EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE someone gets the here-let-me's and succumbs to the urge to redo a classic. We have been told there's a new Casablanca in the works with David Soul in the role created by Humphrey Bogart. Reader's Digest has abridged the Bible. And now there is a glossy new large-format Peter Rabbit with pictures by Allen Atkinson, a young artist largely unknown in the field of children's books.
There are several reasons for such projects: a conviction that the original can be improved upon; the hope that if the original has been a runaway success, another version will do equally well; or, perhaps, the sinking feeling that there are no good new ideas left, so one's only hope is to seize a good old idea and put it in a new package. The public doesn't ask for these new packages; quite the opposite. The producers alone are responsible. And one has to admire their audacity, for they must know they are inviting comparisons. Or, more than inviting, they are rushing directly into the arms of comparison.
A new package does sometimes take over so completely that the first one is forgotten, but most of the time, when this happens, it involves a metamorphosis from book to film. With book-to-new-book or film-to-new-film, success is far more rare because producers of the new tend to forget there's more to a classic than the story line. In each case it's a matter, in the public's mind, of a wedding of felicitous elements -- a wedding that creates a feel, an ambiance, a certain style that is somehow right the first time around. So perhaps it isn't even a question, where classics are concerned, of versions. The Ur is the Ur. It cannot be a version of itself -- it is itself, and that's the beginning and the end of it. Or should be.
This being the case, we must sort among the above-mentioned reasons to fathom why a new Peter Rabbit has been attempted. The fact that the stories have recently passed into the public domain is obviously what made it possible. But the Ur Peter Rabbit is still healthily in print, all 23 of the Beatrix Potter stories, and Warne, till now the exclusive publisher, has just issued, in one volume, the four in which Peter is a character. All Warne has done is to lay four spreads from the little books onto each spread of this larger book, and it looks very handsome, though I imagine the little books will still prevail in popularity.
Allen Atkinson's Peter Rabbit contains two of the stories about Peter, and seven more -- Squirrel Nutkin is here, and Jeremy Fisher, and all the other best-known characters. But there is no clue as to whether Atkinson felt the original pictures needed improvement, or whether he was looking for a good "old" idea. Perhaps neither. In an illustrator's note at the back of the volume he says, "I was reluctant at first to consider the prospect of illustrating a new edition of Peter Rabbit," and this comment suggests that the project was someone else's idea. Possibly the publisher's. Still, they all must have known these pictures would come under the closest scrutiny, for a new rendering of anything so well-known had better be at least as good as the old one.
Atkinson has labored long and lovingly at a dangerous task, but the results would have been unsatisfactory even without Beatrix Potter's shoes to step into. With the exception of one fine full-page painting of Jeremy Fisher being swallowed by the trout, and in spite of a nice hand at gnarled trees and underbrush, his pictures are for the most part heavy and stiff, too reliant on sharp black outline for definition, and too harshly colored -- principally with firelight red -- for the airy quality of the text. All lean uncomfortably toward cuteness as opposed to Potter's more naturalistic approach, and some, to be candid, are simply poorly drawn, most notably those of cats and humans. There are even small but upsetting mistakes which should never have been allowed, such as wooden boards for "the nice soft sand on the floor of the rabbit-hole," the recasting of Cotton-tail as male when "The Tale of Mr. Tod" (not included here, but that's no excuse) clearly refers to her as "Sister Cotton-tail," and two entirely different versions of the exterior of Peter's residence, one for "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and another for "The Tale of Benjamin Bunny," both in trees and both elaborately house-like though the author has said distinctly that Peter lives in a "hole" that is "in a sand bank" and has shown the spot exactly that way in her own pictures.
Still, this is only an opinion of how the work was done; it doesn't clear up the question as to why. So we must assume that someone simply thought it would be a good idea.
If there is nothing unholy about abridging the Bible, there can scarcely be anything unholy about reillustrating Peter Rabbit. Sad, to be sure, but not unholy. And the book may do well in spite of everything. The publisher, whose adult department edited the work, is obviously expecting that it will, for this is an expensive production. But my guess is that it will have a hard time, with children and adults, in competing with the Ur of Warne's new collection and small separate volumes, all of which glow as brightly as ever with Beatrix Potter's own clear, charming vision of the world she created, words and pictures both--a world beloved by children for more than 80 years.