Review: Bloomsbury’s Guinea Pig Classics6 August 2018
After the total and relentless emotional destruction that was reading Morris Gleitzman’s Water Wings in year five, I swore I would never again read a book featuring guinea pigs in a central role. It’s just too risky. They basically love to die. I’ve owned upwards of 25 guinea pigs in my life, and I like to think I’ve seen just about all the ways a pig can go. Once we lost a perfectly healthy little guy to a panic attack induced by a low-flying bird. Yet even for an apprehensive reader like myself, Bloomsbury’s Guinea Pig Classics series seems like a pretty safe bet.
The premise is simple: abridged versions of classic texts set to photographs of guinea pigs playing the starring roles. A Guinea Pig Christmas Carol, to be released in Australia by Allen and Unwin this October, will be the latest in a series that includes A Guinea Pig Oliver Twist, A Guinea Pig Romeo and Juliet, A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice and A Guinea Pig Nativity. The series has enjoyed considerable success in the last year, gracing the Amazon bestseller chart and, according to Bloomsbury, frequently flying off the shelves at a higher rate than the classics they are based upon. The books have also received praise from critics and readers alike, with Booker prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie describing A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice as “the definitive version of Pride and Prejudice” at only fifty pages. “If they could get War and Peace down to this length,” Rushdie suggests, “it would be a service to mankind”.
My personal favourite is A Guinea Pig Romeo and Juliet, starring the dashing Marlin as Romeo and pensive Bear as Juliet, which The Guardian has described as “an unexpected hit”. Not only do I think that the cast puts on an exceptional performance, but I feel that this text is an example of a highly successful “translation” or adaptation of a canonical text. It is a common assumption that children’s or abridged versions of a text exist as diluted, “dumbed down” versions of the original text which serve ideally to lead young readers to the original text, or at least provide them with a rudimentary understanding of its central narrative. However, recent work being done on child-friendly adaptations has much more in common with contemporary theories of literary translation. One concept developed by Linda Hutcheon describes an adaptation as an extended intertextual engagement of a text, an interpretative act that is not only derivative but its own palimpsestic thing. This suggests a complex engagement between the original and adapted text in which both are enriched and transformed by the adaptation process. In this vein, Italo Calvino writes that classics “come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left”. I know I will never be able to return to Romeo and Juliet without Bear, Merlin, Oscar, Mabel and Molly in tow, just as I drag along the first breathless viewing of Baz Lurmann’s Romeo + Juliet in a year nine English class, or falling asleep to Gnomeo and Juliet while babysitting in the lead up to my year twelve exams.
As of December 2017, A Guinea Pig Romeo & Juliet was selling better on Amazon than the original version. All theory aside, people love Guinea Pig Classics. Arguably the best way to figure out why is to directly consult the consumers themselves. As I am not due to interact with any actual children in the week leading up to submitting this review, I read A Guinea Pig Romeo and Juliet to my friend after a few pints. “Omg little butt”, she says, and “soooooo worried, oh nooo”. I think she’s referring to the fact that all of the little guinea pig faces look generally really concerned and bug-eyed, which is objectively hilarious when they’re ALL WEARING HATS and framed with such captions as My only love sprung from my only hate! / Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Bloomsbury’s editor Xa Shaw Stewart says that this is the key to the series’ success: “Guinea pigs are just so funny—they are so earnest and serious. They always look a tiny bit worried. When you set an incredible text against a really worried little face, something magical happens.”
To get your hands on some of the magic you can purchase A Guinea Pig Christmas Carol from Allen and Unwin this October. And if you too have finally worked through the trauma of Water Wings, check out this alphabetised list that I found documenting all the books that have been written featuring Guinea Pigs as main characters.