I am going to break from my usual form and compare a book with a film adaption of another book. Primarily because I feel the film adaption of NIMH elevated the idea behind the books and turned them into something much deeper. But this is not literature you might protest! You would be correct to a point. But let me challenge your preconceived notions of what literature can be. The word literature comes from the Latin (is that a surprise) and means the art of written words. We take it for granted that writing is exclusively the use of alphabet and that the alphabet is a set of symbols designed to key certain sounds in order to make intelligible words. But is this all? Can a word and thus literature also rely on pictures?
Egyptians developed their hieroglyphics which were logographs or the pictorial grapheme of language which contrasts with the phonogram, or the written character grapheme of language. A grapheme is the fundamental unit of written language (pictorial or written). This is important when we begin to consider what should constitute literature. Hieroglyphs are pictures intended to convey meaning by interpreting what the picture symbol itself represents within a shared knowledge base. Therefore a picture of a house was intended to be interpreted by the reader as a house just as the phonogram h.o.u.s.e is intended to mean house to the English speaking reader. Over time these picture symbols became more symbolic and abstract. They could be grouped together to create complex passages. One look at the wall of an Egyptian temple reveals a system of writing that was intimately linked to pictures and were in many ways the ancient ancestor of the modern art of animation. Similar to Hieroglyphs is Cuneiform; those iconic Mesopotamian scratches which are actually later developments from highly stylized pictograms. Likewise the Chinese developed a system of writing based on pictures where a wavy line symbolized a river and a stick figure man was the symbol for a human being. Over time these symbols, like the hieroglyphs grew more complex until the underlying picture symbol could barely be detected at all. Language had grown so complex that only abstractions could convey the necessary meaning.
What they all have in common is this. They are all systems of writing that were visual representations of the surrounding world. They told a story through pictures just a modern picture book does. Could it be that Goodnight Moon shares something in common with the most ancient of man system of writing? In a word yes, and much more than people imagine.
During the so called dark ages, or if we are to be less critical the Middle Ages in Europe we are told literacy rates were low. Few people outside of the clergy knew how to read or write, including the nobility. In fact few kings could read or were even concerned with reading. To the modern intellect this seems to indicate a lapse in intellectual acuity or downright stupidity but this was not the case. Quite the opposite was true and I argue that literacy amongst all walks of life from the peasantry to the nobility was actually widespread, though it was literacy that relied on an ability linked to the ancient world. They were picture symbol literate and could interpret complex signs and symbols in deeply intellectual and creative ways whether they were carved in stone, set in stained glass or painted on canvas or inked on parchment. If we consider this to be a form of writing as I suggest we do then we should reconsider just how illiterate the average middle ages peasant really way? After all, they read images with all the clarity of an Egyptian scribe. The great cathedrals were houses of god, but they were also monumental books of stone and mortar, libraries of symbolism within which people could read the story of man from the garden to the resurrection. The closest we have to this sort of visual reading is animation art (conventional live action film is something different because it relies on real time, real action occurrences to show us what we are intended to see and not meant for us to interpret symbolically). By writing with a broader brush we begin to open the door to a much larger literary world. I do not suggest that all visual art has a literary component, in fact it is somewhat rare today and there are no rules for how to define animation art as literature from animation art as purely visual but there are certain aspects which we can look at more closely. First of all it must be symbolic in nature, relying on images not only to tell us what we are meant to see but also allowing us to interpret at an imaginative level. It must resonate in a way that goes beyond the simple delivery of visual stimulation. Second this visual writing or animated logograph must stick to some familiar literary structure. By this I mean that we must be able to read the visual cues and interpret them rather than be drawn along mindlessly unaware of what is being conveyed. Third and this is to me most important but also the most personal and arbitrary rule. It should strive to elevate the material away from the medium. By this I mean that the images should come alive in some way just as the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt become more than a collection of pictures. Of course these rules are in no way binding and to be honest may not even be valid beyond my own personal semiotic philosophy but what is literature if not the personal interaction between text (and / or picture) and the meaning we assign to it at a personal level. Besides, if animation cannot be literature then what of Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter or Maurice Sendak? Are they nothing more than idle amusements? What student of children’s literature does not find something as profound in Jemima Puddleduck and Peter Rabbit or Higglity Pigglity Pop and The Cat in the Hat as the student of classic literature finds with Ulysses, Jane Eyre or The Great Gatsby? Children’s literature is not just simple words for simple minds. It is penetrating, engaging and complex in ways that continue to astound even the adult reader. And what of picture books? I came across a collection of Beatrix Potter stories that were distributed without her wonderful illustrations and the stories lacked all sense of vitality. They were in a word, dull. Her pictures brought the stories to life, without them they could not ever be the profound literature they are. One can only imagine the disaster of The Cat and the Hat without illustrations or Max’s wild rumpus with only a written depiction. Could we really be startled at the wild things behavior if they were only words on a page?
Part Two, in which I compare and contrast and maybe learn a little more about J.R.R. Tolkeins The Hobbit and Don Bluths animated adaption of Robert C. O’Briens 1971 novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.