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A Poor Use of Paratexts: How Much Are You Judging Your Book By Its Cover?

Did anyone else go through phases as a kid where there was such a thing as too much popularity? Where somehow instead of wanting to fit in you had an intense drive to distinguish yourself, usually by rejecting whatever was cool at the time? That first question is rhetorical since I know damn well most of us have done this. And it's gendered. It's how we got the manic pixie "I'm not like those other girls" trope. If you like awful, popular things like snapchat filters or----heaven forbid----pumpkin spice lattes then you're too much of a basic bitch to be interesting. Go find yourself a personality.

Given that Snapchat wasn't a thing when I was a kid and I didn't have money for Starbucks yet (dark times), I went through my phase by intensely rejecting Harry Potter. Reading defined way too much of my identity for me to taint myself with what everyone else was engaging with. Crazy popular fantasy series? Please. I was busy reading William Blake.

Fast forward two decades and my career now revolves around embracing and analyzing popular culture...but that's neither here nor there.

My point is that along with my "I'm not reading THAT" stage I noticed another trend regarding books. Namely that my friends and I outright refused to buy any novel with the movie adaptation cover. Why? Well, that's a little complicated to explain. The real answer is because we were stupid. The kind answer is that we were trying to articulate something about commercialization and authenticity, being true to the original text and maintaining our own personal perspective on who the characters were and what the fictional world looked like. But mostly we were just stupid.

Now though I'm starting to re-think that stupidity just a bit. A few weeks ago I wrote on my love for the Wrinkle in Time film adaptation and mentioned that I'd picked up a new copy of the book from my local Barnes and Noble. I hadn't actually been able to find it on the shelves (selling well?) but in my last walk about the fiction section I had a wonderful stroke of luck, spotting a copy atop the return cart that I happily snagged. It didn't even occur to me to be upset that it had the movie cover. I'd long gotten over that.

I'm still not upset, though I am wondering how much of an impact this cover might have had on me if I'd been reading the book for the first time. Let's take a look at it again:

A starry night. A strange light in the sky... we're good so far. We also have the small figure of a girl under that light. Her features are indistinguishable, but if you look closely you can make out that mop of curls on her head. Now I'm all for the casting of Storm Reid----she was an absolutely fantastic Meg----but she does look distinctly different from the description we get. Book!Meg is said to have "mouse-brown" hair and an "outrageous plainness" about her. Her hair is "passable as long as she wore it tidily in braids. When she went into high school it was cut, and now she and her mother struggled with putting it up, one side would come out curly and the other straight, so that she looked even plainer than before" (17). A lot of things can be said about Storm, but "plain" is not one of them.

I adore when films add diversity to a universe by giving us slightly different characters than we had in the novel. It's a rich way of engaging in adaptation and, ultimately, stories need to evolve. The problem is that more and more we're lacking a distinct separation. Sure, it's pretty much impossible for me to imagine the Golden Trio as anyone other than Daniel, Rupert, and Emma now, but I absolutely had my own sense of them when I first read the books because I had the chance to experience them long before the films came out. I was given the opportunity to picture my version of the world before the filmmakers got ahold of it. I personally think that individual picture drawn from the imagination is a huge part of experiencing a book and ultimately it's lost if we plaster the actors on the cover of every novel with a film tied to it.

I'm overreacting though, right? Especially with this example. After all, it's not like we can really see Meg in that picture. It's just the silhouette of a girl in generic, fantasy-esque light. That's not going to sway anyone. I'd actually put this idea for a post aside until I thumbed through my copy and found the inserts:

The kitty wants to know what's up

Now this is influential. This particular copy of A Wrinkle in Time is refusing to allow readers to imagine any of the characters for themselves: Meg, Dr. Murry, Calvin, The Happy Medium, Charles Wallace, and of course our three god-like entities, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit are all laid out in full color over eight pages. A few weeks ago my Intro to Film class was learning about stardom and in recitation I took them through Ed Sheeran's cameo in Game of Thrones and Oprah's portrayal of Mrs. Which. For both they acknowledged that the casting choices took them out of the story world somewhat. Oprah has become too much of a non-acting celebrity to return to the screen without a few surprised blinks, and Ed Sheeran singing in the woods just doesn't fit with the kind of mood Game of Thrones is trying to create. If a few minutes of screen time and a woman with actual acting experience is that detrimental to our suspension of disbelief, what's it like for a kid to see this picture of The Happy Medium while the words try to evoke something closer to this:

Art by Emilypoole

I almost wish I wasn't familiar with the book so I could try reading it for the first time with this supplemental material. In fact, I think I'll have to try and find another book that provides a similar experience. Though I'm not sure that will be easy to do. This isn't a cover with a generic white boy on the front who can easily assimilate with the written protagonist, and it's not something like Harry Potter where our cast looks remarkably like their book counterparts. (Well, until Emma got gorgeous, anyway). This is a film that deliberately changed core aspects of the characterization----with much success, in my opinion----but publishers are now forcing that interpretation onto the original text. It's two distinct worlds that clash with one another rather than acting as complements.

And what's the purpose? Simply to promote the film? That can be accomplished through advertising choices far more persuasive than some stills shoved into the middle of my novel. I don't think it's beneficial, but it's certainly fascinating in terms of thinking through how we let paratexts influence our understanding of a narrative. Do kids born into a world with highly publicized movie adaptations ever get to imagine the characters for themselves? Is an artist's interpretation on the front of a book any better than a billion dollar interpretation in a new medium? Is it possible for me to put DuVernay's Meg aside for a few hours so I can go on an adventure with the plain, mousy-haired girl that L'Engle created instead?

I don't really have any answers. All I know for sure is that we do judge books on their covers and we understand them through the pictures publishers decide to put between the pages. So perhaps we should be thinking a little more critically about when and how and if we do that.

Maybe, my younger, snotty self was onto something when she wanted the 'original' copy of a book.

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#6: Personal picture

#7: Personal picture





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