writing.

About the choice of reader

NN: How important is the choice of reader?

Frances: I think unless you really hate a book, it is possible to adapt anything so long as it has been carefully selected for level and age group by the editor. The longer the original obviously the longer it will take, just because there is more to get through but this doesn’t mean to say that it will be more difficult.

Jennifer: If it’s a popular children’s classic, and I usually adapt those, it doesn’t matter what it is. They are all lovely engaging stories.

About style

NN: Is there any style/author you prefer?

Frances: Not yet.

Jennifer: No, not really. I love the challenge of a new book and a new author. The most difficult book I’ve adapted so far I think has been The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both because of the length and the language – Mark Twain uses lots of different local dialects.

NN: Do you remember any words, phrases or sentences that were really hard to change?

Frances: No, you shouldn’t be sad or scared to change great or famous phrases. That’s part of the fun of adapting: thinking how you can say the same thing in style but to level.

Jennifer: Conditional sentences are challenging when I’m writing at A2 level.

NN: How can you make sure that the original style stays with us?

Frances: If you know the original and re-read it enough while you are adapting, the author’s original style and rhythm becomes a part of you and it comes naturally.

Jennifer: That’s quite hard, especially if I’m adapting books for A1/A2 readers. I think keeping some of the original words and expressions (glossed) is a way of doing it. It’s also necessary to make sure the personality of the main characters remains the same. For example, Alice in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is a self-confident, serious little girl, so this must be clear in the adaptation.

The benefits of adaptations

NN: What would you say to people critical of adaptations?

Frances: Adaptations are not a substitute for the original but they are a great way to get students reading. If the story has become a classic then there is a good reason for it. The story will continue to appeal to contemporary readers and the adaptation to level will make it accessible and enjoyable to read. This encourages students to read authors they would never normally even contemplate reading. Adaptations are not a ‘dumbing down’ but a ‘reaching out’ to a wider audience.

Jennifer: I’d say that adaptations are really useful additions to any language syllabus. They help to consolidate language already learnt in a pleasurable way. Stories stimulate the imagination much more than the typical short texts you find in text books do. Adaptations introduce students to classic works of literature they might never otherwise read. They are like stepping stones to reading novels in the original language. Because the vocabulary and structures are carefully graded, students get real satisfaction from being able to read ‘a book in English’ by themselves, especially lower level (A1-A2) students! This builds confidence and boosts motivation to learn. Finally they can be used in cross curricular activities in the classroom, for example, The Great Gatsby could be a springboard for studying the American Dream. Or The Secret Garden for studying the Edwardian Age in Britain.


NN: Adaptation is a kind of interpretation. How much creative freedom do you allow yourself?

Frances: Lots! Depending on the level you can have all sorts of fun choosing words and structures to re-say things in style.

Jennifer: Very little indeed. I try to stick to the original story as closely as possible. Besides I don’t want my ‘voice’ to dominate – it’s the story that’s important.

NN: What’s your overall philosophy when you’re adapting a story?

Frances: Every single word matters.

Jennifer: Imagine I am the reader.

Practical advice 

NN: Can you give us some tips to keep in mind when adapting original fiction?

Frances: Never summarise, it is better to cut. Dialogue is always a useful way of telling the story at the lower levels. Remember you are creating a story within its own right. Each page has to work structurally, enthral readers, but also teach and then consolidate language in a natural way. Adaptations are stories and need rhythm. To quote our wise series editor, Maria Cleary: ‘Read the adaptation aloud to yourself and edit your own work as you read. If it reads naturally out loud then the story will flow and you’re almost there.' Enjoy it, because, even if you think you know the story when you accept to do the adaptation, by the time you have finished it you will know it inside out and it will stay with you forever. Anyone can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.

Jennifer: Don’t summarise the text. An adaptation isn’t a summary, it’s a story. Being creative with punctuation can inject meaning too – especially at lower levels. For example, put loud words in capitals – CRASH!

Readers adapted by Frances Mariani:

Readers adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne:

You can download the two interviews in PDF format here:

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