Thursday, October 19, 2017
October 19, 2017: Children’s Histories: Little House on the Prairie
[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up to a special post on Yang’s book.]
On a key difference between the TV show and the books, and why it matters.
I watched a good bit of the TV adaptation of Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982, but I mostly watched it in subsequent reruns on TBS) growing up, but only one episode stands out in my memory: “Gambini the Great,” an episode early in the show’s 8th season (the penultimate season, and the final one featuring Michael Landon before the show changed its title to Little House: A New Beginning for the 9th and final season) in which the Wilder family’s adopted son Albert (Matthew Laborteaux) becomes enamored of the titular aging circus escape artist/daredevil. Albert’s father Charles Wilder (Landon) tries in vain to convince Albert that the openly and proudly non-religious Gambini (Jack Kruschen) is not someone to idolize or emulate, and is proven tragically yet righteously accurate when Gambini dies in a stunt gone wrong. As I remember it, the show and Charles (pretty much always the show’s voice of unquestioned authority) present this tragedy as, if not explicitly deserved due to Gambini’s lack of religious faith, at the very least a clear moral and spiritual lesson for Albert, and one that he takes to heart as he returns fully to the fold of the family’s religious beliefs.
Albert was a character not present in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of books (in which Little House on the Prairie was the third of eight published novels, with a ninth published posthumously), and thus represents one of many elements that were added, tweaked, or significantly changed in adapting the books into the show. But I would go further, and argue that the overt and pedantic religious themes and lessons exemplified by an episode like “Gambini the Great” were also far more central to the TV adaptation than the novels. That’s not to suggest that religion and spirituality weren’t elements of the novels and their portrayal of the Wilder family and its world, but I believe they were just that: elements, details of the family’s identity and community and experiences that could be paralleled by many other such elements and themes. Perhaps it’s the nature of episodic television (particular in its pre-serialized era) to need more of a moral, a sense of what an audience can and should take away from the hour-long, at least somewhat self-contained story they have just watched. Likely the show’s producers also learned quickly just how compelling and charismatic a voice they had in Michael Landon’s, and wanted to use him to convey such overt morals and messages. But in any case, I believe (and as always, correct me if you disagree!) that the show tended toward such overtly pedantic (and often, although certainly not exclusively, religious) moral lessons far more than did the novels.
Although the word “pedantic” does tend to have negative connotations, I mean it more literally, in terms of trying to teach the audience a particular lesson; that is, I’m not trying to argue through using that word that the novels were necessarily better or more successful as works of art than the show because of this difference. At the same time, however, I do believe that the difference produces a significant effect, one not so much aesthetic as thematic, related in particular to how each text portrays history. To me, the novels seek to chronicle the pioneer/frontier experience for their focal family and community, describing a wide range of issues and concerns that were specific to that communal experience (if, of course, very different from the concurrent experiences of other Western communities, such as Native Americans, with whom Wilder engages to a degree but certainly far less, and at times more problematically, than would be ideal for a more accurate portrait of the American West). Whereas the TV show consistently seeks to make use of its historical setting to convey broader and more universal messages (about religion and morality, but also about family, relationships, communal obligations, and more). Which is to say, I would argue that, to use the terms I deployed in this post, while Wilder’s novels certainly qualify as historical fiction (as well as autobiographical fiction), the show seems more to be period fiction, with somewhat less to teach its young audiences about the history itself.
Next children’s history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?