A Look Into: America’s Top 10 Books Based on “The Great American Read”

Tonight, Tuesday, October 23, 2018, PBS will announce, based on votes, which book is “America’s Best-Loved Book.” The series and the vote were announced last spring, and the last few weeks have given viewers and readers a brief in-depth look into each book. The 100 books were categorized based on theme, not genre, which makes it for a more relevant look into the books. Now, PBS has reached the end of the series, viewers have reached the end of voting, and American readers will know which book was selected as “America’s Best-Loved Book.”

Twelve days ago, the Top 10 Books, based on voting were announced. Here they are, not listed by vote rank:

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White                       Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell         The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis        Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë                         Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling           Little Women by Louisa May Alcott                    The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien        Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen       Outlander (series) by Diana Gabaldon        To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Take a look at the way I listed PBS’ Top 10 Books. Have you noticed anything? The column to the left has a list of books that can be categorized under the “fantasy” genre; and, the column to the right has a list of books that can be categorized as “historical” fiction. What does this say about America’s taste in literature? What does it say about the notions surrounding fantasy literature?

First, the historical fiction books; two novels take place (before,) during (and after) the American Civil War, two novels are about society in England during the 1800s, and one novel is about segregation in the United States during The Great Depression. All of these novels give readers insight into the social dissonance occurring during certain moments in human history. People have either read one or more of these books for school, or saw the film adaptation at some point in the lives. Their stories are familiar by all, and well loved by readers.

Now, for the fantasy books, all of which have at least one media adaptation whether or not it’s movie or television. Lewis, Tolkien and Rowling are from Britain, and E.B. White—not to be confused with T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King—and Diana Gabaldon are from the United States. Each of these fantasy novels (and series) falls under different subgenres. Charlotte’s Web and The Chronicles of Narnia are for children and have talking animals, which comes from Aesop’s Fables; Harry Potter is a bildungsroman series that follows Harry Potter and his friends and schoolmates as they learn about magic and prepare to fight against the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort; and, The Lord of the Rings and Outlander are fantasy novels that make up a larger compendium of books set in the world the characters reside in, Middle-earth and 18th Century Scotland, respectively.

It’s interesting how fantasy fiction is beloved enough to keep the genre growing and going. Fantasy and fairy stories are not only for children—read Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy Stories—but also they are not enjoyed by all children. Children who grew up reading fantasy and fairy tales grow up and write stories of the same genre as adults. And, some of those stories are for adult readers. The author determines the audience whom his/her/their story is read; and yet, two of the fantasy books in the Top 10 are fantasy stories for adults. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a fantasy world, and in Outlander, the protagonist time travels to the past by means of supernatural elements.

Fantasy has been an established literary genre since the publication of both The Chronicles of Narnia (1950) and The Lord of the Rings (1954). Lewis and Tolkien are recognized as being two of the authors who helped solidify the genre. Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, respectively, which were a few of the early fantasy books in which the fantasy genre emerged. All of the mentioned books were popular enough for media adaptations, and those films brought more attention to the books. Harry Potter brought fantasy to a towering level that no one saw coming. Fantasy literature is an established, recognized, and read genre. Hence, the books that made it into “The Great American Read” Top 10 List.

Do I believe any of the fantasy novels in the Top 10 will be chosen as “America’s Best-Loved Book”? No, I do not, but not due to the reason you may or may not believe. While I am an enthusiastic reader of the fantasy (and other speculative fiction) genre, I—like everyone else—had to read certain books as a student in grade school and in college. And, I enjoyed reading some of those books for my English classes. I was able to relate to the characters and comprehend the social issues mentioned throughout each novel. Some of the themes found in those novels still resonate in today’s society. I’m not saying that that isn’t the case with the fantasy books in the Top 10, but one novel calls out “America” to me whenever I think about the title. And, that book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

First published in 1960, during the American Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird follows Scout and her family who are living in Alabama during The Great Depression. This coming-of-age novel illustrates the loss of innocence Scout and her brother, Jem, experience when their father, Atticus—a lawyer, defends a disabled black man accused of raping a white woman. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel has been said to be a literary response to the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi on August 28, 1955. Emmett Till’s murder sparked outrage nationwide, and was the event that would eventually lead to the start Civil Rights Movement.

Over 60 years later, To Kill a Mockingbird remains on school reading lists and is listed as an “American Classic.” Personally, I believe this novel has just as many life lessons and memorable characters such as Aslan from Narnia, Gandalf from Middle-earth, Professor Dumbledore from Hogwarts, and Charlotte from Zuckerman’s Farm. As someone who grew up during the publication of the Harry Potter books while old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, I found the former books to be enjoyable and the latter book to be more thought provoking as I continue living in a changing United States.

Harper Lee does not shy away from the issues of race and class in her novel. In addition, she was not afraid of including the harsh reality of life that her child characters had to witness and to endure. To Kill a Mockingbird continues to teach readers of all ages that judging people based on their traits and not their appearances or their living situation is essential to being a good person. Yes, there are people who harm the innocent and get away with it, but treating people the way they deserve to be treated—with respect—goes a long way.

PBS’ “The Great American Read” allowed denizens in the U.S. to review what many people read and enjoy. The great thing about the special was that all genres of literature were considered. Furthermore, the special gave insight into which books, many which remain on school reading lists, are and remain popular by readers and non-readers alike.

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Choose: A Movie Based on a Book or Your Religious Beliefs

With The Hobbit movie trilogy ending and with one more The Hunger Games movie left to be released, the public awaits the other movies within the same genre (Book to Film): Insurgent, Fifty Shades of Grey, Child 44, etc. (I will discuss comic books and their media adaptations in another post). While movies based on books are nothing new (i.e. The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs), we have been seeing more of them since the turn of the century. Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, Twilight (it makes me cringe to mention that one) are some of the franchises that were the most successful and saw all of the books in the series adapted into movies.

