Sanitization of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels into a Children’s Story

Gullivers_travelsTravels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, or Gulliver’s Travels, as it is better known, for any layman, is just another children’s story. Featuring fantastical creatures and fictional islands, it has all the characteristic elements of ‘children’s literature’. Swift’s text, however, is not a children’s story. Reading the original generally comes as a shock to adult readers. All children’s versions predictably excise portions with vivid descriptions of bodily processes and bowel movements, or those containing graphic imagery of large nipples and insects. But what stands out in these is the complete absence of the satirical tone that Swift was celebrated for, who had raised a lot of questions on humanity in the book, most of which are still relevant today.

As a children’s text, however Gulliver’s Travels, gives us a better insight into the adult readers themselves. Sanitizing the book and the subsequent popularity of the sanitized versions tell us of the need to protect the adult reader whom Swift criticizes so blatantly in the novel. Viewing children’s editions of Travels as a “shield” for adults act as further proof of Swift’s accusations on mankind, reasserting the validity of his text.

This only constitutes one side of the coin, however. Considering a different argument would tell us that a message as strong as what Swift tries to convey should be brought across to all sects of readers, even if not in the manner of the original text. Children being made aware of the follies of mankind, after all, is exemplary of the most fundamental moral message of all children’s stories.

gulliver-morten16Garbed as a children’s fantasy, the idyllic voyages of Lilliput and Brobdingnag in most editions are presented as lessons in harmony and acceptance of differences. Apart from being delightful for a child as magnificent fantastical creatures, they also uphold the basic notion of moving beyond appearance. Size and virtue not being related, is a message that most children grasp from this narrative, whether consciously or subconsciously.While Lilliput seems to tell them how “little people” are not morally diminutive, the Brobdingnagian giants teaches them to move beyond the “big and the ugly”.  The “low points” of the original narratives are exalted in the sanitized versions; in the movie directed by Rob Letterman, for example, Gulliver diffusing a fire by urinating on it makes him a “hero” amongst the Lilliputians whereas the same act garners a lot of disdain from the princess in the original text.

In more generic terms, Travels as a children’s text can be seen as essentially didactic and moralistic in tone, as opposed to the harsh, satirical voice of the original. One of the lines uttered by Dr. Gulliver in the 1960 adaptation, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, effectively brings out the larger message that lies at the core of Swift’s novel; “the bad qualities of the pettiness of Lilliput and ignorance of Brobdingnag are inside everyone”. Summing up the entire crux of the story of Gulliver, these lines in the film present to us a sync between the adaptation and the original, the difference lying only in the mode of storytelling. Gulliver here is more lovable and “hero-like” unlike the misanthrope of Swift’s text. It tries to depict both the good and the bad of humankind, unlike the original that sees Gulliver eventually touting the entire human race as “evil” and “beastly”.

It is clear that the point Swift was trying to make about humanity is all-pervasive; it is as true and imperative today as it was during his time. Loss of the satirical tone doesn’t necessarily lead to the loss of the larger message of the text. Fashioning it into a children’s story not only tells us of the importance of the child reader, but of the text itself.

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