Children’s books are always popular for media adaptations. And, the same can be said bestselling novels. Fans and audiences of both books and movies are always curious as to how the movie will look and how true to the book the movie will be. This is the main issue people often see in media adaptations, but it is NOT the only one. Recently, there have been complaints as to why there have been series in which there is only one movie, and then the rest of the books in the series do not receive the same translation.

Now, with franchises that have had more than one movie adaptation, audiences are wondering whether or not the movies will ever be completed. The Chronicles of Narnia saw three out of their seven books get translated into movies (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). However, the actors were also signed to doing an adaptation of The Silver Chair; and, as we figured out, the movie never got made.

Ironically, the situation surrounding The Chronicles of Narnia was not just about public and studio interest, but also about the religious overtones found within the remaining novels. The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle all contain allegories and allusions to Christianity. C.S. Lewis, the author of the series, also included some mockery of the Islamic faith in those same novels. Many of us who have read those books as children and/or adolescents did not even notice the insult within the pages. However, as adults you tend to look at what is written into children’s books more intensely. I will admit that it was a pastor I know who pointed out to me what was really taking place in the pages of those books. He is a fan of C.S. Lewis, but he said that those insults should not have been placed in a children’s book. Given the fact that there is still a religious war within the Middle East, one can quickly understand why filming those books into movies would be an issue.

On the opposite end, there was the planned movie trilogy based on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Material trilogy. The Golden Compass/The Northern Lights was a success in North America and Europe, but due to the anti-Christian themes found within the books, the movie was met with several protests. While Phillip Pullman is an atheist, the trilogy is a retelling of the classic work Paradise Lost. Plus, the author is a professor at Oxford University—just like C.S. Lewis was—so there are more allusions within the text that readers might have missed during the first reading.

For instance, “dæmons” are not based on present day society’s belief of “demons.” The former comes from Greek and Roman mythology. They were invisible beings assigned to every individual—masculine for men and feminine for women—who acted as guides for the duration of that person’s life. These dæmons sound more like angels, consciences, etc., not the “evil demons” we have transcribed them to be in modern society. I believe Phillip Pullman used these ancient deities within his novels to point out how much Christian mythology twisted other mythologies to where we forget the actual origins of them. To be honest, I am a little surprise that Rick Riordan did not mention dæmons in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series. Those books were perfect to include such a reference.

This is the scenario that Hollywood has had to deal with, adapting books into films regardless of the backlash they might get due to religious institutions. His Dark Materials halted the series after one movie because too many people called the first movie “anti-Christian” while The Chronicles of Narnia films was halted because people feared that the Muslim community would be offended by them. Other movies have poked fun at religion regardless of the protests and the backlash from society (i.e. the Catholic Church with The DaVinci Code). South Park has mocked all religions for several years (18 seasons), but the creators saw protests when both Islam and Scientology (Isaac Hayes, who voiced “Chef,” quit the show afterwards) were parodied.

Throughout history, many challenged religion with “new” knowledge and these people were either threatened or executed (i.e. Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, etc.). However, it seems that the bigger concern within the religious powerhouses are how they are portrayed in within society, and it appears that the “new” threat is coming from children’s books. While some of the religious themes will most likely be glanced over by younger readers, it is the adults that make something as trivial as messages within a book to be a big deal. The Harry Potter series, while not religious, was met with several protests throughout the world because the books were about a school of witchcraft. Ironically, all seven books were adapted into eight movies, and those novels contain more lessons on morals and ethics than other modern children’s books. The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials also contain choices involving morals and ethics, but remain somewhat controversial as well. When you think about it, there is not really that much of a difference amongst these children’s literary series.

Current events within society have allowed us to witness what happens when there is no balance between literacy and religion. Boko Harem and Al-Qaida are doing everything they can to limit knowledge within their communities (especially amongst women). However, we cannot want every popular book to become adapted into a movie. At the same time, we cannot protest against every movie and/or book with influences to religion due to fear that a mob might be opposed to what is written in the text.

My question is: how many of these “protestors” take the time to read the book? Many people go by what they “hear” about the book instead of reading it. Also, it is known that media adaptations are not always similar to the book! Yes, Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code are books that go against organized religion. However, they are also great stories with interesting information. And yet, I did NOT see any petitions for the continuation of The Chronicles of Narnia movies! Protests work both ways!

To me, it looks as if we must choose between literature and their adaptations and our religious beliefs. No decision needs to be made because not many people want to do one or the other. Movies are straightforward, you either want to see them or not. Religion on the other hand, contains more layers. There are the devout, the spiritual, the ones who take part in it a few times a year, etc. Those who are leaders of these foundations assume the worst before they see what happens. Thus, everyone suffers because of it.

To prove my point further, the novel The Satanic Verses is (supposedly) an excellent work of literature (I just started reading it). However, the amount of backlash the book received upon its publication (1988) and the number of death threats its author, Salman Rushdie, received makes the book sound too dangerous to read. And yet, the book has been read and translated into languages all over the world. Unfortunately, no one has tried to make a media adaptation of the book because everyone is afraid of protests from the Muslim community. Has it ever occurred to you that some of them might have read the book and want the same thing as the other fans/readers?

We should not have to choose between the two because both of them have more in common than we know. Both The Bible miniseries and The Red Tent were successful adaptations based on religious texts. However, we also got Exodus, the visually acclaimed, but historically inaccurate adaptation of the story of Moses (Egypt has refused to show the movie for obvious reasons). There should not be a choice because everyone—even if they are in the same religious community—has a different way of interpreting a work of literature. As long as it is done appropriately, no one should have to choose. Plus, the author almost always includes a personal belief within the pages of their book.